While I never thought at the time that I got sick because of my pediatrics experience, I was aware that, after the first few days when I was really sick, I was grateful not to have to go back to the wards. If I consider this illness in light of the functions I have reviewed, I can see that it relieved me from a responsibility I didn't want to have, and it gave me time to think a great deal about whether or not I wanted to continue in medicine. To some extent I imagine I identified with the chief resident, whose feelings and honesty I admired. Looking back, I have no doubt that this illness served an important function for me.
It is often easier to see the benefits of illness in retrospect. It may be useful to you to review previous experiences you've had with illness before exploring what is happening now. Dennis Jaffe, Ph.D., a noted health psychologist and author of Healing From Within, offers a helpful way to do this. Dr. Jade recommends you take a large sheet of paper and draw a timeline across the bottom, with marks for five-year periods. Above this line, mark important health events in your life serious illnesses, recurrent health problems, and accidents. Above that, note the important events and changes in your life during those periods. Notice if there seems to be any correlation between stressful events, or clusters of change, and your health.
Be open, receptive, and nonjudgmental as you consider illness from this perspective. Few people would ever choose illness consciously for any of the reasons I've presented in this chapter. Your purpose is to discover what your unconscious response may have been to a difficult situation, so that you can more consciously play a role in your recovery. When you discover the purpose of your symptom, you have a chance to develop ways to fulfill that purpose that may not require you to be ill at all.
Using Imagery to Explore Your Symptoms
While you may have found the previous considerations useful, they are essentially "left-brain" methods of analyzing the meaning of your illness. A simpler, more direct way to understand your symptom is to relax, focus your attention on it, allow an image to come to mind that can represent the symptom (as you did in Chapter Five), and then have an imaginary conversation with it. Ask it why it's there, what it wants from you, what it needs from you, and what it's trying to do for you. A script will follow later that will guide you through this process in detail.
As you begin to work with imagery this way, several points need to be addressed. One of these is the difference between a diagnosis and the personal meaning of your illness.
I have already discussed the necessity of making sure you have a dear understanding of your medical condition and the options you have for treatment. While no one should be forced to have medical treatment, I believe you deserve the best possible assessment of what conventional medicine has to offer. Once you understand your condition on that level, however, you need to explore the personal meaning of your symptoms. To do this, you must temporarily put aside the diagnosis you have been given.
Most people, doctors included, don't realize that a diagnosis is not a "real" thing. A diagnosis is the way we Massey a certain pattern of findings in a given system of medicine. Patients with the same symptoms and signs of illness will have different diagnoses depending on when and where they live and the systems of medicine practiced there.
For instance, a patient with vertigo and ringing in the ears may be diagnosed as having "Meniere's syndrome" by a Western physician. A practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, however, might diagnose the same patient as having "Yang Fire of the Liver Rising." In another culture, a shaman might diagnose that an evil spirit has entered the sufferer's head. To most of us, the Western doctor's diagnosis sounds the most authoritative and scientific, until we look closely at what it means. Meniere's syndrome is defined as "A syndrome believed to be caused by some derangement of the inner ear, characterized by hearing loss, tinnitus, and vertigo, which may be severe and chronic." In other words, by diagnosing your problem as Meniere's syndrome, your doctor is telling you that you have ringing in the ears and dizziness. The diagnosis is simply a label.
In this instance, as in many others, our medical system of classification fails to meet the two most important criteria of a diagnosis, as seen from the standpoint of the patient. It neither clarifies the nature of the problem, nor does it lead to an effective remedy. This is why it is important to realize that a diagnosis is a name, not a sentence to a particular outcome.
People have widely varying reactions to most illnesses and to most treatments. While there is an "aver-age" or "typical" course, there are almost invariably exceptions which are important to know about. You should learn about the typical course of your illness, but also ask your doctor about exceptional patients he or she has known. Do some people do better than others? What seems to make the difference? If you have a serious illness, has anyone ever recovered from it? What's the best possible course of the illness? Will your doctor be willing to support your efforts to recover, or does he or she think they are "unrealistic"?
Hope is very important to healing, and there is a difference between hope and false expectations. A patient of mine with breast cancer told her radiation oncologist that she had great faith in him and felt that he was going to help her overcome her cancer. He told her that he would do his best but didn't want her to get her hopes up. Shocked, she told him, "Doctor, I'm doing everything I can to get my hopes up! Without hope, what do I have?" As Dr. Bernard Siegel, a cancer surgeon at Yale, says, "In the absence of certainty, there is nothing wrong with hope."
The point is, diagnosis is important so you can assess your medical treatment options. When you use imagery to explore your symptoms, however, focus on your symptoms as you experience them and temporarily set aside what you have been told about your illness. If you have back and leg pain, and it has been diagnosed as coming from a herniated disc, use the pain, not the disc, as the focus of your investigation. If you have an illness without symptoms, then focus on the involved area of your body.
Anxiety and Resistance
A second concern about using imagery to explore your symptoms is the fear you may have of encountering something traumatic. While this is possible, it seems to be quite rare in the self-care setting. Several thousand people have used my self-care imagery tapes over the past five years without reporting a single such problem. Emmet Miller, M.D., a physician in Menlo Park, California, has produced an excellent series of relaxation, self-hypnosis, and guided imagery tapes. With tens of thousands of his tapes sold over more than ten years, he has yet to hear of such a problem. Psychological defenses against remembering traumatic events are generally quite effective, and the most sophisticated therapeutic attempts to work through them are often frustrated. If a really traumatic insight were to burst through Tom
using these methods, I would assume that it was just below the surface and would have soon become apparent. Nevertheless, by using imagery this way, you are inviting your unconscious to tell you what's going on inside, and it may well do just that. You need to cultivate an attitude that allows you to look at what comes back and explore its meaning without judgment or fear.
If you feel anxious as you consider the kind of self-exploration I am suggesting, pay attention to your fear. How strong is it? Is it mild anxiety or a feeling of excitement that comes when you venture into a new area? Or do you become really tense, have trouble breathing, get headaches, and experience worrisome levels of fear? If you experience a lot of anxiety, you are probably better off exploring this area with qualified professional help.
One common reason for anxiety at this point is the fear that your symptom may ask you to give up the thing that is closest to your heart, or hardest to let go of Sometimes it will, but often it won't. If this is your concern, remember two things. First, you do not have to do what you imagine your symptom wants you to do. Instead, you will weigh the benefits against the risks and look for the safest, easiest way to use what you have learned from your illness to symptom. You always have the choice of doing nothing and maintaining your position as it is. Second, while healing sometimes requires difficult changes, it doesn't always. You may be surprised to find that what is called for has little or nothing to do with what you feared. Your symptom's need may be easier to satisfy than you ever imagined, and may bring you benefits beyond your expectations.
Anne, a thirty-five-year-old writer, had experienced eight months of recurrent respiratory and intestinal infections and was frustrated with the repeated rounds of doctors' visits and antibiotics that brought her short-term relief but no improvement in her general health. As we discussed her life, she revealed that she was unhappy about certain aspects of her marriage though she didn't want to leave it. She was terrified that her illness signaled a need to break away from her husband.
We began to work with imagery, and after several sessions I asked her to allow an image to form that represented something she could do to help herself regain her good health. An image of a large beautiful oak tree appeared. It was strong, old, stable, and calming. As she sat beneath this tree, she felt calm and protected. Then she experienced an urge to climb the tree. As she reached the top, she found she could comfortably sit in its branches and enjoy a "vast over-view" of her world. She felt it indicated that she needed to use her inner strength and wisdom to get a better perspective on what was important to her in life.
Over the next few weeks, as she looked at various aspects of her life from this high perch, she realized that her love for her mate was still strong, but needed to be nourished. She saw how she had become buried in worries about money and her writing, which had been sporadic and unproductive. She took steps to renew the warmth in her relationship and found her husband quite happy to have her attention again.
Anne was also surprised and pleased to find herself inspired with creative ideas for writing as she relaxed in her "crow's nest." Two months after beginning to work with imagery she told me that she not only was fully recovered, but was writing productively and felt better than she had in years. She was amazed and pleased to see that out of her attention to her illness had come not only physical healing, but the restoration of both her relationship and her creativity.
If, like Anne, you have more than a little anxiety as you consider exploring your symptoms, it may be best to explore those feelings before moving on. I believe in respecting fear, in treating it as we treat a symptom--not as an enemy, but as a signal that something needs to be considered before taking another step. If this feels right to you, please skip to Chapter Eleven now. It will help you clarify your fears and take a look at how best to deal with them as you explore.
Imagery Is Not Just Wishful Thinking
Another common concern about imagery is that it may just be indulging in wishful thinking. By imagining your fondest dream coming true, by seeing your hopes manifest in imagery, you may risk being unrealistic and being led down a primrose path. This, of course, is certainly possible. Your hopes and fears both exist in your imagination along with your "realistic" images of life. If you know that, you are unlikely to be led astray. As always, discrimination is needed. If your imagery of how to go about healing seems "too good to be true," you may need to test it, as you may have tested the information you received from your inner advisor.
Though I have described testing of imagery information before, it is an important enough process to merit a second discussion. To test a vision that seems far-fetched or unrealistic, ask yourself the following questions: What is required of me to have this vision come true? How will I know if it's coming true? Is there any way to track my progress objectively? If I follow the lead of this imagery, what am I risking? Are there safeguards I can establish that can protect me or minimize my risk as I test it? Is the risk acceptable, considering the potential gain? Can I bear the loss if it doesn't work?