In the early hours of the morning one day in late June this year, I woke up in my little wooden hut in Bali to a debilitating pain in my gut. Arms wrapped around my stomach, I hobbled towards the bathroom, sat down, and realized that I was bleeding internally from somewhere in my bowel. A few days before this, I had developed a petechial (bleeding under the skin) rash that began in the upper part of my legs and slowly spread to the lower legs and feet. In the weeks that followed, different parts of my body would swell. Sometimes my ankles and feet would swell, sometimes my arms, and some days the swelling would manifest under the skin of my scalp. If swelling presented anywhere in the legs, it made walking difficult. Even before my official diagnosis six weeks later, I knew instinctively that this was autoimmune.
I didn’t seek out medical treatment immediately. Instead, I decided to stay in Bali until the end of my 30-day allowance and began a process of slowly peeling back the layers to understand how I had led myself to this place of dis-ease. Autoimmune conditions, like many other chronic diseases and cancer have a large mental and emotional component to their pathology. The constant interplay between the “Self” and the “Not Self” is at the heart of disease manifestation. We can be the fit, eat healthy, exercise regularly, and endowed with good genetics, but it may not count for much if we are predisposed to living in our “Not Self” state.
Clearly, identifying what is “Self” and what is “Not Self” is much more complex than taking medication, but call it what you want, my gut, my intuition, my inner wisdom, or perhaps the universe was sending me a clear signal to stop! For close to three years now, I have worked tirelessly to grow a business in an environment under duress. The pandemic; starting over in a place I didn’t choose to live in; a culture that glorifies the grind; the corporatization of yoga; my inability to express healthy anger; my childhood conditioning that values myself based on my achievements – it’s a toxic combination! When my mind; when logical reasoning; when my fears; when society had me convinced that I needed to keep going, my body said NO!
I have a new appreciation for this body and its intelligence. Last year, I ran a retreat called “The Body Intelligence Retreat” in which we explored the body’s inherent ability to heal. I now know that the body’s intelligence is far beyond physiological healing. It IS our wisdom and intuition. We often look outwards for signs from a higher power, God, or perhaps the universe. Through this process, I have come to experience that the signs we look for are within the body. In some ways, the universe is both outside and inside the body, separated only by an illusion that our minds create. The mind that we have perhaps come to rely on more than we should. Disease isn’t an indicator that there is something wrong with the body. On the contrary it is an indicator that the body is responding in the way it has been designed to. It is the universe’s way of guiding us back to our “Self”.
In our current culture of quick fixes and instant gratification, the long road of identifying the “Self” as a form of disease prevention and recovery isn’t as compelling as the narrative of the modern medical infrastructure. Since the onset of my autoimmune disorder, I spend most of my waking hours reading, studying ,writing, and reflecting to distinguish my “Self” from my “Not Self.” This is my full-time job at the moment and I am just barely scraping the surface. Deconditioning is both time-consuming and unprofitable, and as such, society places little value in the process. We enter a vicious cycle of using medicine to cover symptoms that allow us to ignore the root cause of disease, only to have them resurface in the future. We use medicine to numb both physical and emotional pain, allowing the physiological stress to continue unnoticed in the body, until the body itself chooses to reveal its truth. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in science and medicine too, but real healing comes from the process of going inwards.
We are conditioned to default to denial over the often uncomfortable nature of truth. Positive thinking in this context equates to being happy and compulsively optimistic. However, as Gabor Mate eloquently writes in his book, When the Body Says No, “genuine positive thinking begins by including all our reality.” Compulsive optimism is in fact, a coping strategy to avoid confronting our anger and anxiety. I have seen the people around me express discomfort when facing truth. During the height of the pandemic, I wanted to acknowledge the struggles that I was experiencing. I shared through my social media channels the despair I felt during this time. Some of my posts were met with well-meaning, “Julie, you have to be more positive,” to the harsher, “I have no time for negative people,” to those who insisted on trying to “fix” my problems by placing themselves in the role of “caretaker” or “healer.” I can see now that these were simply reflections of their own discomfort with accepting the whole of their reality.
I have realized that so much of my childhood conditioning is built upon the value of success, that I am valued for my achievements. I was taught that we must aIways be happy, don’t be sad, don’t tell people about your problems. I don’t blame my parents. They too are conditioned by the environment that surrounds them. Since the onset of my illness, I have chosen who I surround myself with carefully. I choose to respond truthfully when I am asked, “how are you?” I recognize that in order to heal, I must have the strength to acknowledge the whole of my reality. Even as our modern culture and society seek to enslave us in its never-ending cycle of grind, I am fighting for my autonomy, for freedom from my fears, from caring about what other people think of me, for the right to be completely who I am, for being enough!
This is not to say that we are to blame for our disease. The machine of our modern capitalist society is a force designed to disempower us through homogenization. Being your Self, doesn’t work within this system. A culture that glorifies the grind and a caffeinated existence does so to keep us buying into the system. It doesn’t allow us the time or space to figure out who we really are. Even when we have reconnected to various aspects of our Selves, we are often caught in a struggle to prevent it from being swept away again. I have had to face my own mortality these past few months so for me, the choice is clear. I am not weakened by this disease. I am not debilitated by it. On the contrary, I am empowered to choose, and I choose ME!