I always liked the saying “The illness is the cure”. Why? Because in the area of mental health, it alerts us to something profoundly insightful about the nature of the psychological and emotional problems most people struggle with.
Whether we feel depressed, have panic attacks, or generally feel weak, bad, or inadequate, these kinds of problematic states and ways of suffering are rarely ever simply problems to be removed or eradicated. They are NOT the illness, but like a fever or a cough, a symptom that alerts us to something about our life or our approach to life that is off-kilter, wrong, or in need of change.
Like the red lamps on the dashboard of a car, they alert us to the problem, but are not themselves the problem.
The Fallacy of Treating the Symptom as the Cause:
There is a real fallacy here that many people fall into if they do not realize this nature of their psychological distress.
If they simply think of their anxiety or their depression as the problem, then they might try to medicate the symptom to the exclusion of finding out why the symptom is really there.
In some sense this approach would be tantamount to attempting to solve a car issue by smashing the red light on the dashboard.
However, when you realize that the psyche uses the symptom of depression or anxiety to alert us to the fact that it is ill or that something in our life needs to change, our symptom becomes more of a friend than a foe. It now serves as a calling to resolve an issue which we may have been avoiding or which has stumped us in some way.
As in the saying “the illness is the cure” it serves merely as the first step toward the cure, and as such it is in fact the first step toward a transformation and reorganization that needs to occur for balance and health to be restored.
Way too often, we short-circuit this natural healing process because we get frightened by the calling and can’t see the road ahead. We mistake the symptom for the cause, and the burgeoning cure for the illness itself.
Discovering the Truth of Our Symptoms:
There is a depth of understanding that has gotten lost in our current search for quick fixes and immediate happiness, but was always there in the minds of the founders of the craft we now call psychotherapy.
A psychiatrist like Carl Jung, for example, beautifully wrote about heeding our symptoms as a calling:
“Depression”, he said, “is like a woman in black. If she turns up, don’t shoo her away. Invite her in, offer her a seat, treat her like a guest and listen to what she wants to say.”
Even poets have alerted us to the fact that our distress is merely a signpost toward making necessary changes. As Rainer Marie Rilke writes:
“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don't know what work these conditions are doing inside you? … If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.”
Sigmund Freud, too, reminded us of the danger of not listening to our symptoms, for as he rightly warns us:
“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways”
The Calling of Symptoms is to "Know Thyself":
So much gets lost when we don't heed the advice to listen to our symptoms and pursue them as the first step toward a cure.
Depression, anxiety, badness, and upset, cures itself once its truth is understood and its emotional conflicts disentangled.
The calling of mental illness is to “know thyself”.
The calling is not for a dimming of your awareness through medication, quick fixes, or a rush to premature action, but for an expansion of your consciousness, so you can reap the benefits of your psyche’s own wisdom, and find out more about what is meaningful and central to you at your core.
Illness is not a destination, but a way-station, and those who dare to unlock its message will be amply rewarded and transformed in the process.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. psychologist in Houston, TX. I help people work through their symptoms of anxiety and depression to achieve a transformation to a better, lighter, and more centered self. Visit my website for more information.