This is part two in Casey Hersch’s articles series about how to defeat chronic illness. Part one was Using Integrative Approaches for Living with Chronic Illness.
During my childhood, I suffered from one illness after another. My parents believed that doctors had all of the answers to our life and health problems. Their perspective, though well-intended, created a dangerous situation for me.
This complete acceptance of physician recommendations rapidly sent me into a downward health spiral. We didn’t realize there were other alternatives for healing beyond the conventional Western medical model that focuses on symptom reduction, pharmaceuticals and diagnostics.
Now, decades later, most of what we learn about our bodies still comes from the media, educational institutions, doctors, elders and the community that reinforce that our bodies are merely physical beings. Sadly, we rarely consider questioning those powerful influences.
When Symptom Management Causes More Symptoms
When I was 15 years old and underweight, physicians insisted that I drink daily servings of Carnation Instant Breakfast to help me gain weight. Based on our observations, my mom and I knew that I was sensitive to dairy since I noticeably reacted every time I ate ice cream or drank milk.
We also knew another tip about my body: My body did not tolerate high sugar loads. Unlike my teenaged peers who indulged in their candy jars at Halloween, too much sugar made me vomit. I avoided sugar as much as possible.
However, because the doctors insisted that drinking milk with the high calorie and sugar dense powder would solve my weight problem, we complied and ignored what we already knew about my sensitive body. As my symptoms worsened, we never questioned the experts. Consequently, I developed two new diagnoses: irritable bowel syndrome and candida.
Candida, a result of imbalanced gut microbes, is one negative side effect of too many antibiotics. Sugar can also cause Candida to proliferate. Irritable Bowel Syndrome consists of a smorgasbord of miserable bowel symptoms often described as a “nervous stomach” and exacerbated by stress.
Although my worsening health was triggered by the instant breakfast, doctors responded by prescribing me more antibiotics to “fix” the new symptoms. The vicious cycle of illness continued because the experts failed to explore my history. A critical missing piece of my treatment was understanding how my past excessive antibiotic usage and my body’s sensitivity to stress influenced my symptoms.
Including Your History in Treatment is Crucial
Despite the fact that one of our most important relationships is with our physicians, our physicians rarely ask us to share about ourselves.
In all of our other close relationships, we talk about our thoughts, feelings, life events and stresses. But physicians rarely, if ever, routinely inquire about our childhoods, life histories, stresses or ask for our intuitive theories about the causes of our illnesses.
This patient care model does not serve us well. Every one of us has a theory for why we have symptoms. However, we rarely acknowledge our “gut instincts” and, therefore, we miss crucial pieces to our healing puzzles. Thankfully, once we recognize the gaps in conventional medical models, we can complement our healing with the many integrative models available to us.
Integrative Healing Models: Blending Emotional and Physical
Integrative models incorporate our histories, stress cycles, adverse childhood experiences, day-to-day life choices, beliefs and opinions into an individualized healing formula. Had my doctors inquired about my history, they would have learned important details that affected my symptom presentation.
Ideally, we should always seek physicians who embrace a team approach whereby the patient is also an expert on the team. This inclusive team approach eliminates the imbalances in power when physicians are the experts and patients are the passive recipients. Integrative models also acknowledge the intimate connection between emotions and physical symptoms. After all, we are whole beings, not parts. Our lifestyles are our greatest medicine!
Despite cultural messaging that emphasizes our physical existence, I always believed that my emotional world mattered. Throughout childhood, I experienced a lot of turmoil; especially when my parents argued, and I witnessed domestic violence. Sometimes I felt my emotions turn my stomach upside down and seemingly cause my body to spasm and hurt.
Since I did not know what my feelings meant, I could not use them as a guide to my body. Instead, I stuffed my feelings aside and succumbed to other’s impressions of my health. I intuitively knew that the conflict in my home triggered many of my symptoms such as migraines, nausea and even fatigue.
However, as a child, I did not feel as though I could tell my parents what I really believed. My doctors never asked me about my home life, which further solidified beliefs that my theories were “crazy,” and I should not talk about my stress and feelings.
Sadly, my experience is commonplace in homes with abuse and violence. In abusive environments, emotional expression is dangerous. I silenced my inner voice as a survival technique: a necessary attempt to keep myself safe. My physicians condoned my silence when they ignored the emotional dimensions of my illness.
Looking back, it is easy to identify ways my mom and I should have challenged the “milk and sugar” recommendation. One option would have been to share our knowledge about my body with the physicians and explore alternatives to the instant breakfast. Another option would have been to trust what we already knew about my body and reactions to food, and to use this wisdom as a guide for treatment options.
An even better solution would have been to have a real discussion about my life that happened outside of the doctor’s office. If someone would have asked me to share my theories for why I had so many gut problems, this inquiry could have opened a door to my feelings. Eventually I would have felt safe enough to share about my stress and fears. If someone really listened to me, they would have seen how my stress and home life contributed to my upset stomach or irritable bowel.
My weight loss was not merely a response to diet and restricting calories. My weight loss was also a response to the conflict in my household and my inability, as a child, to cope with overwhelming feelings of powerlessness. This information should have been a foundation from which my medical team brainstormed and considered alternatives for my sensitive and unique physical AND emotional needs.
Making the Shift Is Possible: You Are Not Alone
Decades later, when I became a psychotherapist, I still struggled to confront my physicians and assert my body expertise and needs. Surprisingly, even though I was trained to understand and explore emotions, my studies never connected the strong relationship between physical and emotional health. I didn’t know how to start a conversation with my physician about my traumatic childhood past in order to make connections to my current health problems.
Even as an expert trained to inquire about people’s emotional and personal lives, I felt insecure advocating for my own needs. Despite my professional credentials, I behaved the same as in childhood, indiscriminately listening to my “superiors” and doctors. I forged ahead on the quest to rid my physical body of symptoms, and I got sicker. I did not even know that I could learn to listen to my body’s subtle cues — the keys to my healing.
Fortunately, today, I am not the same patient. I have learned invaluable skills to further my healing journey. I advocate for myself and require that my medical teams listen to my history and incorporate my lived experiences into my treatment. Each day I trust my body wisdom more, and I don’t hesitate to question a treatment that is not helping me heal or is making me sicker. Most important, I require an individualized healing plan.
When we believe anyone holds more information and expertise about our bodies than we do, we close our minds to the healing potential our bodies already possess. Even more dangerous is when we do not question experts or filter recommendations through the knowledge we already know about ourselves.
Doctors do not have all the answers; in fact, sometimes they can be wrong and even harmful. After all, they are humans just like the rest of us who are guided by a perspective colored by their training and exposure. Fortunately, the culmination of expert knowledge with our own experiences can enhance our healing; especially, when we learn how to filter tailor, and individualize recommendations for our own unique needs.
There is no easy way to assume the role as empowered patient. For many of us, years of medical mishaps, medical debts, and humiliating and painful symptoms bring us to a breaking point where we say, “NO MORE!” For others, they stumble upon a kind healer who is truly curious about the root cause of illness and wants to help their patients heal from the inside out.
Once we experience a physician or healer who truly wants to understand the intricacies of our health and lived experience with illness, it is impossible to return to the health models that stifle patient voices. Finally, some patients have “ah-ha” moments as they become more educated about how the human body works as a whole system. This knowledge exposes their incomplete treatments and reinforces intuitions that their medical team has missed the mark.
The essence of empowerment is when patients open doors for themselves through their curiosities and open-mindedness. This sense of ownership keeps hope alive and fuels the belief that healing is possible no matter how many times science or statistics insist a condition is incurable.
Regardless of how you arrive, it is time to become an empowered patient NOW. Your health depends on this shift.
Steps to Becoming An Empowered Patient (Self-Advocate)
1. Recognize that you have other options.
2. Accept there is a way out of the vicious illness cycle.
3. Identify the components of an integrative health model and include in your treatment.
4. Get educated and informed. Research and become an expert on YOU!
Healing begins with you! Not only should your physicians inquire about past events in your life that laid a foundation for disease, but you should also begin to connect the dots of your life. Understand how events in your life paved the way for your current health problems. This selfinquiry holds the answers to your recovery.
Steps to Begin Your Self-Inquiry:
- Find out your ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Score
- Begin thinking about how your past affects your present emotional and physical states
- Do you feel included on your medical treatment team?
- What are your theories for why you have an illness or symptoms?
- What aspects of your treatment are working? Are there recommendations you follow, even though you intuitively know the interventions are not in your best interest?
Ready to Do A Deeper Dive Into Self-Inquiry?
- Take a look at the Healing Wheel
- Do you have a balanced treatment plan that includes all aspects of the healing wheel?
- List interventions in each dimension. Are there any areas where you can fill in gaps?
Stay tuned for my next article about these integrative approaches that can help defeat chronic illness.