Reviewed by Andrea Marks-Joseph
An enlightening look into the medical industry vs true healing, with hope from one chronically ill person to another
On Learning to Heal is affirming, informative, inviting, and accessible. It is revelatory in asking us—chronically ill people in particular—to view our ailing, aching bodies as miraculous in their capacity for healing. Equally fantastic is how it reveals to us the elitist, exclusionary, capital-led history behind belief systems that the medical industry has manufactured as blatant truths.
“Along with the pills my doctors prescribed,” author Ed Cohen writes, “I also ingested their ways of thinking about my condition, as if their knowledge represented my truth.”
Cohen brings us along on the vulnerable, painful, nuanced journey of his life with Crohn’s disease. He shares details on his mysterious debilitating ailments as a young boy, the logistics of his diagnosis and treatments decades ago, his enlightening research and experience of alternatives to doctor-led management of his symptoms, and the experimenting with teachings which finally offered engaged healing within him.
Cohen recalls doctors who, through both their descriptions of his illness and prescriptions to control his symptoms, “radically limited how I imagined my illness,” remindingus of Foucault’s admonition that “there is no experience which is not a way of thinking.”
In On Learning to Heal, Cohen tells us of his adventures in learning to rely less on doctors and more on finding teachers who could show him how to “reimagine myself in the world so that my experience of Crohn’s no longer constrained who I thought I was, or, more important, who I imagined I could be.”
As a testament to the ups and downs of being chronically ill, On Learning to Heal provides a sense of community and support in the way Cohen recounts his medical history. So much of the indignity, resignation, loss of self to the symptoms, uncertainty, and loneliness will be familiar to the chronically ill reader. But it’s also never depressing. Ed Cohen writes like someone who understands the pain they’re in but knows better than to be weighed down by it.
Chronically ill readers will of course have concerns about any book suggesting a mystical remedy for their pain. We live in a society that broadly suggests yoga, meditation, and restrictive dietary changes as alternatives to clinical treatment, and anyone who has been diagnosed with an illness will tell you they’re sick of being offered up-in-the-air “simple lifestyle fixes” for their legitimate illnesses.
I came to On Learning to Heal hopeful, open-minded, and with a dose of skepticism from years of being offered healing in various disappointing forms. I didn’t want to be led down another path of magical (read: impossible, ineffective, disheartening) cures. But author Ed Cohen absolutely holds up his side of the deal.
Throughout On Learning to Heal, he provides insights and context that frees the reader to think “Yes! Why didn’t my doctor tell me this?” and “Exactly! Doctors don’t know everything, and I wish they would admit that!” He also offers an optimistic outlook that feels reasonable and possible, recommending that we view our illness and our bodies differently than our doctors do.
Cohen asks us to trust in our body and the vast amount of good it does on its own, to actively participate in our own healing, and to remember that whatever the doctors do cannot be successful without our bodies’ natural ability to make it happen.
For an able-bodied person this may be obvious, but for people who have been ill enough (or for long enough) and led to believe that only doctors have the relevant knowledge and solution to our suffering, this is revolutionary.
Even if one is able-bodied and overall healthy, the recent pandemic has taught anyone who had not yet considered it that we are only able to rely on our health for now. To have this information and Cohen’s wise, level-headed perspective of the modern medical machine (and how it was historically built and constructed as a purveyor of “superior” knowledge) would be invaluable for anyone during or ahead of a period when they find themselves in the hurricane that is hospitalization or longterm diagnosis.
Much of what Cohen conveys as his turning point in learning to heal mirrored my experience of neuroplasticity exercises to retrain my brain’s pathways of severe chronic pain, the benefits of dance and movement classes, and working with a therapist to understand my responses to a life weighed down by illness.
Ed Cohen shares his journey through similar treatment offerings and advocates for a holistic and sensitive approach to support healing and empower yourself to feel truly well. “I never tired of discovering that I was physically more capable than I’d known just an hour before…by becoming more mindful of my movements,” he shares of the atm classes he’s taken.
To be clear, Cohen is not against modern medicine—he regularly mentions that it has kept him alive—but he is against its judgmental narrative that their offering is the only possible solution to mitigate suffering.
If one has tried practices like those mentioned above, which are seen as alternative or experimental, On Learning to Heal may remind you of their benefits and reinvigorate your enthusiasm to participate in them. If you’ve not yet tried them, or are simply interested in the idea of using expansive thinking as part of your treatment, Cohen offers a beautiful and wonderful introduction to it. He also presents a great amount of historical context for the concepts behind these practices.
At times it can feel as though On Learning to Heal is three books in one: a memoir of Cohen’s journey through diagnosis, then realizing he can reimagine treatment of his symptoms; a history of medicine as a whole in the cultural context; and a look at philosophers’ considerations of our health and well-being through the ages.
Cohen has a PhD in modern thought and is a professor at a major research university, so it seems natural for the author to cite and contextualize his commentary. The details he shares are fascinating, but this can sometimes be frustrating, particularly when you are invested in the more personal narrative of the story and find yourself suddenly thrust into the history of the medical concepts.
It’s as if you’re talking to a warm, wise acquaintance, then suddenly attending a university lecture on the topic he was telling you about, and then a documentary on a relevant philosopher’s thoughts starts playing; Then the cycle begins again with each new idea. It’s a deeply interesting though somewhat disorienting reading experience, but knowing this ahead should enable you to stay along for the ride. It’s most certainly worth your time.
The author endears himself to us in his thoughtful research, his passionate goodwill in wanting to enrich and support his fellow chronically ill, and in the endless playful use of language for his bowel-related illness (“After enduring a decade-long deluge of diarrhea, I began to lose my shit entirely” is just the beginning of a delightful stream of variations on “shitty” to describe his situations; “If it didn’t exude from my ass, I had no idea how to represent the shit that was happening to me” isanother beauty.)
Cohen even shares the struggles with his diagnosis initially being linked to his Jewish ancestry and the difficulties of acute illness coinciding with his coming of age. He wrestles with the nuances of being so ill that sex was off the table for many years, quite depressing at the time, but as a young gay man in San Francisco at the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it also ultimately may have saved his life.
This book would be tremendously valuable to those who have been diagnosed with chronic illnesses, whether the diagnosis occurred decades ago or months ago. On Learning to Heal is an equally important read for anyone working in the medical or wellness industry, for Cohen’s brutal experience of medicine as a whole—and his insights into where and why they most negatively affected him. He reminds us of the significant power that a compassionate, well-informed, open-minded doctor can have on the person they are treating.
On Learning to Heal would be a gift to any household and a therapeutic resource to any library. This is something I’d love to see highlighted and underlined by generations of families where they found thought-provoking and life-changing ideas over the years. The book is filled with conversation starters and moments that will have you rethinking your entire medical history.
As someone who has experienced the disillusionment and desperation Cohen describes from his life, through various similar failures to be supported by the medical system in my own chronic and acute illness, both years ago as a teenager and again more recently, I can’t thank him enough.
To read someone who understands on a deep level suddenly having to reclassify one’s self against the malfunctioning body you call home is remarkable. “The body, which I thought of as distinct from my real self” felt so familiar that it knocked the breath from my chest. I love that this deep understanding runs adjacent to actual solutions that could lighten the load of that heaviness.
On Learning to Heal knows the dark moments of seriously considering your body may be cursed even though you don’t think you believe in curses, and it showcases the beautiful rejoicing relief of a doctor or healing practitioner who widens the world of what feels possible in that body. It supports you in a type of healing that finally provides a sense of agency over it. This is a book to hold onto.
Thank you for reading Andrea Marks-Joseph’s book review of On Learning to Heal by Ed Cohen! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.