WELLNESS | How to Fight Illness by Embracing It
What if you could beat an illness by embracing it? Fight sickness through it’s cause? According to Dr. Steven Goldsmith, you would be healthy. In The Healing Paradox the author describes how the Western approach to counteracting disease makes us sicker, while “fighting fire with fire” can actually cure us. In psychotherapy, encouraging patients to exaggerate their symptoms of depression or anxiety has proved a more effective cure than prescribing drugs to mask their symptoms. The following excerpt introduces what Goldsmith sees as the fundamental flaw in Western medicine, and the key to changing our perception of disease in order to find health.
Suppose you discovered that we—you, your loved ones, all of us—have been trying to solve our health problems in the manner that most ensures failure, that guarantees we remain sick.
That may seem such a peculiar proposition as to be unworthy of attention. Until you recall that, indeed, our physicians cure few of our ills, if any. And that, over time, despite competent medical care, most of us become gradually sicker, not healthier. There is, by the way, nothing controversial about these assertions; most physicians will acknowledge their validity. I know because, being a physician myself, I have worked with many hundreds of medical colleagues over the years.
But why can’t they cure us? This question demands an answer, for chronic and recurring maladies, both physical and mental, even among the young, dominate our lives as never before. Diseases previously vanquished, such as syphilis and tuberculosis, have reappeared. Other diseases have vanished, only to be replaced by new ones at least as menacing. Succeeding generations of Americans have become progressively less healthy. (If you doubt this claim, consider our societal epidemics of obesity, diabetes, asthma, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, antibiotic-resistant infections, autism, eating disorders, adolescent depression—and, indeed, the proliferation of all psychiatric disorders—to name just a few of our woes.) Why? What has gone wrong? In a word: our ideas.
As strange as it sounds, our ideas about health and illness have made us sick. They have led us astray, toward collective disability and away from health. This is a book about those ideas. And about other, seemingly crazy ideas that can make us well. For unless we radically transform our ideas, all the broccoli and vitamins and treadmill training, all the heart surgery and gene transplants and stem-cell manipulations in the world cannot cure us.
To understand why so many of us are chronically ill despite the discoveries of modern medicine, we must ask questions. Fundamental questions. And because the easy and comfortable ones have already been asked, these must be disturbing questions. Threatening questions.
And so, if we dare, suppose we question our notions of biological reality, hence our notions of medical reality, thus our notions of reality in general. And what if we find them amiss to a shocking degree, say by 180 degrees, if we are mathematically inclined? What if we discover that, like the disoriented footballer of bygone notoriety who ran the ball into his own end zone, medical science has been racing mistakenly in the wrong direction for generations, with these misguided notions tucked under its arm?
The treatments that medicine devises—drugs, surgery, irradiation, even psychotherapy—seem rational and scientific. But they leave too many of us unwell. Could it be that the reason for this inadequacy is that, in its understanding of the living organism, modern medicine (as preposterous as this may sound) is neither rational nor scientific? And therein lies the purpose of this book, for in dissecting medicine’s presumptions of scientific rationality, it reveals a radically different, less commonsensical approach to healing. But what seems to make the least sense, it turns out, may make the most sense. This is not because biological processes operate irrationally or perversely, but because modern medicine does not understand them. That is the bad news.
But the good news is that if we are willing to challenge our long-held but misguided convictions about ourselves, we can achieve levels of personal and societal health that now seem unattainable. For we can learn from the experiences of once-sick individuals, including me, that things are not what they seem. And we can discover a variety of experiments and unorthodox treatments that debunk the most cherished tenet of modern medicine and, by so doing, herald a revolution in our concepts of health, illness, and life itself.
The tenet to which I refer, the fixed idea that guides all “scientific” medicine of the modern era is this: the laws of biology—and therefore medicine, which is a branch of applied biology—are merely special cases of the laws of chemistry and classical physics that have governed our understanding of inanimate objects for centuries. What is good enough to explain the action of billiard balls and the antics of molecules in bubbling beakers is good enough, it is assumed, to explain the behavior of living organisms. If this is correct, then we are on the right track. But what if it is wrong?
A corollary of this notion is the linear, Manichaean, military model of disease and its treatment that dominates the medical establishment. According to this model, disease is our enemy. In this connection, readers may recall our bureaucratic “wars,” trumpeted at presidential press conferences, declared on cancer, AIDS, drug addiction, and the like. Though politically motivated, such declarations are not hyperbole, for medicine perceives itself as a combatant against disease, with physicians and scientists the grunts under its command.
After all, disease is an Evil entity, an invader as alien to our bodies as the hijacked planes were to the Twin Towers. Effective treatment (the Good) must oppose and overpower it. And in our struggle with disease, only one of us can remain standing when the smoke clears, with no truce or treaty permitted. We must annihilate it, or die trying. Modern medical treatment conflates this militant moralism with pre-twentieth- Century basic science, deploying an arsenal of medications, surgical procedures, and beams of radiation as the smart bombs and bunker busters in its crusade. But what if this philosophy is not only wrong but harmful, ensuring that we can never get well? How is that possible? And how would we know?
Stories of campaigns against dreaded diseases can inspire us and promote admiration for those scientists and clinicians battling on medicine’s front lines. As well they should. The only problem with modern medicine is that it does not work very well. Any reader who doubts this claim may wish to pop a Valium (or a Librium, Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, Serax, Tranxene, or Buspar) before beginning chapter 6. But, by way of preface, I can summarize here the results of modern medicine’s century and a half of struggle against its alleged terrorists.
For starters, cancer continues to menace us, only slightly deterred by the most radical and toxic remedies at medicine’s disposal. And we continue to cower before infectious disease. Consider the medical scares that erupt on the evening news with the regularity of malarial fevers: anthrax, smallpox, toxic shock syndrome, SARS, MRSA, the NDM-1 gene mutation, West Nile virus, pandemic influenza, meningitis, monkeypox, mad cow disease, E. coli, flesh-eating streptococci, AIDS, Ebola, and so on. Worse, we hobble through our daily lives tethered to serious chronic diseases that limit the lives of young and old in increasing numbers. And not to be outdone by that rogues’ gallery of intractable physical woes, mental illnesses, most of which psychiatry labels incurable, abound in numbers that continue to rise, even among the young.
Superintending all our maladies stands a system of “managed care,” a limbo to which patients are consigned because physicians rarely prevent or cure. Instead, our physicians largely manage (read “contain”) chronic and recurring illness, so that proportionately few of us remain fully well. It is really a system not of health care but of sickness care. A system so fragmented and dehumanized that your medical appointment schedule can resemble the itinerary of a whirlwind European tour—if it’s Tuesday, this must be your dermatologist’s office; if Wednesday, your otolaryngologist’s; if Friday, your psychiatrist’s. And need I mention the cost of care, which swells like an unchecked glioma? Or the insult added to injury, medicine’s self-inflicted wound: the “side effect”?
No one needs to read a book, including this one, to know that contemporary medicine has shortcomings. But what is less obvious is that the cure for medicine’s ills lies not in more advanced technologies or more powerful or more specific drugs. Rather, such a cure lies in new ideas about the nature of disease and of living systems generally. As you’ll discover in the course of this book, these ideas are more consistent with the findings of twenty-first-century science than those of mainstream medicine.
Though I describe these ideas, this book is not simply a theoretical disquisition. I also examine experimental findings, epidemiological data, and the outcomes of weird treatments that, if valid, overturn mainstream medicine’s claims and suggest alternative models all by themselves. In the terms of philosopher and historian of science Thomas Kuhn, these are anomalies in medicine’s flawed paradigm.1 It is this book’s primary purpose to diagnose these seeming quirks of nature for what they are—rabbit holes through which we can plunge in order to perceive a new biological reality.
And become well.