Illness: The Cry of the Flesh

What is illness? Is it a physiological dysfunction, a social label, or a way of experiencing the world? How do the physical, social and emotional worlds of a person change when they become ill? And can there be well-being within illness? In this remarkable and thought-provoking book, Havi Carel explores these questions by weaving together the personal story of her own serious illness with insights and reflections drawn from her work as a philosopher. Carel shows how the concepts and language used to describe illness today are inappropriate and misleading. Too often illness is viewed as a localised biological dysfunction while ignoring the actual experience of the ill person, their fears, their hopes, the way they interact with others and, ultimately, experience life. By focusing on the impact of illness on the ill person’s life and reflecting on the experience of illness as lived from within, Carel shows how illness is a life-changing process rather than a limited physiological problem. Carel’s fresh approach to illness raises some uncomfortable questions about how we all – whether healthcare professionals or not – view the ill and challenges us to become more thoughtful. “Illness” unravels the tension between the universality of illness and its intensely private, often lonely, nature. It offers a new way of looking at a matter that affects every one of us. For those who are ill, it offers insights on our ability to remain happy within the constraints of illness.

There is a great deal of citation and philosophical explanation in this book, as such it may not be to everyone’s cup of tea.

I found that I had to reinvent my life. I had to give up some friendships. I had to learn to be tough on myself and sometimes rude to others.

My only wish now is to hang on to what I have now: being alive, having a moderate quality of life, doing some of the things I love. That’s plenty, I tell myself. And it is this veneer of normality, this slightly sad and inappropriate sense of luck, that sustains me in my illness.

9200000015450826Carel has a beautiful way with words. Moving to the heart of the issue of illness, moving away from the clinical understanding presented to us by doctors and focusing hugely on illnesses personal impact.

Eventually, my body learned to stop trying. It learned to give up its habits and form new ones.

Visible illness or disability often becomes the elephant in the room. It is seen as something that is not to be commented on or mentioned by polite people. But at the same time the condition challenges the normal interaction and makes not talking about it difficult, almost impossible.

The bitterness in me has nowhere to go, It has no place, no name. It is verboten. The strict limitations on what I may or not say even to my closest friends manoeuvre me into a more socially palatable position: being courageous. How brave I am. How uncomplaining.

Havi Carel’s Illness: The cry of the  Flesh is a remarkable read.

Jules Evans wrote a blog about Havi Carel on the website of The School of Life

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