Peek-a-Boo Disease

“I can’t believe my uncle just had a stroke,” an acquaintance said to me recently. She was quite upset and I offered my support.

In my mind, that’s not what happened. I did offer support, but I also I thought to myself and did not say out loud: “I’m not surprised at all.” I had met her uncle and spent some time with him a few times at a few events. And my acquaintance had told me about him a few times. He worked very hard in the financial-services industry. He did not eat well. He did not exercise. He has been married for years, but did not seem close with his wife or kids, nor did he have other strong bonds. He seemed stressed quite often. You could see the effects. He looked tired much of the time. He had a lot of extra bodyfat. So I was not surprised that he had a stroke. I was sad, but not surprised. And not more sad than I was spending time with him years ago and witnessing his lack of wellness then.

The truth is he had been unwell for many years if we define well, as I do, as thriving and really being alive. Or even if we were to define wellness purely physiologically as our “physiological systems” functioning optimally. This man’s cardiovascular system has not been functioning optimally for years. He has not been functioning optimally for years. That did not start the day he had a stroke. The life had been slowly draining from him for years.

His stroke was simply the direct, predictable manifestation of gradually declining wellness. It was not bad luck. This man did not “catch” a stroke like a person catches swine flu. It’s not from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, contact with an infected person or other animal, or another one-time incidence like accidentally walking into a patch of poison ivy.

Many of the diseases ailing society today are chronic, lifestyle diseases. They develop very slowly over time. The truth is the dis-ease (read this as two words: the prefix “dis” (meaning lack) and “ease”) really occurred in the 30, 40, 50, or more years prior to the stroke, heart attack, aneurysm, onset of type-II diabetes, etc. Do you want to know the truth? That stroke, heart attack, aneurysm, or onset of type-II diabetes is not a disease—it’s death. If modern medicine was not so phenomenally amazing, literally amazing, these events would result in immediate to fairly rapid death in most cases. They are a body, a person, in extreme dysfunction. The dis-ease is each day living without ease. Not getting enough sleep and rest, not eating well, not doing exercise you love, not being fulfilled in your work and/or relationships. These things don’t lead to disease down the road. These things are experienced as dis-ease by you the day you’re experiencing them. The stroke is what happens after years of dis-ease. The stroke is not a disease.

This man survived his stroke and is undergoing extensive rehabilitation. My acquaintance is spending considerable time and energy caring for her father. That’s the polite way of saying she’s stressed far beyond capacity trying to continue with her career, continue with raising her children, and caring for her father. Trying being the key word. What she’s doing is very challenging and certainly unsustainable. It’s a really hard place to be. Seeing her makes me sad too.

This can happen to any one of us. We could all be this man. And we could all be the relative of someone in his shoes. The truth is, if we take an inventory, we might be on this exact path. Or one of our family members or friends may be on this path.

These chronic, lifestyle diseases are not surprises in most cases. They do not come out of the bushes and say peek-a-boo and scare us. I don’t know exactly what psychological mechanisms are involved in denial of what we can see plainly with our eyes. But it’s clear that many people live for decades as if everything is hunky dory, then one day, out-of-the blue, they’re calling their friend to say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe my brother had a heart attack.” I can.

Of course, many genetic and environmental factors affect the development of these diseases. These factors, however, do not take away the impact of lifestyle in their prevention. Two siblings, for example, can have similar genetic and environmental exposures and have very different experiences with chronic, lifestyle disease. How they live is a big factor. No matter what hand we’ve been dealt, we have tremendous influence on our wellness by the actions we take.

I know many people who like to say things like, “You never know when you might get sick.” In a twisted way, they almost relish in the anxiety. They take a twisted solace in believing that life is very unpredictable. In most cases, these people are playing this elaborate anxiety-distraction game (like a magician distracting the audience from the real trick) as a way of avoiding personal responsibility. If anyone can just get sick at any time, and if diseases are bad-luck, in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time accidents, then they simply don’t have any role in preventing disease or in being well. There’s no sense in doing exercise you love, eating well, getting great sleep and rest you need, fostering a fulfilling career, fostering fulfilling relationships, and otherwise taking care of yourself. Disease is just roulette, so why bother.

This is also how many people approach their relationships. I know many people who go and visit their father or mother or both and see them unwell. They bring a bottle of wine, show photos of the grandkids, and internally look the other way. Mom or dad (or brother, sister, friend, etc.) is not living well, but they decide the loving thing to do is to play pretend-they-don’t-see-it and watch the Patriots game together or go get manicures together. How is this loving one another?

It’s true that any of us can be hit by a bus (a real one or a metaphorical one like a deadly infectious disease) literally at any moment. However, the odds of this happening are extremely low. To put chronic, lifestyle diseases in the same category as these true accidents is a mistake and disempowers you. Type-2 diabetes is not an accident. It’s the predicable, inevitable result of tangible lifestyle actions.

My intention is not to evoke shame in anyway. Shame is toxic and miserable. I acknowledge that wellness comes easier for some than it does than others based on many factors including what we inherited at birth and what environment we’ve been exposed to. Be we do have tremendous power to take control of our lives.

I actually don’t encourage a disease-prevention model. I encourage a model of how to live with thriving wellness. When you live with thriving wellness, there is simply much less chance for chronic disease. Are you thriving today or living in dis-ease? I guarantee that if you are not thriving, you can do something about it. You can improve. You can even live with thriving wellness. Start now.

Photo 109--Thriving Forrest



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