The Kindness of Illness

We don’t tend to trust our bodies, particularly when we become ill. However, think of the millions of processes that our bodies carry out perfectly in billions of cells every second; compared to that consistent, reliable, steady and perfectly coordinated functioning, the few times that our bodies manifest distress are few and far between. It is far more realistic to trust and believe in our bodies than to distrust and not believe in them. Indeed, it makes little sense when our bodies have served us well up to the time of an onset of an illness – a pain, an ache, a viral infection, a heart artery blocked, low blood pressure and so on – that it suddenly becomes the enemy. Surely, it makes sense to respond to the physical distressing symptoms as messengers, allies that are attempting to bring some physical or emotional neglect of self to the fore. The intentions of the illness symptoms are to alert us to the fact that we have been off the wellbeing track and need to get back on it. The nature of the symptom, the verbal description of it, the location of the symptom, the time of the onset of the symptom all contribute to the message that the illness wants to communicate. However, what happens more often than not is that we shoot the messenger – the body – by seeing it as letting us down rather than alerting us to neglect that is present and may have been present for a long time. When the latter is the case, we may have ignored less threatening symptoms, such as intermittent insomnia, vague aches and pain, tiredness, over-eating, under-eating, overweight, underweight, lack of fitness, etc. It is also common that individuals will have resorted to various over-the-counter medications to offset these symptoms, but did not take any time to examine their true purpose. Testament to this is that there appears to be more pharmacies than pubs in towns and cities throughout the country.

In examining my own recent onset of illness, I have found a creativity and intelligence that really confirms that illness is kindness, a friend that whispers (sometimes shouts) in my ear that change in how I am living my life is required. The change may be purely physical – more exercise, healthier diet, meditation, more sleep, more rest, a holiday, less work – but more often than not the change being called for is an emotional one. Anything up to 70-80 per cent of illnesses are psychosomatic in nature – meaning that the illness presenting has an emotional origin. Naturally, treatment needs to focus on both aspects of the illness, but more often than not the emphasis is on the ‘physical cure’ rather than the emotional change to which the illness is compassionately and creatively attempting to draw attention. A recurrence of the illness or the development of another illness is likely to follow the non-attendance to the total message of the illness.

My own illness – when eventually diagnosed – was an infection of the gall-bladder that led to the development of an abscess in the liver. When I was admitted to hospital four weeks after the onset of the illness, I had lost three stone in weight, hadn’t eaten for four weeks and had barely slept. It is not surprising with the weight loss, jaundiced complexion, exhaustion that the initial diagnostic guess was that I had cancer of the liver, which, not surprisingly, caused great fear and panic for those close to me. Because of three very powerful dreams on the night of the onset of the illness and because I truly believe in illness as a friend, I did not buy into the critical illness notion. Nevertheless, I knew I was seriously acutely ill and that a diagnosis was urgently needed. It eventually came – thanks to the expertise of an ultra-sound specialist and the initial intuitive assessment by the consultant. The consequence was that a drain was inserted into the liver and, with a few hiccups, I was on the road to a physical recovery. However, the emotional recovery also needed attending.

The onset of the illness followed within days of my realising I was on the point of burnout due to the pressure I had put myself under to pay off an unexpected large tax bill and to an old issue of mine of which was still not fully resolved – the difficulty of saying ‘no’ to individuals who are in great emotional distress.  I needed a wake-up-call and the illness weighed in behind the consciousness of being burnt out. The location of the illness – the gall-bladder and the liver were very significant. The word ‘gall’ means the daring to assert one’s truth.  And the need to find my voice to prioritise my own well-being and not jeopardise it because of debt or other people’s therapeutic needs of me. In any case, I needed to practice what I believe and I had unconsciously allowed myself to slip from that care of myself, particularly over the past three years. The liver is an amazing organ; it has over sixty different functions, all having to do with clearing out toxins. There is no greater emotional poison than neglect or abandonment of oneself, and, consciously, even before the diagnosis I had a strong compulsion to have clear spaces around me – I was not able to take clutter. Emotionally, I had much to process – to clear up – around my relationship with self and the clear separating out of my person and worth from anything that I do. Of course, the illness immediately brought attention through the initial chronic physical pain to the deeper emotional pain of abandonment, it also got me to stop working and provided me with the time to rest and reflect. The infection pointed to the underlying emotional infection of abandonment and the abscess to the accumulation of that ‘toxic’ emotional state. When medical personnel asked me how would I describe my illness I said ‘I know that there is something in my body I need to clear out; I don’t believe I am critically ill, but I do believe that I have an illness that has got to do with the here and now and that it has a deep emotional basis.’ These words show that at some level of consciousness I was close to the true message of the illness. My emotional response to the illness has been to review my work for which I have a great passion – but I needed urgently to prioritise my own wellbeing. The source of the pressure to pay the debt came to me during the illness – and that was carrying unconsciously a value of my father – ‘never owe a penny to anyone.’ Now, I am comfortable with debt and I will responsibly pay it, but without compromising my own health. Considerable physical improvement has occurred but, mostly, I am grateful to the compassion and kindness of the illness in bringing attention to the deeper emotional neglects that needed resolution. That emotional resolution is a work in progress.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist/Author, National and International Speaker.  His recent book with co-author Helen Ruddle, The Compassionate Intentions of Illness is relevant to today’s topic.