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.