Dr. Sacco’s Reflections on The Psychology of Illness and Disease

I Know How You Feel

If you’re sick with a life threatening condition, you may find yourself in a dark and lonely place. Illness and disease mentally break you down to your core. Personally, I know how you feel. That’s why we created Healthy High-to overcome the anguish of sickness. I’ve decided to join you in your reflections. So, this is my personal exploration of my life-long journey facing different illnesses. 

Back On The Streets of East Boston, When I was a Kid

In 1959, I was just a boy playing stick ball with my friends in the streets of East Boston. Suddenly, I was hospitalized with Rheumatic Fever. I went in as a 70 pound Little League star. My loving mother brought in baskets of salamis and snacks. I fought off my fellow inpatients trying to steal my food and guarded that basket with my life. I mysteriously gained 40 pounds in a month after receiving a ground breaking treatment called “Cortisone.” The medication made me wicked hungry and I had no clue why. Come to find out, we were the first group of kids to receive cortisone as a medical treatment. Our increased appetites highlighted a common side effect for cortisone, a medication now used to treat inflamed joints.  I was hospitalized for four months and was never the same as I was “before” being admitted.  

Pediatric psychology was not around and I was smothered by my mother’s love and survived the medical ordeal.  I had monthly painful shots of penicillin and then took pills for decades. Illness began to shape my identity early.  illness shapes identity. This is the human element of facing many debilitating illness whether it is a blood disorder or chronic anxiety.  It also re-configures family in an invisible way placing the illness in the spotlight and creating burden on children and elderly family members.  

Fast-Forward to 51 Years Old

My next big shock was a heart attack at age 51 that destroyed thirty percent of my heart.  In a near death experience, I kissed the gates. The surgeons implanted a stent that granted me another shot at life. Again, I found my identity shaped by my cardiac condition. My oppositional nature clouded my choices and I grew to 226 pounds. 

Eight years later, I was diagnosed with an HPV positive cancerous tumor under my tongue. I received 35 radiations and three chemotherapy sessions. I began to physically shrink as the radiation destroyed my taste buds, saliva, and swallowing ability. I required stomach feeding and dropped to 160 pounds. 


Christmas Eve 2007

Illness Re-Shaped My Identity

Illness has once again re-shaped my identity. The treatment was effective medically but shattered my mind and weakened my body.  The treatment left me depressed, unable to swallow, taste, and I still have no appetite. Radiation robbed all the protein from my muscles leaving my arms and legs looking like turkey necks.  

When I was at my lowest point, my friend, a retired professor of Psychiatry, sensed my pain and flew to my side. I asked what can I do? I did not see a way out of this weakened condition. I went to swallowing classes and eventually was able to swallow crushed ice.  My family chased me around with food, first with cans in my stomach tube and then shakes when I could swallow. Also, at this time, I received a tip from someone who had five times the treatment, a dozen surgeries, and was incarcerated most of his life.  He summed it up by saying, “ It’s all about attitude and protein, kid.” 

Spaulding Rehab 2014, Boston, Ma.

Speakeasy Medicine

While laying down with my face strapped to the radiation table, my attitude, meditation, and self-hypnosis helped me tolerate the radiation barbecue of my face to get the tumor.  I inquired about Cannabis and was quietly referred to the one doctor that could help me. It was and to some extent is still is a type of Speakeasy Medicine. 

I eventually accessed cannabis and combined it with weight lifting with my son. I was at the gym 4-5 nights a week and ended the day with Cannabis.  My turkey neck disappeared, I could eat real food and increased my intake of protein shakes. It is all about “attitude and protein.” Cannabis helped fuel my comeback. I avoided increasing any psychiatric medications or adding new ones, decreased pain relievers, endured hip surgery, returned to work and cooking- despite having no taste.

Then, I fell down the stairs. The tests did not find an severe orthopedic damage but they did find out that the cancer resurfaced by my liver. This project is a labor of love reflecting a 2-year struggle in which and son and I worked together on ways to survive an intense series of medical battles. 

Creativity in Healing & Surviving Grueling Treatment

The struggle was intense. As a father, I was powerless, unable to walk, and weakened by non-stop cancer treatments and neurosurgery. Separated from my family with my son in doctoral training nearby, I was surrounded by his love and motivation. He immediately began to motivate me to create and write about what I was doing. I couldn’t write, so he set up an audio taping kit for me to use in the rehabilitation facility. I spent 2-3 hours a day outlining ideas drawn from my early training in altered states of consciousness. As we refined our ideas, we realized the healing power of the altered state of consciousness, prayer, and communication. I was able to re-create altered states without cannabis based on a lifetime of using cannabis to calm my mind and cope with pain and insomnia.

I continue to reflect, create, and use the Healthy High techniques. My identity is constantly being shaped and re-shaped by illness. I know that I’m sick, but I know what is important. It is how I respond and react to these life threatening events.

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