‘Overcoming’ Auto-immune disease

I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease about five years ago. Since then I’ve intermittently tried to comprehend the cause and etiology of the disease, necessarily going well beyond the limits or context of scientific research.

While there are various studies showing interesting links between aspects of psychology (for example, childhood trauma) and chronic illness in later life, there is a dearth of solid research saying “Zac, this is why you suffer from the immunological analog of punching yourself in the face.”

I’m mostly unapologetic about delving into the kinds of material that some might describe as “new age horseshit” but at the same time I’m increasingly weary and wary of those who accept uncritically the assurances of wealthy, slickly marketed gurus whose message of love, peace, and healing is now available in downloadable format for the one-time offer of $29.95 (monthly subscription).

You only have to look at the most prominent of these new age scions to realise that they show all the signs of being Choleric by temperament, which, in the context of a charismatic marketing campaign based on literally telling sick, sad, and suffering people exactly what they want to hear, does not guarantee that they are frauds, shysters and snake-oil salesmen.  But it does suggest that the supposedly Divine, Transcendent Life-Force or Energy Welling Up From Deep Inside Them™ and inspiring their benevolent mission of love and peace to all humanity looks and sounds a lot like their own ego.

Nonetheless, I can’t afford to wait for scientists to unravel the mysteries of our physical makeup, and the same desire for understanding that led me into philosophy and the study of religion leaves me pretty damn open-minded about the theoretical basis for a pragmatic approach to health and sickness. In other words, if someone wants to argue that the body is a holographic projection of the mind, I’m open to it. But if believing this does nothing, then it remains just an empty possibility, and I have no use for it.

One theoretical context that has provided some value is the work of Dr John Sarno, who came to prominence some decades ago for arguing that many forms of chronic pain are a biological response to an emotional or psychological cause. Coming from something of a Freudian background, he argued that the pain was real, but it was caused by the brain attempting to distract itself from emotional turmoil. Sarno believed that this chronic pain could be overcome simply by accepting its true cause, effectively seeing through the brain’s attempt at self-distraction.

This is only a rough summary of the theory and associated methodology. It is not a broad theory, in the sense that Sarno accepts the legitimacy of genuine physical injuries, diseases, and illnesses; he merely wishes to add this particular syndrome to the panoply of diagnoses and hence treatments. I do not think, for example, that my condition is discussed in Sarno’s books, or if he considers autoimmune conditions to be an expression of the same mechanism.

So if you read something like this sincere account of a person’s struggle to overcome an autoimmune disease by confronting underlying emotional trauma and consequent psychological self-abuse, you can hopefully look past any confusing or confronting references to “new age” themes, and see that he is describing roughly the same underlying mechanism as that proffered, to greater mainstream acclaim, by Sarno.

I’ve mentioned previously in the context of temperaments that the melancholic is prone to physical ailments, and also that the melancholic must, according to Conrad Hock, learn to love suffering. While I’ve interpreted this previously as a brake against the forces of perfectionist idealism, the account above presents it as a means of reaffirming the feeling faculty at the heart of the melancholic temperament.

As the author describes:

My physical healing process began when I realized that tensing against and resisting my severe physical pain was itself a form of stress that added to my illness.

In a similar way, I’ve wondered if even my attempts to root out and uncover the causes of my illness are paradoxically contributing to the stress and intensity that drive it? The further paradox might be that this disease is not something that you overcome, since the illness itself entails confusion over where exactly ‘you’ begin and end in the first place.

If I take my chronic auto-immune disease as a kind of gestalt image of my life in the world, then it is clear that something is not working.  But that I would feel ‘fine’ if not for the pain and other symptoms, tells me that I am missing something more subtle, more profound, or just very deeply ingrained. It may even be, as the author attests, Sarno suggests, and the life of a melancholic implies, that I have learned to function at odds with my own nature.

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