When symptoms (seem to) disappear as a result of a chosen “treatment”, we tend to say – “it’s working” or “yay, it worked”, often alluding to a cure, or to the promise of one. Not so fast. One of three things happened – it was PALLIATED, or it was SUPPRESSED, or maybe, yes, actually it was HEALED (cured). The first two scenarios are way more common than you would think, but they are often perceived to be synonymous with the third, adding to the confusion in the bigger cosmos of life, as it all eventually falls apart, or disappoints another person’s expectations of the same outcome, or worse still, drives the disease deeper so the person now has a bigger disease than what she started out with. In the insightful words of Pema Chödrön – “The truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together then they fall apart. They come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.” So, the question is – What’s healing then, what does a cure look like, and is it even possible? Let’s explore.
What is Palliation?
The term palliation, comes from a Greek word that means “to hide or disguise”. Palliation “hides” the symptoms, giving short-term relief from their unpleasantness. It does absolutely nothing to correct the underlying problem that caused the symptoms. If the “cause” is not apparently a bacteria, or a virus, or a parasite responsible for a raging infection, it is not obvious to think that there might be an underlying problem. The obvious thought is that the body (part) is simply weakened and malfunctioning. When I talk about figuring out the underlying problem to the chronic migraines or the eczema or the heartburn or that tongue sore that someone has come to me with, I often get blank stares. Why, yes, of course there is an underlying problem (or an underlying story rather) — EVEN if there are microbes and infection involved. It is not something we have been taught to think or ask – HOW do I have this symptom? WHY am I getting this and the other person isn’t? The automatic thinking is that my body (part) must be malfunctioning, because I must have some (label of ) disease… either caused by stress or it runs in the family. But, a disease label after all is again just a collection of symptoms… it’s a way of classifying and naming something for reference, developed by us humans. The body works independently of that naming system… it’s job is just to give out symptoms, give out the clues according to the duress it is potentially under. So, staying with the question – why do I have this symptom or collection of symptoms? I will let you ponder on that for a few minutes, while we understand what palliation does – it provides rapid relief of symptoms, a band-aid, a “quick fix” at the lowest rung of the problem, hoping that the body will figure itself out underneath the band-aid… just as long as we don’t have to see it, feel it, or experience it. Sometimes it figures it out, but, most of the time, symptoms will return once the band-aid treatment is stopped. Most of us have experienced that and can understand it, yes? For example, when we use an anti-histamine to stop the production and flow of mucus during seasonal allergies. We keep taking it and taking it throughout the allergy season. Does it help to cure us of our allergies? No, it palliates it.
What is Suppression?
Suppression differs from palliation in that it completely stops the return of the symptoms… at least for a reasonable length of time such that it appears “cured”. Hooray! Wait, isn’t that the same thing as a cure? No, it isn’t. Let me give you an example – a child comes in with eczema, and is prescribed cortisone cream. The eczema goes away completely after using the cream for some amount of time, but the child now has asthma or digestive issues or lots of joint pain. Do you say – that is an inevitable shift after eczema? Or do you say that that they are completely different diseases mutually exclusive from one another; that the eczema was cured, and that now the child just has a different disease? Well, think again. Do you see the symptoms going inward, shifting from a lesser important organ in the body such as the skin, to a more important one such as the lungs or deeper into the joints? That’s suppression. I would say to you (as I often do) that the suppression of the eczema with the cortisone cream led to the asthma or the food allergies that the child now has. There was a price to pay. Thus, suppression is similar to palliation in that it results in the disappearance of symptoms, but never fixes the underlying problem. We simply exchange the original set of symptoms for a new set of symptoms at a deeper level.
OK, let’s try to understand this underlying problem that I keep talking about. What exactly is it, and how to fix it? In order for us to understand that, a paradigm shift is essential. Let me give you an example – Fever. Children throw fevers all the time. For a while it was thought to be a disease in itself, but now we know that it is an indicator of an underlying problem, so we look for a virus or a bacteria although sometimes the fever just seems to be idiopathic (but, believe me, there still is an underlying reason, our tests are not just sophisticated enough to find it all yet). So – we treat the fever with a fever-reducing medicine, and get an antibiotic prescription to take care of the infection. For the most part it seems to work, except now we see repeated fever and infections over and over again in a body that is vital enough to keep bringing the issue forward over and over again raising a red flag. Why does my child keep catching everything out there? Repeated ear infections, repeated stomach bugs, repeated colds and flus, repeated strep throat, etc. Eventually or right away, the child just stops getting infections, but develops food allergies, or chronic constipation, or ADHD or PANDAS or something else… of course, all that seems quite run of the mill of what can afflict children in today’s day and age of growing up. But, what we are seeing here in both cases of repeated infections and that of development of a chronic problem is SUPPRESSION at work (or play). Suppression of the immune system. In the second scenario, the child’s immune system simply gave up fighting and adapted itself to something more deep-seated… such that she does not respond to a foreign pathogen the same way, instead has other issues to deal with. Thus, the underlying problem (or the story) of the chronic constipation in this example could be the acute infection(s) that was not addressed properly.
What is Healing?
Going back to the fever. What if it was understood that the body’s immune system has thrown a fever because it has detected a foreign pathogen that it needs to “take care of”, and develop a proper defense against this current invasion and also future exposures. We all know that cooking and heating food that is susceptible to pathogens growing in it, helps make it safe for us to eat it without getting sick, as the high temperatures kill the bad bacteria. Same principle, the immune system sends a message to raise the body’s temperature to make it inhospitable for the foreign pathogens that have infiltrated the eco-system (body), and the various organs and subsystems come together as a team to contribute and execute a plan of action to resolve the state and cleanse the body of the pathogen as best as it knows how to. (Think there for a moment as to what likely happens when you proceed to abort that well-planned mission by throwing in a fever-reducer from the outside.) As long as the person is NOT mal-nourished and is living in clean, sanitary conditions that helps diminish the virulence of the pathogen, the body is able to navigate this plan of action successfully and comes out at the other end not only having overcome the pathogen, but in the process becoming more knowledgeable, more experienced, more resilient, more evolved and in tune with nature and its elements of the microbial kingdom. The only prescriptions – rest, fluids, appropriate nourishment… maybe some herbs or vitamins to boost the body’s innate resources, maybe some homeopathic resonant remedies MATCHED TO THE SYMPTOMS… anything that does NOT take over from the body’s natural course of action and works to abort the fever before the body is ready for it, and/or unceremoniously takes over the job of destroying the pathogens and the body’s own microbiome indiscriminately, making it a war zone. This latter dire treatment certainly has its place and value and can save lives in emergency situations, but not something that needs to be first resort for most common infections and everyday ailments. Would you agree? Has anyone ever told you that they feel so much more refreshed and vibrant after a bout of miserable flu, that they feel like a new person? They have to me, after being guided through the process with gentle support each time, with the additional bonus of less frequency of subsequent episodes of sickness over time. Could this be what healing looks like?
Now, that was the example of an acute disease… an ACUTE is something that has a finite timeline, meaning that it has a beginning, a middle and and an end… yes, it has an end. What about chronic, long drawn out illnesses? What does healing look like there, is it even possible? Yes, it is possible for some, for many actually…. it’s way more complicated and maybe more difficult than an acute, but possible. It certainly isn’t a “quick fix” nor does it cater to the paradigm of “instant gratification”… by that I don’t mean that improvement or relief can not occur quickly. It can and does in many cases, but it takes long term commitment and work to get it to be long lasting. It takes skill and patience in teasing out the key essences and core characteristics from the biography and history of the person’s illnesses and timeline; coping mechanisms and suppressions along the way, and reversing them and unblocking them to reach that state of original vitality again. Following every lead and story like a hound to the trail, and making sure that the body’s vital force continues to move in the right direction of healing through all that unfolding that can be confusing at times. For every chronic issue has stemmed from something that was acute once…. maybe even many generations ago. Mind blowing, isn’t it. When it comes to chronic diseases, it can span generations even, and this hereditary component needs to be factored into the treatment. But, first and foremost, it begins with an in-depth understanding and respect for the way the different systems in the body and mind work together.. and this understanding is ever so fluid and dynamic as life itself, as any devoted and dedicated practitioner of any modality will tell you. The intricacy of the human being inter-connected within and without with nature and its environment… like the mathematical mobius strip. It takes ongoing study and practice, and more importantly, discernment from the various paradigms and distracting ideas and memes regarding health that is out there, to reach that place of healing.
To quote Pema again – “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved…” if passing the test or overcoming the immediate problem is our habitual instinct, then it is more likely that we are going to make choices that are palliative or suppressive. Whereas, “The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” Beautiful, isn’t it?
All three are valid choices, no judgment from me. But, it can perhaps BE a choice, only IF we are aware that there is a difference. That awareness is my goal for this article. NOTE: Any treatment method, homeopathy and even diet included, is capable of doing all three, knowingly or unknowingly… although the capacities may vary. Some inherently carry a higher risk of suppression/palliation than cure. What is your choice?