Why I needed my illness

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!

Carefulcatherine…a little more about me

I have gastroparesis (I’ll let you google or mayoclinic.com that to learn the details). I developed this chronic illness when I was 18 and about one month into my first semester at Simon Fraser University. I’m 22 years old now and I still have gastroparesis. In the last four plus years my life has drastically changed. I’ve gone from being a full time science student and part time dance teacher to someone with a feeding tube unable to go to school or work. Right now, having a chronic illness is my full time job and my gastroparesis is a very real and time consuming part of my everyday life. While I don’t like to define myself by my illness, I chose to start with that because it is the reason why I’m here. My gastroparesis is what led me to this place in my life and what led me to writing this post.

That said, there is a lot more to me than just my illness.

photo(8)I love reading and have always been a bookworm. I like books about people (specific, I know) and in the last year I’ve taken a real interest in book on health, wellness and the mind-body connection. Bookstores are my happy place and I love my local library. I also love to crochet, a hobby I taught myself from YouTube when I first had to take time away from school and work and got bored of watching TV. I could probably dedicate a whole post to crocheting and the difference it has made in my life (and I probably will one day, too!). It might seem a bit strange, but I really enjoy baking and cooking, and being able to share my creations with others. Basically, if I’m not reading or crocheting, you can find me in the kitchen, at the library or browsing the yarn selection at Michaels. I know what you’re thinking…this girl sounds like a wild child, right? I’ve always been an old soul.

I am a complete science geek and am fascinated by anatomy and physiology. If I could be any animal I would be a hummingbird and one day I want to have pet ducks (or a baby black bear but I think ducks are slightly more realistic). I always wanted to have a collection as a kid but stamps and coins were never my thing; I am now fulfilling that childhood dream by collecting hospital bracelets (kidding) and medical supplies (not kidding!). I love tulips, post-it notes, scented soap, Ellen DeGeneres, Rice Chex, dancing, writing, Love Actually, romantic comedies from the 90’s, jigsaw puzzles, Anna Olson, polka dots, jelly beans, tea, snail mail, raspberries, decorating sugar cookies, pajamas, mangoes, the Gilmore Girls, curling ribbon, my Vitamix and twinkle lights.

I’m lucky to have the love and support of my incredible family. My mom and I are really close, to the point that she often starts to say something a split second before I was about to say the same thing, and vice versa. My siblings (brother, sister and brother-in-law) are some of my favourite people and raise my spirits every time I see them. And I’m blessed to have some incredible friends who have been by my side through all of the craziness.

I believe the best way to get through the hard times is to keep a sense of humour. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, and laughing is way more fun! I believe that one of the best ways to make yourself feel better is to do something for someone else. And I believe in the importance of practicing gratitude even on the darkest of days. I believe that everything happens for a reason and even if it seems hopeless at the time, something good will come out of every bad situation. I believe that everyone is going through something and we should put aside our judgments and practice compassion. I believe in giving other people the benefit of the doubt; if you’re expecting the worst in someone, you’ll find it, but if you’re expecting the best, you’ll probably find that instead. I do my best to live in a way that reflects these beliefs.

I don’t know where my life is going or what my health has in store, but I have hope that one day I will look back on everything I have been through and think, “Okay, it makes sense now.” Until then, I’m going to keep finding reasons to laugh and keep looking for the miracles in everyday life.

And I hope you’ll join me.

P.S. Where does the name carefulcatherine come from? You might assume that I am just a very cautious person and you would be right. In fact, my first word was ‘uh-oh’ if that gives you any idea. However, that has nothing to do with the name Careful. One summer when I was working in programs for students with developmental disabilities a little boy had a hard time pronouncing my name and called me Careful instead. It stuck and my lifelong dream of having a nickname was fulfilled!