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One thing I learned early. Being a victim just doesn't work. AIDS survivor Rob Mitchell
THIS BOOK IS ABOUT GETTING WELL when life seems weighted against the possibility of our doing so. It explains how we can recover our health and improve our lives, despite "chronic" problems for which medicine has no cure. In these pages you will find all the ideas and inspiration you need for successful self-care; you will read about ways to get better even in difficult circumstances.
Here's an example of what we're up against, and how self-care helps. When Cindy Wong was forty-five, she already had hypertension, thyroid disease, and clinical depression. "I wasn't taking care of myself," she remembers, which is understandable, since her husband had left her, with a rebellious daughter, aging parents, and a stressful job. "I didn't complain," she says. "In our culture, you're not supposed to."
Then she found herself in the emergency room, bleeding heavily from what turned out to be uterine cancer. Facing yet another illness, Cindy got fed up. She recalls:
Lying there, waiting for surgery, I promised, "If I make it through this, I am going to start doing something for myself." I couldn't have told you what that meant but I'd been taking care of everyone but me, and that had to change. Afterward, I went to the hospital's health-education office to see what they offered. I signed up for stress-reduction programs and stretching classes. Later, I started exercising and meditating. It took me years to realize I had to put myself first. I cut back work to four days a week. I still take care of my parents, I'm still there for my daughter, but I make sure I get to my programs and do my meditation every day. My self-esteem is higher, because I'm taking time out for myself. My family relationships are actually better than ever; I have more energy, and my health has been improving.
Cindy isn't out of the woods yet, and she will probably never be able to throw away her medicines or party like a teenager. But she has taken control of her life, stabilized her condition, improved her general health, and become a positive, lively person, a joy to be around-no small accomplishment for a woman in her situation. Getting well or overcoming illness doesn't necessarily mean cure, and it doesn't mean living forever. Nor does it mean a list of dos and don'ts, pills to take, and foods to avoid. It means improving our condition and gradually making our lives happier, healthier, more fulfilling. How much our health improves depends on the severity of our illness, the conditions of our lives, and the internal and external resources we can bring to bear. How much better we feel depends mostly on us.
So What's New About This?
Unlike some other self-care books, this one doesn't say we make ourselves sick or think ourselves well. It doesn't say, "Take control of your life," while glossing over the difficulties involved. It doesn't even say, "Follow your doctor's orders." Instead, it gives a practical, five-step program for recovery:
1. Slow down. Save some energy for your body and life, instead of giving every last ounce to work, worry, other demands, or entertainment.
2. Make a change. Change something in your life that is damaging. No matter how small, any successful change builds self-confidence and makes the next change easier.
3. Get help. None of us can do it alone; life is a cooperative effort. Learn to find and ask for help.
4. Value your body and your life. Listen to your body and treat it with respect. Fill your life with more pleasure, love, and reasons to live.
5. Grow up. Educate yourself, take responsibility, be assertive. Accept yourself the way you are, but don't give up on getting better.
These steps would sound intimidating, even to me, except for three things. First, we rarely need the whole program. Anything we do for ourselves is likely to pay dividends. Second, every single step should feel good; the whole idea, supported by scientific studies, is that improving quality of life will improve our health. Third, you're probably doing many things right already.
So it's not as hard as it sounds. In these pages, we will meet people who have carried out this program, over years, one step at a time. They have overcome AIDS, heart disease, arthritis, chronic fatigue, lupus, fibromyalgia, asthma, cancer, and other conditions, including, in my case, multiple sclerosis. These are people I have nursed, interviewed, or coached, not an elite group, but people with problems like those we all have. If they can do it, you can, too.
I am not promising any picnic or any miracles, though picnics are good for you, and miracles happen all the time. Overcoming chronic conditions is a challenge; it calls for all our intelligence, courage, and creativity and all the help we can get. Barriers will block our way, and sometimes we won't even know they're there, just that we're stuck. This book will help identify and overcome them. With effort, time, and a few breaks, we may find the journey of recovery leading us to better lives and better health than we had ever thought possible.
Not Our Fault
Before planning how to get well, it may help to consider the various reasons we get sick, only a few of which are under our control. Sometimes our genes are programmed for susceptibility to one or another awful disease. Some environments subject us to toxic chemicals, natural or man-made, while others are full of hostile organisms. Some of us live amid violence, without ever knowing physical safety, or in crazy families who deprive us of emotional security and self-respect. We may lack sufficiently healthy food or water. We may grow up without opportunities for exercise, fresh air, education, relaxation, or love.
Studies of stressful life events-job loss, divorce, relocation, death of a family member, etc.-consistently show higher rates of all types of disease following such stressors. To these, we can add all of our maladaptive responses to life's insults: bad posture, attitudes, or diets, unacknowledged emotions, lack of exercise, overwork, hurry, various forms of self-abuse and addiction. All of these injurious behaviors were learned somewhere or adopted before we knew better, for reasons that were necessary-or at least seemed like good ideas-at the time.
Most diseases, then, except for overwhelming infections or pure genetic defects, arise from numbers of factors stretching back through our lives and heredity and outward through all our social and environmental influences, a web of causation that we can never completely sort out. For various reasons, our bodies (and minds) do not get their needs met, and they react by getting sick. Our bodies weren't made to last forever, and years of wear and tear eventually cause breakdowns.
Therefore, it makes no sense to blame ourselves for illness, to feel guilty about things we could not control. Guilt doesn't do anyone any good. Far worse than guilt, though, is helplessness, the feeling that turns us into victims without hope of salvation. Research shows that people with high "self-efficacy" (the belief that we can do the things we set out to do) and "internal locus of control" (the belief that we control much of what happens to us) have fewer complications, less distress, and slower progression of illness than those who feel less powerful. Although we often don't know how much, if any, influence we actually have, we're better off acting as though we do have influence. As we'll see in Chapter 6, we often have more control than we realize.
Fight Back with Self-Care
Though it's not a universal reaction, we have a right to grieve, to be angry, and often to be a little scared about health problems. The question is, what do we do with those feelings? This book says that when life makes us sick, we can fight back with self-care. Use anger as motivation to change harmful life situations (like a stressful job or a family that continues to smoke despite our lung disease). Employ fear of future complications as a reason to change unhealthy behaviors and attitudes. Allow sadness to extend into feelings of compassion, and even love, for our bodies and our whole selves, who struggle with so much difficulty.
Chronic conditions are not our fault, but no one else will fix them for us, nor can they. Only we can take care of ourselves. We can't change our genes or our age, but everything else is up for grabs. We can even delay or modify the expression of our bad genes in many cases.
The same dynamic applies whether we have arthritis, herpes, hepatitis, depression, or any other health problem. The disease is there; it has genetic, historical, or environmental causes. Our response to it, though, makes a huge difference in how much we suffer and how likely we are to get well. Even for conditions labeled "chronic" or "progressive," we can often slow, stop, or reverse the rate of progression or recurrence and the severity of symptoms by employing measures such as the ones described in this book.
Health Reflects Life
Annoying fact: The better our lives, the better our health is likely to be. Studies show that life is unfair in this way. Among these findings: Low job satisfaction is the number-one predictor for future heart attacks. Socioeconomic standing-income, educational level, and power-predicts general health better than any other single factor except age.
It gets worse. College students who remembered loving relationships with their parents have been found, thirty years later, to have far less illness than those whose parental relationships were more strained. People who believe their spouses love them live longer. People with more friends are healthier. Laughter and happiness make the immune system work better. Sex is good for you; fun is good for you. People who report lower stress levels have lower blood pressures and stronger hearts.
It is almost as if our bodies know how we feel about our lives, as if our immune systems and all our other miraculous self-healing mechanisms get discouraged when we get discouraged, as if they feel hopelessness, grief, and stress when we feel these ways. It's not just that happy people exercise more or eat better-though they tend to. "Mind/body" research demonstrates that our bodies, especially our unconscious self-care systems (such as the immune system), react to our life situations as strongly as do our conscious selves.
The immune system's sensitivity to life conditions has been proven beyond reasonable doubt. A 1977 Australian study, often replicated, found that T-lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) were less active in people whose spouses had recently died. When researchers isolated the lymphocytes and put them in a test tube with a protein they would normally attack, the "bereaved" cells made only a halfhearted attempt to fight. It was like the cells were saying, "What's the use? Without my beloved, it's just not worth it." Of course, blood cells do not "think" in this sense, but the result is the same. The wounds of recently bereaved people also heal more slowly than those of others. In a number of studies, students with fewer friends, or more stress, have shown decreased immune responses in comparison to their peers.
Studies of heart patients have found that severity of blocked arteries and frequency of heart attacks vary greatly with a number of life situations, including quality of marriage, satisfaction at work, number of friends, even owning a good dog. I am certain that other body systems will be found responsive to life conditions, as soon as someone looks. If nothing else, every organ from the skin to the bowels reacts negatively to too much stress.
Science is telling us that we cannot separate our health from our lives. Stress, loss, isolation, economic insecurity, and other hardships tend to make us sick. Self-confidence, love, happiness, and relaxation are examples of conditions that help us heal. Therefore, getting well is largely a question of improving our quality of life.
My Ticket Out of Here
Sometimes sickness is a logical answer to life's pressures, a syndrome I call "illness is my one and only ticket out of here." When demands become overwhelming, when our lives become too tense, too stressful, too painful or crazy, and when we lack the ability or willingness to change them, our bodies may escape by getting sick, or even dying.
We can see this in some children diagnosed with "failure to thrive." Kids who are neglected or abused sometimes stop growing. Their glands simply stop producing growth hormones. Often, when these children go to hospitals or foster homes, the hormones kick in, and they start growing again. But when they are sent back to the place where they've been neglected, even if they get adequate food and shelter, they may once again shut down their growth processes. Obviously, this is not done consciously; it is the body's response to intolerable conditions.
Similar things happen to adults. My former nurse manager, Margaret Washington, had terribly high blood pressure, what doctors call "malignant hypertension." She took three medicines and still frequently ran numbers like 230/120, which would justify an emergency room visit for you or me. At fifty-five years old, she was somewhat overweight and under-exercised, but not nearly enough to account for her life-threatening pressure readings.
Margaret had worked her way up from the bottom, all the way from a nurse's aide to a manager with a master's degree, while raising children and, later, grandchildren. In spite of her accomplishments, she never felt respected or safe among our administration. As virtually the only African American in nursing leadership, she felt scrutinized and judged. Whether or not this feeling was accurate, it left her constantly anxious. She tried to work harder than everyone else, worried all the time, and took great pains not to offend or upset anyone in management. Because of her family's financial needs, she was unwilling to resign. She was on her way to a stroke, heart attack, or kidney failure, and it looked like a short trip.
What saved Margaret was a twisted blessing. To cut expenses, the company offered her a decent retirement package, and she grabbed it. Within four days, her blood pressure was on its way down. It continued dropping for the next three months, and currently she is on only one medication and has a normal blood pressure. She took a part-time job teaching parenting skills to young single mothers, which she had long wanted to do.
Was the job making Margaret sick, was it her genes, or was she making herself sick? I would call it a combination, but one thing is clear: If she hadn't gotten out of there when she did, she likely would have gotten out crippled, or in a coffin.
The Activity/Pain Cycle
Margaret was living the fatal version of what chronic-pain specialists call the activity/pain cycle. People with chronic pain often work and push themselves until pain makes them stop. Then they'll rest for the minimum possible time and try to resume working until pain stops them again.
When I heard about the activity/pain cycle, I thought, "This doesn't apply just to pain; it applies to every symptom and illness." Illness protects us by allowing us to stop beating our head against the wall, allowing us to take a break from endless demands and stress. Since our bodies desperately need us to stop, we aren't likely to get well unless we find some way to protect ourselves. Illness can often be seen as the body screaming for help.
One treatment goal in chronic pain is to move people to an activity/ rest cycle, where the person follows his or her body's rhythms and stops activity before pain builds up. Following the activity/rest cycle, people wind up doing more and suffering less. However, most find it very hard to make this particular change. Our society essentially lives a mass version of the activity/pain cycle, where it's not okay to stop until we break down. It's not okay to ask for help until we are disabled, and it's not okay to take a day off without a doctor's certificate.
Doctors have a term for taking advantage of illness to get some relief from the struggles of life; they call it "secondary gain." These gains can include more rest, attention from family and health-care providers, sympathy, escape from intolerable stresses, and medications that numb physical and psychic pain. Going for these "gains" doesn't make us lazy or crazy. It doesn't mean we're making ourselves sick-life takes care of that-but it may explain why we find it hard to get well. On the activity/pain cycle, illness can be "healthier," in many ways, than health.
Excerpted from The Art of Getting Well by DAVID SPERO Copyright © 2002 by David Spero. Excerpted by permission.
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