As a patient, I opened my eyes to what I could never see as a doctor: how disempowering our current health care system can be for people with chronic illness. As a patient, I searched for a way to feel better in doctor’s offices and on procedure tables. Sadly, it just made me feel like a powerless victim hoping for some type of savior, presumably one wearing a white coat, to swoop in and fix me. What the traditional medical system offered for my chronic conditions boiled down to the treatment of symptoms. The problem I faced was that I didn’t want to control my symptoms with treatments. I didn’t want the numerous side effects that came with my medications. I didn’t want to stay ill. I wanted health.
When I searched for health in the traditional medical system, I found myself among the millions of people worldwide struggling with a status quo of living with a chronic illness. I realized that I wanted so much more than I was going to get from the mainstream medical system with its focus on illness. By focusing on illness, illness was going to continue to remain my norm.
It was as if I were drowning in a deep sea and being thrown a succession of buoys. While the buoy kept me from drowning in a particular moment, I remained stuck in the cold dark ocean of illness clutching a buoy to my chest. I began to wonder: what if I could somehow get out of the water and back onto the land of the healthy?
Healthy bodies heal when challenged with an acute problem, like a cut or a cold, but what about bodies riddled with disease? What happens when complex chronic conditions such as cancer, autoimmune disease, or heart disease develop? In chronic health conditions, returning to wellness can be more complex than simply healing a wound.
When Illness develops, the body’s natural regulatory mechanisms become dis-regulated and the healing system dis-rupted. This can lead to dis-ease. Sure, genetics predispose people to certain chronic illnesses, but genetics alone do not explain why some people with genetic predispositions develop chronic conditions while others do not.
Many factors contribute to the wholeness of health or the development of disease, including genetics, diet, environment, behaviors, lifestyle, and even socioeconomics. Despite all of this complexity there is this one simple truth: the body has programmed within it an amazing capacity to heal. Even a child knows that a cut to their skin heals, broken bones knit, and infections resolve. We take this amazing healing ability for granted and often don’t recognize what is right before our eyes.
To heal, I had to identify and remove my barriers to healing. The definition of the word heal is “to make whole”. Deepak Chopra, in a lecture given at the Gitanjali Tagore Festival in 2011, said, “healing is a return to the memory of wholeness.” It is as if somewhere in the body, beyond cognitive thought, a “knowingness” about healing exists. Our nature is to heal and return to the memory of wholeness. In many chronic illnesses, “something” has gone awry with the body’s natural balance and natural healing potential. For healing to occur, we often must search for and strip away the “something” so that the body can properly restore itself again. Just as a splinter creates a festering wound if left in the skin too long, there are many potential barriers to healing in people struggling with chronic illness. Like the splinter, these barriers need to be extracted for healing to occur.
One such barrier is a belief in our collective modern society that source of healing comes from something external to ourselves. We have been taught from the time we were children that healing comes from the medicines we take or the doctors that we see. As a parent, I have even said to my own children, “take this medicine, it will make you feel better,” or “the doctor will make you better.”
We are so busy looking externally for treatments or therapies that will fix us. All along, we have forgotten to ask ourselves where the source of healing resides. Both a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry and a booming supplement industry thrive on our tendency to use medicines or supplements to try to make ourselves feel better. We forget to ask ourselves the questions: do we heal because of a medicine, or a vitamin, or a treatment? Or do we heal because we have an incredible healing system within our very own bodies? Or could it be a combination of both internal and external factors that guide healing?
Health is a balance of both internal factors at work inside our bodies AND external factors coming from the environment in which we live. For example, in the case of an infection, it is the antibiotics AND the workings of the immune system that renders one healthy again. When there is a broken bone, it is the cells of the body remodeling the bone AND the orthopedic rod that the surgeon placed to set the bone that will help proper healing occur. In the case of a major wound, it is the sutures expertly placed by a skilled surgeon AND the native healing potential of the body that will result in closure of the wound.
In our current medical system, we are so busy focusing on all the external factors contributing to healing, that we have all but shut down access to the critical internal factors. Luckily, most of the time, our bodies know what to do. There is a profound wisdom in the body and we are rarely mindful of all the healing and remodeling that occur on a regular basis.
When faced with an illness, we often must embrace a surgical intervention, conventional treatment or medication to facilitate healing. But, even in these situations, there is a tremendous potential to invite and expedite healing through the foods that we eat, the way we care for our bodies, being mindfully aware of the thoughts and emotions that we are experiencing, and cultivating both an internal and external environment that nurtures healing.