catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 5 :: 2009.02.27 — 2009.03.13


A meditation on two doctor’s appointments

It took me a couple of years to figure out that something was wrong with me and that I needed medical attention.  I felt uncomfortable after meals, dizzy and nauseous on buses and trains.  I often had a sense of distance from the outside world, like I wasn’t really there, a feeling that seemed to get worse when I was on the computer a lot or reading books.  It got so bad that I could barely make it through the first ten minutes of a movie in a theatre without feeling queasy.   

I wasn’t sure what to call these feelings.  I never really became fully sick.  I just felt bad whenever I encountered lots of movement.  I began to think, “Well, maybe this is just the way it is when you get older?  I’ll just have to avoid the situations that seem to cause the problem.”  But how does one avoid movement?

One day, while I was at a restaurant with my visiting parents I started to feel the sickness coming on.  I excused myself to get some fresh air.  My parents were concerned.  My wife said not to worry and explained that this happens all the time.  The year-by-year onset of the symptoms had been so slow that even she had adjusted to it.  She just thought I didn’t like to go out to eat anymore.

My parents encouraged me to go to the doctor and to start listening to my body.  Something was definitely wrong.  Since I couldn’t afford health insurance, I decided to try to figure it out on my own.  The Internet was a wealth of information, but I wasn’t quite sure what to call my symptoms.  My health “research” was really a process of figuring out which words typed into the search engine would yield a prognosis that was succinct and accurate. 

But the variety of my seemingly unrelated symptoms made things difficult.  I could pinpoint certain problems that had particular solutions like glasses to reduce eye fatigue and ginger to prevent motion sickness, but the problem seemed much bigger than that.  I finally broke down and got insurance so I could see a doctor. 

Sitting in the brightly lit room on an examining table covered with paper that was starting to cling to the bottom of my legs, I waited eagerly to meet my new doctor.  I just needed a professional medical opinion, a definitive diagnosis that would reveal the cause of all this.  He sat down across from me and asked what the problem was.  A torrent of my own best guesses and potential clues spilled out of my mouth.  I tried to start at the beginning, making a case that the link to my unhealth could be found in the stressful years I spent as a graduate student who was also involved in a start-up non-profit organization (*cino) on top of the fledgling rock band I was devoting all my time and energy to. 

The doctor nodded knowingly, not to comfort me, but to suggest that he’d heard it all before and that this was a textbook case of stress-induced illness and I should therefore just stop dwelling on the complexities of my life that might have led to the illness in the first place.  He cut my story short.  “Just tell me your symptoms.”  I’m sure he was trying to help me but I got the distinct impression that I was taking up too much of his time and that we could make the visit go much more efficiently if I just gave him the important information he could use to justify giving me a prescription or suggesting certain over-the-counter drugs.  With a well-intended smile, he gave me a plastic bag with an ad for a sinus medication emblazoned on both sides.  The bag was filled with all kinds of goodies, samples that I should try.   If they didn’t work to my satisfaction, we could always try something else.  You could never be 100% sure what’s wrong just from one visit, the doctor admitted, but the statistics for a person of my age and lifestyle suggested that I had three distinct symptoms that could be treated with three different drugs. 

Though some of my symptoms did improve, I think I might have gotten a sinus infection from one of the drugs.  The infection then had to be treated with antibiotics, which made my stomach feel even worse.  I spent Thanksgiving in bed, so dizzy I couldn’t get up without feeling I’d fall over.  It was even more frustrating when the results of some blood tests showed that I was in excellent health, my cholesterol levels indicating that I could live as long as some Japanese men who survive into their hundreds.

So now I had used up the only two co-pay doctor’s visits that my bare-bones insurance policy allowed per year.  To be honest, I did not feel like I had been helped in the least.  As a result, my stress level only increased.  If stress was really part of the problem, then I decided to look into healing methods that treated this part.  Out of desperation, I called an acupuncturist who was certified in Chinese medicine.  I had gotten so bad by this point that I couldn’t even be in a car without feeling extremely dizzy and nauseous.  I dreaded the 40-minute drive to the Chinese medicine doctor, but I was desperate. 

I waited my turn in the acupuncturist’s living room.  There were no forms for me to fill out.  No sign of any objective standardization at all.  This was clearly not a room of science.  The walls were adorned with religious and philosophical books from both Western and Eastern culture and it smelled of strange herbs and incense.  I started to wonder what my desperation had driven me to.  I was a good Christian, a rational Dutch Reformed young man who was smart enough to know that sticking needles into someone’s skin to balance their “energies” did not make much scientific sense.  But I was desperate and felt drawn to the image of relaxation that I associated with Eastern meditation.  If the West is good at creating stress, Eastern thinkers are the experts on stress-reduction, I thought.

My first visit affirmed this assumption.  I was not treated like a statistic.  I felt welcomed and cared for from the beginning when the rather eccentric but delightful woman listened with interest as I told the story of my gradual decline in health.  Before I knew it we were talking about Abraham Kuyper (someone she had never heard of, but found fascinating) and my deepest hopes and dreams.  She took notes, trying to draw a holistic picture of how my physical symptoms fit with me as a person.  Over the course of the treatment, she (not necessarily a Christian herself) suggested I look into Christian meditation when I expressed an inability to think on nothingness, as the Eastern thinkers teach.  And the needles definitely did something.  I always felt a euphoric relaxation afterward.

It took well over a year until I truly returned to a state of health.  It wasn’t solely  Chinese medicine that did it.  A change of diet, increased physical activity, meditation, spiritual direction-all of these practices helped give me freedom from the troublesome symptoms.  In fact, I still suffer some of these symptoms on occasion if I let myself become too stressed or don’t take care of myself the way I should.   My experience with these two very different approaches to my health problems was valuable, however.  One benefit was that I had tangible evidence of the limitations of our Western medical establishment and I had acquired a more holistic sense of my own health.

The West excels when it comes to technological innovation and surgical expertise, but its view of the body as a biological machine that can be understood entirely within a materialistic framework of cause and effect leaves little room for the spiritual dimensions of disease.  No technology could detect the source of my anxieties, the lifestyle habits, my spiritual condition, the totality of what was making me sick.  It took Eastern medicine to point me to those other elements of myself.

I have to admit, it was more than a little troubling that all my biblical training did not instill a keen awareness of the relationship of my health to spirituality.  I clearly had bought into the modern scientific belief that I am just a body caught up in a bunch of natural processes.  Though Scripture is clear that, as a self, I depend on the God who knit me together in my mother’s womb, I was still looking elsewhere for healing. 

It’s clear to me now that I was looking elsewhere even before the symptoms of my sickness became evident—when I was over-extending myself with projects I thought would fall apart if I didn’t keep up my grueling schedule.  I let these anxieties overcome me.  The breakdown of my body was merely an expression of my lack of trust that these projects were in God’s hands all along.  Then, when I couldn’t ignore my sickness any longer, I hoped the Western medical system would be able to match all my symptoms with one of its precise definitions of disease so I could continue working on my projects.  When that didn’t work, I clung to the hope of Eastern meditation.  Instead of finding relaxation in Eastern nothingness, however, my anxieties were heightened when I just couldn’t do it.  How do you focus on nothing?

So it was sickness that made me come to terms with myself, that gave me a new awareness of myself.  Not Eastern religion or modern science.  These were only what I reached for to provide meaning in my time of sickness.  And it was not an abstract philosophical truth that struck me, though I understand what I learned in philosophical terms.  It was a very personal revelation, a comfort amidst my own anxieties that goes something like this:

I am nothing—but out of nothing God has made me.  Did God make me for Himself?  Perhaps.  But this does not mean God is selfish.  I also clearly benefit from God’s having made me.  So this making of me is clearly also a gift to me.  Someone who gives a gift to someone else for the other person’s benefit is certainly acting out of love.  So God’s creation of me expresses God’s love for me.  And if God loves me so much that God would create me, I am of value to my Father just by being me.  Nothing I do or do not do will bring me closer or further away from God’s love.  All I can do is love and be loved by God.

In the light of this love, all the anxieties about what I should or shouldn’t do seem to disappear.  It doesn’t really matter what I do or how much I’m able to get done because if I am being who God intends me to be, I am loved by God.  When I was experiencing my own weakness in sickness, the limits of my scientific knowledge in Western medicine and my own nothingness in Eastern meditation, I was simultaneously experiencing the love of God.  And though I found healing in a combination of Western and Eastern approaches to health, I was never outside of God’s sustaining love.  In fact, that was God’s way of showing God’s love to me.  My looking elsewhere was God’s way of revealing where I really was all along. 

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