Sunday, April 22, 2012

Anatomy of an Illness - Norman Cousins

Vinod gave me the 'Anatomy of an Illness - as Perceived by the Patient' by Norman Cousins to read, a couple of weeks ago, and I found very inspiring - a patient's guide to handle illnesses almost. The book which was on the New York Times bestseller list for over 40 weeks begins with the blurb on the front cover that goes 'How one man proved your mind can cure your body'.

A well known journalist, author, world peace activist and professor, Cousins worked with the  New York Evening Post and Current History among other publications. Cousins was diagnosed with a disease of connecting tissue - a collagen illness from which he was given little chance of recovery to normal life. Cousins was put off by the impersonal way the hospitals treated patients and decided to take control of his healing. The book begins with the premise that everyone must accept responsibility for his or her own healing. Cousins lived for 26 years after the doomsday prediction and died at an age of 85.

Cousins quickly realised that his conditions needed to get his adrenal system activated. He remembered from a book he rad by by Hans Slyes - 'The Stress of Life' - that negative emotions could affect the body negatively. He decided to reverse that situation by using positive emotions like laughter to cure himself. He also did considerable research, took his doctor into confidence and administered himself large doses of vitamin C which he believed would help. The Marx Brothers movies, Candid Camera series helped. Cousins took himself off aspirin which was given to him for pain relief (and which he realised later was detrimental to his condition thankfully) and instead laughed himself out of pain and into sleep. Cousins figured that all he needed was loud, belly shaking laughter and a strong will to live (and some vitamin C).

Cousins talks of the wonderful effects of placebos and how for most part, patients get cured upon receiving the prescription form the doctor. I can identify with this because I have gone to many a doctor with some pain, ache and minor issue and soon after getting the prescription and the medicine, and being a few hundred rupees lighter, I felt completely well (leaving the medicine untouched). Cousins says that all drugs have side effects and it is not good to rush to pop pills at every instance, including pain. Most of our diseases are stress related. The placebo he says is the doctor that resides within. In fact Dr. Schweitzer tells him when they visit an African witch doctor that "Each patient carries his own doctor inside him. They come to us not knowing the truth. We are at our best when we give the doctor who resides within each patient a chance to go to work.' Such wonderful words and true for almost every one - teachers, coaches, facilitators, leaders.

While talking of creativity and longevity Cousins talks of Pablo Casals and Dr. Albert Schweitzer who lived till late years actively. Schweitzer actually said the best medicine for illness is 'having a job to do and a good sense of humour'. Pain, says Cousins, is not the ultimate enemy, as many from the pain relief industry would like you to believe. He asks the patient to be grateful for the pain for showing him where the problem is. Unlike lepers who have no pain and lose their limbs and digits in accidents.

Not surprisingly Cousins talks of the need to look at healing in a holistic manner. He says medicine must 'always allow for the fact the certain individuals may have all the signs and symptoms of a particular disease and yet may be atypical and even completely free from the disease.' He says that patients can choose and use many alternate healing practices that range acupuncture to yoga, to naturopathy to homeopathy, to faith healing to graphology. Each to his own and each must find the peace. But what ever happens he says compassion and warmth in treatment goes a long way in helping the patient recover.

Cousins talks of the 3000 doctors who wrote to him and their open attitude to his findings. Most agree that a strong will to live, a good dose of laughter go a long way in supporting a patient's recovery. Cousins also mentions that it is tough as patients feel helpless, have a fear of never being normal, of being a burden, of being lonely, of losing self esteem and feeling inadequate. Mostly he despairs the lack of human touch in modern medicine.

So, then a journey that began when 'he decided that some experts don't really know enough to make a pronouncement of doom on a human being' became a bestselling book that gave hope to millions, empowered many who were faced with daunting illnesses, made doctors rethink their methods and made patients more participative. Published first in 1979, it holds good even today. Louise Hay would completely agree with Cousins (she in fact recommends his book to read) that the mind can heal the body.

I totally subscribe to his views and believe that illnesses are a particular mental pattern showing up in our physical body. I also believe that modern medicine has all technology and no soul - it needs to get the soul back to heal fully an not merely mask symptoms. Now the medical industry seems happier to keep patients on life long drugs instead of forcing a healthy lifestyle change. The cost of drugs, tests, doctors, surgeries, visits has gone up manifold and most of it - save the absolute emergencies - is almost pointless. It is time we all looked at ourselves and trusted the doctor within.

I did realise myself after some hurried visits to the doctors that perhaps I am not trusting my body to heal and am sending it the wrong signals. These days I stay with the first pains an aches and more often than not they go away. It is always better to find support mentally - books like Louise Hay's are highly empowering. Holistic healing methods, meditations, laughter, good positive people and environment, music and movies, books, can alleviate the mind and the body and keep a positive mental space. Support the healing given by the doctors with all these supportive methods and try to figure out your mental patterns that could have led to the disease, else it might relapse. If you can find them, you can work on them and hopefully get rid of them. It is true  the doctor resides within and we must trust him a bit more. We must look at out bodies as more than mere physical bodies - they are not. We could certainly help our cause immensely by supporting ourselves with a good mental space. 

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