Nagata Kabi and the Mundane Pain of Sickness; or, That Time My Body Broke and I Had To Figure Out How to Keep Going

By: Cy Catwell May 31, 20240 Comments
Nagata Kabi bluntly states that she has an eating disorder.

Content Warnings: Discussion of disordered eating and trauma

For many queer, marginalized manga readers, the name Nagata Kabi rings an immediate bell. Whether it’s her first title, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, her Solo Exchange Diary duology, her musings on alcoholism and marriage in separate, consecutive entries, or most recently, My Pancreas Broke, but My Life Got Better, Nagata’s autobiographical works capture contemporary life with an unflinching honesty that has resonated across her audience. This is certainly true for myself and that last title. 

My Pancreas Broke, but My Life Got Better is a bit of a time capsule, capturing how it felt to be sick in Japan’s emergent COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a pandemic that I had a unique perspective of as I was living in Fukushima when, in March 2020, the country shut down. I would go on to live within that pandemic until I immigrated back to the United States on August 11, 2020, where I would be faced with the jarring dissonance between Japan’s health care system and America’s tendency towards capitalistic cruelty.

While a distinctly different view on the pandemic, Nagata Kabi’s sixth autobiographical entry resonates with my own story as it captures the confusion and mundane chaos of suddenly living in a society that seems to be falling apart at the seams. Simultaneously, it details what happens when your body breaks while the world is just… kind of falling apart. It’s a story—a true narrative—about what happens when your life falls apart and you can no longer escape 

That last bit is what this article is about: falling apart.

Nagata Kabi emotionally expresses her desire to never go back to the hospital.

My body broke in 2023, irreparably slotting me into the Americans with Disabilities Act (well known as ADA) as a person with what science will one day consider a chronic, autoimmune disease where the body doesn’t make enough insulin and requires a specific diet of foods and medications to combat the insulin resistance generated by Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, a.k.a. PCOS. It’s a quite common ailment that almost always goes hand in hand with the condition, though I didn’t know about it until mere weeks before everything fell apart.

Basically, I say all that to say that I’m a Type 2 Diabetic who doesn’t use insulin but who still has significant needs.

The onset of this was much like Nagata Kabi’s onset of pancreatitis and fatty liver conditions in My Alcoholic Escape from Reality: it occurred within a medical setting, brought on by decades of medical trauma inside and outside my body. For me, it started in mid-February: I’d gone to do a routine fasting glucose test, and the numbers whispered the overwhelming truth. My body was quickening toward diabetes with a glucose that started at 251 and, at its worst, was kissing near 600. The cold I had nursed for nearly two months wasn’t just a cold, wasn’t just chronic fatigue syndrome: it was something nestled inside my body, a lack of internal controls. In my mind, I’d eaten myself fat, glutted myself on sour candy and sweet sips of cherry coke. In actuality, food wasn’t even a factor: this was something I had a genetic predisposition to and the stress of my publishing job had created the perfect storm inside me, turning what might have been years and years into fourteen months of rapid onset symptoms.

Getting diagnosed in the middle of a pandemic was… strange, to say the least. It was a lot of tests spent huffing into a mask, glasses fogged up from a combination of tears and the shortness of breath that had been a hallmark of my body’s changes. It was a lot of experiencing things alone due to being restricted to at best, one person, or more often, no one. It was isolating in its uniquely frightening nature: hospitals and exam rooms, already alienating spaces, become so much more lonesome when you know you have to go at it alone.

But the diagnosis was clear: I was forever changed and permanently diabetic, and while there was the chance for control and no need for insulin, there would never be a life without the sickness. I could minimize the symptoms, could even move through the world mostly unbothered, but I was officially, for the first time in my life, knowingly disabled and there would be no life ahead where I wouldn’t be.

Nagata Kabi feels her slip turn into a slide.

Nagata Kabi is an author who I perceive as only being able to write honestly: she writes her truth, messiness and all. To some, this might make her unappealing in her rawness or in the way that sometimes, she just doesn’t have it together. Yet that’s the appeal of a queer author writing so openly about themselves: we, the reader, get a snapshot into the life of someone who’s just like us.

And speaking honestly, My Pancreas Broke, but My Life Got Better is very messy in the way that someone’s lived experience just has to be.

Readers who have engaged with Nagata Kabi’s earlier work will find a lot of “payoff” from earlier, which is such a strange phrase to apply to a real, lived experience. But I also think it’s apt in consideration of an autobiographical series that is, for readers, a story. Take for example, My Alcoholic Escape from Reality. In that volume, Kabi experienced a bout of pancreatitis. She was hospitalized and endured a great amount of pain, yet it wasn’t severe enough to make her stop drinking. In a pre-pandemic Japan where the good times could always be found at the cheapest of izakayas—and when Kabi could freely leave her hospital stay—it was an environment primed for substance use. But in pandemic-ridden Pancreas, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost.

In the digital-exclusive My Wandering Warrior Eating Disorder, Kabi talks about the misery of existing in the liminal space of despair. To treat this specific malaise, she would turn to the convenience store, where she’d binge, then purge. She remarks that it’s futile and is ultimately very aware that her behavior shouldn’t be copied, displaying a brutal understanding that this kind of life isn’t viable, but… that she also can’t stop because she really is sick. That’s not because of a personal lack of control or failure of character: it is because addiction is a sickness, just like a broken bone or major depression.

Really, it’s because Kabi has an alcohol addiction, a multi-level eating disorder, and ultimately, both of those addictions are part of a wider mental health crisis that needs compassion over shame.

This is where it becomes hard to compare my own experience against another person’s real life: Nagata Kabi isn’t just fiction. Sure, there’s probably “content” on the cutting room floor, but for the most part, these “stories” are peeks behind the curtain in the life of a mangaka, which is why there’s a certain honesty and nuance that needs to be taken to assessing her life.

Readers are not judge, jury, and executioner here: you can’t just apply your own perspective to someone’s real-life addiction and in the same vein, can’t apply your personal judgment. You can parallel it, but you cannot be here to say what’s right and wrong and decide the nature of someone’s life while living alongside such a severe sickness. If anything, it’s a matter of intaking, a matter of recognition and humanization. That’s so much of being sick: the desire to be seen, perceived, and know that in your worst moments, you matter. I think that’s why I’ve taken so much comfort reading, and immediately rereading, My Pancreas Broke, but My Life Got Better.  

Nagata Kabi wryly jokes about her experience and the story it'll make.

This is really the first time I’ve publicly talked about being a Black person with Diabetes Mellitus, a scientific phrase which combines the Latin meaning for “siphon” and “sweet,” yet undercuts the simple fact that you cannot, no matter how much you try, eat your way into a diabetic diagnosis. When you have PCOS, you might be part of the 10% who naturally develop the comorbidity: it’s really just a roll of the dice. If anything, diabetes is a particularly American disease, driven by the empire’s hunger to consume ourselves as product, by-product, and a non-renewable resource. 

It may be that diabetes is a reflection of America’s lack of care for non-normative desires like a want for less stress. It doesn’t have to be some hallmark of failed thinness: maybe it can just be.

I find it easiest to think of Type 2 Diabetes as a switch. The stress of my previous job, the stress of my entire life, the lack of treatment as a disabled person with insulin resistance all culminated in a single calculated “flick” that flipped the switch inside my body to change my ability to process various forms of sugar and naturally produce insulin, to a system that didn’t understand how to automate those internal processes. It is a quirk of biology: no big narrative moment, no cosmic decision, and definitely no fault of my own—despite the social narratives and stereotypes that often surround the onset of diabetes. 

I grew up thinking the writing was on the wall, that because my parent’s parents had been diabetic and because they, themselves, were diabetic, then I would one day be diabetic. I grew up afraid of food, counting calories, counting the inches of my stretch marks, the generosity of my body. I rewarded myself with the feminine cruelty of disordered eating that blossomed into an eating disorder. That didn’t change when I stepped into fat activism: if anything, my desire was to be an acceptable fat, the kind of unsweet, keto-friendly, self-hating dream that was palpable to a pro-thin and pro-”healthy” society would delightfully devour. 

I thought that hating myself privately would be enough to save me from the haint of a generationally Black curse, passed down through trauma and centuries of forced poverty and being underfed. I thought I could earn the love of my straight-sized oppressors, the favor of the thin, by desecrating the temple that my soul was placed within. I thought I could beat the love out of my bones, that if I broke and was a nice fat person, that would be enough.

But my body is not a Black shame, nor is it a number on a scale. It’s not even an accurate measurement on the BMI chart.

Honestly, I like being fat: I like how my body looks, like how I float in pools, how soft my features are. I treasure the gentle masculinity that wreathes my muscles, that has settled into my bones. I don’t genuinely want to loathe my existence. I’m diabetic because of genetics, yes, but like I said, it started with my PCOS: it started decades ago as a child. Most currently, it’s a modern byproduct of the magnitudes of stress I underwent at the start of the pandemic. It’s from when I was intermittently unhomed, surviving by the good graces of seemingly kind abusers. On top of that, I grew up with multiple disabilities but only was able to realize them as a full-grown adult. I was not, categorically, not a shame, nor was my situation or myriad experiences.

My fate was not writ in the stars. I did not ask to be sick, nor did I glutton myself into it. That’s just not possible. The reality for me is that I just got sick—but I had to figure out how to keep going.

Nagata Kabi escapes from the hospital.

By the end of My Pancreas Broke, but My Life Got Better, you get, perhaps, the most earnest look into Nagata Kabi’s life: the picture of an author who isn’t a shame, but is just a person struggling with addiction and by proxy, sickness. Kabi’s drawbacks range from not seeing friends (due to not drinking) to a lack of sleep from not having numerous nightcaps. Her return to stabilization is messy: it’s complex and she even faces the dreaded “slip” that so many people seeking ongoing sobriety may experience. But she doesn’t shame herself: instead, she’s honest about how mundanely painful it is to recover because honestly? Shame has never healed someone, at least not in a genuine way. Even if we can’t demand that her story has a “message,” her storytelling gets that idea across.

In so many ways, I am someone in the throes of an experience of slips: my body broke, fear overwhelmed me, and loneliness consumed my every thought. Between the onset of my disabling event and now, I’ve been in and out of the hospital at least eleven times. Yet I’m here, and that allows me to find stability in my disability, and more important, recovery.

In My Wandering Warrior Eating Disorder, Kabi describes the feeling of eating a hot convenience store croquette, something I indulged in frequently during my time abroad. She describes the cost-to-satisfaction ratio of them being cheap alongside how pleasantly piping hot they are, how crunchy and delightfully oily they are. It’s a feeling that, as an adult with disordered eating and an eating disorder, I understand. It’s the same feeling a bag of Wendy’s fills me with. It’s an overwhelming comfort. It is, as Kabi says, the feelings that only an oil-soaked potato can defeat.

I still struggle, and will probably struggle the rest of this. A plate of food shouts me down from eating, and when I do eat, it can sometimes be more than my stomach can hold. I slip, I slide back towards the middle, and I slip again but more and more, those slips are less severe. I’ll admit, at the time of writing this deeply personal piece, I have slipped a lot: I’ve spent the past month unable to eat, a combination of fearing the number on my glucose meter, life stress, and Major Depression. This current slip has become a slide, and I’m finally admitting it: I’m not okay. I don’t know when I’ll be okay. I don’t know that I’ll ever have a completely healthy relationship with food. I don’t know if I’ll be able to look at food and hear silence. But I’m here, and hopefully, you’ll leave these thoughts feeling a little less lonely.

If my existence is powerful enough to make even one person less lonely, then it is worthwhile indeed.

Nagata Kabi revels in the feeling of eating and how it grounded her in the middle of her difficulties with addiction.

In many ways, writing is therapy to me: just as Kabi clearly finds solace in telling her stories through comics, even if they don’t make “ideal” linear stories of healing, I find comfort in putting my thoughts into articles like this. It’s a sliver of my heart, a shard of my soul, gently coaxed from beneath my sternum with the intent of making the world a less lonesome place. I think it’s how I actually gauge certain markers in my recovery, whether I think all of this is worth it: whether I think continuing to try for control and stability is worth it.

I think I am worth it, and much like Nagata Kabi, I am worth the mess that comes with being worth it. I’m worth the work, the wait times at a doctor, the tears, the slips, slides, and recovery. I am worth standing up for myself, even if I must stand alone sometimes. Thankfully, I’m not alone: I’ve got a stellar care team, a fantastic mental health team, and an entire group of coworkers who have stood with me. 

As always, I have to save room for thanks, and thanks is going to go to… me. It’s going to go to me for deciding to continue. It’s going to go to me for deciding to not stop, for me continuing to seek care, for me facing down a plate or bowl, for me eating an entire bowl of ramen last Friday. I’ll also thank the entire AniFem team for constantly having my back and never minding when I write about my life from a feminist lens, but also… me. 

I think I deserve my flowers for surviving.

About the Author : Cy Catwell

Cy Catwell is a Queer Blerd journalist and JP-EN translation & localization editor with a passion for idols, citypop, visual novels, and the iyashikei/healing anime genre.

You can follow their work as a professional Blerd at Backlit Pixels, get snapshots of their out of office life on Instagram at @pixelatedrhapsody, and follow them on their Twitter at @pixelatedlenses.

Read more articles from Cy Catwell

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