At some point in the course of chronic illness, after years, sometimes decades of debilitating illness, a person often comes to a place where they begin looking about inside the illness, exploring the deeper meaning it has for them. Ultimately they begin to ask questions about what being this ill for this long means for their life.
Those who do brave the murky waters will sometimes find a way to work with illness on a number of levels other than the physical. For some it is the first time they find they must make relationship with their body. The illness forces them to see how much of their life has been spent in an adversarial relationship with their body, thinking parts of it ugly or dirty, wanting to cut parts away. Just on the most basic level it can be simply discovering where the spleen is, the liver, how the kidneys function, what the function of the lymph system is as well as all the parts that make up the immune system. They begin to look at the bacteria and viruses that have become part of their body, that have changed their bodies (and for many their minds as well), that have altered how they perceive the world around them. Questions seem to later begin to surface about the spiritual meaning of the whole illness journey that they are on. It’s always the dark time when everything is about to change. It’s always the last hour, always the end of one stage and the beginning of another. It’s always the millennium come round again. - Michael Meade
When working with a client I never assume I will work with them on this level. Always, I listen attentively to all the ways they are communicating information to me about who they are, who they were and who they hope to become. I listen for the squeaking of a too long shut window being slowly opened, a crack in the door letting in new light and inviting me to take them to the deeper parts of the ocean.Often one of the first things a client will say to me at the beginning of working together is, “I just want my life back.” I know what they mean by that. I feel an obligation to tell them they won’t have that life back, they will have a new life, something different than the one before.
I do not know what it is like to be chronically ill, although I do become ill from time to time. Each time I get sick or have temporarily debilitating pain or a bacterial or virus infection it has reminded me that humans are not at the top of the food chain. At that point I inevitably consider my clients. I imagine what it would be like to have this current suffering I am having and not know if it will end, how it will end, or who I will be, what my capacities will be on the other side of it.
This imaginative process inherently causes a deepening of compassion, without sentimentality. When I imagine this scenario I feel frustration, anger, hopelessness. I feel out of my league, at a loss for what to do to help them feel better. Sometimes the best I can do is be a compassionate ear; I know it’s scary; I know you are mad; I know you feel alone and abandoned; I know you feel betrayed; I know you are in pain. I do my best and sometimes my best isn’t good enough or fast enough or right enough. I desperately wish it were. And sometimes all the right pieces fall into place and people feel better. Sometimes dramatically so in a few weeks, sometimes a few months and sometimes it takes a little longer. I wish I had a magic wand to make them all feel better. Now. I wish I had all the answers. I wish I could make you feel better now. I wish your friends and family had not abandoned you. I wish our health care system was really a health care system.
What I know is…Each person who visits the questions that being chronically ill forces into awareness ultimately finds that giving up resistance and the battling allows a new way to feel better to emerge. A tremendous amount of energy is then re directed toward resolve and focus. Rather than seeing what they can’t do, they begin to see what they can do. New hope begins to flourish. New meanings begin to unconceal. They come to terms with knowing they will not have their “old life back.” The life they create from this point on is the new life. It will look different, feel different, have a new smell and texture to it. they are no longer defined by the illness but by the new life that they are creating.
There is a function to chronic illness. Understanding that is the beginning of understanding how to work with it. Imagining what the new life can look like is the beginning. When the structures of a person have been broken down, that which has been denied and repressed can, given the opportunity, return. Altering your position regarding the illness was to a great extent, the focus of Viktor Frankl’s work. I have the illness, the illness does not have me. Changing the perspective from “what has me” to “what I have” immediately moves one out of feeling like a victim to feeling empowered. Feeling empowered allows for flexibility of options in working with the body and illness in new ways. It is very easy for a person to look at what they can not do, more difficult to change positions and look at what they can do. I don’t know why we humans torment ourselves that way and often each other but I would love to see us stop. Hope can not live in the environment of “I can’t”…it thrives in “I can.” Hope and healing can not flourish in self-limiting thoughts and beliefs.
For many one of the common themes is that they begin to feel called to work as herbalists specializing in the treatment of Lyme spectrum diseases. They have been making their own medicines in their kitchens, setting up altars for the protocols. They begin to work on making relationship with the parts of their bodies that have been discounted, harmed by their feelings and thoughts toward them. Depth work with the body is to see and know that each part, each organ and system, is aware and intelligent and that they have heard and believe everything that has been told by the person, by the world to them. Talking with them, sending new messages of genuine love and caring (they know if you are being authentic or not) immediately begins to shift the dynamics of the relationship. These parts of the body will, over time, tell you what they need from you, what they need to be healthy. The first meeting may be filled with emotion and feeling. You may be alarmed at how it looks or what it has to say. The part of the body we start to work with may be chatty having waited all this time for you to show up. It may be quiet, sullen, mad, sad, scared. Actively listening and compassionate responses will have a monumental impact on the relationship you are beginning.
Have patience, compassion and persistence. The relationship between you and these parts of your body then becomes one of allies rather than adversaries; friends rather than enemies. Another way to think of it is self-nurturing. We all carry beliefs about who we are, what we can do, what we can not do, or if we will ever be well again. We internalize messages from our parents, physicians, teachers, friends and siblings that over time become beliefs. These beliefs are invisible but they have very tangible effects on our behavior and even the work we do in the world. At some point it becomes necessary to reassess those beliefs and create new beliefs that match who we are and who we are becoming. Becoming self-aware, falling in love with ourselves, giving our self spiritual and emotional food of intimacy and deep caring is the kindest thing we can do. And the most healing.
One way to begin working at this level is to see organs or parts of the body in front of you one at a time. Noticing everything about it; it’s color, shape, smell. How does it feel? Begin a dialogue with this part. Does it have anything to say to you? What does it need from you? Thank this part for being part of your body, for all the ways it works. Apologizing for the disjointed and often unkind relationship you have previously had with it is a very good place to begin. Then, send genuine caring and love to this part of you. I suggest doing this every day. It doesn’t have to take long. Consistency is most important. In the beginning it is awkward, uncomfortable and may feel odd. That will change once you make this a daily practice. It’s not that unlike learning any new skill really. Important also to know is that this is a communication and relationship, not a technique. It may help you get started and continue it if you think of it as a new relationship not unlike meeting a new friend and getting to know each other. As Frank Herbert said, “Beginnings are delicate times.”
When you develop new and deep relationships with parts of your body you are repatterning; creating new patterns that will lead to wholeness and provide flexibility of options, a co-creative and co-healing relationship. It seems simple in theory. It can be challenging and it will make more of a difference than you can imagine right now. In difficult times it is important to find things that you can do, use what you have available to begin feeling something different, something better. Listening to music that is filled with hope and meaning for you, watching YouTube videos of people you find inspiring and uplifting. Dancing moves stuck energy and oxygenates the blood and brain and tissues. Books that have deep and moving feelings that take you out of the suffering, even temporarily. It is important to put a different story in your mind when the current story is not working so well and does not feel good.
Here is a very brief list of authors, musicians and videos that I use for myself.
Cat videos always make me feel good and laugh but really, anything that helps you feel good. Feeling good even momentarily stimulates your immune system and takes you out of the suffering. Remember; do what you can, use what you have. Nurture thyself.
Meade, Michael. The Water of Life; Initiation and the Tempering of the Soul. Green Fire Press; Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, 2006.
About the author
Julie McIntyre is an educator, author, spiritual mentor and clinical herbalist specializing in herbal treatments of Lyme spectrum infections and chronic illness. She makes her home in the Gila wilderness and forest of southwest New Mexico.