Heal thyself? The fallacy of mind over matter

There is a lot of emphasis online about healing yourself with nutrition, a healthy lifestyle and positive attitude. All of these things are great and they work for many people, but I think it is a fallacy that all conditions can be cured or averted by our own endevour. Of course we can all do things to improve our health and, granted, some people could help themselves more.  However, I disagree that everyone can make themselves well. I think that this belief can actually be damaging.  The flip-side of this belief is that the illness is the fault of the ill person.

Being ill is not a personal failure or a personality defect. Many people are not ill as a result of their lifestyle, or because they aren’t trying hard enough to get better. Illness is not always something you can control; it is part of the human condition.  It’s difficult and painful but there you go, that’s life.

My condition, ulcerative colitis, is an autoimmune disease in which my own immune system attacks my colon. My colon was ultimately destroyed and surgically removed in 2009. Autoimmune diseases offer a useful metaphor to the mind-over-matter brigade. One of the most annoying things I get asked when I mention my condition is whether I am stressed, as though somehow I have internalised negative emotions and caused my body to turn in on itself. For the record, I’m not a particularly stressed out person (apart from when people ask me stupid questions about being stressed.)  In the case of auto immune diseases, the causes are simply not known. Most likely there are multiple factors, genetic and environmental. All auto immune diseases are not created equal and some are much more severe than others. While stress may exacerbate symptoms and nutrition is undoubtedly very important, neither are necessarily causes or cures. (Unless you have Coeliac disease, which is an immune reaction to gluten)

The treatment that kept me well over the 9 years before my operations was an immunosuppressant drug, called azathioprine. Of course I would have rather not been on these drugs. I tried many alternative therapies over the years to control my condition. I had some short periods off the drugs but every time I came off, I had a flare up.

Here are some of the things that I have tried over the last 10 years to control my condition and my response to it, in no particular order:   mindfulness meditation, counselling, nutritional therapy, elimination diets, eating only organic food, taking probiotics, aloe vera juice and manuka honey, reducing my use of chemicals, therapies including reiki, aromatherapy,  kinesiology, homeopathy, acupuncture, hypnotherapy and different forms of aerobic exercise, pilates and yoga.

I still have ulcerative colitis.

I’m managing my condition reasonably well, but I’m still ill. What I have achieved is acceptance. I don’t like being ill but I no longer feel it is my fault. I’ve almost stopped feeling guilty about it. Accepting that I have a long term chronic condition and may never ‘get better’ has been an invaluble realisation for me. Moreover, the notion that my illness is ‘not fair’ or that I don’t ‘deserve’ it just doesn’t apply. Instead of ‘Why me?’ – ‘Why not me?’ I think we need to accept that illness is indiscriminatory – anyone can get ill.

I am in no way defeatist. I’m pretty determined; I am back to working full time again after my surgeries and am renovating a house, have an active social life, go to the gym (sometimes!) and produce artwork and prints in my spare time. But some weeks I am exhausted and, to quote the late great John Martyn, feel like I’m moving through solid air. Sometimes I have no choice but to listen to my body and just stop everything.

Ultimately, I can’t make myself completely well and that is no failure.


17 responses to “Heal thyself? The fallacy of mind over matter

  1. Lucy this really touched me. So good to read your thoughts. You are an amazing person. Love you lots x

  2. I agree with it all. However, I feel I’m still struggling with the part where I still put blame on myself. I find that I still ransack myself, what I’ve done and what I’ve eaten as soon as I feel out of balance. But it’s work in progress I guess…thanks for sharingxxx

    • Hi Hanna, ah I still do that too – what have I eaten/drunk/etc? – i’m not totally serene about it believe me! But I’m getting better at not being too hard on myself because I dont think I can always control my symptoms. 🙂

  3. Hello lovely. I just wanted to say hello and thanks for visiting my little patch of the internet. I am sorry to hear that you’ve been living with a somewhat life-limiting illness for so long. You are entirely right – I think that the whole ‘cure thyself’ mentality can be destructive and detrimental to those who suffer from chronic illnesses. I’m glad that you’ve come to a place of balance and acceptance. You’re an incredibly strong and inspiring woman. I think that many people will be inspired by your experience, so thank you for sharing your thoughts and realizations with the world.
    Take care lovely. You’re beautiful inside and out xx

    • Thank you so very much. Really kind of you! Will definitely be trying some of your recipes – I’d love to be able to brine some olives but, given the weather here, there’s no chance! (Definitely feeling jealous of the Aussie climate.) Your peanut-butter-banana-and-cacao-cheesecake has my name on it though… Lx

      • Haha, aw I hope you like it! It takes a bit of effort but it was really delicious. We are lucky with the climate over here in Australia… though we are heading into winter now. I’m jealous of all the Northern Hemisphere posts talking about barbecues and sunshine! Thanks so much for the reply lovely x

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  5. Hi Lucy,
    It was really good to meet you at Tan’s recently and I just re-read this article, I should read it regularly just to remind myself to ‘ease off the gas’ a little. It’s so so easy to slip into the ‘I’m not doing enough here’ frame of mind, when infact I do my best, better than my best, to manage my pain, every bloody day. Thank you for the timely reminder. Am off to put my feet up (if I can get them up!).

    • Hi Clare, lovely to meet you too. I’ve just been reading your blog, it looks great and really interesting. I will link up & follow. Thanks for your comments, I think I need to remind myself too – it’s so easy to fall into old ways of thinking and responding – and so easy to forget to slow down! Here’s to having a cuppa and a nice rest 😉 xxx

  6. Pingback: You’re ill because you don’t love yourself enough & other stories | IBD & Beyond·

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