Modern research on the effects of systemic violence tells us that people who are exposed to many emotionally difficult/traumatic experiences tend to develop a predictable set of health problems. These can range from increased risk of heart disease and diabetes to chronic pain, anxiety, depression and even schizophrenia. In the never-ending debate about nature vs nurture, it is becoming increasingly clear that people’s life experience has a strong impact on their health.
This is important on an individual level, of course
If you are a person who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and your daily life requires you to navigate highly stressful interactions due to racism or sexism, your path toward recovery from PTSD is going to be more challenging than it otherwise would. Collectively, though, it is easy to see how this dynamic would create barriers in a community’s ability to advocate for itself effectively and improve its circumstances.
Organizing anything in a community, whether a bingo night or a get-out-the-vote effort, requires a high tolerance for stress and interpersonal conflict. This reality can become a damaging cycle for earnest activists who want to bring people together, but find that their health suffers whenever they reach into the forge to create something. People burn out and get sick, others step into the fire, and then the same thing occurs.
This cycle itself becomes a barrier to collective liberation, as people’s individual symptoms become a block toward creating and maintaining community cohesion.
If you are unable to leave your house then you can’t show up for other people as easily. If you are always having to self-medicate to get through the day then the difficult work of conflict resolution becomes even harder. People fall through the cracks, lose touch with their friends and families, and their brilliance and light become inwardly-focused out of necessity. There is no need to victim-blame here, as everyone’s decisions make personal sense, but collectively the presence of containers where people can enjoy and rely on one another can become quite challenging to maintain under such conditions.
Watching this dynamic play out, both in my life and in the lives of those around me, is part of what lead me to choose a career in Chinese medicine. I began my journey as a patient seeking help for my asthma, which improved dramatically, but I stayed for help with my anxiety and depression. As I walked the path of treatment I noticed my tolerance for difficult situations, and my ability to re-center myself after volatile emotional experiences, growing. I became more effective, as well as happier and more balanced.
It occurred to me that this medicine could be incredibly helpful for my queer and trans community, where people often struggle to access any kind of care, much less affirming medicine that improves their lives in the measurable ways that I had seen my own improve.
A medicine that is tailored to every individual, and which can treat myriad emotional and physical problems without drugs, can be an incredible asset to people who have historically been all but barred from recieving medical care. Moreover, I believe strongly that individual health translates to collective health in a ways that mirrors the process of illness and burnout described above. As we heal ourselves we are more able to see another, hold complexity, and stay in connection with people even under stressful circumstances.
We become conduits for work that needs doing, both internally and externally.
One of my favorite teachers at NUNM often says “illness is oppression”. This seemingly-simple statement encapsulates everything that it took me three paragraphs to say so far in this article. It is a profound way to understand the connection between personal health and collective wellbeing. The corollary to this is that healing is liberation. This, in essence, is my treatment philosophy, and what I am excited to share with every patient I have the privilege of working with.