Recently I saw a friend who reminded me that there was a moment when I decided to take back some control from the illness experience. I had almost forgotten about that. It got me thinking that sure, my response to the illness was characteristically me. I spent a lot of time being scared. Worrying. Learning. And then I got tired of being scared. Tried to assume some control. Change my life in way that would give me the best chance of a good life. Of being well. Somewhere along the way I became more content with my life. My job changed. My diet changed. My lifestyle changed. I noticed I was calmer and more satisfied. My life had more meaning.
Other people noticed it too. Strangely, it unnerved a lot of them. Made them uncomfortable? I sensed that often people thought I was putting a brave face on it. I imagined them saying “poor thing. She’s almost convinced herself her life is better…such a shame”. Of course this was what I imagined… but I’m pretty sure it must have crossed some of their minds. The reality is very different. The cliché of the *journey* is alive and well. For me anyway. My experience has taken me and my partner to some dark places, and forced me to manage levels of fear and worry I thought I would never cope with. That experience in itself changes you. As does physical threat to your body. To the realisation that I am not immortal. Suddenly decision making becomes a different experience. I started to find myself fearless just as often as I would find myself terrified. Then gradually over time, there was a shift in the ratio and I became less scared. Of course being well, as I currently am, helps. But I started to notice what else helped: Taking some control. Accepting some responsibility for how this was going to pan out. Changing the things I could change. Sharing what I had learned and what had strengthened me with others.
I was reminded of the work of Victor Frankl and his writings about his experiences in a concentration camp, in his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning. He observed that those who had meaning in their lives – whether that be the desire to finish a book they were writing, or to provide for a family in the future, they were far more resilient to horrific suffering they had to endure than those who did not have such meaning.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the
human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of
circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Research has shown that experiencing negative events may decreases your happiness but it can increase the amount of meaningyou have in life. Often people are able to find some benefit from their illness while still acknowledging the distressing side of their situation (Maerker &Zoellner, 2004). Many report their illness as a ‘gift’ that has added value and even a ‘bonus’ to their lives (Schwartzberg, 1993, 1994). Hard to imagine. And trust me, a strange and unique experience to go through…
Hefferon, Grealy and Mutrie (2009) reviewed 57 qualitative studies that looked at people’s experiences of and response to illness, spanning 32 years of publications. Four key themes emerged. The first was: ‘reappraisal of life and priorities’; the second, ‘trauma equals the development of self’; thirdly, ‘existential re-evaluation’; and finally ‘a new awareness of the body’. The authors argue that the study highlighted a novel element to the process of post-traumatic growth in physically traumatic situations such as acute or chronic illness. It seemed that the process of post traumatic growth is in some ways a response to threat: in this case, losing physical stability and then ‘rehumanizing’ oneself (Salick & Auerbach, 2006) through the reconnection with the body.
This really resonates with me. The threat to my body forced me to not only acknowledge my mortality, but helped me to trust that some benefit could be gained from treating it with better care. Nourishing it. To consider the possibilities of nutritional medicine. The mind-body connection. The experience of illness forced me back to engaging not just with my body but with life in a different way. In doing that I found different meanings in my life. It gave me courage to take a few chances. To engage with my body and spirit again. To explore and question ideas and opportunities. To rise up to the challenge. Alongside my family and friends, the meaning and purpose I am started to experience as a result of engaging with myself, my new challenges and with you (dear reader ;) is inspiring me. I really like my new life. I think I like it more than the old one. If you think “poor thing. She’s almost convinced herself her life is better…such a shame” then that’s cool. But I know.
<p"If there is meaning in life at all then there must be meaning in suffering”<Frankl