In the medical ‘war’ against disease and the attempt to ‘heal’ illness by whatever means, conventional or unconventional, the potentially healing value of illness is entirely ignored. Existential Medicine is founded on an understanding that illness, ill-health, or ‘disease’ can in itself be beneficial and ‘healthy’ in many different ways:
- Giving somatic expression to a felt ‘dis-ease’ – the way in which a person feels ill-at-ease with themselves, other people or their lives in some way.
- Forcing a person to take ‘time out’ from merely ‘functioning’ in a ‘healthy’ way by developing some diagnosable disorder or ‘dysfunction’.
- Helping people to feel, focus on and confront painful problems – even if only through the way in which physical pain can focus the mind.
- Bringing a person to a necessary ‘crisis’ in the root sense of the word – a decisive ‘turning point’ in their lives.
- Allowing a person to fully express and reveal intense emotional pain by feeling and expressing it as a reaction to intense physical pain – moaning and groaning.
- Incapacitating a person in a way that allows them to accept already-existing limits to their capacities – limits they might otherwise have sought (or been put under pressure) to deny and overcome.
- Letting a person become dependent on others in a socially acceptable way, thereby allowing them to express dependency needs in themselves which they might otherwise have fought or rejected.
- Enabling a person to indirectly ask for and receive emotional care through care of our bodies and through being taken care of as ‘patients’.
- Helping a person to give more time and be more patient with themselves and others by becoming ‘a patient’.
- Providing a temporary respite from life problems through a temporary identity as ‘patient’ or victim of a particular illness.
- Providing a temporary but coherent organising principle for a person’s life – built around their symptoms or around timetables of rest and treatment.
- Overcoming isolation and offering a medium of human contact through relationships with physicians or through the social environment of a hospital ward.
- Putting a person into an altered state of consciousness – one in which they are able to feel themselves or look at their lives and problems in a different way.
- Stopping a person from living in their heads and minds and making them feel their bodies again – thereby giving them a fuller, more embodied sense of self.
- Bringing about changes in a person’s ‘body identity’ – allowing them to give birth to a different bodily sense of self and one with a positive effect on their lives and relationships.
- Giving symbolic expression to a person’s felt dis-ease. For example heart conditions as a metaphorical expression of either ‘loss of heart’ or ‘heartlessness’, ‘cold-heartedness’ or ‘faint-heartedness’ etc.
This last point brings us to the heart of the contrast between Biological Medicine and Existential Medicine. Existential Medicine understands somatic symptoms and illnesses as ‘body dreams’ (or nightmares) with both a general and a highly personal symbolic meaning. The most basic of the core assumptions of ‘scientific’ medicine – namely that illness has no meaning – is comparable to the attitude of materialist science towards dreams and nightmares before Freud. Dreams, like illnesses, were denied any symbolic meaning or beneficial value. Whereas Freud sought scientific methods of interpreting the meaning of dream symbols and events, modern medicine makes no attempt whatsoever to develop methods for the interpretation of somatic symptoms or disorders as body symbols or ‘embodied dreams’.
Finally, we must not forget the importance of illness as a quite natural way out of this life – as a way of dying. The ‘war’ that biological medicine wages on disease is part of a general war against the basic existential realities of aging and death in culture that values quantitative longevity over quality of life, and through a science that denies the eternal life of the ‘psyche’ and its body – our subjective or felt body.
The individual’s felt dis-ease and their felt body is not merely the way they subjectively feel their physical body and its condition. On the contrary, the physical body is but the outer, physical expression of the individual’s psychical body – their subjective body or felt body, and with it, the bodily sense of self or felt self. The illness process begins with a vague sense of ‘not feeling ourselves’ – and yet can lead us to ‘feeling another self’ and to bodying that self in new, more fulfilling ways of being-in-the-world.