Doing all the hard things that will make you well
About a month ago, I met a seventy-three year old Traditional Vietnamese Medicine Healer in the sauna, after he told me to wipe off my sweat. “You don’t want to absorb it back in,” he said. I’m usually looking out for myself in the sauna — telling people to stop splashing me when they wipe off their sweat (yes, that has happened multiple times). But this guy was looking out for me. Through a thick accent, he told me about toxins, meditation, and how “doctors in the United States don’t work”. (He did not know I was a naturopathic doctor until the end of our conversation.)
Then we started talking about chronic infections, my clinical passion. In the quote below, we were talking specifically about lyme disease.
“You know how you get infection? When a tick bites you, and you get the bacteria from the tick, if you get the infection, it means that the bacteria was stronger than you. There was weakness in you that made you get sick. If you were stronger than the bacteria, you wouldn’t have gotten it. So to fight the bacteria, you have to be strong. You need to be stronger than the bacteria. And once you are stronger than it, your body can fight it.”
To ensure my understanding, and also because there was a little bit of a language barrier, I summarized his words by asking, “So you think sickness is from not being strong?”. I wanted to know if he thought this for all forms of sickness, not just lyme disease and chronic infections.
He replied, “Yes. Because the body is not in balance. You need to think about how you can be strong. That is how you overcome sickness. You get strong.”
Fast forward to a week later. I was reading The Book of JOY by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. On page 84, in the chapter called “You Are a Masterpiece in the Making”, the Dalai Lama talks about this concept of “mental immunity”. To explain it, he said, “Think about it this way. If your health is strong, when viruses come they will not make you sick. If your overall health is weak, even small viruses will be very dangerous for you.”
Wait, did he just say something about your health being strong so you don’t get a viral infection? Yes he did.
When something comes TWICE, that means it is VERY IMPORTANT. You need to pay attention. First it came to me in the sauna and then I read it in a book, about a week apart.
This concept struck me deep in my heart, but as a question. What makes me strong?
Making people strong is a lot of what I do as a naturopathic doctor. I treat chronic infections in my practice by doing two things simultaneously: making the body strong and killing the bugs. They go hand in hand. But they aren’t really separate things because killing the bugs MAKES YOU STRONG. Yes, going through chronic infection treatment sucks because it can temporarily weaken you, but the end result is STRONG. I make people strong again by killing the bugs. I personally think that you will never become as strong as you can be as long as there are chronic infections smoldering. The chronic infections make you weak.
This is what makes naturopathic medicine work so well. We focus on making the body strong while treating whatever it is that needs healed. When your body is weak, you are prey to all kinds of illness.
Being strong is an all encompassing state of well-being. It includes the mental, emotional, and physical. Toxic relationships can weaken your body physically. Crappy food can make your brain crazy. Physical exercise can boost your mental well-being. Things that bring you joy will bring your body vigor. Whatever strengthens you in one area, will spill over and strengthen all of you.
If we want to be well, we need to do the very things that will make us strong. Hard things included. Doing things that have a quick strength reward can be easy. Hiking? Easy. Lifting weights? Easy. Having fun with friends? Easy. Doing all of these things can make you strong but they are not that painful to do. This is where things can get tricky. When you’re willing to do the easy things but not the hard things. Quitting a stressful, life-sucking job? Hard. Breaking up with a toxic friend? Hard. Radically changing your diet? Hard. Working through your childhood trauma with a therapist? Hard. Going through chronic infection treatment? Hard.
Doing the things that can make us strong can be heartbreaking, painful, and exhausting. But it is all temporary so that we can get to a long lasting state of being “able to withstand great force or pressure” (this is the dictionary’s definition of strong).
Sometimes the decisions that are the hardest to make are the very ones that can make or break your strength. Sometimes the things closest to us, so ingrained in our nature, are the very things making us weak because they are so entangled in who we have been. Untangling ourselves from the things that make us weak can temporarily make us weaker. Because grief. Because hard things. Because change. We have to be willing to be temporarily weakened so that we can eventually become strong. This requires trust and patience. The strength comes to us in a process, not through the Wendy’s Drive thru. But step by step, you will eventually get stronger and stronger.
We can’t shy away from the hard things if we want to be well. Some people only want wellness up until a certain point. They don’t want it enough to do the hard things. What are you really willing to do to be well?
I hope to be one who does all the hard things that need to be done in order to be well. Because this is what I ask of my patients.
I have long neglected a lot of the things that make me strong — rest, regular sleep, nurturing relationships, writing, hiking. I feel weak and tired. I do not feel strong. I also have chronic, unresolved health issues. And this is exactly why I am closing my practice and taking a sabbatical. I need to become strong again. Primarily through extended rest.
I want my friends, my family, my people, and my patients to do the hard things in order to be well, and I hope to be an example of that. I can’t tell you to do the hard thing that will help your health, if I’m not willing to do it myself.
What makes you strong?