“So what are your thoughts on alternative medicine?”
I was out to lunch recently when someone at my table who knew my medical history asked me that. I paused, trying to formulate an answer that was both honest and authentic as well as diplomatic enough to appeal to both sides of the issue since I wasn’t sure of his sensibilities—what surprised me was that my honest answer did that on its own.
“Well, here’s the thing. I wouldn’t be alive today without the help of Western [conventional] medicine, there’s no disputing that. But I’ve used acupuncture in the past for pain and fatigue and had great results, and it’s done wonders for my mother in terms of her shoulder and back pain,” I said.
I told him I knew people who swore by therapeutic massage and other alternative practices, especially for chronic pain and inflammation. Both my parents, recipients of the most cutting edge care in areas like cardiology, rheumatology, and oncology—my father is a walking advertisement for minimally invasive interventional cardiology—also book weekly appointments with an acupuncturist and rave about him.
“I guess what I’m saying is that a combination of both is ideal in my mind. I believe there are limits and drawbacks to conventional medicine, and I believe there are strengths and benefits to alternative medicine that patients should explore. It’s about balance, really,” I said.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation and about this notion of balance. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve achieved anything close to balance in my life, having preferred for most of my life to try and do things in spite of my illnesses, rather than in consideration of them.
“Balance” is a loaded term when it comes to chronic illness: balancing the good days with the bad, the acute flares with the low-level hum, the doctors’ appointments with social obligations, the frustration with optimism, the desire to move forward with the awareness that you need to pull back, the momentum of inclusion with the stagnation of isolation. These are the “big ticket” themes, the ones that are at once the most popular to discuss and explore and the ones most difficult to sustain.
And yet there are all the little acts of everyday living, the choices and decisions we’re not even always conscious we’re making anymore that also speak to this notion of balance. I take several medications every day, as I have since I was born and as I will for the rest of my life. I appreciate how these chemicals help manage my conditions. But I also try to ingest things that even out the scale a bit: fresh fruits, huge amounts of greens and fresh produce, lean meats, lots of water, nothing processed, all things that are naturally good for my body. (Let’s ignore the caffeine issue for now, okay? I swear I have cut back, and I drink green tea, too!)
There are days when I do not have the lung capacity or the stamina to go to the gym, and on those days, I do yoga. I love the way it lengthens me, the way it opens up my lungs, how warm and taut my otherwise aching muscles feel. Ironically, what started as my default workout when cardio couldn’t happen has been wonderful for my dodgy lungs.
These things represent balance, but they have become so routine that I don’t stop to see them as such.
The work versus downtime ratio has always been my biggest struggle. Combine a perfectionist workaholic with the attitude of “I’m going to do it just to prove I can, that I’m not sick” and you don’t get a pretty result. I’ve made great strides; no longer do I compulsively look for additional jobs or take on too many projects, no longer do I feel that I “should” be doing more than I am or feel guilty about the choices I’ve made (most of the time, anyway.)
The past few weeks, though, there hasn’t been much balance between work and rest, between deadlines and, well, fun. Since the semester ended I have been plugging away on my book, all day, every day, seven days a week. I’ve plunged into Black Hole mode, only to emerge to attend my fellowship, send the occasional e-mail, or grab a late dinner on a Friday night with my husband—after getting kicked out of the coffee shop where we've both been working when it closed at 9pm.
For the most part, I love every minute of it, the intensity, the focus, the productivity. I apologize sheepishly to friends and family for my absence, and in those moments, I do feel guilty about my lack of balance. But I know it’s only a temporary thing, that in a few weeks I can turn the computer off for a bit and exhale….and I also know that for so many weeks of my life, I have surrendered everything to sickness and hospitals and chaos. Who knows, maybe this period of absorption is just another way of balancing things out…