When recovery is a spiritual journey

Up until a year or so ago, I would never have considered myself a spiritual person. In fact, if I’m honest, I probably looked down on people who were religious or spiritual. I was a woman of science, and I had no time for anything remotely woo-woo. Despite my love of yoga and my increasing interest in alternative approaches to health, any mention of chakras or energy fields or “connection to a higher power”, quite frankly, had me eye rolling.

But when you have been ill for so long and nothing has helped, you will pretty much try anything. And while I still have one foot in the door of modern medicine, I am realising that alternative and conventional approaches don’t need to be an either/or situation. They can be used side-by-side to serve different functions and ultimately, work together to achieve healing.

Healing.

Another word I would have turned my nose up only a year or two ago. What does healing even mean? Isn’t it just a non-descript word that charlatans use to trick people into giving them money? The old me would have thought so, but now I am beginning to understand. I can take all manner of medicine to kill the infections in my body, but even modern science accepts that infection is more than just a function of the bacteria or virus. Because two people can contract the same infection and react differently. There are so many factors that can influence the body’s response to infection. So maybe, just maybe, killing the infection is only part of the story. And for years I had been looking at nutrition and supplements and exercise and hormone balance, and all of those things that add complexity to the story of infection, but are still safely grounded in the world of science that I was so familiar with. And yet there was a gaping hole in the puzzle. The one thing that I had neglected to pay attention to, for all those years: myself. My personality, my habits, my beliefs. Me.

And so began my spiritual journey (sorry, the word “journey” still makes me cringe). I realised that I had spent my whole adult life stressed, wired, and anxious. I was such a perfectionist that any mistake, no matter how small, was an intolerable hit to my self-esteem. I had no self-love, no self-compassion, and I, like so many people, felt wholly inadequate most of the time. I felt judged by the world, and I judged the world right back. And that whole package of personality, all of those traits that I thought were the only way to live and if anything, were something to be proud of because they made me strong and successful, were in fact part of the reason I couldn’t get better.

And so began my quest to no longer seek all the answers from the external world – infection, diet, exercise, sleep – and instead, I turned my attention within. And with that came the most overwhelming sense of ownership and hope, because now I am no longer dependent on finding the answer out there in the big wide world, of needing to research and learn and obsess about what I might be missing. Instead, I can relax and let go and enjoy life, safe in the knowledge that the final pieces of the puzzle are already here. I just need to open my eyes.

And this realisation has changed my life so profoundly. I am no longer rushing every second of the day. I am no longer judging my self-worth by how hard I pushed today. I am learning to love myself for who I am, not for what I have achieved. I am learning to be a human being, not a human doing. I am learning that the world is ultimately a good, safe place and that everything will be just fine.

And while there have been, and continue to be, some very dark days along the way, I am so grateful for everything I have learned from poor health. I am happier and more fulfilled by life now than I ever have been, and I can’t help but wonder whether I would still be painfully judgemental and convinced of my inadequacy, were it not for those difficult experiences.

I have no doubt that I can and will get better, and that I can live the life I choose for myself. It may take some time, and that is just fine, because I believe that I will not completely recover until I have learned all the lessons that I was supposed to learn from this experience. But I am in no hurry, because I know that I am healing.

 

Afraid no more: A poem

I am a totally concrete, non-abstract, logical thinker. I have no imagination whatsoever. So it came as a big surprise this morning when I had a really strong visualisation of me no longer running from Lyme disease, but instead, confronting it, calmly and peacefully, right in the face. It happened while I was doing one of my favourite chronic-illness/pain meditations where you meditate on the symptoms, deliberately focusing on them without judgement, without labelling them as good or bad and allowing them to “be” rather than trying to push them away. I get so much benefit from it and have been using it a lot this week, which has been one of the worst weeks I’ve had for as long as I can remember.

It came as an even bigger surprise when, after my meditation, I had an urge to write a poem. I haven’t written a poem since school so I really have no idea where it came from but since I’ve been in bed all week, it’s not like I had anything else to do!

So here it is: my first grown-up poem!

Afraid no more

You open your mouth, wide as a cavern
And with all your might, you let out a roar
My soul fills with dread, my heart full of fear
For you, my stalker, my power-hungry tease
You lurk in the shadows while you let me prevail
Waiting to pounce, control forever yours.
Now you roar, you roar, you roar with such fury
Two choices I face, do I cower or run?

My heart starts to race, my fingertips tremble,
So desperate to be free from your embrace.
I turn and I bolt, praying I can outrun you
But as always you are stronger, right at my heels
I am so afraid, but I hopelessly run
And I hear you laugh at my feeble endeavour
My legs are tired and I start to slow
Walking, feet dragging, exhausted and weak.

I come to a stop and I close my eyes
Inhaling deep, my inner-strength reignites
I turn around and look straight at you
A flicker of hesitation as you question my will
My mind is calm and I trust my decision
I walk towards you as my heart starts to settle
Face-to-face now, your breath strokes my skin
No longer afraid, I feel your presence
I exist within you, and you within me,
In every cell, every vein, every breath that I take.

The faster I run, the harder you chase
So what do you do now that we are face-to-face?
I invite you in, and you relinquish your power
Know this, old friend: your days here are numbered
I am no longer the frightened girl that you crave
I am looking within, where answers reside.
The once crashing waves lap gently at the shore
I am no longer running, for I am afraid no more.

 

 

 

 

Detaching from the identity of chronic illness

Sometimes, when times are really bad, it is hard to know where the illness stops and where you begin.

I attended a yoga workshop today, where the underlying theme was opening the heart and letting go of that which no longer serves you. It ticked all the right boxes of where I am in my life at the moment, and I left feeling lighter, calmer and at peace with the world. In case you didn’t know: I love yoga.

As I was lying there in meditation, we were invited to let go of the things in our life that we no longer need to hold on to, and I realised that for me, that thing is illness. For those of you reading this post who also experience chronic illness, I suspect this will make a lot of sense, but for those of you who are generally fit and healthy, it may sound pretty bizarre. But chronic illness is so much more than just being chronically ill.  When you experience the same pattern of symptoms repeatedly over many months, years, or even decades, those symptoms become the very essence of your existence. Long-term illness creeps its way into every single aspect of your life: work, home, relationships, hobbies, diet, bedtime routine, the list goes on and on. Every decision you make, and I mean every decision, has chronic illness behind it. It’s like a constant parrot on your shoulder that you can never get rid of. Chronic illness becomes a part of your identity. Sometimes, when times are really bad, it is hard to know where the illness stops and where you begin. And not only that, but all of the thoughts, beliefs and emotions that come along with those symptoms, become part of your identity too.

Up until very recently, these were some of the thoughts I experienced on an almost daily basis:

  • Oh no, these symptoms again, I can’t cope with this
  • How much longer is this going to go on for?
  • Will I ever get better?
  • I’m going to have to cancel my plans again, what if “insert friend’s name here” gets pissed off?
  • YAY, I feel good today. Oh wait, how long is it going to last?
  • Maybe if I just meditated more/took this supplement/lived off of ice cubes, I might get better

Etc, etc, etc.

In addition to my US treatment for Lyme disease, I recently added a “brain retraining” programme for CFS/ME into my recovery. Sounds a bit nuts, and I don’t want to go into details of this just yet, as it’s early days and I’m still working out what I think about it all. But without question, it is helping. The focus of this programme is to calm the nervous system, in two main ways: 1) directly through meditation, deep breathing and stress management, and 2) by reducing attention (read: obsession) on symptoms, illness, and all the kinds of thoughts listed above. Amongst other things, it involves redirecting focus away from negative thoughts, beliefs and images, to more positive, empowering ones.

For the first couple of weeks, it was hard-going. The negative thoughts were pretty much constant. Any time I stood up, sat down, got in the car, noticed a symptom, noticed a lack of symptom…basically any time I so much as took a breath, a thought or image related to chronic illness would crop up. It was really quite eye-opening to start paying attention to these thoughts, not running from them or trying to push them away, but just noticing they were there, accepting their presence, and then calmly redirecting my attention. It made me realise just how much illness has become ingrained in my entire existence; my self-identity. And the trouble with this, is that it is a self-perpetuating cycle. How can you get better when you are constantly telling yourself, without even realising, that you and this illness are one?

But after those difficult first couple of weeks, changes started to happen. The thoughts were cropping up a little less, and my brain was automatically picking the positive images over the negative ones. Don’t get me wrong, the thoughts are still there. They’ve been there for about ten years so I guess they’re not going to go away overnight. But when I wake up in the morning, my first thought is no longer “am I feeling sick today?”. When I make plans for next week, I’m no longer assuming that there’s a good chance I won’t be well enough. Of course, I know that realistically, there is still a good chance I won’t be well enough, but I am no longer stressing, obsessing and expecting the worst. I imagine health. I picture energy. I believe, deep down in my soul, that I am on the road to recovery. And that may happen next month, it may happen in a year – it doesn’t really matter. I am no longer attached to a timeline, a “deadline” of how much longer I can cope with this for.

For the first time in my entire life I have stopped the frantic search for an answer from the outside world, and instead, I am looking within. And slowly, but surely, I am detaching from my identity as a sick person.