When I was learning to be a doctor, the focus was on making the sick well, but there was a huge piece missing from what they taught me in my medical education. Nobody ever taught me that, as doctors, it’s our job to help people become not just well, but whole.
After all, our job is to help people heal, and “to heal” means “to become whole.” But what does that mean? Here’s what it means to me.
Sick vs. Well
In medical school, I was taught that there are two kinds of people—sick people and well people. “Sick” people have abnormal laboratory and radiologic tests and are considered “diseased” or “ill.” They wind up taking medications, and if we manage to keep them from landing flat on their backs in hospitals—or even worse, dying—we breathe a sigh of relief. If we go a step further and help them make lifestyle modifications that benefit the body from the physical root, then we pat ourselves on our backs and consider our jobs well done.
“Well” people, on the other hand, have normal laboratory and radiologic studies and are generally free of disease. Or, if they have diseases, we’ve controlled them with medication, dietary changes, exercise, weight loss, or whatever is working to keep them “well.”
We aim to prevent well people from becoming sick people, and fortunately, greater awareness of preventative health has helped make that goal a reality.
Public health education about such wellness-inducing behaviors as good nutrition, regular exercise, smoking cessation, weight control, vaccination, and cancer screening tests has contributed to the wellness of the general population.
Or have they?
Then Why Are We Still So Sick?
Why is it that medical technology is advancing at a rapid-fire pace, and yet, disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic back pain, and ulcers plague us? Why are we obese, hypertensive, diabetic, and hypothyroid? Why are we keeling over—often at a young age—from heart attacks, strokes, and cancers? Why are so many of us doped up on drugs for anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder?
I’m talking about the ones who are under a doctor’s care, the ones who have been diagnosed with an illness or two, the ones who pop pills every morning.
Well vs. Vital
But there are others. We may not be sick. We are mostly well. Our blood tests come back normal. Our vital signs are stable. We get the clean bill of health from our physical. And yet, something is still missing.
See if this sounds like you or anyone you know:
You drag yourself out of bed every morning and trudge through your days, feeling sluggish and dreaming of siestas. You know you should exercise, but you just don’t have the energy to schlep yourself to yoga class or use that gym membership you pay $99/month to keep just so you can feel like you’re healthier than you are.
You may not take medications, but your mood slumps often, leaving you feeling listless and tearful and hopeless. You have trouble falling asleep because your litany of worries plays through your head at night like a movie on auto-replay.
You catch colds easily, and just when you lick one niggling little sinus infection, you wind up with a stomach flu.
You know how to eat healthy, but preparing healthy foods takes more time and energy than you can muster. You buy fresh veggies, but half the time, they rot in the crisper before you get around to preparing that veggie stir-fry you planned to make when you bought the broccoli and green beans. Since you spend ten hours a day slogging away at that job you hate—you know, the one that pays the bills but is not what you dreamed you’d do when you grew up—you just don’t have it in you to eat the way you know you should. So, you grab a frozen burrito, open something out of a can, or swing through the take-out window on your way home from a long day.
You know you shouldn’t open that third beer, but you’re not sure how else to handle the crushing stress you’re experiencing trying to balance family and work. Plus, nighttime is when you’re haunted by the crippling loneliness you feel, even though your husband is right across the sofa, drinking a third beer himself.
If you numb yourself enough—with ice cream, potato chips, wine, cigarettes, or pills—you’ll forget about how he hasn’t touched you the way you long to be touched for years. You wonder if anyone will ever touch you that way again.
It’s not that you don’t have friends. You do. It’s just that you don’t talk about this sort of stuff. You get together in your kids’ schoolyard, or you see each other at church, or you run into each other at the club or at work. But you don’t have the kind of intimate friendships you long for, the kind you might have had when you were younger, when you could really let your freak flag fly, and you weren’t pretending to have it all together.
You’re tempted to wallow, but then you think you should just be grateful for what you have and stop dreaming about having more. At least you have your health, after all. It could be worse.
You figure you should just suck it up and accept that this is just life. Make you should just get over yourself and quit hoping for something more. Maybe life doesn’t have meaning; you’re not here for some divine purpose, and this is as good as it gets.
It’s tempting to believe that. After all, nothing in your life leads you to believe that’s not true. But something nags at you and makes you question this. A little voice from deep within you whispers, “No! Don’t drink the Kool-Aid! There is more.”
You wonder if the little voice could be right, but you’re too buzzed to know for sure at this point.
So you traipse off to bed before your husband because he’s sound asleep on the sofa by now. You flip the channel on your bedroom TV to some reality TV show that turns off your brain so you don’t have to notice the sick feeling in your heart, the longing hunger that’s yearning to be fed.
You may not be sick, but you know you’re supposed to feel better than this. You chalk it up to “aging,” but somewhere, deep down, you know it doesn’t have to be this way.
You wish you could feel vital, but you have no idea where to start, and your doctor just isn’t much help. Last time you tried to talk about this, your doctor never even looked up from your chart. You just didn’t trust that you would be heard, so you didn’t even say anything.
Instead, you’ve resigned yourself to living this life. You and millions of others in the U.S.
If you feel this way, you are SO not alone.
So What Does It Mean to Be Whole?
Stay tuned for my upcoming post on what it means to be not just well, but vital, not just vital, but whole.
What do you think about all this? Does this resonate with you? Please tell me what you think, my dears!
Until then, in sickness and in health,
Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. She is on a grassroots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself. Lissa blogs at LissaRankin.com and also created two online communities—HealHealthCareNow.com and OwningPink.com. She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.
BUY DR. LISSA RANKIN’S BOOK BELOW: