Like many folks I grew up believing that disease was the result of doing something wrong. God’s punishment for some indiscretion or the other was often the explanation for illness. Ironically of course many things considered sinful actually in certain circumstances seemed to directly or indirectly cause disease.
For gay men this seemed to often be the case particularly when it came to sex. How could something that was so wonderfully delicious so much of the time have such really nasty consequences at other times? AIDS of course is the epitome of that twirling paradox. But even before AIDS we were often on the giving or receiving end of hepatitis, gonorrhea, syphilis, various intestinal parasites warts etc. etc.
So how could one of my all time greatest passions –sex- over the years seem to have caused me a few problems in the area of health and wellbeing. I remember in the early years of the AIDS epidemic a popular meme that was going around was that gay men were falling ill because they didn’t love themselves enough. I always found this view to be particularly obnoxious but I suppose it was a better take on it than seeing it as God’s retribution on the sinner. That was and still is popular in certain circles.
By the time AIDS came around I was personally very steeped in Radical Gay Politics and so was prone to thinking it was all some sort of government plot to do us in. If I am honest though I think that the occasional mild dark night of the soul would take me down the “this is God’s punishment” route.
In the 1980’s I was of course busy being a nurse and taking care of all sorts of people with all sorts of maladies most of which could be blamed on some sort of “sin” or the other. Sins committed at McDonalds, bellied up to the bar, smoking tobacco, saying yes to seconds and thirds or too much couch time. Oh and of course fucking too much especially with your own sex.
In 1984 just as AIDS was beginning its long and loud crescendo I happened on a book by a physician named Larry Dossey called Beyond Illness. Though I had been in the health care field for well over a decade this book was a philosophical and practical breath of fresh air. I returned over and over to his writings as an antidote to the writings of folks like Louise Hay and as a salve for the seemingly endless suffering I was witnessing both at home and work.
Let me very inadequately try to capture some of the essence of his teachings in a few short quotes.
“…perfect health becomes a pipe dream, a contradiction in terms. For without its moving principle, illness, we would never know it. To banish illness then, would be to achieve the hapless result of banishing health. To be healthy, we must acknowledge what we are loath to admit: we need illness.” Dossey, 1984. Beyond Illness.
These were soothing words to a little nurse peddling as fast as he could in the City’s AIDS clinic in 1990 trying to banish illness and getting fucking nowhere. I’ll share one more Dossey quote and then on to my main nursing mentor.
This one is bit out there. I’ll read it slowly.
“There are two notions which lie at the heart of our thinking about health and illness that, if we are courageous enough to do so, we may eventually transcend. They account for the most grotesque qualities of pain and suffering and death, and lie at the source of untold human misery – misery that for the most part is self-inflicted because it is caused by wrong thinking. What are those two ideas? Simply put, they are: one, we live in a world of separate objects, which, two, exists in a linear time that flows inexorably from past to present to future.” Dossey, 1984. Beyond Illness.
I entered graduate school in 1994 right at the peek of the AIDS nightmare both personally and professionally for me. Dossey along with just about everything else wasn’t doing much for my sanity. I did though come across a nursing philosopher (there actually are several guiding philosophies of nursing) named Margaret Newman and her newly released book titled Health as Expanding Consciousness. Her views I feel were a logical evolution of some of Larry Dossey’s ideas and made great sense to me.
Martha Rogers the great nursing theorist who developed the theory called The Unitary Science of Human Beings influenced Newman significantly. Rogers’ nursing theories continue to greatly influence the nurses you may run into today whether they know it or not.
In a nutshell Rogers theory can be summed up as follows: “health and illness are ‘simply’ expressions of the life process – one no more important than the other”. – Martha Rogers, 1970.
With Newman’s book I was hooked from the first lines of the preface: “The responsibility of the nurse is not to make people well, or to prevent their getting sick, but to assist people to recognize the power that is within them to move to higher levels of consciousness.” – Margaret Newman 1994.
This was quite a liberating concept for me in 1994 and remains so today. I much preferred being an assistant to my patients rather than playing out the grand illusion of “healer”. How pretentious that is really especially when you step back a bit to observe the whole dance.
Newman speaks at length in her book about a paradigm shift in regards to the concept of “health”. Quoting again from her book: “The shift is from treatment of symptoms to a search for patterns; from viewing pain and disease as wholly negative to a view that pain and disease are information; from seeing the body as a machine in good or bad repair to seeing the body as a dynamic field of energy continuous with the larger filed; from seeing disease as an entity to seeing it as a process.”
This view it seems to me should be the guiding principle for all preventive medicine, but sadly that is not the case in our society today. Just listen to the endless commercials for the latest drug to treat your anxiety, cholesterol, running nose or limp dick. You are pitched a pill by some buffoon in a white coat to treat a symptom which in turn often leads to many more symptoms or side-effects.
So how you might ask does this play out in the real world. No, it doesn’t mean you say no to narcotics and instead encourage people to relish in their pain and suffering and view it as an opportunity to expand one’s consciousness. Rather realize while passing the oxycotin that it is all just an opportunity to expand one’s consciousness and we can engage or not. Nor does it mean just saying “no” to licking someone’s asshole but rather approaching it if you choose to as part of the dance and all parts of that dance have consequences, great joy and sometimes not so great joy, that can be avenues for expanding our consciousness.
Let me close with what I strive to be my philosophy of helping others and myself with disease, again from Margaret Newman: “The joy of nursing lies in being fully present with clients in the disorganization and uncertainty of their lives – an unconditional acceptance of the unpredictable, paradoxical nature of life”. – Margaret Newman, 1994.
To tie it back to one of my deepest passions let me paraphrase her quote a bit: The joy of sex lies in being fully present with your partner in the disorganization and uncertainty of your actions – an unconditional acceptance of the unpredictable, paradoxical nature of sex with another human being.