Dr. Jeff Kane: Illness’ two faces
Every human being is a community of superbly coordinated cells, tissues and organs. But we have another aspect too. Our non-physical realm lets us imagine anything: other times, other places, events that never existed. Inside, we’re a lifelong theater of memory, meaning and wonder.
And that’s the part of us that suffers when we’re sick.
If you’ve ever been sick, you know it’s a double event. Your body doesn’t work right, maybe it hurts, and at the same time your inner world feels trashed. You’re unmoored, anxious, perhaps angry at this unfair universe, and you readily imagine a dire future. In fact, these normal emotional responses constitute most of sickness’ suffering.
Since we’ve all personally experienced this, I’m amazed that we’ve evolved a healthcare system in which addressing emotional suffering is the exception rather than the rule.
No one forces us medical professionals to ignore suffering. But we downplay it, since the skill of addressing it was omitted from our training. Even so, there’s no reason why we can’t treat both outer and inner patient. And the good news is that addressing both doesn’t require doubling our effort. Think of treating physical disease as a verb and treating suffering as its adverb: we treat the suffering of sick people by the way we behave with them — from coolly clinical to warmly compassionate.
That means genuinely envisioning them not just as molecular aggregates out of whack, but as unique, feeling beings, and then simply listening to them. How, my sick friend, has your deepest self been affected?
The emotional suffering of illness is contagious, too. In cancer support groups, for example, it’s common knowledge that everyone in the family has cancer — not the tumor, but the heartaches and turmoil that come with this disturbing territory.
In any case, suffering is treatable. Since it doesn’t exist in the physical world, it’s not fixable like, say, a heart valve is. The French novelist Marcel Proust advised, “We are healed of suffering only by experiencing it to the full.” That is, we get through it by getting through it, and the compassion of others accelerates our passage.
The next time you’re sick, try talking about how you feel to someone who’s a good listener. It might be a professional counselor, minister, or intimate friend. It may even be your doctor, since some docs are terrific listeners despite the deficiencies of their training. I’m continually amazed at how effectively speaking one’s suffering helps to alleviate it.
Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.
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