Your Body Is Telling The Story
Mind and body have been separated and are like lost soul mates, each searching for the other in the wilderness. The dualism inherent in modern medicine maintains this separation, so we stay lost.
There are a few concepts I have subscribed to throughout my career in medicine. They have come to represent my understanding of clinical uncertainty, a way to be okay with ‘not knowing’ while also maintaining hope that there is meaning in our lived reality. These tenets continue to grow in truth the more I witness the human condition and are summed up in the words I use when explaining them to people.
At any one time, your body is telling the story that is going on for you. This does not mean it is all in your mind; your mind and body can’t be separated. Figuring out what that story is can be hugely therapeutic in itself. Linking is part of healing, and healing takes many forms.
There is very rarely a one-cause-one-fix. Multiple contributing factors influence a person’s story and, therefore, what is happening in their body. These include environment, relationships, family, work, and how fulfilled one feels. Ultimately, searching for a pill to cure all is not the answer; instead, it will take many tweaks across multiple aspects of life, and they may be big or small.
I don’t often tell anybody anything they don’t already know on some level. People present at varying stages of awareness of their inner knowing and connection with their intuition. I feel that my job is to meet them in a place where their understanding has the potential to expand. Getting that right can be challenging, and I often have to remind myself that my appropriation of someone’s reality is not the objective. The ultimate goal is acceptance and sharing of uncertainty.
After thirty years in the health system and at least half of those engaged in academic study, I have reached some anecdotal conclusions. I have to call them anecdotal because they are based on my experience and not high-powered, double-blinded, randomised control studies that we learned at medical school are the gold standard in evidence-based medicine. While impressed upon us that this method was the be-all-and-end-all, we were also taught to trust a ‘mother’s intuition’. On the surface, these two concepts are at odds with each other, but in reality, they are all part of the same spectrum of receiving information and arriving at the truth. Furthermore, they are not mutually exclusive because the whole picture comprises many different parts, and the art of therapy is in the synthesis of those parts. Practising this for three decades, I have noticed other patterns and can see alternative explanations to those my training offered.
People often come to me with a list of symptoms or problems they want solutions for. For each one, a corresponding response, action or treatment is hoped for, if not expected. The list mirrors our biomedical conditioning of reductionist thinking. We have reduced our personhood into separate physical and mental components and rendered the mind and body distinct. We have fractionated even further into anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, and physics, intending to pinpoint cause and effect. In my humble, anecdotal opinion, we have lost connection and meaning essential for wellness in this deconstruction. It is time to reconstruct the whole person and invite them to be present in their healing.
The lists are overwhelming our health system. People write lists because they are scared, don’t know what their bodies are doing, and don’t know when or if they can access someone who does. When doctors are handed the list, their coping goes into overdrive because the number of items on it medically translated corresponds to the number of action pathways required. Trying to fit that into the allocated fifteen minutes requires all sorts of medical Houdini contortions that tie the doctor in stressed-out knots. Nobody wins. The patient and doctor have entered into a reductionist transaction that is the common denominator for the rising unmet health need and decreased workforce capacity facing us today.
As well as reconstruction, we must remember what we already knew before we started pulling things apart, looking for the smallest unit; our mind and body cannot be separated, and we should never have tried. Our body is telling a story, and by engaging our intuition and deep inner knowing, we can figure out what it is trying to say. It takes a leap of faith and is a paradigm shift, to say the least, but powerful when taken. It turns the patient-doctor power imbalance on its side because, in this new way of exploring the clinical conversation, the gestalt is for the patient to have. The ‘a-ha’ moment of the clinician’s diagnosis becomes secondary to the process while the person needing answers starts to find some of their own.
Brian Broom is a New Zealand immunologist and psychotherapist who has become an expert in mind-body paradigms. His journey in the field began with ‘too hard basket’ cases sent to him by his colleagues. The diagnoses would often prove too elusive, even for Broom, so he felt there must be another explanation or way of looking at it. He decided to focus more on the patient’s story and less on their inconclusive laboratory tests to determine what was causing their strange symptoms and physical findings.
One of his sentinel cases was a woman who presented with abnormal, widespread skin thickening. It was initially thought to be an autoimmune connective tissue disorder, but no tests backed that up. Brian decided to explore her story, so he asked her to return to the beginning. The woman told him about an incident that had happened eighteen months earlier. She had driven to the supermarket but fell in the car park after getting out of her car. There were no serious injuries, she told Broom, but she was so embarrassed she got up, got back in her car, drove home, “and went into [her] shell.” The skin thickening started soon after that and just kept getting worse, and this is where we can see her story beginning to play out in her body. Was the skin thickening the “shell” that the woman spoke of?
Language is a powerful clue to what is going on for someone, and sometimes it can be directly metaphorical. In this example, the skin thickening became the “shell” metaphor that the woman spoke of. The more I look for it, the more I see examples like this in people’s stories. The part of the conversation I am working on is how to help people link their language about their life and how it seems similar to what their body is doing. It is not my story, though; no amount of seeing or appropriating will help if the person isn’t ready to make the link themselves. And I might have it wrong, which is simply measured by someone’s rejection of my interpretation.
However, it can also be much less clear than the story about the shell, which was only clear retrospectively. For example, a patient might describe an inability to lose weight and then describe feeling “stuck” in their job, relationship, or life in general. I believe someone if they tell me they can’t lose weight despite doing all the things weight loss programs tell them to do. I have looked at itemised food intake records and know someone should be losing weight based on what is listed. Rather than disbelieve, I always wonder if there is another explanation that science hasn’t explained yet. The “stuck” feelings and the ‘stuck’ body might not be related…but they might be.
Having conversations like this help to avoid the despair that our overwhelmed health systems are manifesting. We can find hope and meaning in the rubble left over from deconstructing personhood. But it is just the start of a return to what we used to know before we outsourced our intuition. Yes, we need new models of care and workforce diversification, but we need new (old) ways of thinking even more. Health reforms must address what helps make a person whole, not serve to splinter us further. We need to trust in the connectedness of all things, listen deeply to one another and make friends with mystery. When we do this, we reconnect with the lost half of ourselves, rise above suffering, and cast out fear.
This feels especially true for chronic conditions right? Things we carry for a long time if not a lifetime. The healing can relate to trauma so long ago & buried deep - it metastasises. The challenge is how to unravel all that and knowing it isn't enough... While we love a pill to fix us (or a short course thank you very much).. the incremental shifts of healing take time and patience and some effort from us. I think the trick is to notice the shifts - let them be the reward to keep going. All too often we sink back into helplessness.. And if our comfort zone is discomfort we might just stay there.