Health and Illness as Life Processes

The different ways in which it is possible to interpret and respond to symptoms – in particular the particular bodily sense of ‘not feeling ourselves’ that accompanies even the most minor of symptoms such as feeling a cold or flu coming on – take us to the very heart of the contrast between Biomedicine and Life Medicine. They also enable us to understand both health and illness as self-states and as life processes rather than merely as bodily states or biological processes.

A key aspect of both health and illness as life processes is how we interpret and respond to the essential ‘dis-ease’ of ‘not feeling ourselves’ – a dis-ease that may either precede or accompany discomforting symptoms of illness. One option is to feel this dis-ease and its symptoms merely as a sign of some biological disease or disorder – leading to what I call ‘the illness process’. An alternative is to feel our dis-ease as a state or pregnancy and our bodily state as the womb of a new and different sense of self gestating within us – a self we do not need to ‘defend’ against or ‘fight’ with our body’s immune system. This is what I call ‘the health process’ in contrast to ‘the illness process’, the stages of both of which are described below:

The Health Process

  1. ‘feeling ourselves’ in a familiar and ‘normal’ way that we identify with feeling ‘healthy’.
  2. ‘not feeling ourselves’ – feeling a change in our bodily sense of self or body identity.
  3. choosing to actively affirm and identify with our altered bodily sense of self or ‘body identity’.
  4. Giving ourselves time to meditate our felt-disease in the context of our current lives.
  5. Passing from ‘not feeling ourselves’ to ‘feeling another self’ – to experiencing the change in our bodily sense of self not as something that is ‘not me’ or ‘other than self’ but as a distinct self in its own right.
  6. Seeking to actively embody and in this way give birth tothe new sense of self that is pregnant in our dis-ease through new ways of being and relating to others and our life world.

The Illness Process

  1. ‘feeling ourselves’in a familiar and ‘normal’ way that we identify with feeling ‘healthy’.
  2. ‘not feeling ourselves’ – and experiencing this both as a felt sense of dis-ease and as the result of some ‘thing’ that is ‘not self’ or ‘other than self’.
  3. identifying our felt dis-ease solely with some purely bodily state or illness symptom.
  4. Seeing this symptom only as a sign of some ‘thing’ that is ‘wrong’ with us – such as a medically recognised ‘disease’.
  5. seeking a medical diagnosis or ‘cause’ for our symptoms in some ‘foreign body’ such as a virus.
  6. seeking a ‘cure’ for our symptoms by some means of medically counteracting or cutting out that ‘foreign body’.

The illness process is always culturally and linguistically shaped. Thus, whilst modern medicine might seek the cause of dis-ease in a foreign body such as a ‘malignant’ tumour or ‘pathogenic’ virus or bacterium, a witch-doctor or shaman might blame it on a malign spirit just as earliest Greek physicians blamed illnesses on ‘ill-winds’ or pneuma. Yet what all historical forms of medicine have tended to share in common is that any sense of ‘not feeling ourselves’ – rather than being taken as an opportunity to begin ‘feeling another self’ – is instead identified with feeling something wholly ‘other than self’ such as a foreign body or spirit, or a ‘non-self’ cell or organism. In this way however, the health process – passing from ‘not feeling ourselves’ to ‘feeling another self’ is foreclosed and gives way instead to the ‘illness process’.

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