When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, my neurologist explained to me in broad terms what happened in the brain of people with this condition. I realized it was an autoimmune disease, to which she said yes, it could be considered an autoimmune disease. I sobbed a little more (I sobbed the whole time) and asked her “So this is another way I found to hurt myself?” She told me not to think about it that way but looking back it makes perfect sense that I have an autoimmune disease (two, if you count with endometriosis). I never tolerated myself much, always brought myself down, and due to specific circumstances in my upbringing I never had much emotional independence, sense of self, or psychological boundaries. So no wonder my body was confused and shooting whatever seemed like a nice thing to shoot.
Autoimmunity fascinates me from every perspective. From a biological point of view, it’s not very smart, is it? It’s just pure self-destruction. From a psychological point of view, can our body really reflect a poor sense of self? Or is there more to it that we don’t even dream of? It remains a mystery, one that scientists are still trying to find answers to. And the list of autoimmune diseases keeps growing, as evidence suggests well-known diseases such as schizophrenia may have an autoimmune pathogenesis. Wikipedia lists many of these with links to scientific articles. It’s worth taking a look.
It is also worth taking a look at how other authors see autoimmunity. In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert M. Sapolsky notes that both physical and psychological stressors seem to cause an early stage of immune activation. However, long-term/chronic stress begins to have the opposite effect, namely, suppressing immunity. But why can’t we not just let our system remain at the enhanced, improved level achieved with temporary stressors and “get the benefits of an activated immune system all the time? Metaphorically, why not have your military that defends you always on maximal alert? For one thing, it costs too much,” he explains. “And, even more important, a system that’s always on maximal, hair-trigger alert is more likely to get carried away at some point and shoot one of your own guys in a friendly fire accident. And that’s what can happen with immune systems that are chronically activated – they begin to mistake part of you for being something invasive, and you’ve got yourself an autoimmune disease.”
Doctor Gabor Maté also links autoimmunity with chronic stress, but he goes further along the way explaining that chronic stress most of the times originates from relationship patterns established during childhood. In When The Body Says No he writes that “The blurring of psychological boundaries during childhood becomes a significant source of future physiological stress in the adult.” He notes that “Within the individual organism, physical mutiny results from an immunologic confusion that perfectly mirrors the unconscious psychological confusion of self and non-self” and adds that “Cancer and ALS and MS and rheumatoid arthritis and all these other conditions, it seems to me, happen to people who have a poor sense of themselves as independent persons. On the emotional level, that is – they can be highly accomplished in the arts or intellectually – but on an emotional level they have a poorly differentiated sense of self. They live in reaction to others without ever really sensing who they themselves are.”
This unfortunately makes perfect sense to me considering my personal history. I’m not sure how it applies to the millions of people diagnosed with these diseases but I think it adds a valuable ingredient to the genetic and environmental factors we know about. You see, I always wondered why my sister had mono when I was 8 and I didn’t catch it then, even though I would steal her lipsticks and drink from the same cups. I caught it when I was 18. And why when exposed to the same flu virus some people are bed-ridden and other just have mild symptoms? The virus is the same, right? So there’s got to be something in our immune systems, which in turn are highly influenced by our emotions, that determines whether we’re going to get sick or not.
There is a famous story about Louis Pasteur that illustrates this view. Claude Bernard, his contemporary, thought that germs would only cause harm to the body if it presented the right conditions for them to thrive. He emphasized that it was more important to keep the organism “clean” and in balance than to attack the germs. Pasteur didn’t agree. He thought germs and microbes were the only reason people got sick. However, later in his life he came to change his mind. He’s quoted as saying on his deathbed, “Bernard avait raison. Le germe n’est rien, c’est le terrain qui est tout.” (“Bernard was right. The microbe is nothing, the soil is everything.”)