Body and mind

There was this recent newspaper story on an experimental alternative treatment of thalassaemia patients using naturally grown wheatgrass or a synthetic equivalent such as hydroxyurea whereby at least some patients (especially those afflicted with thalassaemia-intermedia and even a few suffering from thalassemia-major) got a visible relief in terms of a distinct reduction in the frequency of blood transfusion. A patient from Ahmednagar, Maharastra, India, who normally required transfusion every fifteen days, after taking this treatment finds himself not needing for the past several months this painful and relentless harnessing of his body to technologically stave off the progression of the disease. After coming out of several restrictions that formed an integral part of his life, for the first time he felt that he was leading a normal life that escaped him since childhood. He claimed that his attitude to life has become positive, just as the economics governing his life also looks up.

A doddering tooth that was causing a lot of pain lately came off the other day on its own. Mercifully, there was no bloodletting. The ancient tooth just fell off, tired of its uselessness in the proceedings. And there was a palpable relief. One felt almost liberated. As if one was bound to a barrier suffused with pain that blurred the vision ahead. Now that the barrier fell off one could tear away from a bondage that was coming in the way of moving ahead, thinking, planning, eating, doing, as indeed, living without a reminder of the frailness of the edifice that is one’s body.

I know a diabetic who contracted diabetes (type II) in the early forties. Having had his fasting and post-prandial blood sugar numbers under control over the next decade and a half with diet, minor life style adjustments and mild medicine he became a little smug about not allowing the disorder to take control of his life. However, somewhere down the line he began to see some dark spin offs of diabetes and also the recalcitrant response of the critical numbers to a drug he was using earlier with confidence. As though the sweet assassin busily coursing through his arteries and veins remains unruffled by the puny attempts made by ineffectual medicines and is focused on its long-term goals.

Being pursued by an unseen adversary not knowing remit, living on a razor’s edge doing just the right amount of exercise, eating the right food (denying oneself any indulgence); remembering and taking ever growing number of pills in an involved schedule (some before meals, some after); taking periodic tests and keeping an watch on the numbers staring from the crisp print outs handed in by the analyst’s assistant; living under a cloud of escalating price of drugs and hoping that his chemist does not procure medicines from a wholesaler who passes off chalk or some such stuff in regulation packaging as drugs. Quite apart from the impaired glucose producing capability of his pancreas the man clearly has become a hostage to his worry and spends a good deal of his mental resources trying to be a little ahead of his disease.

Amazing what an illness does to one, whether it is admitted or not. It seems to drive a wedge between one’s body and the mind. It is as if one’s entire consciousness, the carefully constructed mental world, comes under a persistent endogenous threat potentially big enough to interfere significantly with the apparent autonomy of the mind. Illness may sometimes be perceived as a loss of freedom.

Advancing age probably heightens this sense of loss in another way. So much of our perceptions about our own self runs the risk of being systematically undermined, worn out by the ravages time has wrought on the old faithful body (even if younger people, relatives, friends do not add to the loss intentionally or otherwise). One feels perennially threatened with the progressive shrinkage of that autonomous space which our consciousness builds for us over the years that gives us a sense as if we are always in control of our life, as much as our mind is in complete command over our body.

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