I recently finished reading Bernie Siegel’s book “Love Medicine and Miracles” and while I have read at least a dozen health and wellness books in the last year this was definitely my favourite! If you, or anyone you know and love, is experiencing any health problems, I cannot recommend this book enough. Bernie works mostly with cancer patients, but his insights can be applied to any medical issue. What I loved is that as a surgeon, Bernie believes in and promotes medical interventions, but he also acknowledges the power of one’s mind and uses it along with conventional treatments to help his patients heal.
While reading this book I had so many a-ha moments and came across tidbit after tidbit of wisdom. The tidbit that stuck with me the most is one of the questions Bernie asks his patients when he first meets them: Why did you need your illness?
Wow. Talk about thought provoking. This is not an easy question to answer because we tend to look at illness as something bad happening to us, an outside force wreaking havoc in our lives. I can come up with a ton of reasons why I didn’t need my illness, a ton of reasons why I wish I had never gotten sick, and a ton of ways that being sick has flipped my world upside down.
But needing my illness? How could this be something that I needed?
I’ve always been an over achiever and I’ve always thrived on academic challenges. Learn all the muscle origins, insertions, innervations and actions? Okay! Know the ins and outs of all the body’s physiological systems? Sure! But throughout this thriving, I also had a tendency to burn myself out. Looking back now, I recognize that I put too much pressure on myself and too much weight on my academic successes. I needed my illness to break the cycle of lecture – study – exam – crash – repeat. I needed my illness to take a step back from school and learn to value myself for something other than my grades.
When I was in elementary school I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I was always writing in journals and ‘publishing’ stories by typing them up, adding some drawings and stapling it all together. As my life got busier I didn’t have enough time to write anything other than assigned essays. In a moment of anxiety, confusion and hopelessness last October, I pulled out a journal and started writing again. And since then I haven’t stopped. As it turns out, I still love it. I needed my illness to rediscover my writing voice.
One of Bernie’s theories is that illness is our body’s way of escaping a routine that is meaningless. Now, I don’t think the life I was leading was meaningless; I loved school, I loved teaching dance, and I loved being involved in science outreach. When I lost all that, it seemed like I lost my identity and my purpose but I have definitely found new ways to find meaning in my life. I have been able to witness the power in connecting with strangers through shared experience. I have been gifted with the time to do things for others just because it brings me joy. I have learned to celebrate every baby step. I needed my illness to discover these new sources of meaning.
Throughout this journey, I have come across so many incredible people. I have been cared for by so many compassionate doctors and nurses. I needed my illness to give me faith in the goodness of people. My family has always been close, but throughout this we have become even closer. I needed my illness in order to be surrounded by their unconditional love. Chronic illness takes its toll on relationships, but I am lucky enough to have a few friends who have kept in touch throughout it all and brighten my day, every day. I needed my illness to strengthen these friendships.
Perhaps most importantly, I needed my illness to realize my own resilience.
I’ve always tried to find the good in a bad situation, but I like Bernie’s question because it gives purpose to the hard times. Yes, illness is taking a lot of things away from me, but it is also giving me a lot of things that I need.
Don’t get me wrong, now, it’s not that I like being sick. I wouldn’t wish this experience on my worst enemy (or my best enemy for that matter!). My life is not turning out as I had planned. Could I have ended up happy if my life had gone the way I planned? Probably. Can I still end up happy the way my life is going, illness and all? Absolutely. Maybe even happier.
I think I needed my illness to find this new plan.
I’ll let you know when I figure out what it is!