I suspect there are many ways to engage with the healthcare system. Here are a few of my favorites. As ‘paying friends’, we hire healthcare practitioners for their wisdom and company. As ‘victims’, on a ‘bad day’ we look to them for rescue. As ‘private investigators’, we accompany them on discovery missions seeking truth and freedom. Each approach has its time and place. Maybe you know others.
In the midst of a health crisis in my twenties, I laid on my back for several months with abdominal pain. I was scared, and feeling betrayed by my body. I was clearly being the ‘victim’, sure that doctors would discover that I had some horrible, fatal disease. I was equally sure they could fix me.
At that time in my life, I had blind faith in the medical system. The doctors had the answers. In a sense, they were like Gods to me. This notion had grown and been supported by many childhood bouts with strep throat, where a quick trip to the doctor led to a shot of Penicillin, and voilà — I was back to health.
And so, during my health crisis, I was a ‘good patient’ — compliant. The doctors gave me strong medications, which I was sure would be my life raft back to health. Quietly, I endured invasive tests, believing they would shed light on the problem. But finally, after exploratory surgery and a 105 degree ‘hospital fever’ treated with antibiotic cocktails, the doctors told me: “We have no idea what’s causing your pain.” As the fever subsided, they released me from their care.
I was dumbfounded. “What? Are you kidding?” The doctors and everything they stood for, in my mind, had just utterly fallen from grace. What’s more, those words ripped to my core, like an earthquake unsettling the very ground on which I walked.
What came next completely changed my life. Overwhelmed, hopeless, and still in pain, I frantically read everything I could on the subject of healing, and talked to lots of people. Norman Cousins’ book, Anatomy of an Illness, had a huge impact on me. He was actively engaged in a ‘healing process’. That was a new idea for me. “Take control of your health,” my friend Cynthia counseled. The combination, like a match on dry tinder, ignited what I have affectionately come to call my ‘Private Eye’ approach to pain resolution. I got myself an imaginary ‘special badge’ and opened my first ‘case’. The subject — my own pain.
What did I find as I took on this new role? Fear began to take a back seat and that ‘victim’ part of me got very quiet and began to listen. I learned all kinds of things in the months and years to come. My pain gradually receded, and a new me emerged.
Many Years Later:
The Personal, The Cultural, The Universal
That was a long time ago. We all have those moments that change the course of our lives forever. But something else — perhaps my psyche, perhaps my heart — opened wide in a fundamentally profound way. There was no going back.
Years later, I discovered Joseph Campbell’s work. He refers to such moments as ‘calls’ to the ‘hero’s journey’ — that mysterious process we humans go through as we ‘come of age’, both emotionally and spiritually. The process is portrayed in our most beloved stories, like The Wizard of Oz. It’s also reflected in modern day classics like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings andAvatar. The ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’ is ‘called’ into an adventure which shapes and defines their lives.
The ‘call’ shows up in many forms, such as a natural disaster, an illness, a new relationship, a divorce, or the birth of a child. It is always followed by resistance and confusion. In real life, we experience our own versions of the murky swamps and dragons that we see in the movies. Once past these obstacles, we are guided by ‘mystical beings’ to finally discover the ‘gold’ at journey’s end. Eventually, we return home having transformed into fuller, richer and more evolved human beings.
And so it was for me. Discovering the ‘hero’s journey’ concept revealed to me that my personal drama was part of a much larger, coherent pattern. As I began to find meaning beyond the pain, I felt fundamentally connected to all of humanity.
Furthermore, I began to see how cultural beliefs and stories had profoundly shaped my relationship with life. ‘If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist’ was an active belief in my young adult life. This was not just a perspective my dad held. It comes from a three-hundred-year-old legacy that underpins Western culture and modernity.
The unintended consequence of this belief is the disavowal of our inner-most world, of the depth and mystery at the center of life, and of our humanity. I began to see how that belief, though at the core of the scientific paradigm, contradicts life itself. And when used as the map for a human life, it can be dehumanizing. At the risk of heresy, I’ve come to see how this belief can, quite literally, be the seed for physical and/or emotional pain. When our biological needs are not getting met, we feel pretty lousy. This can be a fleeting discomfort or a more complex symptomotology.
So when the doctors couldn’t ‘measure’ anything to explain my pain, while I knew I was in pain, my worldview had to change. I had to begin to reach deeply into my own intuition for answers. I shifted my relationship with the medical system, still viewing it as an incredibly valuable resource, though no longer as my savior. What’s more, the rich, textured life I have today grew out of that opening that happened so many years ago.
In closing, here is my invitation to those of you who feel less than whole, who are in pain or who have received a ‘call’: get curious. Piece together the puzzle of your life until it’s whole again. Choose your collaborators carefully. Learn how to slay dragons. Experiment. Find what soothes you. Believe in magic. Learn how to love bigger than you’ve ever known. Stand at the center of your life, open to learning what your symptoms have come to teach you. Become the ‘Private Eye’ of your own well-being.
What’s involved in being a ‘Private Eye’?
- Take the lead on your ‘case’. It’s like being a CEO. You get to hire and fire your consultants.
- Trust that there is a coherent story about your symptoms/pain, even if you don’t yet know it.
- Trust the wisdom of your body. Value its voice (in this case, symptoms/pain).
- Embrace the mission: to discover the cause and resolution to your symptoms/pain.
- Cultivate curiosity. It’s good for the soul and works better than self-pity.
- Ask for help and tell the truth about what’s going on. No stiff upper lips.
- Do your Due Diligence. Become an expert. Know who’s been there before you.
- Find good collaborators (mainstream and alternative healthcare providers).
- Explore the beliefs, behaviors and values that might fuel your symptoms.
- Until your pain is resolved, do your damndest to live a full life around its edges.
Things that can help along the way:
- Breathe deeply.
- Be as present as possible. Maybe its a good time to take up a spiritual practice.
- Have gratitude for what is going well.
- Savor whatever silver linings present themselves along the way.
- Revel in small, incremental positive changes.