Autoimmune Disease and the Stories We Tell Ourselves



Being told you have an autoimmune disease is a uniquely frightening experience. After dealing with mysterious, painful, and debilitating symptoms, someone has told you the cause of your illness is: yourself. Usually when we get sick, we think of the cause as coming from outside of ourselves, the result of a virus, bacteria, or physical trauma, but in this case, it’s your own immune system–the part of your physiology supposed to keep you health

For many patients, this may seem like a betrayal–like your own body has turned on you, and is working against itself.

From the perspective of conventional biomedicine, there are many medications and drug regimens that can control autoimmune reactions, but what the majority have in common is that they are trying to suppress the immune system. Since your body’s defense mechanisms have turned against themselves, the logic goes, we need to turn off these systems and this will control the symptoms. And all of this can work well, up to a point – but it often comes with certain side effects, some of which can be severe. After all, these medications are in effect turning off the part of your body responsible for protecting your cells and tissues against external threats, like bacteria, and internal threats, like cancer.

Even with advances in pharmaceuticals, it’s unlikely for that not to come with certain side effects.

The conventional calculus is that these side effects are acceptable trade-offs.

Yes, perhaps this medication comes with debilitating side effects – perhaps some of which might even kill you –but this is surely worth it, right? The basic perspective of conventional biomedicine is that this aspect of your body is broken, that it cannot heal itself, and therefore our best option is to just shut down the parts of it that don’t work. You do this by continuously taking medication that will keep the systems locked down enough to lead a semblance of a normal life. There may be consequences for this, perhaps now or perhaps down the road, but what other choice do you have?

There are other options to explore!

The statement “My immune system is broken and cannot repair itself” seems like an absolute truth. But ultimately, it’s just a story about the body we tell ourselves. It’s a convincing story, one with the full weight of the medical and scientific establishment behind it. And maybe in the presence of debilitating and frightening symptoms, it’s also a comforting story, because at least it helps you get a handle on what’s happening. After months or even years of strange and mysterious symptoms, having a label and a story for this strange process of illness can seem like an enormous relief.

But it’s important to keep in mind that label, that story, is exactly that –a story.

And it doesn’t have to be the only story we tell ourselves.

Human beings are story-telling animals; we spin stories the way spiders spin webs. Narrative is so natural to us we don’t notice it. It’s something we tell ourselves to organize our perceptions and make sense of our reality. It’s important to realize that all forms of medicine come with narratives embedded in them. These narratives themselves are an integral part of the healing process.

Now by itself a narrative is probably not capable of treating disease – you might make your headache go away by changing the story you tell yourself, but you’re probably better served by taking an Advil (better yet, by getting acupuncture!) But what a narrative does, in the context of medicine, is to tell us a story about what medicine is, as what our possibilities for health and healing are.

This means that a medical narrative can reveal certain potentials for healing – and it can also close off other potentials.

We’ve already seen the narrative of conventional biomedicine – that your body is flawed, and you are essentially powerless without pharmaceutical intervention. Chinese Medicine has a different perspective on the body’s ability to heal itself. Whereas conventional biomedicine emphasizes the body’s fragility, we emphasize its regenerative potential. We have full confidence and trust in the body’s innate intelligence and capacity for self-healing – it’s just a matter of redirecting certain processes.

As Chinese Medicine practitioners, we have knowledge and tools honed over thousands of years of continuous practice on how to help guide your body to deliver the response that will enable to you to recover your health.

Does this mean we can “cure” you of your disorder? Not necessarily. But it means that Chinese Medicine can offer you a whole vista of possibility for healing that does not exist in the conventional paradigm. Rather than proclaiming you are broken, or weighing you down with a lifelong diagnosis, we work with the body’s own natural intelligence.

We can’t guarantee a cure, but what we can guarantee is that with treatment you will experience less pain, greater ease, a deeper sense of well-being, and significant improvements in all the functions of your daily life. And the potential for all of this comes from within yourself. It’s just a matter of unlocking it, with the keys provided us by Chinese Medicine, keys like acupuncture, herbal medicine and qigong.

If any of this resonates, and you'd like to learn more, get on the schedule!

Written by Eric Grey

Co-founder of Watershed Wellness, Chinese herbalist, Acupuncturist and Teacher. I enjoy Oregon, the natural world, music, Star Trek and philosophy when I'm not practicing and studying medicine.