When you become ill, the things that once made up your life begin to fall away. The exercise routines, the jobs, the hobbies…they all pay the price of the body’s inability to keep moving. Usually, this causes a crisis of self that I call “The Illness Identity Crisis”. “Who am I if I am not a doctor?” “a triathelete?” “A vibrant mother that is active in PTA?” Slowly all of the labels that we use to define ourselves have been stripped away and we are left with the core of our being. This is an opportunity to really get to know the untarnished truth of who we really are deep, deep down. Although I was initially terrified by my Illness Identity Crisis, I eventually was able to embrace what it had to offer and found the beauty of a still body and a forward mind.
I was dying again. I had chronic rejection, very little hope of another transplant and spent most of my time alone at home. Going out was a feat of massive proportions with the oxygen tanks, getting showered and dressed, getting to the car…it just didn’t seem worth it. Besides, where would I go?
The television became my greatest companion. I had a detailed program schedule that I would adhere to every day. As one might imagine, this routine became empty and lonely.
I decided it was time for a project to keep me busy. The challenge, of course, was finding something that I was physically able to do. I decided I would try my hand at painting despite a complete lack of artistic talent and training.
I started with a small canvas and a few paints. I found that with little physical effort I could sit and create something from nothing. I was hooked. My canvases got bigger and bigger and I looked forward to the times when I had the energy to paint. I felt alive when I was creating.
I was so infected with the joy of painting that I required it of my visitors as well. I bought many mini-canvases and asked all of my guests (people tend to visit you when you are dying) to paint something that made them happy. Most people complied and it was so much fun to see what each individual would come up with! Soon, my kitchen walls were covered with paintings from those I love. It was very special.
As I grew gravely ill, I was no longer able to paint for more than a few minutes. I was working on a massive canvas with small mosaic-like blue squares. When people noticed that I wasn’t going to finish, they took up where I left off. That painting is hanging above my couch now and is called “Group Effort”. It is by far my favorite painting of all time.
None of my art was very good but that wasn’t the point. With a failing body, I was able to find excitement and creativity within myself that I didn’t know was still there.
Purpose. Isn’t that what most of us are looking for? When I was waiting for my first transplant, the lack of purpose in my life was so profound I could barely stand it. I felt worthless without that all-important j.o.b., relationship or overall reason to get up in the morning. It didn’t matter to me that I was dying and waiting for a lung transplant. That didn’t take me off the mental hook and I felt like I needed to be doing something.
That is when I turned inwards. I didn’t have the physical strength to “work” in an outward way so I created a job for my inner self. I thought about myself and what I liked and didn’t like. I thought about what I would most like to improve upon. I decided I needed to learn how to be a more compassionate person. I called my job “Project Compassion” and dedicated myself to reading about, praying about and practicing compassion. Soon, my inner life began to open up in ways I never knew possible. I was connected to myself, a higher power and others in a way I hadn’t ever been before. It was truly a beautiful journey that I will carry with me always.
When the body can not function at its optimal speed and ability it can be very frustrating or even depressing. It can be the beginning of a long journey to discovering who you are without all the worldly trappings. I hope that perhaps you will now see this time as an opportunity to discover places within yourself that few people have the time or inclination to explore. It won’t stop being hard, but it can be a time of great purpose and learning. Invite the Illness Identity Crisis and see all the riches it has to offer. This post applies to those with serious and chronic illness as well as those staying home for a week with the flu!