10 Dec Psychophysical, Psychosocial, and Psychosomatic
“All the Rage” is not meant to be an attack on medicine, though those who are deeply embedded, and invested, in current practice might feel that it is. Instead, it’s an attempt to re-illuminate the connection between our minds and bodies that is too often stuck in the blind spot of the current medical system. The mechanistic model that holds sway at the moment, in which pathogens and “chemical imbalances” are largely tackled through pharmaceutical interventions, has created some astounding advances that have saved untold people from both death and suffering. However, the same structures that have led to these successes have made it difficult to see, or deal with, the complex emotional realities that are often at the core of our disease. People who are aligned with the rigid structures of the scientific method often dismiss the work of Dr. Sarno because they feel that they need to see data that proves he is correct about his contention that the repression of our emotions is a causative factor in pain syndromes. However, the kind of complex psycho physical processes that lead to health problems are difficult to measure, so they often go unstudied. While it’s simple to see that our emotions affect our health, it’s not easy to figure out what to do about that.
One of the great advances of the mechanistic model of medicine is the discovery of antibiotics. In 2006 I contracted MRSA, a bacterial infection that is highly resistant to almost all antibiotics, and ended up in the hospital on an antibiotic IV drip for 7 days. When my condition improved a bit I asked my doctor if he thought that I would be able to travel to New Mexico the following Friday for a family vacation. He replied, “We are still dealing with a possible mortality situation here.”
The powerful antibiotics were clearly necessary to save my life. However, it’s also understood by both medical professionals, and the public, that the widespread overuse of antibiotics is likely responsible for the development of highly resistant strains of bacteria in the first place. That’s the mechanistic story. However, as I look back at my infection and recovery, the details of what was going on in my life create a much more complex picture.
I will be the first to admit that I am not a fan of going to the doctor. My MRSA started out as a painful spot on my side that looked like it could have been an insect bite. It bothered me a little, but I could live with it. After a few days it began to swell. Soon my whole side was swollen and painful to the touch. We had an intern at the time who told me that she had recently had a brown recluse bite and that my sore spot looked very similar. I did a little research and found that brown recluse’s were very rare in NY. My intern had seen her doctor in Colorado, where they are also not so common, but it made sense that we both might have the same thing. Unfortunately, there’ s not a lot one can do for a spider bite like that, so I just prepared to “tough it out”. When it got worse I ordered a spider bite kit. It consisted of some carbon like powder that was supposed to draw the poison out. A few days later my whole side was swollen and the pain got so bad that I rode my bike to the emergency room at 2 in the morning.
After a very long wait, I was seen by a doctor who told me that my sore spot was an infection. He prescribed a mild antibiotic, and the next day the sore opened up and fluid began to pour out. The swelling went down and the pain receded. Unfortunately, it was MRSA, so all of the fluid was highly contagious and I ended up with several other infections on my body. One on my leg swelled with great speed. At that point I finally went to my primary care doctor who immediately recognized it as MRSA and gave me a much more powerful antibiotic that was used to treat it. However, the infection was raging at that point and within a couple of days it had opened up and was leaking all kinds of fluid. As I sat on the couch holding a warm compress on it I saw a report on the news detailing the fact that MRSA was rampant in NY area hospitals.
When I woke up the next morning the area had gotten much worse and my wife convinced me to go to the emergency room. I wanted to go to brunch with friends, but my wife put the cabosh on that. As soon as the intake nurse saw my wound, she put me in a quarantine room. I was very sick. The antibiotic pills that I had been taking were no match for the infection, which had walled itself off from my body. There was a fear that this skin infection would get into the blood stream, so despite my protests, they first stabbed it with a scalpel and eventually did surgery to get rid of the dead tissue.
So that’s the mechanistic look at what happened, and it’s what I detailed in a little personal piece that I made about it a couple of years later. However, looking back I can see that many of the same psychophysical patterns that led to my getting stuck on the floor with crazy back pain, were present in this situation.
The first question one might ask is “why did I get the infection, but no one else in my family did?” MRSA can be seen as a community acquired infection because it travels easily in tight quarters. It is often seen in hospital and dorm settings. Our intern likely had MRSA and not a spider bite as she thought. She lived in a packed brownstone that was run by the college program she was a part of. When my side opened up covering me with infected fluid, it led to a half dozen infections on my body. It seems strange that my wife and child avoided getting infected.
While I thought that I likely got the infection from my intern, I also thought that I could have picked it up from the hospital when my wife had a procedure to deal with a miscarriage at 3 months. That’s right, a week or so before the first infection came on, my wife had a miscarriage. I was devastated, but looking back I can see that I did not know how to deal with those emotions. I didn’t sweep them under the carpet unknowingly. In fact we spent a good deal of time trying to process the feelings, but I was not very good it. I can see that I mostly was acting in a support role, trying to help my wife, which gave me even more room to avoid the processing of my own grief. It was also easy to assume that since she was the one who had to actively process things physically that she might be feeling it more profoundly.
Even at the time I thought that perhaps the miscarriage played a role. Just yesterday though, I remembered that while I was in the hospital my partners and I had a meeting with some filmmakers about the distribution of an Iraq war film that we were putting in theaters, Occupation: Dreamland. In fact, we had basically decided to start the company in order to distribute this film because we thought it was so important for people to see. Over the previous month and a half I had spent all day listening to people tell me why they couldn’t screen the film. Even while in the hospital, literally close to death from an infection, I was leaning into that rejection and figuring out how to fight for that film. In the end, we opened it a few weeks later at a theater in New York City, where it got great reviews, and good audiences as well. However, it opened the same weekend that Katrina hit New Orleans and a big anti-war march took place in Washington DC. Many of the big press hits that we had arranged disappeared, and this thoughtful film was forgotten.
I’m learning to advocate for what I believe in without seeing it as a fight. I’m also learning to be present with my grief, my anger, and my frustration, and to process it. I’m not cured, but I heal more every day. I have more patience, more self acceptance, and more empathy for others all the time. I also have more knowledge, and experience that I can share. On an intuitive level, I figured that grief played a role in my MRSA experience. Looking back, it’s clearer than ever that my unconscious behaviors played a major role as well. The more self aware we become, the more agency we have in dealing with our physical well-being. That’s why Dr. Sarno’s work is so profound and so important. I’m going to keep on advocating for these ideas, and for our film, but I’m not going to fight for them, because fighting never gets us as far as peacing does.