Saturday, December 1, 2012
Health: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
After being knocked down and drug out by Meniere's disease and then eventually learning to cope (mostly) with the unpredictable and sometimes disabling nature of it's course, I began to wonder where we got the idea that we are somehow entitled to good health? And why are we surprised when bad things happen to good people? Where is it written that if we are good, our bodies will spare us suffering?
It is not just my own experiences which have led me to wonder about these assumptions, but also those of my patients, many of whom having varying stages of cancer, severe intestinal diseases, or have experienced a serious trauma. For the most part, they seem to be good people from all walks of life. Some are struck down in the prime of their lives and others seem to have skated along through many decades of abusing their bodies before suffering the cumulative effects of their habits. There is no rhyme or reason to any of it, really.
Looking at this from another angle, I considered the experience of the human race before modern medicine came into being. I suspect many, if not most, people experienced far more pain, suffering, and discomfort as part of their daily lives which they must have simply had no choice but to accept and live with as best they could. They were probably surrounded by the suffering of others, as well, so perhaps the individual didn't feel their own circumstances were somehow unusual or undeserved, it was simply a part of life and they perhaps didn't dwell on the unfairness of it all.
Yet with the advent of technology, modern medicine has managed to prevent, cure, and effectively treat many of the things that have ailed us throughout history such that suffering for many ailments is now relatively short-lived or sufficiently masked by medications or surgical interventions. So, for the rest of us who happen to win the rare-incurable-disease lottery, we often feel a bit like pariahs in our modern, first-world society.
As it turns out, when you join this club, you start to become more aware of the suffering around you and it becomes apparent that you are not alone in your misery. In fact, when you look a little deeper, you find you know all kinds of people whose suffering is not much different than your own in the big scheme of things. In my own personal life, I know, or have known, people with MS, cancer, dementia, Parkinson's disease, gluten allergy, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, diabetes (types I and II), drug addiction, birth defects, and chronic, severe migraines. Most of these people were walking around one day, leading normal, relatively healthy lives, doing the best they could for themselves and those around them, and the next they were either beset by subtle, odd omens that things were not well within or they were handed a sudden, shocking piece of news that turned their entire world upside down.
When you really look around, it becomes easy to see that the human body is rarely perfect in maintaining complete homeostasis, despite our best efforts to somehow ensure that it does. It certainly does a fabulous job of keeping our hearts beating and the vital organs functioning in tandem just well enough so as to support life even in some very dire circumstances, but systems can, and often do, fail which can result in varying degrees of disability. What doesn't kill us, can make us very miserable.
In today's environment, it can be relatively easy to overlook the suffering of others. We don't live in multi-generational homes any longer, our interactions with people are buffered by email, telephones, texting, and a busy, hectic schedule that sometimes prevents us from getting to know our neighbors or even extended family members very well. So when our body does let us down, it is easy to feel alone, weird, and guilty as if we did something we shouldn't have, or didn't do something we should have. It has been beat into our minds that we control our destiny. Well that turns out to be a pretty absurd assertion.
What I've learned is, no, we don't have the control we think we have over our health or, for that matter, most aspects of our lives. Understanding and accepting this is an important step in learning to cope with, and accept, the hand we've been dealt so that we can move on. Learning to identify the things we can control and taking action in those areas can be empowering in a situation that can otherwise feel like it is spiraling down a dark rabbit hole. Seek and follow the light and there is where you will find hope that you can, indeed, live each day to it's fullest potential within the confines of your imperfect body.