In 2010, I was finally diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease. By the time I started treatment, I couldn't bend over to brush my teeth. There was severe pain in my right knee, my hips, and my wrists. I had heart palpitations when I walked up stairs that I once ran up. My left eye twitched and often I could not spit out my words or find them in my mind. Several times in my car a block away from my house, I lost my bearings. I experienced spells of the darkest despair like a sudden cloud blocking the sun. It took nearly seven months on three different oral antibiotics and an anti-fungal medication plus a strict diet to kill off a substantial amount of bacteria to then regain my strength and sanity. I spent those months mostly in bed watching the light move across the room (though I did get to the pool daily for laps). The disease cost me my profession of nearly 30 years working with disabled children and their families. Ultimately, the disease required me to change what I was doing and assuming.
It takes great maturity to deal with illness well (and any form of suffering); and, it is the experience of illness that has the potential to make us more mature. It is often the case, however, that the opposite occurs and illness makes us regress like helpless children. We feel cursed and abandoned, a condition known as "spiritual distress." As adults unwilling to grow-up we just assume that we will live without illness or setbacks or devastating accidents so we are shocked, angered, and surprised when things do not go according to plan.
Illness is a life-changer, as it should be. It is our greatest teacher if only we would allow ourselves to learn. We have the choice to either experience illness as an enemy and do everything in our power to conquer it or we can find out what it asks of us. Suffering should be a catalyst for personal growth, not an avenue that leads back to where we were before the suffering. Being ill redefines who we perceive ourselves to be contrasted with when we were well. If we can't do the things we used to do, who are we? Our very identity is rattled by illness. We are exposed and vulnerable.
In my case, I was asked to give up a profession that was truly too stressful for the stage of life I found myself. My illness challenged me to commit to a new profession. It asked me not to turn away from my diseased body but to embrace it and treat it with tenderness. It asked me to reach out to others to get help and then later to help others with Lyme disease. It taught me to appreciate the things I could do and the moments I felt well enough. It slowed me down to notice and examine the way light evolves during the course of a day. It humbled me and made mockery of my belief that I was the one in control. I would like to think that it also gave me more compassion for the suffering of others.
Every illness is practice for the next illness or decline. How are we as a patient? How are we as a friend when we are ill? What do we expect from our loved ones? Do we burden them with our misery? Are we martyrs? Do we blame ourselves or do we blame others for our condition?
Most importantly, illness can be a rehearsal for when we are in our dying time; for it really does take a lot of practice to die well in a death-phobic culture such as ours.
Deborah Golden Alecson is a death, dying and bereavement educator and speaker who resides in Lenox, Mass. She is the author of three books that deal with her personal loss. Learn more at www.deborahgoldenalecson.com.