People Who Want to Stay Sick (February 17, 2015)
Something that I hear from time to time in discussions of health and illness, particularly when the speaker is talking about somebody else, is “s/he just doesn’t want to get better.” You even hear people say this about themselves – usually rather wistfully. There are so many cheerful wide-eyed stories in the popular literature of the “I really SAW a butterfly for the first time, and suddenly I began healing!” variety that people start feeling guilty about being sick at all.
A physical problem that seems like it should be easily fixed just doesn’t resolve. Or maybe it’s an issue that isn’t visible or logical to people around the patient, and therefore is easily dismissed by all and sundry (including often the sufferer as well) as imaginary -- especially if it doesn’t show up in conventional medical testing.
So do some people just want to be sick? Oh for pete's sake, what a silly question that is. No one WANTS to be sick. Everyone wants to feel good, be happy and get on with their lives. No one wants to suffer. But sometimes it can sure look that way.
If so, maybe the patient is deriving some important benefit from having their problem. In psychology this is called a “secondary gain”. I am thinking here of an old friend of my father who worked insanely hard all the time – except when he had one of his horrid migraines. I don’t believe for a second that this man wanted migraines. But looking back, I think that having a headache was the only time he felt ok about not working. The way I would look at this then, rather than that he wanted to be ill, was that having migraines benefited him in an important, in fact crucial, way. That made them a whole lot harder for him to get rid of.
Also, some people insist on getting better in a specific way and aren’t open to other possibilities. It’s like their entire philosophy of life and the universe is tied up in how they treat their illness. Here I’m talking about somebody with chronic back pain who would never go to a chiropractor, or conversely someone with an infection easily curable with antibiotics who refuses to use anything for it but vitamin C.
And then you see people who refuse to give something up – like a food, a habit or some type or level of activity (or inactivity) – that they know is a big player in their problem. I'm not talking about addiction issues here so much as stubbornly clinging to a bad habit and flat-out refusing to change it. (I had a severely obese, smoker friend once who would cheerily advise me that the pizza he ate several times a week had lycopene in the sauce and therefore it was good for him. Rest in peace, Bill.)
If you find you are using a physical problem as an excuse for doing or not doing something, take a closer look and see if you can find a different solution to your quandary besides compromising your health. If the thought of changing something major in your life that you know you should makes you feel worried or somehow at risk, take a closer look at that as well. And if none of this is the case, then forget about it. We’re living organisms and as such are naturally subject to constant damage and repair, and your problem is not necessarily of any more significance than just that.
We shouldn’t be so quick to judge, either ourselves or other people. There are no end of illnesses that went completely unrecognized for the longest time (Agent Orange exposure and interstitial cystitis are just two that come quickly to mind), and there’s no reason to think that we have health and disease totally figured out at this point. When you consider the enormous and often subtle changes in our environment, our lifestyles and our food supply, the potential is endless for no end of “niche” illnesses.
Some people can find a lot of meaning in their physical problems. And maybe there IS some greater significance to health and illness. It’s my job to treat illness always as an impediment to be overcome, but you hear enough people say stuff like, “the cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me” for me to shut up when someone else is talking. But I don’t think that it’s worth hanging on to a problem if you can indeed manage to get rid of it.
Yes, you can often heal yourself. And if you can’t, you still can almost always do SOMETHING that improves your condition. And there may be meaning in what happens to you and if not, you still might be able to find meaning in it and make use of it in your personal journey – that is quite real. And if you do, I salute you. But if you can’t, don’t sweat it. You are not ever to blamed for being ill. Because, like I said, no one really wants to suffer. Just do the best you can to keep yourself healthy, if for no other reason out of respect for the extraordinary reality that you are alive and here and are who you are.
--dr. diane holmes
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