The Kindness of Illness

We don’t tend to trust our bodies, particularly when we become ill. However, think of the millions of processes that our bodies carry out perfectly in billions of cells every second; compared to that consistent, reliable, steady and perfectly coordinated functioning, the few times that our bodies manifest distress are few and far between. It is far more realistic to trust and believe in our bodies than to distrust and not believe in them. Indeed, it makes little sense when our bodies have served us well up to the time of an onset of an illness – a pain, an ache, a viral infection, a heart artery blocked, low blood pressure and so on – that it suddenly becomes the enemy. Surely, it makes sense to respond to the physical distressing symptoms as messengers, allies that are attempting to bring some physical or emotional neglect of self to the fore. The intentions of the illness symptoms are to alert us to the fact that we have been off the wellbeing track and need to get back on it. The nature of the symptom, the verbal description of it, the location of the symptom, the time of the onset of the symptom all contribute to the message that the illness wants to communicate. However, what happens more often than not is that we shoot the messenger – the body – by seeing it as letting us down rather than alerting us to neglect that is present and may have been present for a long time. When the latter is the case, we may have ignored less threatening symptoms, such as intermittent insomnia, vague aches and pain, tiredness, over-eating, under-eating, overweight, underweight, lack of fitness, etc. It is also common that individuals will have resorted to various over-the-counter medications to offset these symptoms, but did not take any time to examine their true purpose. Testament to this is that there appears to be more pharmacies than pubs in towns and cities throughout the country.

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Anatomy of Kindness

At the end of November I became suddenly acutely ill and for somebody who hadn’t been to a medical doctor since I was in a monastery over forty years ago, my initial response is that ‘I’ll get through this myself.’ Even though the pain was relentless and intense, I stuck to the determination ‘I can ride this storm’ like many other emotional storms I had endured in my lifetime. I stopped eating and was not sleeping. On the third day, under pressure from my long-suffering wife, I went to a local doctor, but, unfortunately, was misdiagnosed and the prescriptions given only exacerbated the illness. Of course, this outcome copper fastened my notion that this is something I can get through myself. Three weeks passed, with no return of appetite, continued insomnia and weight loss of three stone.

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A Breakthrough in Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Research in University College, Cork has provided evidence that links the extremely distressing and embarrassing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to extreme stress in childhood. Up to now, medical doctors had found no obvious organic cause for this painful and debilitating condition. The researchers, Dr. John Cryan and Professor Ted Dinan found that individuals with the condition reported having a lot of stress in their lives and had experienced highly stressful events during childhood. Without going into the biochemical complexities of their research, it was found that higher glutamate (an essential protein) in the spinal cord may be contributing to the emergence of severe abdominal pain as reported by persons with IBS. The researchers believe that the current expensive medication is not very effective due to the fact that it does not target the glutamate transporter specifically. They are determined to develop a new drug that will be specific to the physical pain symptoms of the condition.

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No Enemy Within

The most common reaction to the suggestion that an illness may be created to heal wounds to the deep emotional self, to the soul, is aggressive: ‘do you mean to tell me that I brought this illness upon myself? – that’s mad, off the wall!’ A medical colleague responded similarly exclaiming: ‘you are blaming people for their illnesses.’ On the contrary, my intention is to draw attention to the awesome power of the Self to heal the deepest dis-ease of all – alienation from one’s unique and sacred presence.

When we consider the many other ways that a person reveals  his or her dark inner terrain – depression, chronic anxiety, obsessiveness, perfectionism, aggression, addictions to substances, addictions to work, what others think and say, to the ‘body beautiful’, anorexia nervosa, hallucinations – are we equally going to say that ‘these creations are off the wall?’ It may be easier to accept that the foregoing distressing symptoms are creations in times of emotional danger, but, in fact, illness has exactly the same compassionate intention. After all, each of the conditions mentioned are cleverly devised to draw attention to a troubled and troubling interiority. It is not that a person wakes up one morning and consciously decides ‘I’m going to create a depression or, indeed, an illness today’; no, this process occurs unconsciously, and necessarily so, because without emotional safety, consciousness of the creative and defensive nature of the depression or an illness would weaken its power.

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Models for Recovery

At the moment individuals who experience major problems in living and attend what I believe are the misnamed ‘mental health’ services are likely to encounter one of four different models of recovery:

  • The biomedical model of mental illness and recovery
  • The rehabilitation model of mental illness and recovery
  • The empowerment model of recovery
  • The psychological model of recovery

The first two models view people’s problems as ‘mental illness’ and are based on a deficiency approach to human problems. Indeed, these two models assume that individuals with ‘mental illnesses’ will experience a progressive deterioration of mental and social functioning and that this would be carried forward from one affected generation to the next one. The good news is that this biological view of ‘mental illness’ as a disease stemming from brain malfunctioning has not been supported empirically despite the magnitude of research carried out. There is also increasing evidence that individuals diagnosed with a ‘severe and enduring mental illness’ can recover and thrive in society. Mounting evidence also shows that anti-depressants are not clinically effective and that recovery can happen with or without medication. Furthermore, adherents to these two deficiency models can in fact create obstacles to reawakening hope and responsibility for one’s own life. The bad news is the belief that ‘mental illness’ is an incurable genetic disease that continues to persist among both the general public and the mental health professionals despite the growing evidence that individuals labelled schizophrenia or bi-polar depressed can recover and contribute to society. However, more and more consumers of these two recovery models are rejecting these models’ unsubstantiated claims.

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