I have been reading a lot of books on health lately. I have noticed that, when looking for a pithy statement from authority, everyone wants to quote Susan Sontag or Virginia Woolf.
There’s a new dog in town: Meghan O’Rourke. Her book The Invisible Kingdom, part memoir about her chronic illness and part in-depth examination of chronic illness, is full of quotable quotes. I’ll share some of my favorite passages with you today, along with their lessons. Much of this book resonated with me, as a sufferer of post-concussion syndrome.
Seek stories (explanations).
“Without answers, at my most desperate, I came to feel (in some unarticulated way) that if I could just tell the right story about what was happening, I could make myself better.”
Unarticulated? Indeed, I have articulated this desire many times. If only I understood the story or explanation behind why my brain is acting bizarrely! Understanding the problem is the first step, is it not, to solving the problem?
After this passage, O’Rourke goes on to blame society for her troubles—and truly there is a lot wrong with health care in the U.S. But she almost dismisses her bold statement, which is not giving her intuition enough credit.
The story is vital. In fact, later in the book she does find a story: a diagnosis, along with a treatment plan, which helps her immensely. It does not solve all of her problems. But it goes a long way. Perhaps her continuing ills require more stories.
Create beauty from pain.
“My body felt like a vow that had been irrevocably broken.”
Isn’t that lovely and sad? I feel you, Meghan.
Strike the right mental balance.
“The person enduring . . . [a poorly understood] illness faces a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, she must advocate for herself, even when doctors are indifferent or ignorant, and not be deterred when she knows something is wrong. On the other, she also must be willing to ask whether an obsessive attention to symptoms is going to lead to better health. The patient has to hold in mind two contradictory modes, in other words: insistence on the reality of the disease and resistance to her own catastrophic fears.”
“What does it matter, you might wonder, how we think about the disease we have? But these metaphors had profound implications for me and for the people I interviewed, many of whom saw their illness as a form of personal failure requiring self-indictment.”
I have learned enough about Buddhism to have absorbed the idea that self-indictment is a destructive mode that leads to worse outcomes. And yet. When I was around 20 years old, I got into a car accident. It was mainly my fault. There were two other people involved in the crash, who had injuries. I got a concussion—I was knocked out. But I had no repercussions at that time, other than a headache for a few hours (and the fact that I had totaled my mom’s minivan).
I have repeatedly thought that my awful, long recovery process for my more recent concussion is directly tied to my earlier concussion. Indeed, it’s true that multiple concussions result in worse symptoms. But I have also felt that the two events were morally, cosmically tied. As if my current sufferings were payback for the sufferings I caused those two other drivers, long ago.
Hogwash? I don’t know. Do you believe in karma?
But thinking such thoughts is surely not helping me heal.
Keep the faith.
“Our thoughts can change our health—but only if we really believe the thoughts.”
This one has been scientifically validated. Hope and faith are vitally important; this is a lesson I keep learning over and over again, as I navigate the healing process.
Are you keeping the faith?