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.


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.

Saving our best advice for others

A friend is worried about 4th year med, stressing out about the changing circumstances and expectations, afraid of failing.

I offered lots of advice, but none of it seemed truly satisfactory.

In the end, I asked what she would tell me, if I were in her situation.

We both knew the answer: stop whining. Just do what you need to do. Do your best, try your hardest, if you pass you pass, if you fail you fail.

It’s a comfort because there’s no ambiguity. Either you have what it takes to pass, or you don’t. Passing is either dependent on your efforts or it isn’t.

But what intrigued me is how clear the answer is when we’re looking at other people’s circumstances. Call it ‘the clarity of not caring’ if you like.

Not that we don’t care about others, but we don’t care in a way that obscures the obvious course of action.

When it comes to our own lives, we’re blinded by worries and possibilities. We lose the clarity that lets us be frank with others.

It reminds me of a passage from Zhuangzi:

When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets –
He is out of his mind.

His skill has not changed, But the prize
Divides him. He cares,
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting –
And the need to win
Drains him of power.

It’s not easy, but when we’re struggling with a problem we can sometimes benefit by imagining someone else in that situation and what we would then advise them.

I once read a book by a psychologist that suggested we have greater insight into ourselves when we look at our objective behaviour rather than using introspection.

These methods aren’t foolproof, nor are they necessarily always the right approach. After all, our advice to others isn’t exactly omniscient, is it?

But it can at least help us gain clarity, temporary respite from fears and desires that otherwise cloud our assessment of the situation.