Autoimmune and Myopia – parallels

When I had my autoimmune disease I felt great.

Let me put that in perspective.

Before the disease, I’d suffered from a kind of chronic state of anxiety and depression, coupled with a sense of disorientation and…well it’s hard to describe, but imagine knowing you have to do something vitally important, but having no idea what it is. Live with that for long enough and it doesn’t go away, it just turns into a sort of dull psychosomatic ache.

The primary cause of my autoimmune disease was mental. I reached the incredibly bitter conclusion that I’d been wrong about life, that life had no meaning and no purpose, but my desire for meaning and purpose had harmed me on the only metric that counted: money.

My obsession with meaning had stopped me choosing a normal path in life, where I could have found some kind of career and made a reasonable amount of money. Life would be meaningless either way, but at least I could have endured the meaninglessness in a nice house instead of a small unit.

Once I concluded there was no meaning to be found in life, I actually started to feel better. I felt immediate relief from the symptoms that had plagued me for years. I’d finally dismissed the idea that there was a meaningful path to follow, so I no longer felt the desperate need to discover that path.

In fact I no longer felt anything much at all. And feeling nothing was pretty good.

If it hadn’t been for the growing immobility of my SI joints and the recurrent bouts of grinding ache and pain, I would have been pretty content.

It was thanks to my autoimmune disease that I finally clawed my way back onto the path, and rediscovered meaning in life. I couldn’t ignore the pain, and I couldn’t pretend that an autoimmune disease was something imposed on me by a blind, external reality.

So I started investigating it. I knew that I had been better off feeling meaningful misery than meaningless pain. I retraced my steps from a dull world where only money and comfort mattered, to the world I once knew – the one where I had rejected a normal path in life in favour of finding answers.

In practical terms that meant I wanted to cure my autoimmune disease. It took a lot of work, a lot of fruitless investigation. But finally I realised there were two main components to the disease.

First, it had suppressed my usual unpleasant feelings of needing to strive for some unknown goal.

Second, each flare-up was triggered by a change in my mental state, a kind of decision to focus, be more intent, and drive myself unrelentingly toward a particular material outcome.

So in order to reverse the disease I had to do two things.

I’ve mentioned in the previous post that I had to reverse the decision. I had to accept that the desired material outcome might never occur. I had to consciously embrace failure. That was the only way to stop that incredibly rigid, driven state of mind. It was the only way I could genuinely relax.

And then – counterintuitively – I had to return to those unpleasant feelings. I didn’t know if they were final, or what meaning they had. But I knew from experience that they had predated the autoimmune disease, and had disappeared when the disease first emerged.

I suspected the main cause of the disease was having suppressed those feelings, replacing them with mundane material goals.

So I tried to find those feelings again. I remembered what they were like, and although they were deeply unpleasant, I knew that they were more real than the false contentment that had come with the disease.

Myopia

If the autoimmune disease parallels myopia, then the same two principles might well apply.

Firstly, there may be a negative emotional state that was suppressed with the onset of myopic symptoms.

Second, there may be a definite decision – a change in mental state that corresponds to the suppression of those negative emotions.

Unfortunately my myopia set in long ago. I don’t have strong memories of how I felt before the myopia, and I don’t even have a clear timeline of when the symptoms emerged. I didn’t know I was short-sighted until I had an eye test.

But I do have more general memories. What I will try to do next is to see how those general memories correspond to the emotional resonance of the myopia symptoms. In other words, what is the biographical significance of the emotions that arise in connection with my short-sightedness?

Likewise, what kinds of decisions might I have made as a child or young teenager that correspond to the significance of myopia symptoms? What decisions might resonate with poor vision, or might appear to justify myopia as a kind of trade-off?

If my autoimmune experience is indicative, I should expect to feel a lot worse when those old feelings resurface. But it’s better to feel them than to blindly suppress them. A more meaningful life isn’t necessarily a more pleasant or easy life, but it is definitely worth living.

Looking for answers to refine your search

So I’ve described the first step in understanding the psychological/emotional issues that correspond to a physical illness or ailment.

It’s not a quick or easy step to take, but you have to start somewhere.

Looking at the emotional aspect of the illness is like entering a whole new domain that you’ve hitherto ignored. It’s no surprise you’ll take time to refine your understanding of it.

What I’ve done in the past with my autoimmune disease is to start searching online for people having similar thoughts. I tried it again, looking at myopia in the context of fear and vulnerability or powerlessness.

Two of the results were relevant to my search:

http://www.flowsandforms.com/myopia/

http://www.visionsofjoy.org/pdfs/Myopia-As-An-Adaptation.pdf

Neither of them is exactly right for me. That’s not the point.

The point is that they offer alternative perspectives that help me further refine my own search.

They also identify things like tension in the neck and eye muscles that definitely apply to me, but would not necessarily have come to my attention.

I went through this same process of searching for relevant information and insights with my autoimmune disease, and while I had to find my own answers in the end, it did help to have similar but different materials to draw on in my search.

I agreed with other sources that said perfectionism, stress, and a driven mentality were the cause of the pain I suffered, but I still had to find the exact combination and iteration of these qualities that triggered the flare-up of my symptoms.

Once I identified them, I was able to reverse them, by consciously accepting all the negative potential outcomes that were motivating my driven state of mind in the first place.

For example, the stress corresponded at one stage to thinking I had to do nothing but write articles. I was so focused on writing articles, I could feel my mind shift into a different mode.

The strangest thing was that it felt really good. Probably because it involved blocking out and suppressing all fears and doubts.

To overcome this state of mind I had to consciously accept that I might never write another article again in my entire life and that would be ok. I had to accept that I might live in poverty and obscurity, devoid of achievement, and that would be ok.

Obviously these were painful thoughts to accept, but accepting them neutralised the intensity that had caused my joints to become inflamed as my immune system attacked them.

I don’t know if I can make an exact parallel with myopia, but I’ll continue to examine it until I understand it as best I can.

 

The eyes have it

So it’s day four without wearing glasses, and overall I’m really enjoying it.

But I still feel like I’m only just beginning to grasp how significant my visual impairment has been.

Yesterday a friend asked me how I would approach health issues from a psychological/spiritual perspective. Using eyesight as an example, I told her I would begin by examining the emotional impact and significance of the condition itself and its symptoms.

For instance, having poor eyesight makes me feel fearful and vulnerable in my interactions with the outside world, because I become aware of things – seeing them in their blurred form – long before I can recognise them, or in the case of humans, discern their intent from facial cues.

Poor eyesight also enhances my sense that there is a world “out there” which I imperfectly perceive. This leads to a near-constant sense of doubt about my perceptions and my judgements.

I feel as though other people are quicker or more astute than me, because they see things and recognise them before I do.

Overall I’m left with the sense that I am better able to deal with things in close proximity to myself. That means I have a tendency toward introversion and introspection, as well as activities like reading and writing.

Inversion

So that’s a brief summary of the apparent psychological side-effects of this illness or impairment. The trick now would be to invert cause and effect, to consider the magnitude and depth of these psychological phenomena as potential causes of the physical condition.

The heuristic approach is that our physical impairments are by and large a reflection of suppressed or ignored psychological conflicts and suffering.

Let’s say you feel afraid, but for various social and cultural reasons you can’t express that fear. Being unable to express it, the fear cannot be resolved.

Eventually a physical problem emerges that demands your attention, demands a resolution. In the case of myopia, short-sightedness emulates and reflects the suppressed emotional conflict or suffering.

We try to address the physical impairment with medical interventions including corrective lenses. But in the case of corrective lenses the intervention is merely a crutch.

The lenses don’t overcome the underlying fear, they actually help suppress it further. The glasses become a necessary object, they become imbued with protective power. You can’t get by without them, and when they break or you lose them…you feel afraid and vulnerable once more.

Healing

Looking at an illness or impairment in this light is instructive. But we also need to consider the age of onset, the severity of the condition, how long it has been endured, and so on. All of this information offers potential clues to identifying the psychological cause.

I assume this approach doesn’t hold the answer to every single illness and impairment. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that every such impairment or illness will be reversed. But at the very least, it can help us to identify and resolve the psychological and emotional conflict that lies behind it.

If I had laser eye surgery tomorrow, my vision might be perfect. But that would still leave me having to adjust to a new experience, a new way of being in the world. It would be a little like becoming a new self, and if you think the psychological landscape behind it would just quietly reform, I think you’d be disappointed.

As for me, I’ll have to examine the nature and origin of the fear and vulnerability that accompanies this impairment in my vision.

To that end, the impairment itself can always provide further clues, not only in terms of how we feel about it, but the significance of its effects. It is significant, for example, that myopia would prevent me from seeing certain things. For all that short-sightedness impairs our vision, it also protects us by creating distance from the external world.

‘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.