Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Tao of Goldilocks in the Age of Modern Medicine

Modern medicine is emergency medicine. It is dramatic, heroic and always extreme. May I say straightaway I am grateful for modern medicine? Because I am, I really am. When I had pneumonia a few years ago, I did not try to get in to see the acupuncturist. After a few days of a raging fever and intense congestion, I went straight to the M.D. Once on antibiotics, within twenty four hours I was on the mend. Miraculous!

For chronic conditions, modern medicine is not often effective. It can be expensive, frustrating and scary as hell trying to diagnose and treat ongoing, non-acute symptoms through the lens of emergency treatment. Chances are you will be incorrectly diagnosed, receive prescriptions for strong medicines that make you feel horrible but do not address your symptoms, and frightened out of your mind when they decide to "rule out" diseases like cancer - diseases that require emergency care.

The other way it can go is that the doctors keep testing and testing and prodding, poking, removing tissue for biopsies, drawing vials of blood, taking your pee and poop to examine, scanning and radiating your poor, beleaguered body in every possible way after requiring you to drink poisonous dyes or starve yourself or drink gallons of water that you're not allowed to pee out. Modern medical testing is really uncomfortable, terribly frightening to the animal of the body. It is loud, cold, and dehumanizing. In an emergency, it's appropriate, but when you have a chronic runny nose and nothing else, it can be overkill. It surely can. Sometimes they keep testing until a crisis erupts, after which they will be able to treat whatever happened because it's an emergency.

I don't blame doctors for this. It's their frame of reference. It is how they're taught to think.

The wonders of emergency medicine won the confidence of my society, sadly to the exclusion of many modalities that are far more effective for chronic conditions. We've come to believe that instant cures, miraculous improvements, instant good health is always possible, that it should be possible. Sometimes healing is dramatic, but often, it is just the opposite. Often healing is tedious, requires patience, compassion and spaciousness. Healing is often a long term process that involves relapses and periods of discouragement. Sometimes there is no healing for what ails you. It happens all the time. Is it so bad to admit it?

There is compassion in modern medicine for sure, but not so much the spaciousness or patience for any malady that can't be dispatched ASAP with pills or surgery. The expectations are enormous and unreasonable.

Chronic conditions, such as allergies, persistent congestion or frequent headaches, stomachaches, rashes or other skin problems, also chronic conditions of the spirit such as what we call bi-polar disorder, depression, and such, are patterns that set in to the person who suffers from them. Chronic conditions are not pathogens that must be destroyed or removed, they are patterns that become, over time, part of the tapestry of body/mind. These patterns could perhaps be shattered through the heroics of modern medicine, but the price paid for the medical warfare can be almost as bad as the condition. For instance, I know someone who took antibiotics for ten years because it cleared her acne. Ten years? Can you imagine what that did to her immunity? It kind of freaks me out to think about it.

I'm on about this after reading this article from the New York Times, about the vast numbers of people who take antidepressants. It's depressing to read about the process by which many people who need them never get access, while those who are going through a rough time are drugged up even though the mood is transient. Taking a pill while going through a breakup often means the patient will be unable learn from his/her hardships. Suffering, in moderate doses, builds character and helps us integrate wisdom. Too much is horrible. Too little means we do not evolve. I am not for suffering, by the way. I see how it can be a great teacher, though. It shows us who we are.

In modern medicine, a diagnosis is very specific. Certain markers must be met in order to meet the diagnostic criteria. Chronic conditions are not specific. People who suffer from a chronically sour stomach that isn't an ulcer or cancer do not meet the criteria, hence there is no way to address their symptoms with modern medicine. They have symptoms that reflect imbalance, but nothing that can be cut out or obliterated. Their numbers are within the normal range, they should be fine, or so they are sometimes told. They're left out in the cold, or told it's in their head. They're told to lose weight, see a physical therapist. There's no helping them with modern medicine. It's sad.

Chronic conditions are patterns that set in over time. Instead of being shattered by emergency medicine, many people respond far better to simpler, gentler healing methods. A change in diet can often address the perpetually sour stomach, headaches and ongoing congestion many people suffer from. It can be as simple as that. You are what you eat.

Sometimes, people need more sleep, fresh air, a relaxing walk through the park after work.

The next step up would include what is ingeniously called "alternative" medicine. Chinese medicine including acupuncture and herbs has been around for thousands of years. It is hardly alternative. Massage therapy (not spa massage, I'm talking about therapeutic massage) can help unhinge chronic patterns, as can osteopathy, homeopathy, Reiki, Chinese medicine, herbal medicine.

Does every health situation have to be an emergency, treated epically? Must we ignore our symptoms until or unless they become unbearable? Must healing always be a matter of life or death? Honestly - no. We can pay attention to the subtle symptoms, to the nagging aches and pains. We can treat ourselves kindly, cultivate patience and self awareness. It's part of being a human.

None of the above will help if you break a bone - in that case go straight to the ER.

Modern medicine is the too big, too hard, too hot side of healing. Ignoring symptoms is the too small, too soft, too cold end of the spectrum. What's just right, the Tao of Goldilocks, has to do with paying attention, finding the right process for what ails, with kindness and patience.

Every symptom can not be cured or even addressed. We are complicated animals, we surely are. Things happen that don't require heroics, but still deserve to be addressed. We don't always need to be hit over the head in order to heal. Believe me!


Anonymous said...

So glad you posted this. Just now I'm doing chaplaincy work in a hospital, and I'm sometimes amazed at the attitudes of folks who are accustomed to managing crises and ignoring low-level discomforts -- both in their patients, and in themselves.

I appreciate the clarity and grace of your description of what this is and how we can heal and support chronic situations.

Reya Mellicker said...


And thanks for working in the hospital. Those places need people like us.

ain't for city gals said...

love this post!