Disease, Suffering, and Mindset
When I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC) at 14, I remember immediately thinking, “ok, who is the Lance Armstrong for UC patients?” The sad truth… there was none. Instead, Doctors would introduce me to “Gary” who’s “hanging in there.” This broke me down more than having the disease itself. Sure, there were some patients that were able to go back to working normal jobs, but was it so bad that no one had truly beaten it and gone on to do something great? When I did run into the occasional person who had a good post UC life, as I would inquire, I would quickly realize that they had only a minor version of the disease that was suppressed after a round or two of treatments. This is by no means meant to take away from these people; I wish all patients reacted so well to treatment. I am writing this, however,for the person who was like me, whose disease could not have gotten any worse, and who 12+ years later is still suffering, wondering, and questioning.
Why is having an example so important? The short answer: it can strengthen the mind. I did not understand this at the time, but exposure to living examples allows, and sometimes forces,patients to compare themselves to individuals who may have been mentally more capable than they are. It is often this type of comparison that drives one to higher levels of effort and discipline. To achieve such levels of self-discipline the mind must first be trained to embrace one’s current suffering, or to the suffering one knows he will eventually encounter, and to address the unknown.
After about 2 years of battling UC with no relief, I continued searching for someone to compare myself to, to force me to dig deeper internally. I realized thatI was only going to hold up physically as well as I could keep my mental outlook strong and positive. Looking around in hospitals, I saw nothing but other patients in horrible pain, silently suffering, and slipping into depression after depression. I then stumbled on the writing of an Alpine Climber named Mark Twight, who owned a gym dedicated to training other extreme climbers and other athletes who were more interested in self-discovery than a trophy. Mark based all of the gym’s concepts around one simple notion: The mind is primary. He did so because he believed great physical feats in any setting—the mountains, on the field, in combat—all stemmed from the psychological, not the physical, and that the actual physical training was the easy part. This resonated with me. Why should the mindset needed to overcome a physically debilitating disease be any different than the mindset needed to physically climb a mountain, win a race, etc.?
Herb Elliote, who won gold in the 1500m in the 1960 Rome Olympics, once said, “if you concentrate on the mental aspect, it is inevitable that the physical side will follow.”
When you suffer from a debilitating disease, it is the mind that must drag the body; never the opposite. The body often will struggle to keep up with the mind. But when spirit improves,physical state improves as well. Countless studies show how a positive mindset improves survival rates for various conditions.However, what if you’re beyond that point? What if you have hit rock bottom?
The first step is to transform the mind. You have to positively accept, and relish in, the challenge ahead, knowing it will be a painful one. In doing this, you can take advantage of the one thing all these conditions can offer: Perspective. The perspective that you acquire while facing these hardship makes you stronger and better in a multitude of ways that are unrelated to health, though only if you embrace the full dose. Once dose and duration are great enough, your hardship will transform you.How much, and how long? To bring us back to sport, Olympic gold-medalist Brad Lewis wrote, “A man goes through many changes in 2000 meters. Some of them not very pretty. Some make you hate yourself.” Brad’s incredible intensity allowed him to plumb his soul in less than seven minutes, if you’re suffering from an illness, imagine the changes you can create with the right attitude?
Nietzsche wrote: “Great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit.” And he added that “such pain not only improves—but also deepens us.” Whether you consciously take, or involuntarily receive, the full dose, the process will produce a bright—and often harsh—self-awareness. Different people react differently to such cathartic events. While one may stick his head in the sand because he doesn’t like what he sees, another may become more conscious, more often aware and mindful. Suffering is the gateway to true knowledge of oneself and, therefore humility. Seize the chance.
Sometimes, when one is truly ill, pain is constant, and it will always hurt when you fight it as hard as you possibly can, giving up is the only thing that will offer relief. But with the right attitude and the will to suffer, this sort of pain can become easier to endure with practice. You confront it, immerse yourself in it, and become it. You survive. The next time—because you know what’s coming—you are less apprehensive, which spares energy, allowing you to focus, to push harder. You don’t quit. Again, you get through it. Confidence soars. Your self-image changes. You begin to see yourself as able, capable, and that newfound capacity gives you the ambition to keep fighting.
When I have posed these notions to other patients, some ask whether or not attitude can be trained. If the mind is a muscle,then a consistent cycle of stimulus and response will cause change. Yet, to break a behavioral pattern, to change a habit,requires a degree of accurate self-knowledge. A patient must first realize and digest that the path they are about to go down is not a short one; often, in realizing this, patients breakdown. But in the process of breaking down, of falling, of not being able to hold up the hand they were just dealt, they learn to trust. They realize they are surrounded by trustworthy people who are there to help them improve.
So, surrounded by helpful people, they are able to go to the edge of what they can physically and mentally handle and, thereby,make progress. If you have been diagnosed with a severe illness,the simplest takeaway: surround yourself with the right individuals. The right people are not necessarily the ones who will always hold your hand either; it takes a network. Different people for different things, some to support you emotionally, some to support you physically, some to tell you when to suck it up, and some to notice when you aren’t sticking to the treatment plan, or to point out when you start eating poorly because you no longer care.
If you can’t get right in your head, first, then none of the physical treatment interventions will cause positive psychological changes that transfer back over to physical health (as well as every other aspect of life). Think of it this way, without active mental participation, all of a patient’s fighting and suffering may not be used as a tool for self-discovery; that suffering, so dearly earned, goes to waste. This is why, regardless of the illness, the thing a patient must treat first is the organ inside the skull.