Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ten Opportunities of Illness

Illness is one of life’s most difficult challenges. There is no denying the impact physical disabilities can have on one’s professional life, relationships and self-esteem. All of these issues require exploration and nurturing.

At the same time, there is a side to illness that we often ignore: The gifts.

While we must acknowledge the feelings of loss and frustration that inevitably accompany illness, we may also open up to the opportunities of growth, understanding, and gratitude that illness can provide.


I Am Not Illness: We know that the body and mind have a strong connection, and there is power there, but let’s also connect with the separation between body, mind, and spirit. What does it mean to “be sick”? Is it possible to suffer physically while suffering less (or not at all) emotionally/spiritually? Is there a differentiation between “healing” and “medicating”? While illness often takes up much of our lives, we are not illness. Our body is sick, yes, but there is a place within us that is never sick, never scared and never tired. Illness gives us the rare opportunity to find this place deep within us and discover our identity in a whole new way.

Taking Control: If you spend enough time in healthcare settings, it is almost impossible to ignore the value of patient empowerment through patient advocacy. Through our own knowledge, awareness and ability to set boundaries, we become our most powerful caregiver. In a room of experts, we are the foremost authority on our own body and experiences. By embracing this role, we have an opportunity to take control even when life feels completely out of our control.

Still Body, Forward Mind: As our bodies become less able, we can find strategic ways to use limitations as a motivation to explore the unexplored. As an example, illness may allow us to take a risk, working with paint or putting pen to paper, as way to express our feelings and discover new understandings of the self. While this may not have been something we would have considered as a fully healthy-bodied person, we may now find joy in unexpected activities and practices.

Self-Help: Coping with pain and other physical discomforts can be overwhelming. Are there other techniques, outside of Western medications, that can aid in decreasing discomfort? Perhaps we might discover meditation or acupuncture can help us with pain, therefore decreasing the need for more “chemicals” getting added to the mix. If nothing else, we must find ways to alleviate our emotional discomforts to help ourselves have the highest quality of life possible.

Why Me?: People facing illness often find themselves in a crisis of faith. “Is God punishing me?” is a common question people ask. Illness may provide us an opportunity to explore our faith deeper and more authentically. It may even open doors to new spiritual traditions. For all of us, even if the objective is not to find a way back to faith, we can all find a connection with That Which Is Important. Ideally, one might even discover a greater purpose to their suffering.

Equal Opportunity Compassion: People dealing with illness may feel depressed and cheated. This is normal reaction and should not be judged. However, when the time is right, it is possible to transform self-pity into compassion for the self. From there, it is a natural step to experience true compassion for others. This is a fulfilling life choice that can be made despite any physical limitation. Once you have experienced your own suffering, you have increased your capacity to care for those suffering with similar or different challenges.

Loving Through Illness: Difficulty can make people grow apart or grow stronger together. It is undeniable that illness can put a strain on relationships. People will react very differently and sometimes those reactions are painful. What is important to know, is that despite illness, relationships remain a two way street. Armed with compassion for ourselves and those we love, we can examine our own conscious or unconscious expectations; honoring the various roles people play during illness and work to build, not tear down, bridges.

Transforming The Illness Identity Crisis: There is something that happens when a person becomes sick and they lose their sense of purpose. Those around the patient have difficulty knowing how best to relate to them as they no longer have the same activities and interests. Tiffany refers to this as The Illness Identity Crisis. Illness provides us with the opportunity of realizing who we are beyond our self labels. We can strive for a deeper knowledge of self. By giving ourselves the task of creating internal projects to better ourselves, we are defining our purpose and connecting with our evolving identity.

Saying Goodbye My Way: We all must leave this earth at some time and in some way. There is one undeniable benefit to being sick: the opportunity to plan ahead. When a person is taken unexpectedly, there is no time to say goodbye or talk about their wishes. Illness allows us to talk about final desires (advance care planning) and even planning how we would like to be memorialized. There are healing qualities of writing our own obituary and eulogy, even if we are not facing terminal illness. This type of “framing” will help us live a more purpose-driven life. Above all, we have the opportunity to express to our friends and family what we want them to know and remember about our love for them.

Gratitude without Limits: After a person comes to a place of acceptance with illness, the next step is moving into gratitude. Illness gives us the gift to consciously embrace the unique experiences of living on earth. As we continue to open our eyes to That Which Is Important, we can find appreciation for life in places that most people would never even notice. Through our struggles, we may discover ways to use gratitude as a source of joy, despite any illness we may be dealing with.