The I that is We
The final "I" in "Gemini" is … well … I. Me. The sufferer. The individual affected. The person isolated by an unnamed, complex and unexplained illnesses. Treating the "disease" is useful but insufficient. The disease takes each sufferer on a very lonely journey into unnamed regions, and each path from that desperate isolation needs a transformation from "I" to "We". A transition from the lonely desperation to support, care, love and eventual recovery.
Some, tragically, do not make it through.
This is not a question of the illness being in the body or in the mind. We are whole creatures. Whole families. Whole communities. And ultimately, a whole planet. We are tied to our external and internal ecosystems to the point that we have no clear divisions – we are what we eat, what we drink and what we breathe. Our internal environment is 90% microbes and 10% human.
We are constructs of our world and members of community. Our health depends upon relationships with others - with microbes, with food, with family and with nature. Health does not happen in isolation, and neither does recovery from illness and suffering.
Certainly, we need to manage the physical aspects of the illness such as infection, inflammation, pain, and poisoning. But deep recovery and resilience needs acceptance and compassion, care and support from those surrounding the sickened person.
Sometimes, it's the simple shared activities of movement, mindfulness and meditation. Sometimes, it's the family sitting down to organic, wholesome meals consciously and joyfully. Or sleeping well and waking early to walk or run with the sun on our skin. Sometimes, it's a pet that brings joy.
While the support of the family builds resilience and recovery, the understanding and support of friends and close community diminishes disability directly and indirectly. An employer offering reduced workload and hours, friends organising outside activities, neighbours helping with preparing meals – these make a huge difference to the sufferer, and maintain the touch and gossip so fundamental to feeling "normal"
What we doctors are slowly relearning is that complex and chronic illnesses are nothing like the acute diseases we handle so well. They do not bend to our technology. They require time, a willingness to stay with the patient – to deeply understand the patient - and to work through a dozen bad ideas to find the ones that will help rebuild health. Recovery is earned and precious. It is not cured by medical brilliance or miracle cure.
To treat the whole person, we have to go beyond the whole person. The "I" has to become "We". We are a collaboration of external and internal environments, and something of an invention of our own microbiome. We require an external environment supportive of health and recovery after illness. We need understanding, love and acceptance to return to a community from which we have become isolated when we are sick. And we need to relearn the skills, arts and traditions of humans throughout history to restore health and vigour and resilience after illness.
Why is this important? For more than 30 years I have watched and learned and helped people recover from chronic, debilitating and almost inexplicable illness. Some do well and some do poorly. Sometimes the illness is beyond the person's ability to recover (or their belief that they can recover), and we lose them forever.
And sometimes, no amount of love and support can change the outcome of the disease, but it always reduces the suffering and improves the quality of life for the person affected.
We are increasingly seeing these complex, chronic and difficult-to-define illnesses that will not submit to medical diagnosis and treatment. This does not make them untreatable, but treatment is only step one. Real recovery, or healing, needs more, and much can be gained from traditions of healing and the support of family and community.
Mindfulness, meditation, relaxation, exercise, artistic expression, joyful food preparation and meals, living clean foods, good sleep, clean air and water and the simple touch of other humans all have profound influences on health and recovery. Relearning life is not easy in the 21st-century, yet these are skills we need to recover to make our world fit for humans and humans fit for our world.
Miracles regularly occur when we get this right, when we break the isolation and alone-ness, and rediscover the power of "We".