An inspiring and informative account of one man’s pioneering efforts to treat his own mysterious disease. Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient offers a practical guide to illness and recovery and remains as powerful now as it was when I first read it in high school.
Anatomy of an Illness
Norman Cousins relates his fascinating personal account of overcoming an enigmatic and debilitating disease by relying on his own scientific knowledge and research and employing some unconventional, but ultimately successful, healing measures. Anatomy of an Illness offers a great message about the importance of keeping an open mind and the benefits of positivity and proactivity on physical health.
The book opens with an utterly compelling, yet all-too-brief, description of Cousins’ illness and recovery. When a general malaise contracted on a business trip to the Soviet Union became an inability to move his neck, arms, hands, fingers and legs, one doctor gave Cousins a 1 in 500 chance of making a full recovery. Undeterred, Cousins broke down his disease to its root cause and decided he needed to boost his adrenal function. With his doctor’s consent, he began a self-directed treatment regimen that started with discontinuing all prescribed pharmaceutical therapy and leaving his hospital bed for a hotel room. There, he received high doses of intravenous vitamin C and watched comedic movies and TV shows to make himself laugh. Over time, his condition improved and he slowly recovered all of his movement capacities.
For me, this section is the highlight of the book. It delivers on the promise of the premise “the now classic account of the late Norman Cousins and his successful fight against a crippling disease.” It’s the reason I picked up this book again seventeen years after I first read it. But it’s only twenty-two pages long.
The Rest of the Book
Five additional sections follow Cousins’ account of his disease. In these chapters, Cousins summarizes his research into the placebo effect, offers two examples of how creative work might promote longevity, discusses the symptom and treatment of pain, investigates the holistic healing movement, and shares the lessons he learned from talking about his illness and recovery with thousands of doctors. Each of these sections is valuable and deserves a place in this book. But taken together, they overwhelm the very compelling human interest story at its heart.
In comparing this book to other works of non-fiction I have enjoyed, I can imagine restructuring the book with Cousins’ illness serving as the backbone that stretches from beginning to end, with his other topics mixed in as chapters at appropriate points in the overall story. For example, after describing the physical pain that accompanied his illness, Cousins could add his chapter on the treatment of pain. Like the other chapters, this one offers crucial insights that tie into Cousins’ story. His observations of how often established medicine seeks to mask pain rather than treat the underlying symptoms pairs perfectly with his self-directed effort to get to the root cause of his pain. And his description of Dr. Paul Brand treating lepers in Vellore, India, is a perfect example of the importance of the deductive reasoning Cousins employs in his own treatment.
A Guide to Illness and Recovery
But those issues are minor, given the wealth of information contained in this book. In addition to Cousins’ personal story and the example of Dr. Brand, the entire chapter “Pain Is Not the Ultimate Enemy” offers an additional highlight. Here, Cousins observes that pain is often the result of tension, stress, or an unhealthy environment or lifestyle. And rather than address these underlying issues, many Americans choose to treat the symptom of discomfort. In my opinion, these sentiments are as true now as they were forty years ago.
And the book as a whole demonstrates a more effective approach to ridding oneself of pain. Cousins anticipates Dr. Kelly Starrett’s claim, “All human beings should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves.” Anatomy of an Illness is the embodiment of that assertion. Cousins shows how to heal oneself and offers the knowledge and research to back up his claims.
All in all, Anatomy of an Illness provides and practical and entertaining guide to taking control of your own health and methodically getting to the bottom of any physical ailment. Combining science, psychology and philosophy, it’s the perfect book for anyone confronting personal health issues, no matter their level of medical knowledge.