Overcoming The Storm
One fascinating discovery for me, as I wrote my latest book, LUCINDA’S SOLUTION, was researching the Influenza Pandemic of 1918.
What a horror that outbreak was. Do you know that more U.S. soldiers died of influenza than on the battlefield? And that the death toll was greater in one year than in four years of the bubonic plague? People truly feared that it was the end of the world, and that the whole human race would die.
One of the scariest elements of the pandemic was the unprecedented death toll of the strongest people. Rather than striking the old and the sick, this outbreak decimated the population of young healthy adults.
There are several reasons for this – but there is the one that particularly struck me. It’s called a Cytokine Storm.
Simplistically (and ‘simple’ is the best I can give you, not being any kind of epidemiologist… I’m an accountant turned writer, for God’s sake) – a Cytokine Storm is an overreaction of one’s immune system.
In the influenza pandemic of 1918, and with some other flu outbreaks, the body can respond with an overproduction of antibody immune cells, which causes major respiratory and cardiac distress. The lungs, in particular, are flooded with these immune cells – which in turn can lead to a secondary, often lethal, case of bacterial pneumonia.
And who is most likely to experience a Cytokine Storm? The overreaction of the immune system occurs in people with the most active immune system. If your immune system is weak (as when you are elderly or sick or still in infancy) – it is not capable of a strong reaction. The BEST immune systems are the ones to overreact. They do their job too well. And so, in 1918, the immune systems of young healthy adults were their very downfall.
That’s probably a long-enough medical history lesson, but I could go on and on. I think maybe I should go on a lecture tour for the 100th anniversary of the Influenza Pandemic. (which is this year, by the way).
But the Cytokine Storm phenomenon intrigues me.
Because your immune system is your physical defense mechanism. And in the Cytokine Storm, your defense system fails you. It harms you rather than saves you.
And that makes me think about our nonphysical defense mechanism. Our emotional defense system.
We all need to protect ourselves emotionally. We don’t want our feelings hurt. We don’t want to be sad or lonely or afraid.
So we have these wonderful brain mechanisms that help to keep us safe. That rationalize our failures, that excuse or ignore those who insult us, that look to the future when the past is too painful.
But what if? What if the strongest of our emotional defenses can also act like a Cytokine Storm?
What if our defenses are so strong that they are sending cells into our brain to destroy our feelings?
I recently met a wise woman who said that she doesn’t particularly like the expression, “Let It Go.” She prefers “Let It Be.” Rather than bury her sorrows, she likes to think of them as sitting on a shelf, where she can look at them if she needs to. She can even take them out and hold them once in a while, or she can let them gather dust. But they are there for her to keep.
That woman’s advice made me remember the time a doctor told a dear friend that he would prescribe an antidepressant to help her get through the death of her husband. “Get through?” Really? Is the death of the love of one’s life like a broken toe? That some pain medication will fix it? My friend told this doctor: “My husband died. I think I am SUPPOSED to feel sad.”
I know we all need to protect ourselves. I believe in being as nice to yourself as you can. I’ve written before (“Maybe I Like Sour Grapes”) – that a little rationalization might be fine. That you can cut yourself a little slack once in a while. Sometimes you might need to be brutally honest with yourself and your failings. But it doesn’t ALWAYS have to be quite so brutal.
And just maybe protecting your feelings isn’t the same thing as denying your feelings. Maybe denying your feelings is the Cytokine Storm that will ruin your life.
In the same way, protecting yourself from the outside world may keep you from going insane, but becoming deaf and blind (and even just inured) to atrocity might be harmful to ourselves – and the world. While going insane is not be a helpful reaction, sometimes some righteous indignation may actually be appropriate.
Do not protect yourself from pain.
We are bombarded with horror and evil and catastrophes. We are invaded like the influenza virus invaded our ancestors. Some of the strongest of those infected found that their defense mechanism turned out to be worse than the disease.
What if –
like Influenza –
Numbness is a terrible way to die?