By Deb Avery
Contrary to modern day culture, having an illness does not mean we are a failure.
Being sick does not mean we are bad people making bad decisions, or that karma has come back to bite us in the butt. Being sick is much like everything else in the world—it just is.
I live with two chronic illnesses.
A little over five years ago I was diagnosed with RA (rheumatoid arthritis). This is not like your grandmother’s arthritis. RA is an autoimmune disease that affects not only the joints in the body, but can affect every single organ as well. Pain, swelling, weakness, fatigue, flu like symptoms, brain fog—a lot is constantly going on within a body dealing with RA.
Then last year, I was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease. At first it was overwhelming. Spinning vertigo, extreme nausea and falling are only some of the symptoms. I couldn’t sleep because of the tinnitus, a constant buzzing, clicking, roaring, mechanical—drive you crazy noises—in my left ear. I went from being able to hear fairly normally, to practically deaf in my left ear overnight. The noises are the brains way of compensating for lack of hearing.
I felt sick not only in body, but at heart as well. This latest diagnosis almost defeated me. Key word being almost.
At a time when the very food we eat is tainted with chemicals that cause us to become sick, additives that cause us to become addicted to the foods making us sick, stress from being overworked, underpaid and unappreciated, along with the sedentary life most of our jobs demand, we are constantly bombarded with eat this, take this herb, do this exercise, and you will not only feel great, you will look great too!
It is good to be healthy, to exercise and eat properly. Although we cannot prevent all illnesses by eating healthy, we can help our bodies and minds tremendously by the foods we eat. It’s the same with exercise.
While it cannot prevent all illnesses, it will help us become healthier when we do some type of exercise daily. Sadly though, a lot of the hype today is mostly focused not on being healthy, but on issues with our outward appearance, our fears of growing older, and becoming sick.
Then there’s the constant bombardment of the self-help industry and the gurus who tell us that it’s mind over matter and if we just concentrate hard enough and envision clearly and strongly enough, we can obtain whatever we want—health, wealth, and happiness.
Is it any wonder why some of us feel like a failure when we don’t have good health, material wealth, and feel on top of the world?
Too often our society wants to place blame where there is none.
And too often, even those of us who are fully aware of the truth, that sometimes things just happen, still, nonetheless, we fall into the trap of blame and guilt.
Now, almost a year since that last diagnosis, I am doing much better. I am happy and at peace. I still have both illnesses and their symptoms. I still have a lot of days when the pain is really bad and the noises in my deaf ear distract me from everything except simple daily tasks.
I still have times when I’m depressed or a little overwhelmed. There are days when the brain fog is so thick I feel almost as if I’m floating along, unattached to reality. So what changed that helped me achieve a happy and manageable life?
Me. I changed.
I changed my perspective. I got back on my yoga mat and at first, fell over more often than I kept my balance. I walked every day with the help of a cane, even when I didn’t feel like getting out of bed. I pushed myself, yet at the same time, I learned to be compassionate with myself and my illnesses.
I gathered all my favorite books of Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hahn, Sally Kempton, and numerous others, and I read as a beginner would read. But this time it felt like I was on a different level than before. But most of all—I learned to accept what is and to be grateful.
The revelation, this ah-ha moment, came as I was sitting on my back porch last summer looking out over the garden.
There were all the plants that had grown from seeds and tiny shoots. I looked at all the transplants I had received from friends and loved ones over the years and remembered digging—so much digging—in the earth to make them as comfortable and happy as I could. I thought of the compost made lovingly from raked leaves and pine needles that were spread about them every spring and fall.
I remembered the feel of my hands working in the earth, gently planting seeds and watching as they miraculously grow and become food for the table or for the bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. That always brought me so much joy. I remember feeling sorry for myself that day because I could no longer do a lot of the gardening activities that I loved so much.
It was an ordinary summer day like many others, hot, humid, and wrecking havoc with my joints and body. As I sat there on the porch looking out over the green and blooming shrubs, the wildflowers blooming with butterflies, hostas cool and regal in the shade, and the herbs smelling sweet and wonderful in the sun, I began to cry.
It was not the soft, gentle tears of release, but rather the hard, soul wracking sobs of self-discovery. I cried for all that these illnesses had taken from my life. I cried because I felt like I had failed the garden, my dreams, and most of all, myself.
I sat there with my sadness and frustrations until eventually I felt a shift.
Gradually I felt my heart grow lighter, and I realized that I had been grieving. Grieving for a way of life that had changed dramatically. Grieving because of all the negative feelings I had attached to my illnesses and myself. And then, I simply accepted everything as it was.
Sitting there on the back porch all snotty, with eyes red, and every part of my body aching, I let go of all my expectations.
I forgave myself for being sick.
I had not realized until just then, that I had actually blamed myself as if I had been responsible in some way for bringing these illnesses on.
The realization that it was not my fault that I was ill was a turning point for me. I had done the best I could to eat healthy, be active, meditate, and to be a kind and compassionate person. Yet I still fell into the trap of thinking that these illnesses were somehow my fault because of something I did, or did not do right.
I finally realized that this was simply not true. Being active as best one can and eating healthy is not a guarantee that you will not become sick anymore than it means you may not feel sad at some point in life. It’s a combination of family history, genetic make-up and a ton of other relevant things. Just like everything else in life, it isn’t always about us.
Sometimes it just is.
From that shift in perspective from guilt and blame to acceptance and non-judgement, life became easier. The pain didn’t go away, but I learned to cope better. The dizziness, unbalance and tinnitus will always be with me, but it is less severe than before and I am coping better with those as well. Just the simple act of acceptance and forgiveness opened my eyes to all the beauty in the world—yet again.
I became more grateful.
I realized that even though I couldn’t do a lot of the things that I once could, I can still do a lot. I can no longer hear the sounds in the garden as well, but I can still hear.
My joints hurt and won’t flex as they once did, but I can still walk and do some gardening. Even though I can no longer do some of the yoga positions that I once did, I can still do some and modify a lot of the others. Meditation has become challenging because of the constant noises in my ear and the brain fog, but most of the time I can still find that still point.
Some days are better than others.
Some days are still a challenge. But life is once again full of wonder and joy. I am happy and at peace with myself.
And for all this and more, I am truly grateful.
Editor: Dana Gornall