My adult son, John, came home for a visit and told me, “Ignore anything I say that sounds off—it’s my suppressed-narcissistic-rage talking.”
“I’m reading this book, The Divided Mind by John Sarno about how you can be this kind, nice guy on the outside, but inside you’re really angry. You want to be special and loved and dependent and independent all at the same time. People around you just aren’t giving you what you need.”
We both laughed because someone had created such a big term for what is basically, the human condition. I’d not read the book, but John said it was about psychogenic illness.
“Is that like psychosomatic illness?”
“No. Psychosomatic is like partly in your head. Psychogenic says the illness IS ALL in your head.”
John acted like the book was mildly entertaining, but my interest was piqued because I’ve experienced psychosomatic illness in the past. It could be a family mental health issue. My mother always claimed Aunt Gertrude was a complete hypochondriac. If anyone mentioned a health problem they had, Aunt Gertrude had that same issue or worse. Her nerves were shot, her back was torqued, and her female parts were in complete disarray. Miraculously, Gertrude lived well into her 70’s.
My psychosomatic illness started probably with the death of my brother when he was ten and I was twelve. But symptoms didn’t show up until I was in a potentially fatal car accident when I was twenty. I only had a mild concussion, but I’d never come that close to death before.
Suddenly I realized my body was fallible.
For the next year, I found myself in one emergency room after another begging for help. I had heart palpitations, headaches, and vague feelings of pain. I was listening so closely and carefully to my body, every hitch or tremor was evidence of some deadly disease. Something had to be wrong with me.
Indeed, I did have a problem but it wasn’t exactly physical. I’d been traumatized by a couple of life events (my brother’s death and the car accident) and needed help dealing with the anxiety. The doctors though, put me through a gamut of needless x-rays and blood tests. I even had an electroencephalogram, searching for a possible brain tumor. During the procedure, I remember looking at my reflection in the dusty window of Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was sitting at the end of the examining table in a hospital gown, my head strung with wires and electrodes. In the window reflection, I looked like Medusa.
“Well,” the technician told me when I peppered him with questions about the findings of the encephalogram, “I’m not supposed to say anything . . . but I will tell you this: you’ve got great alpha waves.”
Great alpha waves, huh? I thought that must be a good thing. So, I took some temporary comfort in his prognosis, until the next bout of health phobia. It wasn’t until I read a book called The Well Body Book by a couple of hippie doctors in the 70’s, that I finally calmed down and started having a little faith in my body. I’ll never forget their discussion of what they called “the three-million year old healer,” your own body’s defenses against disease and illness. They talked about how really rare bad diseases are, and that most infections are viral and therefore survivable.
I’m thinking today about The Well Body book and those hippie doctors’ wise words. Coronavirus sometimes feels like a modern-day plague–but it’s not. It’s a viral infection, not like the Bubonic Plague which was bacterial. Covid will be non-fatal for the vast majority of people. It’s good to keep this in mind as the pandemic spreads this summer.