Are We Ill At Ease With Illness?

The girls have both been ill lately, and one or the other has been off school for weeks, which is largely the reason it’s taken me so long to post. 

I find it fascinating to notice the mass of contradictory beliefs in society, and in me, connected to illness. Western cultures seem to believe that we have to fight illnesses, be they life-threatening like cancer or heart disease, or more ordinary like the common cold. (Though the common cold that Lolo had as a baby meant nine days in intensive care on a ventilator.) I’ve heard of companies that reprimand employees for being off sick, and in the UK we have TV ads for cold cures that suggest you can swallow the potion and get straight back to work. The alternative, it seems, is to huddle in bed with a hot water bottle, nose dripping, feeling totally miserable and sorry for yourself.

So when I start to feel ill, or my children are, thoughts come popping into my head, thoughts I once would have believed or fought, and now instead I question. Here’s a selection:

It’s weak to be ill.
I should find a way to prevent my children getting ill.
Teachers/other parents/people will think I’m doing something wrong if my children are off school.
People won’t believe me that the Buteyko Method works if my children are ill.
I shouldn’t be ill.
I’ve too much to do to be ill.
I won’t be able to cope.

One morning recently, noticing my sore throat, runny nose, headache, I also noticed these last three thoughts, and that I was seeing only the options of fight or give in and collapse – and that led to feelings of anxiety and tiredness.
What if there was a different way? What if instead of letting my mind run off into the future it stayed right where I was? What if instead of imaging the day ahead with all the struggles I’d go through because I was ill, I took each moment as it came? In other words, who would I be without the thought that I couldn’t cope?
Interesting this – I’d be living in the now, right here, with no stories of struggle.

What if illnesses aren’t the enemy? If we were to treat illnesses instead as teachers, how would we see them differently? How would we feel differently about them? I’ve read many articles about people who have developed disabilities or debilitating illnesses such as cancer, and who have come to see them as a gift. (I’m reading Michael J. Fox’s book Lucky Man right now, and that’s how he describes his Parkinson’s disease, and says that the ten years since he was diagnosed have been the best of this life – though he also writes he has been criticised by others for saying this and that it is a gift that keeps taking.) I’ve not experienced serious illness myself, so I have no idea how I would react, and if you or anyone you know are in that situation, I certainly am not suggesting that you should look on your illness as a gift – if you don’t. I simply notice that for some people it is possible to see things that way, and this inspires me when I think about my own minor ailments. I guess the fear is that if we stop regarding illness as the enemy we will be overwhelmed by it. Yet, what if illness is perhaps a signal that somewhere, somehow we are out of balance? Would we stop looking for cures then, or would we approach the search for a cure with less – or maybe even no – fear?

For years my fear of the breathing difficulties Lolo experienced with colds led me on a panicky search for a cure. It’s probably six years since the day that she got furious at me about something, (I’ve conveniently forgotten my crime!) and as she raged at me she began struggling to breathe and needed her inhaler. Yet, though I noticed the link between her outburst and her breathing, I missed the opportunity in this. It didn’t occur to me then, for instance, to notice what happened to my own breathing when I felt upset. And a few years later when someone gave me an article about the Buteyko breathing method, it took me months, maybe even a year, to ring a teacher. Why? I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. Probably because of beliefs I had such as: ‘Doctors wouldn’t like it.’ I have yet to meet a doctor who complains about it, and when I discussed it with the asthma nurse at our clinic, she said it was very effective. But fear rarely lets evidence stand in the way.

I am aware that I still hold many crazy beliefs about health, and accepting that is oddly peaceful. I don’t have to try to force myself to drop unhealthy beliefs about health! That seems similar to trying to force my body to be well. I read more and more about research that indicates placebos are as effective as drugs, and when we read this it’s easy to start thinking if a dummy pill can do it we should be able to simply heal ourselves. Some people seem to find this comes relatively easily, and others don’t. I tend to think we all have lessons that help us become more aware of the inherent wholeness of our being, and that certain situations recur in our lives because that’s how we learn. So if you or I experience recurring illness, for instance, it’s not because we’re inherently weak, stupid or careless, but because these illnesses bring to the surface beliefs that tell us we are, and we then get the chance to question these beliefs and more toward love.

Comments

  1. That’s a hell of a refreshing perspective you have there – good philosophical exploration of sickness. It seems the subject of illness tends to spread folks along a spectrum ranging from those who see western medicine as the hope for all cures and those who stomp and shout about the necessity of letting Nature battle maladies. But there is almost universal agreement that illness is an enemy and needs to be responded to as such.

    I have no clue as to where I stand on this personally – I hadn’t thought about your idea until reading your article just now. But it’s given me something new and intriguing to think about this morning. Nothing better than a fresh idea to go with coffee and the leftovers my kids give me from breakfast – Thanks.

  2. Hello Frank,
    Thank you for your comment, and glad you enjoyed the post.
    I’d say having no clue is a great way to be – when I set up this blog I thought I’d included a strap-line: “Where not knowing the answers is the answer.” (My techie skills are minimal and it somehow disappeared.)

    Yvonne

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