I am eight years old, and I am home sick with strep. Actually, I could equally be seven years old, or six. As a child, I was chronically sick with strep throat, in response to which I took antibiotics. My parents used to wonder aloud whether this over-use of antibiotics would lead to my being immuno-compromised as an adult.
Another affliction I suffered from as a child was febrile convulsions, although less often. The first time I had a convulsion, I was an infant, and my father noticed my falling into the state while the two of us were in the kitchen. The second time, I was eight years old; my parents had divorced by then, and I was staying with my mom. Strangely, I had asked her about my first convulsion the same day as the second one; the doctor who attended to us in the hospital remarked that I may have been experiencing a prodromal sensation, an embodied memory that clued me into the recurrence.
Since the time of these childhood afflictions, I have been exposed to alternative discourses that suggest that illness is primarily emotional. For instance, I have read the work of Louise Hay, who frames the throat as the site of our ability to speak up for ourselves. According to Hay, if we fall ill in the throat area, this may be a sign that we are neglecting our voice. Similarly, Hay writes of convulsions as evidence of “running away from the self, family, or life,” a sort of flight into our interiority. (Actually, this is Hay’s definition for seizures, but I am taking a liberty here in conflating the two terms.)
Both these explanations make as much sense to me as more physical rationales for why I fell ill as a child: for one, in the time of my parents’ divorce, I often felt that my voice did not matter, thus correlating with Hay’s opinion on illness of the throat; I remember multiple occasions in which I told one parent that I did not want to be with the other, and this vocalization was ignored. In parallel, it could be that in times of emotional overwhelm I fell into convulsions as a method of avoidance: the first would be due to the tension I felt between my parents as an infant; the second would be due to my repressed memory of that time after they had divorced.
As an adult, I have transitioned from being a sickly person to one who is rarely sick. In fact, I can sometimes carry a sort of pride about this transformation: I can come across as though I believe I am invulnerable, that illness writ large is an occasion reserved for others.
This dynamic came to a head at age twenty-seven, when I met and started dating the woman who would later become my fiancé. In the beginning of our relationship, she frequently fell ill with strep throat; she would come down with symptoms, test positive, and take antibiotics, only for the symptoms to recur as soon as the antibiotics had elapsed. In all, this happened three times within the first four months we were dating. Meanwhile, I never came down with the illness once.
As a result, my then-girlfriend began to posit that I was a strep carrier. After all, she works in the medical field, so it was not difficult for her to reach this conclusion. Could it be that I was simply carrying the strep bacterium, but not expressing symptoms? This being the case, could I be continually giving the illness to her without myself getting sick? To evaluate this supposition, she asked me to go in to the doctor and get the same test that she had taken, something that I initially refused.
This may sound ridiculous, but at the time I simply did not believe in illness as a physically rooted phenomenon—period. I had become an extremist in terms of my belief in the emotional nature of illness. This being the case, I viewed my girlfriend as one who must be suffering from some form of fear with respect to our relationship; either that, or she was failing to properly exercise her voice in the relationship, or perhaps there was something about me that was physically repulsing to her; in other words, perhaps we shouldn’t be together at all. To summarize all these views as one, I believed that the problem of illness between the two of us rested with my girlfriend.
I want to provide some background for the extremity of my belief in illness as emotionally caused. The first data point comes from my time teaching English as a Second Language in Quito, Ecuador.
Traveling within the country one weekend to visit friends, I made a mistake that I and other members of my group had been explicitly cautioned against making. Staying alone in a hotel room, I took a sip of tap water; I can’t say that I didn’t know better; all I can say is that I and a compatriot had failed to buy bottled water for ourselves before the local stores closed, and it was a very hot night and I was thirsty.
The results of my mistake were quick and violent. Days after my trip concluded, I found myself making bi-hourly trips to the bathroom, purging my bowels in the form of diarrhea that became indistinguishable from water. Growing dehydrated, I wound up in the hospital; I ultimately needed an IV in addition to antibiotics to set my stomach on the course toward equilibrium.
My point is not this dramatic event, but rather what happened afterward: upon my return to the States, I would experience a repeat stomach issue that seemed to trace back to the parasites. Roughly once per month, I would feel fatigued, feverish, and constipated, and I would need to sleep off the condition before successfully passing a bowel movement the following morning. I didn’t know what to think about the phenomenon except that perhaps the parasites and their aftermath had permanently upset my gastrointestinal ecosystem.
Except that perhaps there was another explanation.
Upon returning to the States, I also began seeing a somatic therapist, one who helped me initiate the process of naming and releasing emotional issues in my body. With this therapist, I can truly say that I began my process of personal healing, one responsible for all the love and spirituality that I have experienced since.
As part of our work together, I and the therapist frequently conducted muscle tests to find out the truth of what I said about myself. I would hold out my arm, make a statement, and the therapist would press down on my arm; if it held sturdy, the statement was true; if it depressed, the statement was false.
After working with the therapist for a while and seeing how my life was changing, I asked about the stomach issue. I explained that it had occurred roughly once per month ever since the parasites I’d contracted in Ecuador, inquiring whether we could use the muscle testing to learn more about it. My therapist said yes.
As the muscle testing revealed, there was an associated emotional event that in fact was causing the stomach condition: at the very same time I’d contracted the parasites in Ecuador, a woman I’d been seeing romantically in the States had written me, telling me that she did not want to be boyfriend and girlfriend once I returned home. That is, the stomach parasites coincided with my first ever broken heart.
Taking this correlation seriously, I performed an emotional release of the ex-girlfriend with the therapist. Immediately following this, the stomach condition disappeared; I have never once since experienced it, even though it was a fixture of my life for several years.
Factor all this into my initial reaction to my then-girlfriend’s, now-fiance’s proposal that I get tested for strep throat in order to see if I was a carrier of the bacterium. After all, by this time I had seen empirical proof of the correlation between illness and emotion in my own life; I had seen how suppressed emotion could make us sick; releasing that emotion, I had seen how we could become better.
Wanting to do right by my girlfriend, but also secretly wanting to prove her wrong, I consented to get the test to see whether I had strep throat. It was a test I had had many times as a child—the throat swab, the waiting for it to return from the lab. The stinging pain in my throat that I hated when that throat was actually inflamed and the nurse’s q-tip scratched it.
This time, I was shocked: the strep test came back positive! It seemed I was a carrier of strep!
While this may seem obvious to readers with a standard medical lens of pathology, it did not seem so to a person who’s had the kinds of experiences I’ve had. Most directly, the event showed me that my view of illness had become a little militant—it was not a black and white case of my girlfriend’s “making up” that she had gotten strep from me, because there was some associated issue that she had not dealt with; quite clearly, her recurrent strep found its cause in me.
At the same time, the lab’s conclusion seemed to verify at least a part of the beliefs about illness I had gathered through a lifetime: if as a child I had been a chronic sufferer of strep, as an adult something about me had now changed to suppress the illness’s symptoms, for who knows how long. Was it simply that I was now emotionally more healthy? That I did not believe that I was or could get sick? Alternately, was it simply that as a child I had formed antibodies to strep through my familiarity with the illness, and that now I was more resistant? At the very least, I think the former two suppositions are worth consideration.
There are many different ideologies around illness, and in the COVID era I have seen them come to the fore.
As mentioned earlier, my fiancé is a nurse. Since this pandemic has started, she has seen patients intubated; she has been disturbed by how young one of them was, and seemingly without preexisting conditions. She has also seen one patient nearly die. Obviously, this gives my fiancé a very different belief system about the virus, a very different ontology—her relationship to the events is immediate, while mine is abstract.
Similarly, my father is a cancer survivor who now works in the medical field. How would he feel about my earlier suggestion that illness is emotional in nature, that it is something that becomes us if we do not do our emotional work? How would chronic sufferers of depression, of neurological conditions, of degenerative conditions?
In alternative/holistic absolutism as in medical absolutism, there is an arrogance: it is the arrogance that forgets where one’s own health comes from and that blames others for deficits that are no fault of their own. It is certain that love and positive attitudes are beneficial for health; however, where do such things come from? As one who worked with a therapist to learn methods of self-love that buoy me to this day, did I not pay for those methods? What of those who could not afford them? What of people who grow up in abusive circumstances, or homeless, or who are marginalized by a careless society?
There is a humility in recognizing that if positive attitudes lead to good health, those attitudes are not manifested within; they are learned from without, a resource as unevenly distributed in our society as all others.
It is with this circumstance in mind that I want to bring home this essay.
If there is a logic that I have been circling around in my descriptions of alternative health discourses, it is manifestation, popularized by books like Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 The Secret. In this logic, one dreams up and meditates on what one wants, theorizing it by force of will; doing this for long enough, the desired reality appears.
The beautiful side of this logic is that it helps us exercise control over our lives in what can seem an uncertain universe. Mantling the power of manifestation, we become gods on earth; we can choose how to live, and when applied to the field of medicine, how well and for how long. However, the dark side of this same logic is an arrogance, a lack of compassion—speaking the language of manifestation, we forget that it is a learned skill, one we cannot develop on our own. If others are perceived as lacking in these powers, we judge them rather than seek to understand them.
The medical field is less judgmental, but what it shares is the perception of control: through taking the right pill, following the right diet, doing the right exercise, we can alter and forestall the circumstances of our death. This is what unites both holistic/alternative medical orientations and standard ones, whether or not they recognize it: it is the shared quality of pushing out from ourselves into the world, changing circumstances by force of will in order that we do not become the stillness that surrounds us. In this regard, both orientations act on and stem from a fear of death.
In the mind-frame of one who does emotional work on or constructs positive beliefs in myself, what I testify to is that I believe I am a small self isolated from others, and furthermore, that that self’s proliferation is what matters; it does not matter if others are as emotionally healthy or experience as much longevity as myself; what matters is the shrine of my singular life. Similarly, the medical field seeks to extend the individual lifespan by any means necessary; for both fields, becoming the dark waters from which we are born is the enemy, the thing we avoid for so long as and by any means possible.
There are also things that come to us from without and that do not seem exercised by force of will, ideas and feelings that hail from submission rather than conquest.
I have already mentioned that my father is a cancer survivor. Under his aegis, I have gotten genetic testing, and I have discovered that I possess the BRCA2 cancer gene, one that predisposes us to a range of possible cancers. Do I feel that I am going to get cancer in my life? No, I don’t. In my heart of hearts, I feel that I will lead a long, fruitful, and healthy life, and that when I die, it will be a peaceful occurrence in the company of family. How do I know this? I suppose I don’t; it is simply a feeling I have, one I experience when I travel to the most quiet place in the depth of my soul.
The discomfort with voicing such intuitions is that we do not know when and whether they are infected by ego, by the small self’s desire to perpetuate itself by any means necessary. Am I inventing this belief because it sounds nice? Am I practicing manifestation? I do not feel so, but in the end I am unsure; knowing is not for me; it is for the force which birthed me and, when it is time, will swallow me up as it swallows all small selves, welcoming our return home.