Are My Emotions Making Me Sick?

There is no proven treatment for grief, but we can stave off and mitigate its effects, in part by healing our bodies before our brains.
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Editor's Note: A version of this story first appeared on PSmag.com on December 20, 2014, with the headline "Flare-Ups." This edited version was published in the March/April 2016 print issue.

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When he died, I got sick. He was family—if not by blood then by love. A friend's father. For all but the first few years of my life he had cared for me when others had faltered. He sheltered and fed me, taught me to question and listen and believe, in equal doses. And then, when I was 30, he was gone.

My grief felt like the final moment of falling down, when you hit the ground and rise up too quickly, your body in shock—over and over again. There were times when I would go blank; dark holes of mental space in which I would get lost. My body became staggeringly unreliable, and even breathing required effort. I cried a lot—ugly, deep sobs that left me red-faced and faint, gasping to get enough oxygen.

About a year after my asthma began, I saw a doctor, who gave me an inhaler and told me I might have allergies. I also saw an acupuncturist. She felt the pulses in my wrists for a long time. She looked at my tongue. She asked me about my diet and my bowel movements, my symptoms, and my body's particular quirks or pains.

Then she said: "It's your lungs. Grief. Unresolved grief. Especially related to fathers."

I laughed a little bit in disbelief—she didn't know a father figure of mine had recently died, although she did know I was depressed. Then I burst into tears. And I felt relieved.

In addition to using the inhaler my medical doctor gave me, there are a thousand things I am supposed to do to try and manage my asthma. Get allergy tests. Buy fancy vacuums and dust-mite covers for every fabric surface in my home. Give up my shelves of old books and vinyl records. Performing these acts of self-care is exhausting, expensive, and often difficult to measure in terms of results. The day of that acupuncture appointment, I was delivered a relatively easy diagnosis, a narrative that I could seize on to explain my ongoing illness to myself: I got sick because he died and I never recovered.

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Because we cannot cure our condition, we asthmatics treat the symptoms. I take two different inhalers daily and steroids on occasion. I avoid cold winds and smoky rooms. I swallow capsules of turmeric, which fights inflammation. I practice yoga and breathe deeply. I sit in steam rooms and saunas. I've cut gluten, dairy, and sugar from my diet, and slowly added them back in to determine whether I'm allergic. I've purchased air purifiers, humidifiers, and de-humidifiers. And I get acupuncture.

When I asked about the relationship between grief and my asthma, my acupuncturist put it like this: "Chinese medicine recognizes that when the organs are working properly"—here she made a circular motion with her hands over her abdomen and patted her head with her other hand—"then the head and emotions are healthy."

"But shouldn't it be the other way around?" I asked. "Didn't my emotions cause my illness?"

"Well, it works both ways," she said. "Everything does."

That grief can be, if not a cause, then a source of my asthma is something solid I can hold onto, much more so than doctors' mantras of "We don't know; there is no cure." I'm not sure how medically sound the diagnosis is, either in Chinese or Western medicinal terms. But I don't care. I believe grief is why my lungs don’t work.

I'm not misfiling religion in the science drawer; I know illness is not an emotion. And yet I also know that my grief, like my asthma, is always present. I know that I am deeply sad and I cannot breathe.

There is no proven treatment for grief, and each person—each culture—grieves differently. We can stave off and mitigate its effects. We can find ways to more steadily keep the violent emotional oscillations at bay. I am attracted to the diagnosis of grief in part because it simultaneously gives me responsibility and absolves me of responsibility. If grief is what made me sick, then I could conceivably heal myself.

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