Unexpected Growth Through Invisible Illness

posted in: chronic illness | 4

Day 22 – Write about change

Suspended in Time © 2003 Jane Waterman
Suspended in Time © 2003 Jane Waterman

In a recent post, I talked about invisible illness and the process of subtraction: how illness whittles away at one’s health, work life, family, relationships/connections, and more. However, not all changes related to invisible illness are bad. I’m going to highlight some of the changes in my life that came about as a result of invisible illness and my efforts to improve my quality of life as I worked on healing and growth.

1) I learned that I am worthy of love and compassion. Throughout my life, I slavishly followed expected societal norms as a woman and caregiver. I cared about everyone else. There was almost no commitment I wouldn’t take on, not only for family and friends, but often for acquaintances and even strangers. While on the face of it this is a lovely quality to have, it is not so great if it thrives at the expense of seeing myself as an individual with worth, who is equally deserving of love and compassion. This sea-change in my thinking began just over two years ago when an amazing counsellor came into my life and taught me the Buddhist practice of metta (loving-kindness). My learning expanded through the teachings of Toni Bernhard and Tara Brach (see references below), who became my virtual teachers and taught me about the other three ‘divine abodes’ of Buddhist practice (you don’t have to compromise your spiritual beliefs to learn these practices) including  karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy) and upekkha (equanimity). While I had no trouble treating others with love and compassion, I felt so little for myself. I had also become so mired in my suffering that my natural good-hearted nature turned to envy, bitterness and even anger at times when I felt I was being asked for more than I had to give. I had trouble feeling mudita: ‘joy in the joy of others’ and upekkha: ‘accepting what is with calm awareness’. These practices began to shift my focus from the limitations of chronic illness towards what I can do and what gifts are available to me. I began to learn to offer the same love and care to myself that I give so readily to others, and in doing so, I have found more peace and strength to face my challenges.

2) I learned that my time and energy is valuable. An unexpected gift of invisible illness was the development of a (for lack of a more politically correct phrase) advanced bullshit meter. When dealing with the stress of fatigue and pain, I had to learn to tolerate a lot less nonsense from other people. I began to learn to sense ‘energy vampires’ and people who were just plain mean. I had to learn to make choices to either reduce or avoid contact with those people in my life. At first, the only way I felt able to do this was to literally flee to find separation. This sometimes included leaving people I loved very dearly, but who were just not good for me. I had to learn to recognize that although we have commonalities with people we love, we may be walking different paths and seeking different things in life. I had to learn the strength in not forcing myself to walk the same path as someone else for harmony’s sake. I had to learn to check in with myself about what I will and won’t tolerate for the sake of my health. I had to stop buying into the games of people who embraced drama as a kind of personal adrenalin. I had to stop making promises and committing myself to levels of activity that weren’t personally sustainable or made me even sicker. I began learning to avoid those who apply guilt to make me accept a commitment without checking in as to what my needs and resources are. If committing to something means having to crash for hours or even days, I think twice about automatically saying yes. It’s not easy to say ‘no’ – a practice I’m still working on – but it leads to a saner and healthier life for me. I think it’s likely saner and healthier for most anyone.

3) I learned to be still. Another valuable lesson from Buddhist practices is how to be present in the moment. It’s not as easy as it sounds. We’re hardwired to rush around. We work, shop, consume, play hard, crash, use stimulants to wake up and tranquilizers to sleep: all the time remaining totally numb as to where we are and what we’re doing. One of the greatest gifts in my chronically ill life was a moment in 1996 when, running for a train, I fell and broke my arm. It was a shock to my system in more ways than one, but most of all, it woke me up briefly out of what Tara Brach calls the trance of unworthiness. In this state I was suddenly faced with the calamitous decision to remain in this numb state, which was invariably leading toward not surviving or waking up and living. It was truly a life or death decision. When one becomes ill, it’s often a hard wake-up call when we realize that the headlong rush through life is not only unsustainable, it’s deadening. If we stop rushing and stay still, we notice things that we didn’t notice before: small changes in our environment and natural world, including the rhythm of our own breath and heartbeat. Many of us who are chronically ill often long for the energy of the days before we became ill, but what we would do with that energy? Would we resume the mad rushing around at the expense of emotional, mental and spiritual deadening? When my anxiety ramps up and I begin to feel afraid about the future, it’s usually a sign that I’m not spending enough time in stillness and beingness. Even if I’m not able to find enough calm to meditate, I almost always make myself rest and find calm in other things: in soft music, in sleepy beagles, in filtered light through the curtains, in tapping into the rhythms of the natural world as opposed to the frenetic world with its endless lists of things to be done and achievements to be had. I’ve learned to accept that those things will be there waiting for me when I’m ready to rejoin the world.

These are the first gifts that spring to mind. What I love about these gifts and the practices that inspired them is exactly that: they’re ‘practices’. They’re not ‘perfects’, which is healing for my OCD-driven and perfectionistic brain. They may be practices I spend all my life cultivating, but if they bring me moments of peace, joy and stillness, then they are gifts worth waiting for.

Blessings,
Jane

References:

1) You will find no better introduction to Buddhist practices for the chronically ill than Toni Bernhard’s book ‘How to be Sick’. You will find Toni online at https://www.tonibernhard.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/how.to.be.book.author, and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/toni_bernhard.
2) For a deeper immersion in Buddhist practices and to learn more about breaking free of the ‘trance of unworthiness’, read Tara Brach’s book ‘Radical Acceptance’. You will find Tara Brach online at https://www.tarabrach.com/, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/tarabrach, and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TaraBrach.

4 Responses

  1. a rainbow at night
    | Reply

    I love, love, love this article, especially step two. Thank you for using your spoons to share this with others! A wise use of your resources if you ask me. ;)

    • Jane Waterman
      | Reply

      Thank you so much, Rainbow! :) I'm really glad it resonated with you – it makes sharing spoons all the better! Take care, Jane.

  2. Kirsten
    | Reply

    I love this too Jane! Tara and Toni have taught me so much (and I'm sure will continue to do so) but it's always helpful to hear the experiences of others who have taken on their wisdom and how they have applied it to their own lives. Thankyou for sharing.

    • Jane Waterman
      | Reply

      Hello Kirsten!

      My deepest apologies for not responding to your comment earlier! Thanks so much for checking in. Like you, I'm so grateful to the wisdom of teachers like Tara and Toni. I've just got hold of Tara's new book, and I'm really looking forward to learning some new lessons.

      Many blessings,

      Jane

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