Updated: Sep 19
Looking at the root causes of ill health.
I recently hosted a discussion with Alice Cutler at The Green Gathering festival about how health is not just personal, it’s political too. Alice and I have been long time friends and collaborators in the environmental justice and migrant solidarity movements and came together
to start this conversation out of a shared passion and curiosity for exploring the interplay between the individual, social and political when it comes to health. This is my summary of this discussion, in two parts. Part one focuses on how the society we live in impacts our individual health and part two focuses on how we as individuals carry habits and behaviours from society in to our work for social change.
Part 1: Can we fully heal as individuals without changing the society that oppresses us?
‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society’. Krishnamurti.
When I was on my journey of recovering from ME/CFS it started to become clear why I had disconnected from myself: personal experiences in my childhood played a huge part in the development of coping strategies that served me at the time but later generated illness, however the picture is bigger than this. We receive constant messages, from a young age and into adulthood, that tell us we are not enough and encourage us to disconnect. It is a huge part of the society we live in, so much so that we may not even notice it, and it serves to keep the wheels of capitalism rolling.
As a child we may not be given the appropriate space or support to be with our emotions, either because we are going through a traumatic experience like abuse or neglect (known as big ‘T’ trauma) or simply because our parents/ caregivers don’t have the knowledge or ability to provide it for us (known as little ‘t’ trauma), causing us to suppress our feelings in order to maintain our attachments. This suppression is a survival mechanism and it generates a disconnect between our body and mind that helps us at the time but can go on to negatively impact our health if not properly worked through with support. This may happen for some but for many this detachment is reinforced on a daily basis by a society that pushes us to disconnect from ourselves, each other and nature.
Marginalised groups experience oppression in the form of racism, sexism, classism and transphobia (to name a few) and a key part of enduring oppression is dismembering: we must detach from the part of us that feels the pain. We have to numb that part of ourselves so that we can live past that incident, it is a survival instinct. These wounds can be healed by learning to listen and respond to our feelings in a nurturing environment but we must be in a safe space in order to do this and this amount of vulnerability is not safe for many people in modern Western society.
These forms of oppression cause individual trauma but they are systemic issues that are the foundations of a society whose economic structure of endless growth and the accumulation of wealth necessitates the domination of others.
As well as the bigger traumas experienced by marginalised groups there is the everyday assault of capitalism. We are pushed further away from nature and community and closer to screens and isolation. Messages in the media and advertising sell us an image of looking and feeling a certain way and having the right accessories. As children we are taught that people who are strong and successful are those who don’t show any strong emotions; a common message is 'boys shouldn’t cry' and 'girls shouldn’t be angry'.
As adults if we are disconnected from ourselves then we work harder and longer hours, we shop, drink alcohol or go on our phones to get a quick dopamine hit. We can find ourselves valuing appearance over connection and production over experiences. It is how we get through each day and it is all great for business. We are often too exhausted and overwhelmed to act against it. We feel angry but we push it down and then it occasionally pops out in the form of uncontrollable rage, often at an unrelated target. Then we decide there is a problem with ourselves so perhaps we go to the doctors, get a diagnosis and medicate our symptoms away and it might help for a while but we often end up back in the same place. We don’t trust our feelings or our bodies so we google everything and look to ‘experts’ to make decisions for us. Or maybe we try to meditate our way out, telling ourselves we need to work harder at ‘staying calm’, when perhaps there are legitimate reasons to be angry and that energy could even be helpful if we knew how to use it appropriately. All of these ways of coping have their place and help keep us afloat, the medical industry in particular has saved lives when nothing else could, but perhaps being anxious, distrustful and angry are healthy responses to living in modern society. Meanwhile these habits we have adopted serve to profit some of the biggest industries in the world: technological, cosmetics, tobacco and retail, to name a few, and when we're not coping the pharmaceutical and prison industries benefit.
Mindfulness, exercise, healthy eating and nature are also amazing and necessary parts of staying
physically and mentally well but they have in many ways been co-opted by the ‘self-care industrial complex’; sold back to us as a way to live through another day at work. We are encouraged to personalise our everyday trauma rather than looking at the root causes of our distress. With the right support there certainly is much we can do to reconnect ourselves, the work I do with the MindBody Reconnect is a testament to this, it is incredibly powerful and life changing, but not everybody can access this kind of support and this issue isn’t just personal, it is political.
In order to recover from ME/CFS I had to unlearn a lot of what modern society had taught me about myself; my default way of functioning that I had developed as a way of getting by, as if on autopilot, was not serving me. I had to listen to my body, observe what it was telling me and actively choose how to respond. I had to ignore information from people I had been conditioned to respect and learn to respect myself: my knowledge and experiences. This was not easy but it was incredibly empowering and it gave me my health back. I had many challenges to overcome and I am a relatively privileged white, middle class, (cis) woman- we need to challenge the foundations of modern life so that everyone can obtain the healing they need. Or perhaps so that we are not living in a society that is making us sick in the first place.
Dr Sanah Ahsan summarises it beautifully:
‘If a plant were wilting we wouldn’t diagnose it with “wilting-plant-syndrome” – we would change its conditions. Yet when humans are suffering under unliveable conditions, we’re told something is wrong with us, and expected to keep pushing through. To keep working and producing, without acknowledging our hurt.’
Written by Alice Bowley
Alice Bowley was active in social justice campaigns until she crashed and burnt out resulting in suffering from ME/CFS for 3 years. She recovered fully by reconnecting her mind and body and working through trauma, including that imposed by our society. She is a practitioner with The MindBody Reconnect, guiding other people in their recovery from chronic illness. (www.alicebowleymbr.com)
Alice Cutler Clarke worked for 12 years with people seeking asylum and learned a lot about trauma and health. She organised with Patients not Passports and is currently studying Public Health where she is researching trauma informed care and its impact on improving health for people seeking asylum.