Transcending Chronic Illness

coping with setbacks & flares

holding on to hope when your health takes a downward turn

Many chronic conditions have an ebb and flow to them. At times we feel better, stronger. We began to dream of things we hope to do. But at other times we are left with no choice; we simply cannot get up and engage in life.

In her book, The Alchemy of Illness, Kat Duff points out that, "Illness is a world of it's own, another plane of reality, that is quite apart from the one we normally inhabit in the ordinary dailiness of health." And so we find ourselves in this new land, a place where we are lonely at times but began to become content with our isolation. We simply lie there, learning to live with ourselves. Our minds may wander here and there or we may simply drowse. We might wander in and out of a dreamlike state much of the day. Sometimes pain demands our full attention.

When we can get up and about our energies are concentrated on doing the simplest of tasks. In her journal After the Stroke May Sarton recalls that before her stroke she always hurried through chores with her mind on getting to work at her desk. After her stroke these same activities were difficult and exhausting. She found this lesson in the experience, " learn to take the chores as an exercise, deliberately slowing down, savoring the smoothing of a sheet, the making of order as delightful in itself..."

We discover this time alone with ourselves is not a waste, indeed it is a rich time of development. We began to be aware of greater depths in both ourselves and existence itself. As Kate Duff describes, "It is as if some film was lifted from our eyes, enabling us to see more closely and accurately." May Sarton writes, "If I have learned something in these months of not being well it may be to live moment by moment — listening to the tree frogs all night for I couldn't sleep, waking late to the insistent coos of the wood pigeons — and at this moment the hush-hushing of the ocean. Being alive as far as I'm able to in the instant".

In the case of life threatening or chronic illness our sense of invulnerability is permanently shattered along with our health. May Sarton shares the anguish involved in her early stages of recovery. "Meanwhile I lie around most of the afternoon, am in bed by eight, and there in my bed alone the past rises like a tide, over and over, to swamp me with memories I cannot handle. I am as fragile and as naked as a newborn babe."

We begin to see our life in a new light. Duff describes this process so well, "There is nothing like a serious illness to blow down our fragile houses of sticks and straw. Standing amid the rubble of their lives and thoughts, people with serious illness undertake the task of building a new house, a new way of living, one that holds closer to the ground of being, the feedback and teaching of their bodies and souls."

Gradually we realize that we are living from new assumptions and our awareness is far more acute. Though we can't yet act on what we have discovered it is there to be tapped as we began to emerge from the fog of debilitating illness and move back out into worldly activities again.

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