I once found an old book at the flea market called “Be Glad You’re Neurotic”. Just the book for me! Written in 1936, it has chapter headings like “You Hate Yourself. No Wonder!” and “Are You Getting the Most out of Your Insomnia and Dreams?” I did not make this up. I prop this old book on my shelf, title out, reminding myself to be glad.
Having a chronic illness is a sure way to intensify a neurosis. I’ve been sick since Christmas, sequestered in the house for the most part, too exhausted to go out. All plans for the future are on hold. I’m waiting for the verdict from the insurance company as to whether, this time, they will approve my treatment. Instead of being able to let go, to read and relax and wait to get better, I go into overdrive, fending off the feeling of impending doom. Will I be able to keep up my walking routine? To sing in the choir? To write steadily? My mind goes into ever more solipsistic rounds, and I become more tense, contracted– unable to heal. I feel guilty for having a lousy immune system. I read a book review about primitive tribes and identify with the sick woman left to die because she is no longer of use. I see her struggling to keep up with the tribe, only to die alone on the road. That’s me, I think, falling farther and farther behind. My mind turns in ever smaller circles, like the little swan trapped in the ice in “The Ugly Duckling.” I can not stay in the present, or take deep breaths. My mind is turning too frantically, even as my body is inert. Intellectually, I know better, but I’m in the grip of something I can’t think away.
This impasse is only broken when a friend calls unexpectedly. Like me, Mari has a chronic illness and has lived with all the difficulties of people not understanding, of insurance companies that are unresponsive, of dreams that have to be let go. I find myself articulating to her half-understood frustrations and fears. All the thoughts and feelings that had festered in the sealed room of my mind come pouring out. Yet, once they are not mine alone, they seem less formidable. I feel myself taking deeper breaths, feel my body loosen. Mari shares practical advice, and more importantly, she exudes a confidence I no longer have that thing will turn out. Holding onto her confidence for me, I can let go of the death grip I have on the outcome of my illness. I feel supported, and humbled. I do not have to be God. I can relax. I am reminded again that I am not alone, and I am invited to experience a feeling of being held and nurtured.
To heal, it seems, we need each other. I can do my yoga practice at home, but doing it in a group seems to be a fuller experience. I have had profound experiences of healing from healing touch, from massage, from the caring physical therapists who have put me back together, from chats with friends, from therapists, from writing groups, from the liturgy. And each time, I feel humbled and grateful, called back to Reality as sacred, freed from my ego’s need to control.
Before Mari’s call, my story about my illness was one of loss and desperation. Yet, as she offered her generous insights, I was able to reframe my story. My feeling of helplessness diminished and my sense of agency grew, even as I was able to let go of controlling the outcome. My story of isolation became a story of hope. In the book, Narrative Medicine: the Use of History and Story in the Healing Process, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, talks about the importance of community in helping someone re-author their story. “We need the group to re-author our stories. Rarely can re-authoring be done in isolation.”
We need others to help us heal, although not everyone can help you re-author your story, as Naomi Shihab Nye says in this poem:
You Have to Be Careful
You have to be careful telling things.
Some ears are tunnels.
Your words will go in and get lost in the dark.
Some ears are flat pans like the miners used
looking for gold.
What you say will be washed out with the stones.
You look for a long time till you find the right ears.
Till then, there are birds and lamps to be spoken to,
a patient cloth rubbing shine in circles,
and the slow, gradually growing possibility
that when you find such ears
they already know.
Thank you, Mari Braveheart-Dancer, for being those ears.