I suppose I've always had an interest in how the mind and body affect each other. But all that changed at the end of the summer when my wife Deb was diagnosed with breast cancer. Suddenly, I wasn't just curious; I needed to know.
Now, when I think I need to know something, I have a Fox Mulder kind of obsessiveness, so I've literally been reading everything I can get my hands on. I thought I'd take some time this morning to pass on four ideas that I've distilled out of the books I've been reading, and out of our experiences these last few months.
These ideas are all fairly simple. The first two are general principles, and the last two are specific pieces of advice for people who have serious illnesses.
That's an interesting thing to realize, because (when you think about it) how many people do you know who are actually enthusiastic about the prospect of continuing to live? I know a lot of people who I would describe as generally happy, but enthusiasm about life is fairly rare.
And so, I would recommend the following practice to anyone, even if you've never been sick a day in your life: Ask yourself if you're enthusiastic about the prospect of continuing to live your life. And if not, is there some way you could live that you would be enthusiastic about? Maybe there's some simple thing that you've always wanted to do, but you've never been able to justify spending time on. Well, here's an extra piece of justification for you: If it will make you more enthusiastic about life, it will make you healthier.
Surprisingly, it turns out that a lot of the so-called "negative" emotions are not bad for you. Anger, fear, guilt, sadness--they're part of the full spectrum of normal human emotion. One of the popular misreadings of the healing literature is that we should be like Pollyanna and try to be happy all the time, smile all the time, think happy thoughts. I've never enjoyed doing that, and in fact I don't even enjoy being around people like that, so I had a certain guilty pleasure when I discovered that (as near as anyone can tell) they're not going to live any longer than the rest of us.
Negative emotions are fine as long as they flow through you naturally. They really don't hurt your body unless you deny them or repress them. One of the tragic effects of this misreading of the healing literature is that many people with life-threatening illnesses are afraid to be afraid. They feel guilty about being sad, because they think they're hurting themselves.
They aren't. And no matter how overwhelming these negative emotions can seem, I can tell you from personal experience that they can flow through you and start to go away. When you really own up to just how afraid you are, you start to be a little less afraid.
Despair, on the other hand, really is bad for you. Despair is a pervasive sense of hopelessness, a feeling that there is no point in trying to survive, and there isn't even any point in paying attention to what life you have left. Basically, what despair does is tell your body's defense systems to start shutting down. It can go on for months, because it's a difficult mood to come out of on your own.
And it can kill you--even if there's nothing particularly wrong with you otherwise. For centuries people have been observed to die of "broken hearts". And the word "nostalgia", interestingly enough, was originally a medical term. It literally means "home-sickness". It described a condition that mostly affected elderly immigrants, who would pine away for the old country until they died.
The reason you want to have either a support group or a loyal set of friends looking after you is that you need someone who can spot your despair before it gets to be too entrenched, and who can help you come out of it.
If you look around in the bookstores, you'll see that there's just no end to the things you could be doing to try to get well. Acupuncture, visualizations, homeopathy, Chinese medicine, Vedic medicine, Reiki, shamanic healing, dream work, color therapy, aroma therapy, and dozens, maybe hundreds, of diets you might try. You could easily spend every waking hour in some form of treatment.
The problem with that is that it goes against the first idea: A life that consists of nothing but treatment is hard to get excited about. If all you're doing is dragging yourself from one treatment to the next, you've lost the advantage that enthusiasm could give you.
This brings up something I would like to pass on to friends of seriously ill people. I think we all have the same fantasy. (I know I have it.) Each of us would like to be remembered as the person who suggested that special therapy that finally cured our friend. But on behalf of sick people everywhere, I'd like to ask you not try to act this fantasy out. Here's why: When you're seriously ill, and you feel terrible, and 30 different people suggest 25 different kinds of therapy, each of which would only take about a half hour a day, you start to think that maybe it would be easier just to die.
So don't put your friends in that position. If you want to be supportive, ask them what they're already doing, and see if you can find something positive to say about it.
Back when I was in college, somebody showed me an ad in the back of a men's magazine. It was for capsules that were supposed to cure impotence. The ad explained that the capsules worked by taking advantage of "the clinically proven placebo effect". We thought that was pretty funny, because essentially the ad was admitting that the capsules had no medical value.
But wait. There really is a clinically proven placebo effect. People who believe they are taking strong medicine have a tendency to get well. The placebo effect is a force that you need to get on your side. This is why I think you should play at least one hunch. Do something that makes sense medically--I wouldn't want to be responsible for someone turning away from standard medical treatments. But in addition to that, if you are in the bookstore and you suddenly get a feeling that one of these approaches might work for you--go with it. That hunch, that irrational something inside that tells you you're going to get well--that's exactly what the placebo effect is trying to raise. If you find yourself believing in something--for whatever reason--take advantage of that belief. It will help you.
So, to sum up, these are the four ideas I wanted to give you:
1. Enthusiasm is good for you.
2. Despair is bad for you.
3. Don't try to do it all.
4. Play at least one hunch.
Thank you, and be well.