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Why Healing is Hard and How Medications Can Help

To some, healing and medications are polar opposites, even antagonistic approaches to illness. Healing means allowing the body to mend itself.  We all have watched wounds scab over and eventually grow new skin.   The body knows what to do. On the other hand, taking pills can be seen as “the easy way” to feeling better without getting better. They may be equated with chemical Band-Aids.

Regardless of how appealing this contrast is, it’s a simplification that doesn’t hold up in real life.   That’s because healing is not about the specifics of what we do when we are ill.  That should be determined by what’s effective.   Healing is not about whether one swallows an herbal formula or prescription pill; not about whether an acupuncture or syringe needle pierces our skin.   What is helpful for some can be destructive for others.

If someone has severe pain, remaining indefinitely in bed is not usually healing.   Getting out of bed and moving can be.  If it takes pain medication to move, that’s what pain medication is for.   Many of us tend to run our bodies into the ground while we attempt to meet “more important” expectations. (Why we are driven to do this is another story.)  We only wake up to our body‘s “bad day” when the inborn self-healing hasn’t happened.  “Time-out” to “get better” means little if, upon recovery, we do a repeat performance. Neither is taking pain medicine if we use it to continue to run ourselves ragged.  Something has to change within us.  That’s what makes healing hard.

Healing is not the treatment we choose, but how we use it. Pills, alone, are not magic.  They are chemicals, and on their own don’t heal.  But the act of taking them can mobilize our intention to heal. The importance and magnitude of this intention has been measured indirectly by the “placebo effect.”  In repeated drug company trials, 30%  of those taking sugar pills will improve because they believe the tablets are real.  Our minds are that powerful.  We are also that powerful to defeat our efforts in recovery.   Yes, as much as we may wish for it, we can harbor other feelings, less known to us, that block relief.  This  also makes healing hard.

“Every time I take my antidepressant, I have this urge to skip it or take less than I should.   I feel like someone is scolding me, saying, “What makes you so special? You feel lousy because you are lousy.”

Taking medication is not the “easy” choice for many, especially if the medication is an antidepressant or other psychiatric drug.  Accepting this strategy can trigger disappointment, sense of failure and shame. There is nothing easy about wrestling with these feelings.  Like the woman quoted, patients have shared with me how they struggle to carry out a treatment plan.   Prescriptions don’t get filled, or they are filled but given to friends, or left home on a vacation.  In these circumstances, consistently ingesting  medications can be healing because the deliberate “doing so” challenges that person’s belief in his or her unworthiness.  “My depressed feelings are part of the illness and not a truth about me.” Yes, pills don’t heal but the act of taking the pill is an assertion that one does deserves to recover.

No less important, medications can provide the chance to do activities that further recovery. This is most needed when health is so compromised that the body’s inborn self-correcting mechanisms are ineffective. Something has to break the cycle of increasing disability that results from overpowering symptoms and an overwhelmed mind. Even if it’s only a few hours a day, experiencing oneself as more worthy and productive are healing. Even if it’s only a few hours a day, moving the body can help rebalance the mind.

Peggy Finston MD

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