You’ve got to give the inner critic props for its tenacity. You know what I’m talking about, that voice inside that, even when we are flat on our backs with suffering, chimes in with: “Is that all you got?” Even in the midst of our sickness, it eggs us on, saying things like, “If only you were a better person, then you wouldn’t be sick.” or “Come on, stop complaining, get it together,” or my personal favorite: “If you were more spiritual, you would be well by now.”
I have a sinking suspicion, that it was that same inner critic, that aspect of me which strove for mythic perfection and told me I was unlovable unless I reached it, that was at least partially responsible for my getting sick in the first place. And even though a part of me knew better, I still sometimes managed to allow the critic to convince me that I could strive my way to wellness as well.
Even so, it was the stories of ordinariness, the stories of others accepting themselves in all their muck that gave me the most inspiration.
Radical Self Acceptance
My student and client “Sheila,” told many of those stories. Sheila had MS and hired me as her writing coach for a collection of essays she was putting together about her healing journey. In one of the essays, Sheila wrote of the heartbreakingly human experience of having to wear Depends undergarments at age 36, because she could no longer control her bladder. As we sat and edited the story together, we both broke into a fit of laughter, laughing hysterically then dissolving into tears of gratitude, grit, and grace.
Sheila’s humor, humility, and ability to surrender to what is in the midst of an impossible situation, continues to inspire me today.
Letting Go of Control
When we are sick, we can, like children, try to control our inner reality because the world, and our own bodies, seem so out of control. We feel like we’ve been betrayed by our givens and blame ourselves because we don’t know who else to blame. And because we think that maybe, just maybe, if we figure out how to do a better job of caring for ourselves we’ll get better.
Every four months or so, during my own illness, I would find myself getting really pissed off at God, because I was still sick.I would break down and curse and scream, and yell, and sob, roll on the floor, stomp my feet, throw tantrums, write nasty letters to the universe, and call my friend Alicia to complain.
“I’m pissed off,” I would yell to Alicia. “I hate this, I hate the universe, this isn’t fair!” Alicia would always say the same thing: “I’m so glad to hear you say that.”“Why?” I would ask, “Because it is real,” she would respond.
Because it is Real
It’s actually an incredible relief to stop fighting ourselves and start being with what is. This doesn’t mean we stop trying to heal, or stop taking care of ourselves, or stop eating right, or exercising, but it does mean that we stop beating ourselves up for not getting it right. The truth is, there’s no right way to be sick. When we begin to let go of our ideas about how the world should be, we can start to be with what actually is. And when we finally start to be with what is, we can start to heal. The first step towards transformation is acceptance.
Lean into What is Happening
Rumi, one of my favorite mystic poets, writes eloquently of this acceptance in The Guest House:
“This being human is a guest house. /Every morning a new arrival. /A joy, a depression, a meanness, /some momentary awareness comes/as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all! /Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, /who violently sweep your house/empty of its furniture,/still, treat each guest honorably./He may be clearing you out /for some new delight.”
Right about now you might be thinking, that’s great advice, but how do I do that? Start by leaning into what is happening rather than away from in. Do you feel stuck, anxious, tired, angry? Then be stuck, anxious, tired, angry. When you notice these “difficult” states arising, try just naming them, instead of fighting. Say to yourself: “I’m angry,” or “I’m anxious.” Then, notice where you feel the sensations of stuckness, anxiety, tiredness, etc. and see if you can, just for a moment, simply be with it. What are its physical sensations? What color is the anger? Where is it located in your body? How big is it? Does it move? The more you grow your capacity to be with yourself, the more you’ll be able to accept yourself, and begin to open your heart to healing.
But: If I Accept Myself, I’ll Never Get Better
Of course, accepting ourselves can be scary, before we begin, it can feel like we are letting go of the hope of getting better. The truth is, although it takes a little practice, you can hold the hope, and the truth of your wellness, and be with the pain, and truth of your illness, at the same time. I call it: Being with what is, and being with what also is.
But: I Need to Keep Doing Things to Care for Myself
Healing from chronic illness requires us to develop multiple attentions, it can feel like a crash course in advanced juggling, a balancing act.Of course you need to keep doing what you do to take care of yourself, but healing, and life for that mater, is not just constructed of doingness, it’s constructed of beingness as well. The doing is still important (getting up, eating, seeking support, spending time with loved ones), it’s the striving you can live without.
But: If I Let Myself Feel How Bad I Feel, I’ll Drown in Despair
I remember how, during those conversations with my friend Alicia I wrote about above, I’d feel a struggle between the desire to let myself feel how bad I felt, and the fear of letting go of the hope of getting better. “I’m afraid to let myself go into the despair,” I’d say. “What if I never come out, or what if I let go of trying to get better.”Alicia would then say the most remarkable thing, “I’ll hold the hope for you, so that you can go into the despair.”
Sometimes, when the despair gets too loud, and we are not able to hold the dual attentions of hope and despair, we need someone else to hold the truth of our health, so we can let ourselves feel the vastness of our struggle. I have come to believe that this kind of support is essential to healing.
Illness is a challenging teacher, and moving from dis-ease to wellness can be a rough ride. Learning how to love ourselves in the midst of our suffering is one gift we can give ourselves to support the healing journey and help it to unfold. Learning how to hold the truth of our healing and the pain of our suffering, developing a strong felt sense awareness, learning how to lean into what is happening, and seeking support from individuals who will help us learn how to be with what is, can all aid in our recovery.
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Sweigh Emily Spilkin, MFA, CHT