An interesting thing happened to me last week, which I think highlights how silly things can hold us back – sometimes for long periods of time.
I’ve had a problem with my left shoulder for almost thirty years. It comes and goes, but can get very painful at times, and restricts the movements in my arm quite severely. I’ve been to physiotherapists, massage therapists, mainstream doctors and pretty much anyone I could think of trying to find a cure. I even went to a psychotherapist at one stage, convinced that the whole thing was psychosomatic. But no, the problem never really went away, and had a tendency of coming back.
Through all of this I developed a curious prejudice. Even though I’d been to as many physios and massage people as doctors looking for a cure (to no avail), for some reason I was convinced that if I was to find a cure it would never come through Western medicine.
There was a flimsy rational basis for this – once, when I was being passed through the NHS health system in Britain a surgeon with a WWI-style flying moustache and a mad glint in his eye told me in in gruesome detail about the operation he intended to carry out. It involved cutting up quite a bit of me, breaking a few bones, and leaving me scarred for life. I left the consultancy convinced I should have no more to do with knife-wielding lunatics like him, even if it meant more painful, sleep-deprived nights.
But in reality my prejudice against Western medicine was more about my own self-identity, upbringing and ‘lifestyle choices’ than anything else. I’m from that liberal kind of group that secretly thinks all things modern and Western are actually bad in some way (while at the same time enjoying what the modern world offers to the full). And perhaps nowhere does this mindset reflect itself more than when it comes to medicine. People like me spend huge amounts of money on ‘holistic’ or’ herbal’ or ‘traditional’ medicine, filling the cash tills of ‘natural remedy’ shops with their conscience-saving air of environmentalism, while sneering at what ordinary doctors have on offer.
“A mere pill? To cure me? How reductive. I’m far too important for that kind of simple medicine. I need someone who will look at my whole…“
The fact is, passing through the waiting rooms and consultancies of ordinary Western doctors you can feel that they’re not looking at you as a person, but just at the bit wrong with you, like some broken part on a car.
And so, if this pisses you off, you run into the arms of the ‘therapist’, because he or she gives you what the doctor won’t or can’t, and what you actually want – attention.
But what if the ordinary doctors were the people who could actually cure you?
My shoulder flared up very badly a few weeks ago. I couldn’t sleep at first, then I started taking some pain killers so powerful they left me stoned. Which was all right for a while, but not a long-term solution.
Finally my wife insisted we take the course of action I was resisting above all others – going to see a doctor.
Dizzy and in great pain, I finally acquiesced (and I doubt I would have done had my psychological defences not been down like that).
A few days later I was in the waiting room of a traumatologist. And the usual thoughts about Western doctors started passing through my mind: it was all a waste of time; what was I doing there? I might as well get up and go home.
But then – I don’t know why – I became aware of these thoughts in my mind. And decided to do an experiment. Rather than go in with negative expectations, I told myself that this time I was going to find the solution, that after three decades with this problem I was finally going to knock it on the head. And the doctor in the consultancy was going to give me the cure – whatever it may be. I was going to change my thoughts – from negative to positive.
A moment later I was with the doctor. He barely let me explain what was wrong with me. Almost immediately he began speaking very fast, telling me this and that, while I tried to butt in, in an attempt to give him the full story of my suffering. What’s more, he barely even touched me. “Look at this!” I wanted to say. “Put your hand here and feel the size of that lump! Give me some goddam sympathy, will you.”
Which is what I’d got all those years with the therapists – lots of “oohs” and “aahs” about my problem, but never in the end any cure.
This doctor wasn’t having any of it, though. And I felt pretty certain that he was trying to deal with me as quickly as he could so he could get the next patient in. All-in-all, it was the worst kind of experience that you expect to have with a ‘Western’ doctor.
It was only when I got out of there that I registered what he’d told me. “Go home,” he’d said, “and start doing some weight training. Right now. This very afternoon. Because you’ve got so little strength in your left arm that it’s causing at least 50 per cent of your problem.”
Surely I should wait till the swelling had died down a bit first.
“No. Do it now. Right now.”
So I went home, and dug out an old dumbell that I’d bought years before and never used. I might have a prejudice against Western medicine, but paradoxically I aso came from a culture which respects ‘doctor’s orders’. And now I had a piece of paper – a prescription, no less – telling me to turn myself into a beefcake.
That first afternoon I could barely lift the weight. By the second day it was getting better, and the third saw the beginning of real improvement.
But the most amazing thing? The swelling in my shoulder went down almost immediately. Not only that, within days I had regained a kind of mobility in my left arm that I haven’t had in many years. All because I’d taken the advice of this ‘Western’ doctor.
Almost ten days later my biceps continue to swell and my shoulder feels increasingly better. Such a simple solution. And such a long time trying to find it.
Except that I wasn’t trying to find it. Not really. What I was looking for was attention. And I got it in bucketloads from the therapists who lay me on their couches.
Sometimes, it may be that what we need to hear doesn’t come wrapped in pink fluffy tissue paper. It can be hard, and unpleasant, and may come from someone we don’t respect and delivered in a way that we do not appreciate.
But if it’s what we need, it’s what we need.
The problem is removing the prejudices that prevent us from seeing that.