Lifestyle science continues to accumulate evidence that confirms the comic strip character Pogo’s observation “yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.” That now-famous comment appeared in an anti-pollution cartoon/poster in 1970. The cartoon character’s author, Walt Kelly, was pointing out that our character defects get us into trouble. These human frailties beleaguer us doubly. Firstly, as Pogo pointed out, they make us foul our nests (the cartoon had a picture of the beloved swamp where the animals in the cartoon lived littered with junk, making it difficult for the characters to enjoy the “forest primeval”). In my practice I work with human frailty and its environmental effect in another arena—the internal one–and the accumulation of junk that gets in the way of healthy functioning ecology of the forest that is our health.
Most of this internal junk is in the mind (the heart actually, I think) in the form of feelings, and some of it is in the body (the mind really, I believe) in the form of unhealthy thinking. Some of it is literally the accumulation of toxins in our tissues. The place where all this junk so often comes to disturb us is the gut. It is our gut that often tells us of the intimacy of that connection between these different forms of junk. (See, it IS all connected).
I have been working with a number of people lately who have identified the chaos and violence in their childhood as a factor interfering with their ability to make good choices today. Even though the threats they lived with are years in the past they still find themselves living in a place of insecurity and anxiety. This influences the way they eat, sleep, make love and exercise. Some of their significant others say their fight or flight response is on a hair trigger.
At some level this is purely a biochemical phenomenon. Early traumas disturb our brains. They affect the function of our neurotransmitters. This is the family of chemicals that control our mood – from worry and anxiety to depression and anger – and our autonomic nervous system responses – from heart rate to digestive function and sleep. The epidemiologists that study risk factors for cancer, heart disease, and the degenerative diseases of the mind and body are turning over stone after stone and all finding the same thing: we die by our own hand. It is our sad diets, our poor activity levels and our lousy sleep that undo us.
What I now believe is that what we eat, how we make love, exercise and sleep is intimately connected to our experience with chaos and violence. Or more accurately, our fear of these things. How do we deal with these fears? That is a REALLY important question.
I have a grandson whom I spent a long weekend with while his parents went on vacation. Ezra is two, his language is exploding and he has a zest for lots of things: trucks, watermelon, dirt, screwdrivers and – did I say trucks? He stands with his hands held pensively behind his back when he studies something. He holds his hands in front of him, palms up, when he asks a question like “where Baba?” the name he uses interchangeably for both Kathleen and me. His new passion is his age-mate and neighbor, Ed. Given the opportunity he will race out the gate, down the sidewalk, up to the front door of the house where Ed lives and yell for Ed to come out and play.
I am fascinated by the power and pure joy this friendship seems to hold. What is it? They seem to share the same joys. They seem braver in each other’s presence. They look at each other with a quizzical look as they contemplate a move, then race off together to push the edge of their frontier – whatever it might be. Friends can be powerful medicine.
So why am I spending more time talking and less time pushing pills? This is what I observe in most, maybe all of my patients. Even though Walt Kelly told the truth on us when he declared us our own worst enemies, I think we also know, maybe from our earliest childhood friendships, that we can be the source of peace as well. Fear and illness coincide. To get better, to be well, we need to face the fears and dispel them, not try and ignore them or hide them under hard work or hard exercise or too much beer or Krispy Kremes. We can face the demons inside, as we must do if we are to prevail, more safely and comfortably if we hold hands. When we hold hands, actually or metaphorically, we can talk about these things that hurt us. And then they lose their power.
More power to us and our friendships. They will make us better.