I’ve been sick this week. So sick that I actually surrendered to common sense and the advice of my medical professional and got a prescription for a miracle drug. I am now on the mend, and from this vantage point can look back and (with compassion) laugh at my “sick self” and how I negotiate my body and its challenges when I am ill.
Growing up, my father explained away childhood sniffles and bumps and bruises as “growing pains”. He came from a long line of Scottish stalwarts who minimized aches and pains and avoided the medical profession at all costs. He had a fragile constitution and struggled most of his life with problems including having had a kidney removed when he was in his 20’s and dying at a relatively young age of 56 from lymphoma.
My mother’s issues fell more under the emotional category, with psychosomatic issues being dominant. She remained physically healthy over her 89 years, only occasionally succumbing to back issues, a brush with uterine cancer, and a horrid but blessedly short episode of shingles.
I have been blessed with a rather robust constitution, although to read through the list of things I have overcome you would wonder: mumps, measles, chicken pox, broken wrist, sprained ankle (both, several times), dislocated shoulder, almost dying from uncontrolled bleeding after a tonsillectomy, appendectomy when I was in my 30s, and brain surgery for an acoustic neuroma. Oh yes, I also have a wonky back and bad hips.
Still, I consider myself “healthy”. Why? Because I am resilient! I am keenly aware of how my mind catastrophizes my every ache and pain. Back pain? Must be a slipped disc – I will now be paralyzed. Hip pain? Bone-on-bone rubbing with bone spurs cutting and slicing tendons – I will never walk again. Head ache? Brain tumor – just weeks to live. The self-diagnosing coupled with my creative imagination typically results in two things: My initial response followed by a calming instruction: “There, there now. You know better. Just take a breath and let’s see what is going on.”
I have enough knowledge of how my body works to put things into perspective. I truly do know when I need to reach out for medical support and intervention. I also keep myself from jumping on the web and self-diagnosing. This is probably the best thing that I do! Which brings me to my “Aha!” during this particular slip into “dis-ease”. This time I was truly alone.
What I mean by this is every other illness or issue I had my parents, my husband, or my cat to give me support and encouragement. This time I had no one who intuitively would check on me or take charge and get me help. This time, I needed to be responsible for my own decisions and proactively engage with the health care system to get my needs met.
This may not seem like a big thing. It has, however, brought a new level of awareness to me about why so many people fall through the cracks or don’t get the help they need. Initiating action when I am sick is very, very hard! Not only is the conversation about “Do I/Don’t I” going on in my head, but an insidious theme kept coming up that I have to attribute to my Dad – “Whatever is going on isn’t serious enough for you to bother anybody. Just keep quiet and it will get better on its own.”
So many of my patients share their fears and concerns with me about our health care system. I often find myself reassuring them that if they just reach out they will get the help they need. But it isn’t about that. It is about bridging that gap between asking and receiving! What many do is take the middle road – ask Dr. Google! You can do this in the comfort of your own home and without bothering anybody. Of course the challenge here is to know whether Dr. Google’s advice is actually helpful.
The catastrophic conversation that arises in my head just gets amplified when I read list serves sharing horrible outcomes and miraculous cures. It gets frantic when I don’t find what I am expecting or hoping and, instead, I expand my fears to include untold categories of other ailments that I had no idea might actually be going on! I am less able to calm and soothe myself and just get tied into knots worrying about what might be.
In addition to my parents modeling how to manage illness, I was also influenced by television doctors. It all started with Dr. Kildare and it finished up with Dr. Welby. Each week, patients would be saved from some terrible illness, wise words and kind hearts prevailed, and when all things seemed to be falling apart, Dr. Welby would come to your home and hold your hand. It probably helped that before he was Dr. Welby he was “Father” in Father Knows Best (Robert Young).
Today, television continues to influence how I think of my health. There are more ads on TV for illnesses today than back in the 1960s. Known as “direct-to-consumer-advertising”, laws pertaining to how medicines are sold have dramatically changed since the 1960s. What started out as a means of patients becoming more involved in their care has ended up being a free-for-all for pharmaceutical companies. Listen to the ads carefully. Every one of them contains the words, “Ask your doctor . . .”
There are subtle messages that go along with these instructions. First – your doctor (not Kildare or Welby) needs you to tell him/her what you need. Why bother with Med School? Secondly, there is always a medication to treat what is wrong with you. Thirdly, there may be side effects, you can ignore the side effects as they are recited at warp speed and just pay attention to the gentle, benign and healthy images seen in the commercial.
What’s the take home message? I am privileged to have medicine available to me at a reasonable cost that is effectively managing my illness. I am able to rearrange my schedule and get the rest I need. Friends and colleagues have generously reached out and provided me with reassurance that I won’t be left alone to die. And, I took responsibility for myself and got the help I needed.
Five Pillars of Aging Tip: Thoughts and beliefs can have both a positive and negative effect on your immune system. Catch yourself having the negative thoughts, challenge them and change your inner conversation to positive, health-supporting statements. Then have a cup of chicken soup!