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Life with Lavendar in London town

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Illness is the Nightside of Life

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
-Susan Sontag

I think my body is punishing me for running a marathon. Since I crossed the finish line and stopped pounding pavement, my body started pounding me.

Take that! it said as I hacked up phelgm from a chest infection.

You don't know the meaning of pain, it taunted as my throat swelled red and raw.

Here's dehydration for ya
, it sung as I prayed to the Porcelain God.

Vengeful huh?

The result of having been sick on and off for two months is that I am now on extended rest leave from work on Doctor's Orders. For one week.

As much as I do not like being sick, there is value in it. Sickness can be a sort of communion with oneself. When thoughts or ideas that you have been too busy to attend to in the frenzy of daily life, have an opportunity to surface. Sickness makes us be still.

It's great.

From stillness comes ideas, creativity and regeneration. I've barely left the house all week yet I've been more productive and stimulated than in the longest while.

As long as I get better after the week that is. After that, not so great.

Chronic illness, the type of inflictions which make people flinch or look blank when they come up in conversation is no-one's idea of a good time. Illness that lingers or has no cause nor cure. It tips a person from the land of the living into a strange subterranean territory where you are utterly alone with your character and conscience.

It's terrifying.

If you recover and re-emerge, blinking and shaken from the long time spent in that murky land, you are changed forevermore. The life lessons you get about yourself and those around you whilst chronically ill are unlike any other.

The challenge is to live well after that. Which I hope, most do.

Because I for one sure as hell don't want another visit to that hard and lonely land.


Anonymous said...

Love the photo. I'd say your body's still running the marathon- it's got it's own finish line, and it's sorting out itself to prepare for the next one.

I don't know whether we occupy a night-side of life, more a dusky (or pre-dawn if you're a glass half full person)space where we slip between wellness and illness. I think we all perpetually move within that space, experiencing sickness and health simultaneously (admittedly, sometimes health is the dominant experience, sometimes sickness looms large). A Tao of sickness, if you like. Hence, as you say, "From stillness comes ideas, creativity and regeneration". From sickness comes a greater recognition and value of life.

I think this really does come down to a healthy attitude towards ill health. Whether it's a 24 hour flu or a long term illness, it is a chance to be more in touch with our bodies, to be more aware of ourselves. I've heard that this self awareness can be found in peak athletes (obviously) and also in people who have recovered from cancer- to get through peaks and troughs of wellness, one must become very attuned to what their body is doing.

As for illness with no cause or cure, everything has a cause (it's just beyond our current understanding), and if there is no cure, the best way to deal with it is simply to adopt the illness as another part of life- easily said and done if we're talking about colour blindness, not so great if it's emphysema.

The problem is that stillness can also promote stagnation, repetition, blankness. I've found these are the sort of things that can just creep up on and trap you before you're even aware of their presence. This is where I think the true night-side of life is- the subterranean territory. Being alone with your character is a great thing, being unable to cope with it or move away from it is another.

Long term illness, particularly the kind that threatens to kill or permanently disable, does teach a greater value of human life and an acceptance of the eventuality of death- to my mind,anyway. I'd like to think this was the consensus.

Lavendar Lee said...

I like how you've written about it and agree that each exist interdependently, in a state of flux. It's quite a nice way to think of being in our bodies.

Not sure I agree with you that everything has a cause. A cause is defined usually at the point at which someone has decided to stop looking. The definition or reason for something is potentially infinite. So it depends ultimately on your POV.

This is highlighted in the difference between Chinese and western medicine. The former seeks to keep the self healthy so as not to fall ill. It is about sickness prevention and is multifaceted in its approach so as to ensure a healthy balance in the body; to stop the equilibrium falling in favour of sickness, rather than health.

Western medicine focuses much more on what's happened after you are already sick. In order to heal you, it looks for the cause. The less time the doctors have and the greater the pressure on public health funding, the less causes they want you to have. Better still if one pill can cure 5 ailments.

Both of the above have their place but I personally think that western medicine falls down when it can't find the cause. That's what happened to me.

I think you are confusing stillness with stuckness. The stillness I'm referring to when ill is not stagnation because it is challenging and requires a level of engagement that doesn't always happen when you are well. This is what I mean about being confronted with your character and your conscience. Sickness can be a time to re-evaluate.

True that terminal illness can teach (some, not others) about the eventuality of death etc but I think it is a shame that it has to take such an extreme situation for life and death to be appreciated equally.

Anonymous said...

I do believe that everything has a cause and something has an agency in an event that may appear to be unable to be correlated to a causative agent. All that means is that it is currently beyond our understanding, and may remain so. The separation between preventative and reactive treatments is not so much based on the causative agents, but the point at which we have discovered their action. For example, a healthy diet, good sleep cycle and exercise will generally maintain the body in a way so as to combat and avoid many of the causative agents of ill health (infections, organ malfunctions, etc). I don't understand much about Chinese medicine to be honest, but I imagine it is working from a similar principle. I can see what you are saying about equilibrium, and this requires a great self understanding of the body and mind- Taoist stuff

Reactive medicine is simply responding to what is already there and doing the best with what it can. I think the big failing with western medicine is that the emphasis has been placed mostly on this type of treatment, and the belief that if it can't currently be treated or diagnosed, it doesn't exist or it is not worth pursuing. This is more an approach to people as "collateral damage", borne out of the age of reason. The subject much fit the thinking of the day, rather than the other way around.
The summation you gave of Western medicine is a modern economic rationalist's wet dream of the NHS, and unfortunately it is the reality- capitalist thinking has also turned the health system into a mass production line. I think there is also a lot of laziness in Western medicine, both among practitioners and patients- hence the over reliance on reactive treatments and epidemics of lifestyle diseases (Of course there is more to the big picture).

As for differentiating stillness and stuckness, I believe they both have the potential to spring from the same place. A chronic disease affects people on physical and mental levels in ways that arrests and activity and causes enforced changes to life and reconsiderations of priorities, whether it be how you eat and how you brush your teeth, or whether you can continue working or even walking, or how long you will live. Strangely enough, the busy-ness level goes down, while there is more to think about. For some people, that can become stillness, a place of quietude and meditation, or stuckness, a place that allows no movement, an enforced rut. It is a matter of circumstances, opportunities and attitudes.

I think I'll finish off with Nietzsche: "That which does not kill me makes me stronger". I always liked that. It makes a lot of sense when all the macho bullshit is removed from it.

Lavendar Lee said...

I think I need another blog as we are both so long winded.

In brief - will have to agree to disagree. I don't believe everything has "a" cause. A few hundred causes, billions even. It's really the summation of your lifes exeperience up that point isn't it. Then also your genetic history, ancestry.

I think some things aren't pursued in Western medicine because there is no money/funding/lobbying pressure in it. On the flip side I don't think eating a really expensive tiger's penis is going to make me live longer either which is the exploitative side of TCM. I think both have their pros and cons.

Yes - agree with stillness/stuckness origins. What is it about your and Nietzsche. Is it the superman syndrome?

Anonymous said...

In brief- I think you nailed it with your brevity where I failed with prolixity. I wasn't trying to suggest that there are only single unrelated causative factors at play, although I can see how that could be read. I also agree completely that medicine is influenced strongly by external social and economic factors- it doesn't operate in a vacuum.

As for Nietzsche, it's not an Ubermenschen thing so much as simply being able to draw strength, flexibility, and succour from hardships, whether it be a marathon, a manflu, a chronic illness, or a near death experience.