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Questions of Identity in Sickness and Health

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"Have you noticed how everything seems a little impersonal nowadays? We have all become user names, reference numbers and IP addresses."

Thus spake Starbucks in their latest ad, unveiled last Tuesday. But they have a remedy.

"From now on," they promised, "We won't refer to you as a latte, or a mocha, but as your folks intended: by your name!"

That's progress in the coffee shop. Speaking as the Frappucino with an iPad in the Next store Starbucks in Kingston upon Thames, I appreciate this recognition of my individuality.

(Author's note - no "product placement" fees have been received in the production of this blog....unfortunately!)

The ad says, "Hey, we realise this is only a little thing". And that's a point well taken.

But in other circumstances how we are identified as service users is far from trivial.

In hospital wards over many decades individuals have complained of being referred to by their disease rather than by their name.

I was at a talk a while back where a doctor confessed he didn't realise how soul-destroying that would feel until he himself became "the cancer in bed 3". Thankfully he survived and was determined to see things done differently.

London GP Dr Mabel Aghadiuno pinpoints this need to have a more holistic view of patients in her recent book "soul matters".

She writes: "Each individual is unique and holism underlines this uniqueness. Holism sees people as parts of a family, culture and community and regards people as entities with physical, psychological, sociocultural and spiritual aspects."

Such a change in attitude on the part of medical practitioners is important to the patient because there is a lot more involved in identity than just a choice of labels.

Our identity is best defined by our qualities of character, especially the ones expressing those "spiritual aspects" which can strengthen our resolve when struggling with sickness.

Dr Aghaduino quotes a survey which explored this. It found one of the main reasons patients felt "spiritually distressed" in hospital was because of an anguished sense of "not being myself".

Perhaps this "spiritual distress" is to some degree disquiet at being categorised by others according to our complaints.

But maybe it also indicates a deeper identity issue - namely, that we inherently feel disease is no legitimate part of us but feels like a bad dream from which we want to awaken.

This was an idea recently floated by a doctor when a friend's husband visited him for an annual physical.

Her husband had been struck by polio as a 16 year-old and since then he'd had a difficult time walking. Now in his 80s, he could no longer walk at all. At the end of the check-up he told the doctor he was having a recurring dream of getting up in the middle of the night and freely walking into the bathroom and back to bed.

The doctor's response was surprising.

"We don't know which is real - your dream or this world. Either could be real. It may be that you really can walk and this is the dream."

That sense of "is this is a dream or is it reality?" was what I used to think watching the classic TV series The Prisoner.

In his struggle for freedom Patrick McGoohan's lead character, "Number Six", famously proclaimed: "I am not a number, I am a free man!"

In the struggle for health, we can assert, "I am not a disease, I am free" and test the doctor's premise that maybe the incapacity is the dream.

If so, it doesn't mean awakening will always come easy. Like "Number Six" trying to flee from The Village, it might be a long struggle to shake off an accepted, strictly physical sense of ourselves with which we have become all too familiar.

But striving to do so is worth it, not just to feel better but to have a clearer sense of what it means to be spiritual - to wake up and discover who we actually are.

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