No, That is Not Normal

March 6, 2019

 

My fiancée (the only medical doctor who I truly love and trust) and I have a running joke about patients asking on the heels of explaining a particular symptom: “Is that normal?” which we’ve collectively decided translates more accurately to: Tell me this is common and/or nothing to worry about.

 

Unfortunately, nothing is normal, a nice metaphorical parallel to the more ubiquitously accepted platitude: No one is normal.

 

We’re not, which makes abnormality the norm, however that which is “the norm” is not necessarily OK, i.e. “normal” in the way said patients wishfully inquire of us. Is our country healthy in general? Do we not have the highest cancer and autoimmune rates of any first world country? Then the last thing we should hope for is to be “normal.”

 

Most of us at some point in our life were told by a doctor that a particular condition is not only intrinsic to us, but worse, irresolvable, and the best we can do to address it is with either some kind of steroid, pill or topical cream.

 

On the one hand such news was always reassuring. It compartmentalized our symptom to a specific location, such as our skin, thereby convincing us that systemically there was nothing wrong. We’ll always have X condition, but consolidated to only this one area. On the other hand, the more responsible and accurate way we as health care providers should respond to mysteries is: “I don’t know the cure for that,” a sentence heard all too rarely in medical offices.

 

Remember when you were symptom free?

 

Think back. Think harder.

 

For most of us was a point when we had no physiological complaints. This fact alone informs us that no matter how tolerable or seemingly innocuous – whether a weaker knee, a tendency to canker sores or bloating during one’s menstrual cycle – nothing is normal, and should be treated as such. Even dandruff is obviously not a scalp problem, but an expression of some systemic imbalance; and while “addressing the branch” with special shampoos surely isn’t as harmful as taking pharmaceuticals to mask emotional strife, it shouldn’t be our end game.

 

From my observation, both of self and others, there are four reasons we accept and/or ignore particular symptoms:

 

  1. We’re just too busy. If we experience discomfort, as opposed to pain, we’d rather not take the time away from our occupational pursuits (or attention on greater ailments) to address it. Whether consciously or not, we hope it will either just go away or at least remain at the same tolerable level. Unfortunately with age it is unlikely that anything left unaddressed does not get worse.

  2. We’ve accepted the lack of hope prescribed by western medicine, which nicely coddles the victim story most of us have concocted for ourselves anyway, all to varying degrees. We’re stuck with our eczema, our gout or back pain, migraines or IBS. This is an irrevocable part of us, and at best we can treat only the branch of our issue. The root is inaccessible, so we must either live on medication or modify our lifestyle accordingly.

  3. Money. Many of us don’t have health insurance or the resources to pay out of pocket for health care. Personally, I’ve almost never had health coverage and only in the past couple of years can I afford to get acupuncture, ironically. In these cases I’d strongly advise using one’s credit card if available to do at least a few sessions with a health care provider who will provide not only some form of treatment, but even more homework and information to self-manage, if not self-heal.

  4. Ignorance. We’re convinced that certain pathological symptoms are “normal.” They are not. They may not be grave or critical, but neither are they insignificant.

 

We should try to address one thing at a time, but never fall into the trap of not addressing anything. Some of my patients don’t make time for themselves, citing work and dependents as requiring too much of their energy and attention. This is martyrdom, frankly one of the many expressions of stupidity, and irresponsible to all parties involved. We have no choice but to take care of ourselves, if not first, then close to it. We should strive for perfection, as even in that effort we’ll fall short; which means if we fail to strive we’ll probably fall short to the degree that creates the kind of suffering our society has labeled as normal for old age. It is not normal. It is common, and definitely something to worry about. But don’t worry too much. Worry creates illness.My fiancée (the only medical doctor who I truly love and trust) and I have a running joke about patients asking on the heels of explaining a particular symptom: “Is that normal?” which we’ve collectively decided translates more accurately to: Tell me this is common and/or nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, nothing is normal, a nice metaphorical parallel to the more ubiquitously accepted platitude: No one is normal. We’re not, which makes abnormality the norm, however that which is “the norm” is not necessarily OK, i.e. “normal” in the way said patients wishfully inquire of us. Is our country healthy in general? Do we not have the highest cancer and autoimmune rates of any first world country? Then the last thing we should hope for is to be “normal.” Most of us at some point in our life were told by a doctor that a particular condition is not only intrinsic to us, but worse, irresolvable, and the best we can do to address it is with either some kind of steroid, pill or topical cream. On the one hand such news was always reassuring. It compartmentalized our symptom to a specific location, such as our skin, thereby convincing us that systemically there was nothing wrong. We’ll always have X condition, but consolidated to only this one area. On the other hand, the more responsible and accurate way we as health care providers should respond to mysteries is: “I don’t know the cure for that,” a sentence heard all too rarely in medical offices. Remember when you were symptom free? Think back. Think harder. For most of us was a point when we had no physiological complaints. This fact alone informs us that no matter how tolerable or seemingly innocuous – whether a weaker knee, a tendency to canker sores or bloating during one’s menstrual cycle – nothing is normal, and should be treated as such. Even dandruff is obviously not a scalp problem, but an expression of some systemic imbalance; and while “addressing the branch” with special shampoos surely isn’t as harmful as taking pharmaceuticals to mask emotional strife, it shouldn’t be our end game. From my observation, both of self and others, there are four reasons we accept and/or ignore particular symptoms: We’re just too busy. If we experience discomfort, as opposed to pain, we’d rather not take the time away from our occupational pursuits (or attention on greater ailments) to address it. Whether consciously or not, we hope it will either just go away or at least remain at the same tolerable level. Unfortunately with age it is unlikely that anything left unaddressed does not get worse. We’ve accepted the lack of hope prescribed by western medicine, which nicely coddles the victim story most of us have concocted for ourselves anyway, all to varying degrees. We’re stuck with our eczema, our gout or back pain, migraines or IBS. This is an irrevocable part of us, and at best we can treat only the branch of our issue. The root is inaccessible, so we must either live on medication or modify our lifestyle accordingly. Money. Many of us don’t have health insurance or the resources to pay out of pocket for health care. Personally, I’ve almost never had health coverage and only in the past couple of years can I afford to get acupuncture, ironically. In these cases I’d strongly advise using one’s credit card if available to do at least a few sessions with a health care provider who will provide not only some form of treatment, but even more homework and information to self-manage, if not self-heal. Ignorance. We’re convinced that certain pathological symptoms are “normal.” They are not. They may not be grave or critical, but neither are they insignificant. We should try to address one thing at a time, but never fall into the trap of not addressing anything. Some of my patients don’t make time for themselves, citing work and dependents as requiring too much of their energy and attention. This is martyrdom, frankly one of the many expressions of stupidity, and irresponsible to all parties involved. We have no choice but to take care of ourselves, if not first, then close to it. We should strive for perfection, as even in that effort we’ll fall short; which means if we fail to strive we’ll probably fall short to the degree that creates the kind of suffering our society has labeled as normal for old age. It is not normal. It is common, and definitely something to worry about. But don’t worry too much. Worry creates illness.

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