There’s something about illness and injury that messes not just with your body, but with your whole sense of identity. And the longer and more profoundly you’re oppressed by physical limitations, the more vulnerable and disempowered you can feel.
If you throw your back out or break your leg, you’ll immediately experience the reality shift that comes with significant physical limitation. And if you’ve ever suffered a high fever or a bout of food poisoning, you know that’s all it takes to turn a confident and competent adult into a helpless, whimpering child.
Any acute illness or injury can smack you down in ways that temporarily mess with your head. But with a chronic illness or condition — type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, depression, irritable bowel, psoriasis, any autoimmune problem — the effect is more nuanced, and in some ways, more diabolical.
It’s like a dysmorphic disorder in which you come to see and feel yourself as altered, often in disturbing ways. Being ill can make you feel like damaged goods. It can limit your productivity and capacity to contribute and accomplish what you normally do. It can make you more vulnerable and dependent on others for help, support, and understanding.
In some very real ways, being even marginally unwell for a period of time — or just receiving a medical diagnosis — can radically change how you show up in the world.
But perhaps the bigger issue is that any illness requiring ongoing medical intervention can easily turn you from a person into a “patient.” And once you become a ward of the healthcare system, it takes a conscious effort to avoid being assimilated by it.
Suddenly, you are surrounded by busy and authoritative experts who relate to you primarily on the basis of “what’s wrong with you.” They dole out clinical descriptions, diagnoses, and prescriptions. They tell you where and when to show up for examinations and procedures. You get buried in paperwork, records, billing codes.
At best, it’s bewildering and exhausting. At worst, it’s dehumanizing.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get good counsel on how to minimize your symptoms, and perhaps even address their underlying cause (or causes).
And if you’re not so lucky? You may be told that there is no known cause, no known cure, and that you’ll just have to “live with your disease” for the rest of your life (which may or may not be true).
Either way, you may have to submit to ongoing appointment schedules, dosing regimens, even recurrent surgeries. You may wind up dealing with side effects and lifestyle limitations.
And you will almost certainly be faced with the challenge of retaining your identity as a fundamentally vital and resilient person (who happens to be dealing with a health issue), rather than as a victim of your illness.
Last year, we did a piece (“A Healthier Way to Fight Cancer,” May 2013) that explained how progressive cancer experts are now putting their focus not just on eradicating tumors, but on adjusting the biological “terrain” that produced those tumors in the first place. They are also paying close attention to the lifestyle landscape in which healing and recovery will occur.
Even as these integrative physicians wage a conventional-medicine battle on cancerous growths, they also do everything in their power to optimize the health of their patients’ biochemistry, and to amplify the resilience of their organs, tissues, and immune systems.
I think that’s a helpful way of regarding not just cancer, but virtually all health challenges. Rather than simply attacking the evident “problem,” we can look at the underlying challenges and circumstances that might have allowed the problem to flourish, and explore multiple ways of encouraging it to retreat.
We can put attention on ourselves as whole people, not just as sufferers of a given condition. We can redefine our role from disempowered patient to proactive self-healer.
We can look for ways to not only recover from whatever currently ails us, but also to reclaim the highest level of vitality possible.
So, how do you do that? Here are a few essentials:
- Respect your body’s wisdom. Even in the face of a health crisis, consider how much within your body is still working remarkably well. Appreciate the intelligence of your innate signaling and healing systems. Ask your body what it’s trying to tell you, and then listen. Assume that your body very much wants to be healthy, that it is capable of healing, and that it is seeking your attention and collaboration in recovery. If your body is complaining about how you’re treating it, or resisting doing what you’re asking it to do, or simply shutting down certain systems for repairs, trust that it might very well have its reasons.
- Insist on a partnership with your healthcare team. Seek out experts who share your interest in optimal health and respect your role as the chief steward of it. Make sure they understand that while you need and respect their expertise, you intend to be a driver, not a passenger, on this voyage. Ask questions. Take notes. Seek out deeper information about the potential root causes or exacerbating triggers in your health challenges. Find out what you can do about them. Investigate your treatment options (see suggested resources at right), and explore how you can support conventional strategies with integrative- and functional-medicine modalities. If you are dealing with multiple healthcare professionals, make sure they know about each other, and ask them to help you coordinate your care.
- Be an active participant in your own well-being. Be willing to shift your lifestyle and make adjustments in your nutrition, stress, sleep, self-care, and daily rhythms. Even if those factors weren’t necessarily causal in your illness, recognize that they can be essential to your health reclamation. Healing does not happen in a vacuum. Your nutritional status, hormonal balance, body composition, organ reserves, and stress level can all make or break your body’s capacity to mount a solid immune and healing response. Be determined to do everything in your power to support your body’s resilience, and to come out the other side of your illness healthier than you were before. Whether you are dealing with a short-term flare-up or a lingering illness, your health challenge is, for now, a part of your life. It shapes your current reality. But it doesn’t have to define your identity. And it may not be all bad. Look for ways your present circumstances can amplify rather than diminish your commitment to your own well-being, and you may just discover a profound gift at the center of your health struggle.