What is the direction in which the Sun rises? Most people on Earth will answer East, right?
Think a little deep. Use your philosophical logic. Very quickly we realize that Sun doesn’t rise. The direction in which Sun rises is named as East by humans!
The need for making meaning of our experiences is a very core need. A lot has been said and discussed around this. Yet we know very little about the process of meaning making. Today I explore this idea of meaning making and how it can lead to transformation sometimes.
I was smoking from the age of 18 to 26. I had a very hedonistic life style and didn’t believe in tolerating any pain. I would run away from anything physical or emotional that would cause me hurt. I was too shy to express my likings because of the fear of getting hurt. I was too timid to pursue my dreams of starting my own business because of fear of failure and rejections. Every time I would get a slightest of cold or fever I would take medicine to get well. I was so averse to feeling hurt and pain that I would recklessly engage in activities that would numb my senses — skydiving, bungee jumping, parasailing, binge watching, eating, drinking…
Out of some curiosity, I tried a Vipassana course at the age of 24. The ten day course went by like a breeze. I learned that pain and suffering can be different. Pain is bodily. It is physical and suffering is emotional and mental. I understood this and briefly experienced it. I forgot about it in few days not realizing that I am going to live this in few years.
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Gallbladder is a vestigial organ in human body. As per modern human anatomy, the only function it serves is to store Bile which is produced by liver. When we eat something fatty, oily, heavy to digest, Bile is released and it helps in digestion.
Sometimes this Bile crystalizes in the Gallbladder and forms stones. These stones are mostly asymptomatic! 80% of people have it. Yes, I knew this word — Asymptomatic even before Covid! However even these asymptomatic stones, when they move out of Gallbladder they get stuck in ducts and cause pain. The common duct that connects gallbladder, liver and intestine is called CBT (Common Bile Duct) This is very thin in diameter around 2–6 mm. These stones when they move through this CBT, it causes immense pain. This episode of pain is called Gallbladder attack.
It is like a kidney stone pain and is said to be one of the top 10 painful disease. I was diagnosed with this last year.
I will get a sharp and shooting pain across my abdomen and back. The pain is such that I will not be able to sit or sleep. The only thing I can do is to walk. I would be restless and agitated throughout. This pain would start from the right side of stomach and it will slowly radiate throughout the stomach and back. It would pulsate. This attack would last anywhere in between 15 min to 4 hours. Till the time the stone is thrown out of CBT. Just to give you an idea of the pain. A normal pain killer is around 100 mg. I would take 650 mg painkillers and it would not make any difference.
You know where the story is going and why am I talking about pain! But wait there is a twist!
The first time I had such pain, I tolerated it thinking as gastritis. The second attack came after almost 3 weeks. I could not tolerate it this time and we rushed to emergency room at 3 am in night. We did the CT Scan, Ultrasound, Liver profile test everything. At 11:30 am, I am sitting in a surgeons cabin at multispecialty hospital.
“You should immediately go for the surgery to remove your gallbladder” there is a 3–5% chance that it can become cancerous tells my surgeon.
I am shocked and angry at him.
“Excuse me sir, you please focus on diagnosis first and not treatment” I snapped back. I never liked threats. Not in my school yard, office or hospitals.
Surgery as the first mode of treatment didn't sound fair. I came home and started researching.
Now the most common treatment for Gallstones is its removal. Why invest in treating gallstones when we can remove the bladder? Anyways it is a vestigial organ. The CBT will do the job of storing the bile and whatever hassle is caused can be managed by making lifestyle changes and diatry changes. This is the thought process in Allopathy. From Bangalore to Boston, most doctors would suggest this treatment if you are having gallstones and persistent, recurring pain due to it!
Gallbladder removal is the most common surgery in world. People would say just get it removed. You are over thinking this. For most of them pain is suffering! Why tolerate it?
I joined online communities, spoke to many people.
“There is a small chance of these stones getting into your pancreases or liver and causing even worse diseases. Just get it removed” told my 2nd opinion. I was shocked and not happy.
“Don’t read google and come to me” snapped the 3rd doctor whom I consulted. I was shocked by his this statement. Indian doctors love illiterate patients.
The moment you ask them some questions they feel threatened and snap back. Following are some more shocking lines, I learned subsequently
“I cant teach you entire medicine in 10 min”
“You have to trust your doctor”
“I am writing this treatment and signing my name below it. My license is at risk if I do any malpractice”
I was disgusted, tired and annoyed. The tone and wordings would be same. As if they are parroting from the same book! There is no subjectivity. They are ruthlessly objective because for them Sun rises only from East!
Meanwhile I would keep having minor attacks of pain.
In my research in alternative medicines — Ayurveda and Chinese, I found what are the different emotions stored in different body part. Our digestive system is a store of our anger and resentment! I could relate. I found some wisdom and intuition in it. Resentment has been my best friend since childhood. I also found many more insights. Thus I got confused.
Following is my internal thought process
Sid A : Should I treat gallstones without surgery through alternative medicine? What are the side effects? It will take so much time? What if I have to change my entire diet and lifestyle?
Sid B : Arre, just go with the surgery. It is through laparoscopy and there are no risk. Mr. X went through same surgery 8 years back. He doesnt even remember about it. This is the most common surgery in world. You are overthinking this.
Sid C (Moderating voice): Ok, relax. How much time do you have to decide? There is Corona out there. It is not safe to go to hospitals. Can I postpone my surgery and try alternative medicine in between?
Sid A : How can surgery be the only option? Why should I remove my organ at the age of 30. Who said it is vestigial organ? These allopathy doctors are so myopic. They never consider entire body. They just focus on diseases.
Sid B : How will I manage this here in Bangalore? Only two of us are here.
Sid C : I have had two gallstone attacks. How many attacks are normal? Will I be able to tolerate future pain?
Sid A : We should go back to our home town. It will be much easier there
Sid B : Should I go for Ayurveda, Homeopathy or Chinese medicine? Are they trust worthy? I don't want to fall for any Baba!
Sid B : Will I be able to adjust in Jamnagar? I am going back for so long after 12 years?
Sid C : What is the medicine for pain in Ayurveda?
So many internal dialogues. I realized that there is no expert in this field. There is no point staying angry on doctors or relying too much on alternative medicines. It is my body. I have to take complete responsibility. I have to be a Gujju entrepreneur here. All these doctors are just part of my team. They are experts. I have to ask them smart questions and rely only on their knowledge and not decisions. Does Mukesh Ambani trust his lawyers blindly? Do he know everything in finance? Is he an expert in marketing? No entrepreneur is. However they do enough research and learn a lot to ask a lot of follow-up questions and understand situation from multiple perspectives. This is what I have to do.
Finally, I decided to start small and test waters. I decided to shift back to my hometown, Jamnagar. I started Ayurveda medicine and diet. I decided to have weekly reports to check for liver function and check for any obstructive jaundice or pancreatitis. Ayurveda treatment will take time. My Ayurveda doctor was stubborn in his own ways. He gave very strict instructions on diet, exercise and medicines. I decided to check progress every 15 days using ultra sound. My Ayurveda doctor had warned me about pain as well. He gave me some tips to manage it however he clearly said that you will have to tolerate it. There is no other way. I have successfully cured gallstones for patients who have been able to go through it.
Sid A : Is he crazy? Why should I tolerate pain? How do I know if it is a Gallstone attack or something else? What if stones enter liver or pancreases instead of stomach and it get’s complicated?
Sid B : Just let me take some step and try. I haven't had the pain attack in last 7 days. One day at a time
Sid C (Moderating voice) : Ok. Start small. Notice your emotions. Don't trust anyone apart from your body.
The ayurvedic diet helped immensely. There was no pain for almost two and half week. The 2nd USG also showed some reduction in stones. This boosted my confidence. I was trusting myself. I was beating my chest, alas too soon. This was the quiet before the storm!
“I am increasing your dose and we are now going to follow stricter diet”. Told my ayurvedic doctor. I was cocky and agreed to it. In hindsight this was a little too soon.
The first gallstone attack came in couple of days
Sid A : Pain is not in your hand. Suffering is. You can observe your pain. See how temporary it is. It will pass. This too shall pass
Sid B : What stupid bullshit. Someone please help me. Mom, I am sorry for causing all the hurt to you. I cant take this anymore. Please save me from this.
Sid A : What is the nature of this pain. Let me just see. Oh It is pulsating. The frequency is more on right side of abdomen.
Sid B : Let me just get done with the surgery
Sid A : This is also temporary, Sid. It will go. This is just your some past Karma surfacing. Just observe it. Sooner or later it will go
Sid B : Why Me? Why do I have so much pain? What did I do wrong?
The movement of gallstones started. The attacks of pain were almost daily and intermittent. However I was able to tolerate most of them. Sometimes I had to take pain killers. Even a pain killer will take 30–40 min to work. I had no other option apart from being with my body at those times
On one particular episode of pain. I was weeping uncontrollably. I could not take it anymore and we went to the emergency hospital visit. I got a 2000 mg pain killer injection. They kept me in observation for an hour. Everything was normal after that as if nothing had happened.
The next day the USG showed significant reduction in stone sludge inside gallbladder. The pain was of gallbladder throwing stones out.
The pain came again the next day.
Sid A : What if the sludge gets into my lever or pancreases? How much more pain do I have to take it?
Sid B : You have come so far, Sid. Just few more weeks. It will pass. Removing an organ is irreversible. This is temporary
I decided that I will be persistent and keep going.
Sid A : It is starting. I can feel it.
Sid B : You have been here. You know that it is the process of stones coming out. This is temporary. Stay strong
Sid A : This is ridiculous. Oh my god, please help me. Shut off the damn TV.
Sid B: This is temporary. This too shall pass
The medical decision of my life is not of importance here. The inner dialogues it triggered in me are the subject of discussion here.
I believe that this experience of excruciating pain has immensely shaped my spiritual inclination and identity. I had been through other experiences of pain as well (not of so much degree) however this experience stays with me because of the meaning I have chosen to give to it.
I have also spoken to various people who have got their gallbladder removed and even forgotten about it! For them the experience had no meaning. I know patients who want to get their gallbladder removed even for asymptomatic stones. They don’t want to risk any pain. I also know people who recall their gall-bladder pain with agony and disgust. Gallbladder is not a point of our discussion. The meaning I gave to my pain is of importance.
However it has far reaching impact across my emotional, physical and mental level. It will impact how I view the world and my motivation levels.
I not just understood and not just experienced but deliberately lived in pain and suffering! I can clearly see now that suffering for me is the mental and emotional flight I take when I experience pain. I am irritated, angry and cursing others when in pain. I am miserable and in agony. Suffering is constantly thinking of negative consequences of my pain.
So why was the experience so profound for me?
It did bring me closer to the important things in my life. I experienced the loneliness in deep pain and agony. Two of my most beloved persons, my wife and my mom would sit next to me and would be able to do nothing. This loneliness of being alone in my pain was really really starking. Secondly, my faith grew exponentially in Vipassana. There would be just moments, very brief moments when I would be able to just plainly observe my pain as just pain. However I could clearly see the difference in those moments and other times. I was calm in those moments. During these few moments I was in grace and peace. I was just in acceptance of my reality as it is in the Here and Now
The mental flight and emotional agony were far more than real pain. I invested far more energy in the need to intellectualize, rationalize and run away from the actual pain.
Research has proved that most mothers who go through normal delivery forget their labor pain. This is because of the meaning that they attach to the process of giving birth. The physical pain is immense however the suffering is not. This talk is not about pain or suffering. It is about the process of meaning making.
When faced with difficult decisions and experiences, we will have multiple voices inside our head. We have two choices either we let few voices dominate our thinking or we embrace these multiple voices. Embrace this confusion. If we are able to give enough space and nurturance to these dialogues, they are a very fertile ground for synthesis of new meanings and openness in our life.
Because I listened to multiple voices in me, I have renewed faith and meaning around pain, suffering and Vipassana. My multiple voices also helped me take radical responsibility of my body and health and not relying on any one doctor or any one form of medicine. This is highest form of entrepreneurship for me. I am responsible 100% for my decisions. This is a marked shift from the hedonistic and reckless life I had earlier.
Finally, yes, I did go for the surgery. I could not take the pain anymore. I was also worried about more painkillers being harmful. It has been around 11 months now.