Faith. It is a word with which I have uncomfortable for much of my life. One reason is the association that it has in particular religious contexts, and the way commonly cited descriptions of this world view did not sit with the skeptical, rationalist approach to viewing the world that I harbored for a long period of time. 

Another reason is that faith implies a willingness to yield to forces outside of one’s control, and this notion doesn’t sit well with people who believe they have the power to change circumstances around them to satisfy their own needs and desires, rather than trying to accept, and to find contentment within, whatever circumstances arise within the present moment. 

If this latter reason describes your personality then perhaps you’ve learned, like me, that the journey is an on going one: of continually reminding oneself to LET GO. One essential lesson on the spiritual journey is that you don’t get to bring all of your baggage with you. 

I have also learned to appreciate the value and perspective of many people who identify as part of a faith based religion, even if I do not identify as part of such a group myself. Moreover, while I certainly view religious dogmatism as a reactionary societal force, I’ve come to recognize that ideological extremism is a problem in many schools of thought, not simply those of a religious nature.

If you’ve followed this podcast or blog for some time now, you appreciate that, in fact, religious studies is very much something that I value. Perhaps you’ve even picked up on the sense of “faith” that I’ve slowly cultivated over time. Ram Dass’ notion of Grace has been a powerful teaching in this regard.

Recently, though, faith has taken on a new meaning for me in a different context: healing. I’m realizing that faith is essential on the healing journey, regardless of if you call yourself a Christian, a Buddhist or an Atheist.

In India, they say when you are ready, the guru appears. Perhaps a more accessible way in which to think of this idea is the notion of serendipity: if your eyes are truly open, you find that life will present you with the right teacher when you need him or her at the right time.

Jeffrey Yuen, Daoist Priest and renowned Doctor of Classical Chinese Medicine, has been that person for me. Dr. Yuen has said many things to me that have been indispensable on my healing journey, but his most powerful message was a very simple one, which I will paraphrase in my own words:

Whatever form of treatment you chose—Western medicine or Chinese Medicine—you have to have faith that it will work. If you do not truly believe that this course of treatment will make you better then your condition will very likely not improve. Therefore, faith is an indispensable asset on the healing journey. 

Like many good ideas, this one seems obvious. However, like many timeless pieces of wisdom, there is a reason that people have to repeat them again and again. Every day, in every culture, there are people who are talked into, even coerced into, forms of treatment that they do not truly believe will make them better.

For many people this is sadly because this is the only form of treatment they can afford. Undoubtedly, though, there are many people who are talked into forms of treatment because the proposed approach is the dominant medical paradigm around which consensus has emerged in their society. Simply put: it’s what everyone else is doing.

Westerners find it quite dumbfounding that something like taking herbs or acupuncture could actually treat serious conditions or diseases. Here’s one interesting thing that I’ve learned from living eight years in Asia: many people in Asia find it quite curious that many Westerners believe that popping a pill will solve all of their problems.

As with other issues, there is wisdom in different cultural perspectives, and as I’m arguing for in this post: the optimal approach to medicine integrates the strengths of both Western and Eastern approaches to medicine. Personally, I very much want to leverage the power of western science and medicine in many aspects of my life, many of which I enjoy discussing on this platform. 

But I would have gladly taken my chances with a Chinese Medicine doctor to treat my acid reflux rather than a conventional Western medicine approach. If I had never touched PPIs, it seems very hard to believe that I would have osteoporosis today, at the age of 37. If I didn’t have the opportunity to mask the unpleasant symptoms by simply popping a pill, I would very likely have addressed the underlying cause: what I ate and the way that I ate. As with many other areas in life, short cuts are often too good to be true.

Western medicine is slowly waking up to the reality that the conventional approach of viewing the body as a set of isolated parts, rather than an integrated system, is a very limited approach to treatment, to say nothing of healing (and no, treatment and healing are not the same thing). Moreover, Western medicine is also very slowly waking up to the fact that simply treating the symptom, rather than addressing the underlying cause, often creates more problems than it solves. 

I accept that faith is not rational, but it is deeply personal. It is not only my own experiences but also the experiences of people about whom I cared most that have shaken my own faith in the conventional Western medical approach. My parents had access to some of the best health care in the United States, being based in St. Louis with Washington University and hospitals like Barnes-Jewish.

In hindsight, this blessing has seemed more like a curse, as their health care left them with experience after experience with which too many Americans are familiar: taking a prescription drug eventually created a new set of problems which demanded the use of..yet another prescription drug, which then created a new set of side effects, which required yet another prescription drug. Continuing on and on in a vicious cycle.

Yet the main point of this post is not to indict conventional western medicine or the pharmaceutical industry but to share one truth I’m learning through this healing journey: you must have faith in whatever system of treatment you are pursuing. 

I’m a big fan of data and evidence and rational arguments. But personal experience and stories should not be discounted. Intuition should also be honored. The particular patterns of our past weave the context in which we make decisions in the present moment.

If you believe a conventional western medical approach is the right treatment for you, perhaps because you’ve seen it work for family members or friends, then I genuinely believe that’s the course of treatment you should pursue…if that’s the treatment plan in which you have faith.

Clearly, there are many positive stories out there. Everyone is indeed different. Notably, there are different schools of medicine within western medicine which seem to take a more integrated approach due to the very nature of the discipline (from my novice perspective, endocrinology seems to fit this bill). 

Moreover, there are emerging paradigms within Western medicine that are more integrated, such as functional medicine. Clearly these approaches are a response to the limitations of the western medical approach from within the system itself. In trying to understand osteoporosis and to repair my own gut health, it’s become evident that there are some very exciting, innovative approaches to medicine happening in an integrated way from an increasing number of doctors in the US and other western countries.

Yet it seems like for far too many people in developed countries their health care is leaving them with pernicious, unintended consequences. This is perhaps most acutely the case in the United States.

Since being diagnosed with osteoporosis, I have had a number of doctors tell me that I should be on prescription drugs, many of whom I deeply respect and trust. But I’m also very clear on what feels right to me and, personally, I don’t believe I’m going to dig myself out of this ditch using the same shovel that got me in here. 

To a large extent, I’m in this situation because of prescription drugs and a reductionist approach to treating my acid reflux. Clearly, not all situations are the same and perhaps one day a prescription drug will be an important response to a condition that I have. Dogmatism isn’t good in any form, regardless of the underlying ethos.

Right now, I want to put my faith in a treatment plan that is premised on the idea that 1) the human body is an integrated biological system that must be treated holistically, not in isolated parts and 2) the body-mind-spirit has an innate capacity to heal itself. 

While I certainly do not wish that I had osteoporosis, particularly at this age, I feel gratitude that I am confronting this challenge at this time in history, for we are on the cusp of witnessing a paradigm shift in western medicine that is moving towards precisely a model of treatment that integrates the rigor, precision and innovation of the West with the holistic and integrated approach from the East.

An approach to medicine that leverages the best of both Western medicine and Eastern medicine, specifically Classical Chinese medicine, is an approach to healing in which I am willing to put my faith. The sense of optimism and hope that comes from this sense of faith has already shifted the way that I not only approach my treatment, but the way that I live my life on a moment to moment basis. And that, in itself, is healing.

Dealing with Dis-ease

In January of 2017, just shy of my 36th birthday I was diagnosed with osteoporosis. Conventionally, a diagnosis of osteoporosis is determined by a DEXA scan, which assesses, among other things, one’s Bone Mineral Density (BMD). If you have a T score below -2.5 you are said to have osteoporosis. 

Usually, they will measure a few key parts of the body to assess BMD. Typically, it is the lumbar spine and the hip; often, the forearm is included as well. My T score left me with a diagnosis of osteoporosis in my lumbar spine and forearm, and “osteopeonia,” basically low BMD, in my hip. 

Given my age, I was shocked. Above all, I was scared…frightened less of the reality that I was facing in the present, because my attention did not linger in the present for too long, but rather fearful of an imaginary future, the disturbing contours of which my mind was rapidly constructing. 

As the mind often does when it builds a picture of the future, it drew on memories from the past, and my past was filled with ammunition to make me particularly terrified of such a diagnosis. 

I recalled images of my childhood, watching my father have one vertebrate after the next blow out, leaving a man who was an active outdoorsman, full of vigor and life, largely incapacitated and unable to pursue the passions and hobbies that gave him joy.

Though my father had degenerative disk disease, and only later had osteoporosis which undoubtedly exacerbated but did not cause his condition, this knowledge offered little consolation. It was the association my mind latched onto. Even now, understanding the distinction between his situation and my own, the specter of this image still haunts me.  

Yet here’s the bizarre thing about even the most shocking of medical diagnoses: the mind has a powerful capacity for cognitive dissonance.

This is the story I told myself: 

My condition could only be explained by prolonged use of Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs), such as Nexium and Prilosec, which I used to treat my acid reflux, from the time I was in my late teens. 

I will write more on PPIs in another blog post but I’ll cut to the chase right now: if you are taking PPIs, stop taking them

[It turns out that you need stomach acid, that long term use of PPIs can significantly put you at risk for osteoporosis and increase your chances for a fracture. PPIs can also lead to other digestive problems, as you need stomach acid to break down food and absorb essential nutrients, including calcium. There are other, more effective ways to treat acid reflux.]

Clearly, I surmised, what else could explain osteoporosis in someone my age if it weren’t for the PPIs? So I stopped taking the PPIs immediately. I started some relevant supplementation, in particular increasing my levels of Vitamin D. 

In retrospect though, my efforts seem paltry. I stopped far short of asking questions, and was not nearly aggressive enough in my treatment strategy. Underpinning this complacency was the assumption that surely my problems could be explained by a single variable, and the removal of this variable from the equation would gradually improve my condition. 

When I went back for my follow up scan nearly two years later I was hoping for at least a modest improvement in my BMD, thinking that a bad case scenario would be no improvement. In retrospect, it seems incredibly naive, but my mind had not even seriously entertained the possibility that my condition could have worsened. Without the PPIs, given my otherwise very healthy diet and lifestyle, what else could have explained my initial diagnosis? Surely, my condition would improve, if not hold stable. 

Or so I thought.

While there are many things I would have done differently following that initial diagnosis, the biggest thing I want to share with other people is this: do not make assumptions about what is causing your condition, whatever you might be facing. 

Do not accept the first opinion of your doctor no matter how good. You need to be persistent and relentless in getting to the bottom of what’s ailing you. As I’m now discovering, this often entails a process of elimination before you can even begin to hone in on a set of plausible explanations for what might be underlying your problems.

This is the position in which I now find myself, and this is one of the central dilemmas that I find myself facing: how to manage The Fear?

Fear: we can respond to respond to it in so many different ways. Denial is one. Determination is another. It didn’t take too many days after my second diagnosis to transition me from this first phase to the second one.

I can honestly say that I don’t spend a day, even a minute, regretting how I spent the last two years, not because I wouldn’t have done things differently (clearly, I would have), but simply because regretting the past is simply a waste of precious mental bandwidth I need to solve my problem, to reverse my condition. 

Right now there is only conceivable outcome in my mind, one possible end to this story: changing these circumstances. Not managing it, Not learning to live with it. But reversing it. Overcoming it. Triumph.

Sometimes acceptance means learning to live with your condition, and undoubtedly one day, whether it is this disease or another one that I meet on the way to my ultimate demise, that will clearly be a worthwhile mindset to embrace. 

But I’m not there yet. I’m not ready to entertain the current set of conventional treatment options with their predictable prescription drugs and typical litany of caveats and side effects, the inevitable outcome of a reductionist approach to medicine that focuses only on treating the symptoms, not addressing the underlying cause and restoring the imbalance of an integrated mind-body system. 

Right now I’m focused on one thing: re writing my story. Through this process I hope to learn a few things that will enable me to help others lighten their load on the healing journey as well. 

In the meantime, I’m trying to savor the small things more, to deepen my gratitude and appreciation for all of the things I can now do, with the heightened awareness that one day, whether in one year or in many years down the line, I will be unable to participate in not only the things that I love, but in all of the little things that I too often take for granted.

Every day I’m making anew the conscious decision to allow hope, not fear, to be the guiding force in my life.