Dr Read is author of ‘Sick and Tired: Healing the Illnesses that Doctors Cannot Cure‘, which will be published by Orion Books later this year. He is a Marathon runner and a keen walker; he trained for this year’s London Marathon by walking in the Tasmanian outback with a 40lb rucksack on his back. Reed is also an advisor to a patient support group called the IBS network, which helps people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and lives in Sheffield.
Read spoke to us about his journey from physician to psychoanalytical psychotherapist, which started when a female technician began to tell him about the traumatic life events that his IBS patients were experiencing. “Doctors are trained to listen for symptoms that they can treat with drugs,” said Read. “My technician would tell me these personal stories, and I would say, ‘Don’t tell me that, I’m a scientist'”. But gradually, as he spent more time listening to patients at his Friday IBS clinic, he started to notice a pattern: the IBS patients were dealing with separation, redundancy, grief, domestic violence and other abuses. “Suddenly my perspective broadened out. I began to see that each patient’s symptoms were unique and fragmentary,” he said.
Read spoke of the findings of the Office of National Statistics’ General Household Survey, which point to a 13 per cent increase in the number of people who say they feel ‘ill all the time’ between 1972 and 2004. He said these numbers were not the result of an ageing population. “It is the younger people who are feeling more ill,” he said.
Read also spoke about unexplained illnesses in the past, which were given labels such as hysteria and ‘the vapours’ saying, “It doesn’t really help us to divide it up into different names.”
Read’s view on unexplained illnesses such as IBS is that “These illnesses are the bodily expression of the feelings of what has happened. That is not to say that drugs do not help some people, that they don’t help give people control over disease. But disasters and life events are associated with illnesses.”
Read gave the example of ulcers, which were associated with stress, but are now known to be associated with Helicobacter pylori infection, saying that both factors appeared to be relevant. Particularly with illnesses such as IBS, he said, it is important to address psychological/emotional issues to help people get better.
“Emotions are bodily feelings put into context. If I can say I am upset about something, I can deal with it. If we can put the symptoms into context, we can form an emotion from them.”
Café Scientifique participants challenged the notion that unexplained illnesses were more common, pointing out that the rise identified by the General Household Survey could be due to different tendencies to report, rather than different numbers of people experiencing these symptoms.
Most of those present were particularly interested in the different possibilities for recovery. Read discussed psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioural therapy as ways to restructure people’s thinking. “If you have a good relationship with your therapist, you will get better,” he said. “We live in the here and now, but the here and now is informed by what went before. We are not free choosers, we have been conditioned to choose in a specific way”.
Other points raised by those present were the ways in which language appears to recognise the idea that symptoms of illnesses were the expression of emotions made through flesh. “We say that ‘so-and-so is a pain in the neck’, we have a ‘gut feeling’,” said one Brighton resident. Others spoke of their own personal experiences and asked for advice on what they could do to take control of their illness. Medical experts had not been able to help them.
Organiser Jim Grozier (Department of Physics, Sussex University) told everyone about next month’s Café Scientifique, which will explore the science of dating. Host Jenny Gristock (City University’s Department of Journalism) pointed out that Chris Turney would not be talking about romance, but rather, bones, rocks and stars (carbon dating).
After everyone thanked the speaker for traveling to Brighton and talking about his work, and Jenny thanked the audience for coming, Jenny brought the discussion to a close by saying that she hoped everyone present would take comfort from the idea that although the science of many of these illnesses were not understood, this did not make the symptoms any less real for those experiencing them.
Finally a participant suggested that the evening should end with a rendition of the song “Always look on the bright side of life” by Monty Python. Those present duly obliged.