I published this post on the HuffPost Blog this week.
Acutely sick at nineteen, I spent the next seventeen years undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. At thirty-six, an Infectious Disease Specialist informed me I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, recently renamed Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disease. I was stunned by how well my symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria for this illness, and amazed that none of my numerous doctors had previously diagnosed me. As a result of my seventeen years in a medical wasteland, I stopped being a true believer in the health-care establishment. I learned to trust my own judgment about my body and to scrutinize the advice of even the most skilled and well-meaning doctor.
For eight years I’ve worked for a huge teaching hospital. My colleagues are some of the brightest, most caring providers I’ve encountered. As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I know all providers, including me, are capable of fallibility. As a result, I don’t believe all health-care advice needs to be strictly adhered to. Sometimes, as patients, we should tailor medical instructions to meet our specific needs. On occasion, it’s all right and important to exercise a modicum of judgment.
In 1998 I took a course at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. This class pulled me out of a long relapse and restored me to modest functionality. During the program, my meditation instructor advised the class against meditating with an animal. So of course, my cat wanted in on the action. I often lie down when meditating, and she would sit on my chest, nose to nose. I was able to reach a deep state of relaxation this way and wondered why I’d been cautioned against involving my pet. Most of my cats have meditated with me. One of my current brood, Frankie, often crawls on top of me and starts kneading my chest. This is wildly distracting, so I usually move her to the crook of my arm, where she’s content to snuggle quietly. When the meditation is over, I always feel I’ve gotten a two-fer: healthy meditation and quality time with Frankie. I meditate my way, and it works for me.
Sometimes common health provisos become outdated. Remember when as children we were instructed not to swim for an hour after we ate? We were clearly warned that we could cramp, sink to the bottom of the pool/lake/ocean, and drown. Did any of us stop to notice that we had never heard of one reported incident of this happening? Death by lunch and subsequent cannonballing? No, we took this chastisement to heart and anxiously waited for the prescribed hour to be over so the fun could begin again. Needless to say, science has disproved this old caution, and now children are allowed to jump back into the pool immediately after chowing down a hotdog, without the fear of sudden death.
Other precautions should be taken to heart and implemented rigorously, such as when our doctors warn us not to drink alcohol when on certain medications. No one who receives this advice should find a happy compromise by having just one drink. Drinking while on certain medicines, like Prozac, will often render them ineffective. If you drink while taking antidepressants, the alcohol will counteract the effects of the drug, and you won’t even enjoy a pleasant buzz. If you drink when on the antibiotic Flagyl, according to one colleague you’ll become “ragingly ill.” So when your doctor tells you to stay off the booze while you take your medications, listen to her.
Occasionally there may be a middle ground that, while not advisable, is not necessarily dangerous. When I had sinus surgery, my doctor advised me not to blow my nose for a week. This was a very special form of torture. I sniffed gently, frequently, and patted the disgusting secretions dripping from my nostrils. After five days I couldn’t stand this any longer. I jettisoned my doctor’s advice and began to gingerly blow. Was this a smart idea? No, it wasn’t. Did it cause a nasal catastrophe? No. That didn’t happen either. I did the best I could for as long as I could to follow medical advice, and then I caved.
When your medical provider gives you advice, be a grown up. Use common sense. Check with him to see if there’s any wiggle room within the instructions he gave you. Listen to the signals your body is sends. Don’t alter any advice that would obviate the effects of your medication or cause harm, but in the end, trust yourself.