Touch: The Journal of Healing



Re-claiming your essence during illness*

    By Marjorie Robertson

When you are ill or in pain for days or months, you may experience a sense of powerlessness over your body that can leave you feeling like a shell of a person, as though your spirit has abandoned your life and refused to live in it any longer. This is the first salt in the morning and the last at night. You may wish to be someone else, to experience anything other than what you're experiencing in your body and your life, which don't feel like yours anymore. Your body is equal parts culprit and victim. Some days you may wish to comfort it like a sick friend. Other days you may wish to kick it out the door like an intruder.

But just as the mystic medieval Christian poet Mechthild of Magdeburg said: A bird does not fall from the sky. A fish does not drown in water. We are all meant for something, our entire being. Even during difficult times, life will claim you—your essence—like drawing blood from a screaming child. Every day is a finding a spot you can live with...or letting it find you.

For me living with food intolerances and digestive problems has been particularly frustrating because no one knows with certainty what the body will react to, regardless of what the tests show. Eating something is the only way to know.

After raging at my shortcomings and reaching out for help from one person to another, I finally decided to go on with the realization that my priorities changed. The things I thought I could do or be in my life, things that would never change, disappeared and presented me with a new set of challenges. Then I began to re-question what really matters and found myself returning to the essentials like a ballerina returning time and again to the barre.

And it was there, at that place where I began to know myself again in a whole new way.

Staying even keel while ill for a short time is easy. Over months, it can be a slippery slope. My family and closest friends are a couple of time zones away, and I wanted to avoid unloading my burdens on them too much about something that is hard to understand. I have learned that the most unlikely people can bring a “tiny” help into the day and keep me going when hope abandons me and pain and discomfort distract me.

Adjusting my attitude from one of resistance to one of acceptance with the moment has also been a constant effort. Take your trouble with you into your day, my mother would say. Tell yourself what you must endure. I knew what she was saying—give up your fear and expectations and the wish to know why things happen as they do. Some days I could not see where expectations ended and hope began. They were intertwined like threads of a rope and to pull out one was to pull out both. Sometimes you need the slightest hope to carry on.

Later I incorporated to some extent the usual prescriptions for chronic pain and illness—Tai Chi, yoga, breathing techniques, meditation, prayer, self-talk, music, distraction, and talking with family and friends. But I was missing the point. The path from illness to wellness is not a to-do list. It is not about fixing myself (or anyone else) so that my body and life are perfect, but, oh, I’ve struggled with that one because of course I want to feel better after feeling bad for so long. “If only my digestion were better, I’d be happy” or “If I’d only left my [husband, boyfriend, job] sooner, I wouldn’t be suffering so much now.” I’ve had to let go of that thinking pattern.

At the end of the day, all the what-ifs have faded while the present speaks up for action or rest. I’m left with a pool of sensations and a job (or cooking or shopping or people) waiting for me to do something. Even with doing all the “right” things, my body goes its own way with reasons beyond my understanding. Yet it is always active, reaching for wellness in its own way and asking for what it wants. Throughout I have become a better interpreter of its needs and connections though not a perfect one.

One element has been absent—a belief that after dealing with issues for years I could be well and return to a life not consumed by thoughts about my health. This is not who I am, I have told myself. It is the result of things that happened to my body in my past that have finally shone through, asking for a debt to be repaid.

Finally, developing compassion for myself has deepened my compassion for others—and pushed me to let go of some friendships that were toxic. I also found myself thinking about an ex-boyfriend who, when we were together, had numerous ailments including digestive-immune problems not unlike mine later. In recalling our time together, I became more understanding of his inability—not unwillingness—to go out or seek help or do anything. He suffered greatly even as a child, and I could not help him besides being present. Fortunately, he found a way to wellness. Though we have not been in contact for years, a caring for him and a need for his special understanding have surfaced in me.

Today my road to full recovery is a raucous, dramatic process of smooth days, roadblocks and bumps. Throughout this process my body has expressed itself. Sometimes it is a demanding, incoherent animal. Sometimes it is a lover without words saying, touch me like this. At other times it is an ache, a wound, a throbbing, the cut of a knife, the tickle of a feather, giving me no rest in my bed. Some days I have risen with equal parts fear and determination to wrap my head around this thing that feels separate from myself. Or to yell at it in frustration and confusion. There has been grief—over the loss of what my body once was and the kind of young woman I used to be. I sing, I cry, I feel relief and the next day do it all over again.

As adults we bear scars. We have been nibbled at. We are frayed around the edges. Yet it amazes me how we carry on despite our trials and inadequacies. Herein lies the fundamental challenge—how to wake with right mind despite pain or illness or despair—and experience the joy and awesomeness of a moment now and then for that is where it is found, in glimpses and, if you’re lucky, in sustained minutes. Some days it seems as though everything in the world is working against it.

Despite problems, we can eliminate the non-essentials and find ways to go on with life and yearning, not because we don't want to stop, but because nothing else in the world will stop for us and no one is going to come along and rescue us. I have also learned and re-learned a valuable lesson about myself—to trust my body and to trust life. This has been the toughest part with each new thing that arises, large or small. Someone once said to me that all we need to do is let our bodies and souls heal themselves. With a lot of help and a full dose of compassion we do heal, but as slowly as a tree grows and with a hidden wisdom that I have only begun to understand.

© 2011 Marjorie Robertson

* A previous version of this essay was posted by the author on her blog, She Writes, on November 26, 2010.

Marjorie Robertson received an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University in 2005 and has been teaching English at the University of California, Irvine since 2008.

Copyright © 2011

Touch: The Journal of Healing

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