When it comes to sickness I am a coward. I find the suffering associated with illness intolerable, not because of the discomfort and pain alone, but because the discomfort and pain have no meaning.
How do you find meaning in suffering? By alleviating it. Suffering is the bad guy. That’s why, when I caught the flu a few months back and discovered, Ye Gods, I must have never had the flu before, I turned in my hour of need to that angel of blissful sleep and sinus relief: pseudoephedrine.
So when I found myself succumbing this week to the familiar feeling of a dry, itchy nose and a tiny point of increasing pressure behind my eyes I knew exactly what I needed and went straight to the nearest pharmacy, where it turned out they won’t sell pseudoephedrine without a doctor’s script.
I wanted to say “well this will really set production back” but the pharmacist seemed a little on edge already, so I gave them my most understanding, flu-addled smile and left.
At the next nearest pharmacy I waited for 10 minutes while they checked my ID against the registry of pseudoephedrine offenders, and tried not to look suspicious. Pretty sure I failed, but they gave me the precious, precious medicine, and here I am today: conscious, competent, and relatively coherent having escaped the worst of whatever that bout of illness was.
I’ve got no problem with the pharmacies doing what they have to in order to control the flow of key ingredients to illegal drug manufacturers. I just slightly resent having to ask for this awesome, wonderful drug under the veil of suspicion. There’s no way to reassure a complete stranger that you aren’t sourcing ingredients for a meth lab. It probably helps if you’re clean-shaven, well dressed, and not completely over-thinking the whole situation.
Anyway, the beauty of pseudoephedrine is that it almost totally removes the pain and discomfort of flu-like symptoms – symptoms that otherwise might drive a person to try to scrub the insides of his upper sinuses with a bottle-brush, or stab himself in the Canthus with a chopstick.
But with a couple of pills the pain is gone and I just lie in bed waiting the rest of the illness out. So what’s the point? If I can avoid the pain and misery what’s the point of being sick in the first place? Avoiding the pain means ignoring the problem, but there’s still a problem there, and it’s one that people have faced in the past: trying to make sense of illnesses, both the deadly and the merely unpleasant.
I used to put some stock in the idea that illnesses had their origin in psychological states; that the long-term damage wrought by physically manifested negative mental states made us susceptible to various diseases and dysfunctions. But I never found a convincing systematic approach to it, and demonstrating it scientifically would be almost impossible. Nonetheless, there are studies showing, for example, that people who endure adverse events in childhood are significantly more likely to suffer chronic illness as adults.
I have no doubt that a great number of human beings are wracked with deeply-buried psychological distress and emotional turmoil, nor do I have trouble believing that there are clear biological mechanisms linking these subconscious psychosomatic states with increased risk of various illnesses. We are, after all, embodied beings with a rich and delicate interplay between psyche and soma.
In moments of clarity I can see the connection between my own chronic ailments and key stress events or problematic psychological states. It’s a link that many sufferers find meaningful even though the orthodox medical line is drawn at absence of evidence.
Hypervigilance and habitual physical tension go together hand in overly-tight-and-uncomfortably-stiff glove. And while I can’t afford a barrage of salivary cortisol tests, I’m willing to bet that the levels of stress hormone would be highly responsive to a tendency to catastrophise, within an overbearing sense of culpability for any and all future difficulties and challenges.
A serious illness has meaning – whether it be real or merely suspected, we can take it as symptomatic of a deeper need for change, a cue to examine our life more broadly. But a humble cold or flu? The ubiquitous runny nose and sore throat I get every winter when the room gets too cold and dry overnight? The miserable experience so easily moderated by controlled medications; what’s the point? Where’s the meaning?
Pretty much every traditional religious or spiritual discipline says we are living incorrectly in some way; that our original nature or harmony or grace or whatever has been thrown severely out of order, with both spiritual and physical sickness and misery ensuing. The common cold may not be a profound sickness, but it is still a reminder that things are not as they ought to be – or more to the point, that we are not as we ought to be.
As the Dao De Jing states: “The holy man is not sick. Because he is sick of sickness, therefore he is not sick.”