Friday, July 3, 2015

It happens

Last Sunday, on my rehab walk. I used to need Keith to help me down steps without rails. On most steps, I don't need to go sideways anymore, but these were kind of steep.
I've talked about my resilience and the equanimity in which I've faced the countless tribulations related to my illnesses and recovery. These qualities seem to surprise many people, most of them believers. I've also discussed the varied lessons nonbelievers and the religious might take from my recovery. But what about the different ways the two groups react to similar trials in their lives? What role did that play in my attitude?

I can't presume to speak for believers, but from the outside, they seem to react first with prayer. I know the idea that God will save them from whatever terrible battle they face, or at least give them the strength to cope with it, is immensely comforting to them. But they're more likely to wonder if God is punishing them for something, as well. The things believers say to each other in times of trial tend to reinforce this way of thinking. God is trying to teach you something. God doesn't give you any burdens you can't handle. Or, the ever popular, it's all in God's plan. And even if they don't worry that it's a punishment, God is still doing this to them. Everything happens for a reason, as people so often say. I would take that kind of personally, myself.

One thing I've always wondered about prayer is, why is it even necessary? Surely the all-knowing God is aware that you don't want this cancer, autoimmune disease, or whatever. Will he only heal you if you beg? And if it's just that he needs to ensure that you're sufficiently devout, then isn't the affliction a form of blackmail?

Atheists and skeptics, on the other hand, are more likely to research their conditions to better understand what's going on, acting to improve their odds in some way. For example, the first thing I did when it looked like I almost certainly had dermatomyositis was schedule cancer screenings due the increased cancer risk associated with DM. I received my first abdominal ultrasound on the same day I got the official diagnosis from my rheumatologist. I've been getting the tests on a regular basis because I'm still in the 2-3 year period of elevated risk. It's quite unpleasant, but not compared to ovarian cancer detected too late. I won't even go into the colonoscopy (hint: the preparation was the worst part).

Nonbelievers also don't waste much time wondering why this is happening to them. Why? Because the universe doesn't care a whit about your existence. You're not even a pimple on the ass of the universe. And, at any rate, the universe can't do anything but expand endlessly, or eventually contract into the Big Crunch. Sounds like a candy bar, doesn't it?

This philosophy can be strangely comforting, actually. You haven't done anything to deserve this; it has nothing to do with you. As a great philosopher once said, "Shit happens." Unshitty things happens too. The nice thing about randomness is that any time things can turn around again. To the extent you can control things, your fate is in your own hands. And the only lessons you'll receive are the ones you choose to take from your experience. I've learned a great deal from my strokes and coma, but it all comes from nearly dying and my struggle to recover. In truth, I'm teaching the lesson to myself. My experiences were simply the coursework.

But at least the religious believe that if they die they're going to heaven, crossing that rainbow bridge to meet their lost pets and their dead loved ones in their exclusive heavenly Club Med. Yup, you've got me there. I think I'm going into the ground and the only thing I'll see are the worms eating my flesh. Only I won't be seeing them because I will be dead as a coffin nail.

And that's my point. I have no choice but to soldier on, accept what's happened, and do the best to conquer my obstacles. No one was going to make me walk again, just as nothing can save me from my ultimate doom. That's why I want to do whatever I can to make that eventuality as far off as possible. Shit happens, so watch your step.

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Coma Girl

Coma Girl

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In July of 2013, I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died. When I awoke from the coma, I could barely lift my head. It has been a hard road to recovery. The doctors advised my loved ones to give up all hope for my full recovery, but while they were shining lights in my eyes to gauge my level of consciousness, I was telling them grumpily to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep...in my coma-dream. I was experiencing covert cognition, and the coma-dream was my version of a near-death experience. I'm a skeptic, so I saw surreal images instead of spirits or dead loved ones. According to my research, as many as one in five people with consciousness disorders have covert cognition.

Not a miracle recovery, but a miracle of modern medicine

In 2013 I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died after I contracted legionella. The Legionnaire's disease was in turn triggered by immunosuppression caused by the prednisone I was taking for my rare autoimmune disease, dermatomyositis.

I suffered a series of strokes on both sides of my brain when the sepsis caused my blood pressure to plummet. I fell into a deep coma. My kidneys and lungs began to fail, as my body was began dying one organ at a time. My doctors told my loved ones to give up hope for my full recovery. They expected me to die, and even if I somehow lived, I would remain a vegetable or at best left so hopelessly brain-damaged that I would never be same. But unbeknownst to them, while they were shining lights in my eyes and shaking their heads, I was telling them in my coma-dream--my secular version of a near-death experience--to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep. I was experiencing what is known as covert cognition, the subject of my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience," which appeared in their July/August issue.

But it wasn't a miracle--despite what so many continue to believe--that I recovered so fully. I owe my life not to God, but the miracles of modern medicine, as well as the nature of the watershed-area brain damage I suffered, as I detailed in my article and in this blog.