I recently met a woman who was enduring a job she hated in order to maintain her health insurance. “I don’t know what to do,” she sighed. “This job has killed my soul.”
“Oh my God!” I exclaimed. “Don’t say that!” I wanted to tell her to quit her job. That life is short enough and that health insurance is really sick insurance. I wanted to share that until recently insurance agents had no success in developing countries because people there believed that if the gods were going to get you, there was no escape and that no god cares if you have made your deductible.
But instead I just said, “Your words are your power.”
Research shows that the placebo effect is a palpable fact, the placebo sometimes outperforming the very drug being tested. My placebo is the word. Of course, if I were smart, or more awake, I would remember this before I get sick.
The Bible tells us that “In the beginning was the Word…and the word was God.” I just love that sentence. I have this image of a word floating in the emptiness, trying to figure out what it was. “Am I a goat? A chair? A politician?” I often wonder what would have happened if the first Word was tofu instead of God.
Many cultures have myths about how the gods brought language to humans. Often the words, even the letters, have a magical power. To this day, magicians say, “Abracadabra!” before pulling out the rabbit. That word comes from ancient Aramaic, which translated means, “I have created through my speech.” This saying was one of the first placebos. Ancient Romans who were sick were prescribed to wear an amulet containing the word. It was inscribed in a triangle:
A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A – V – R – E
A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A – V – R
A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A – V
A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A
A – B – R – A – C – A – D
A – B – R – A – C – A
A – B – R – A – C
A – B – R – A
A – B – R
A – B
There were people who swore by it, and others who dismissed it as quackery. Not much has changed. I’m personally tempted to get one made. At least it has no side effects
I first discovered the power of the word to heal when I was about 12. I had spent a miserable summer at camp the year before because my parents had written that I had asthma on my health form. The next year as they were filling it out, I told my father not to check the box. “But, you do have asthma!” He insisted.
“Not any more, I’m cured,” I said. The last thing I wanted was to spend another summer sewing plastic wallets in the nurse’s office while all the other campers were jumping rocks across streams and having potato sack races. To his credit, my father honored my request. I didn’t have an asthma attack all summer and had the best time of my life so far.
Of course I couldn’t know at that age how much of my asthma was based on my environment, my family, and my own needs. And I know just saying you don’t have something doesn’t “create it through my speech.” But it happened. And so I came to believe that having a good conversation with myself, or God, or whatever I currently believed in would work.
I have a jacket I call God’s jacket. There was a period in my life where it seemed like nothing went right. I was in debt, my practice was not growing, in fact, it was almost non-existent and I needed a jacket. I saw one in a trendy catalog that seemed unaffordable. It was $275, which seemed exorbitant in the 1990’s. I would look at that jacket. And stress about my life. And look at that jacket. And bemoan my fate. Then I caught a cold. Ever since my childhood asthma, my respiratory system had been my teacher. Whenever I was in denial about my life situation, unhappy, stressed, broke, frustrated, I caught a cold. If I ignored the cold (because each time I totally forgot that my body was trying to talk to me and I assumed I was merely sick), it quickly either turned into bronchitis, a sinus infection, or some other dreadful, dramatic outpouring of mucus that put a new meaning on the term “phlegmatic.” So I ignored the cold.
And soon, I noticed it wasn’t leaving. That constant discomfort in my nose, that constant feeling of not being able to breathe, that pressing in my head persisted. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. Finally I recognized it. I was getting a sinus infection. “Oh no! “ I moaned. I already saw the doctor bill, the prescription cost, cancelling the few classes I had, cash register bells started ringing in my head alongside the throbbing. The last time I had a sinus infection, it had ended up costing me over $200. And then as I passed the coffee table, I saw the catalog with my jacket calling to me.
I burst into tears. I sat down on the couch and began to talk to God, my default higher self, the universe, the etheric field that creates reality, and Tinkerbell. “PLEASE! Don’t make it a sinus infection! Please, please, please. If it’s not a sinus infection I promise to buy the jacket!” There was silence. Of course, what did I expect, for God to say, “OK, deal?” I sat there, and after a few minutes I was completely overwhelmed with a shocking feeling. It wasn’t words, no voice talked to me. But I realized that I literally had to put my money where my mouth was. I had to buy the jacket first.
So I charged it. You’d think I was buying a house, I was so afraid to spend that money. The next morning I woke up, and the sinus infection was gone. Did I create the sinus infection to justify buying the jacket? Did the adrenaline from putting $275 on my charge card knock out the irritation? Was I already recovering and didn’t know it? All I know is that I wear that jacket to this day.
Deepak Chopra has often pointed out that we all own the finest pharmacy in the world: our bodies. Drugs are chemicals, just like the chemicals constantly being manufactured in every human organism. Would that each of us had the will and power to bump up that serotonin, tone down the cortisol, or re-boot the adrenaline and testosterone whenever we notice we’re feeling blue, weak, or having trouble sleeping, losing weight, or just getting one too many wrinkles.
A friend of mine was absolutely convinced that she had the power to control her own health. She began each day by repeating, “I am in perfect health.” It was a brutal winter, one snowstorm after another. Patients were coming into the office with multiple levels of winter related colds and flus. Nancy began sneezing. Then she began coughing. Each day I’d stop by her office. “How are you, Nancy?” I’d ask.
She’d blow her nose, and smile. “I’m in perfect health,” she’d reply. Day after day, the pile of used tissues filled her waste basket. One day I walked by and she had her head on her desk. “Nancy! You OK?” I asked.
She looked up. Her nose was bright red, her eyes runny. “I’m in perfect health,” she croaked. She finally broke down and got antibiotics and recovered nicely.
Was it the antibiotics? Or the power of the doctor’s word? Or some magic intersection of both? Placebo, or the power of belief, often isn’t enough. The trick is to have the wisdom to know when I need to rely on someone else’s word to heal me.
Several years ago, I had a bout with allergies. Along with my asthma, I had spent entire childhood summers medicated against various allergies. It had profoundly affected my energy and my ability to participate in activities with other kids. So I had determined to never rely on drugs when I had an allergy attack.
I couldn’t stop sneezing. I couldn’t breathe. A doctor friend of mine said, “Why don’t you try some Claritin?”
“Claritin!” I was horrified. “I don’t want to get hooked on that cycle of drugs again!”
He sighed. “At this point, the cilia in your mucus membranes are on fire. They are perceiving every breath as a threat. Taking one Claritin will calm It down, so you can breathe and recover.”
He grinned. “Maybe two.”
I took the Claritin. He was right. Or did I just believe his Word?
My first resort is always the Word. I still take pain, illness and dis-ease as a signal to have a conversation with my inner pharmacy. What have I not honored? What is out of balance? Where have I strayed off my path? I don’t just walk around telling myself I’m healthy. Instead, in the quiet I try to listen. Maybe I need to rest. Change direction in a career choice. Give up sugar. (That one was hard to hear.) But I’ve come to realize that sometimes the Word will come from outside myself. The trick is to trust the voice in myself even if it tells me what I don’t want to hear.