Review: How to Be Sick (Toni Bernhard)

Everything this book says is absolutely true.  Mindfullness is awesome.  Spending energy being angry at reality for not living up to your expectations is not useful.  A calm acceptance of where you are now without attachment to the future is useful in almost any situation.  But my primary feeling reading the book was “This is fine for you, but I’m going to get better, so I’m just going to go wait for that.”  I told that to someone in the waiting room at the IV place who was probably suffering from something pretty serious*, thinking I was making a funny joke about how I had failed at zen, and she said “good for you, keep fighting.”

This captures a lot of the tension around health problems that are prolonged or chronic or ambiguous as to where they fall between the two.  If you “accept your limitations” too hard you end up putting yourself in smaller and smaller boxes until there’s nothing left.  If you don’t accept your limitations enough you push too hard and make yourself worse.  How to Be Sick isn’t falling into those traps.  It’s describing a third way, of zen acceptance that doesn’t overly narrow or widen your vision for the future because it’s not about the future.  The problem is that this is hard to teach.  The author had been practicing Buddhism for 10+ years when she fell ill, and most of the book feels more like describing the benefits or appearance of a mindfulness practice rather than how to achieve it.   I did get one really useful technique out of the book, enough to justify all of the time I spent reading it, and I suspect that will be true for a lot of people so I do recommend it.  It’s just not magic.

Although maybe it kind of is.  I ordered the book from the library when my doctor looked at me and said “maybe being pain free isn’t a realistic goal for you and you need to redirect your energy to learning to cope with it.”  But then I saw a specialist who told me that the damage was healing, would probably be finished in about a year, and in the meantime enjoy this pain medication that leaves you almost pain free.  So I can’t rule out that this book actually is magic, and if you are at the point where you’re considering books with subtitles like “A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers”, you probably are going to try weirder things in your attempt to heal yourself.  So give it a shot and please report back.

*I’m there to mainline protein because my teeth and stomach aren’t up to the task of eating enough to heal me, but a lot of people are there for debilitating but poorly understood collections of symptoms like fibromyalgia, or better understood but more terminal diagnoses like cancer.  Nothing makes me you feel grateful for your health after having dead bone scraped out of your jaw like seeing an eight year old get cancer treatment.