The most common reaction to the suggestion
that an illness may be created to heal wounds to the deep emotional self, to
the soul, is aggressive: ‘do you mean to tell me that I brought this illness
upon myself? – that’s mad, off the wall!’ A medical colleague responded
similarly exclaiming: ‘you are blaming people for their illnesses.’ On the
contrary, my intention is to draw attention to the awesome power of the Self to
heal the deepest dis-ease of all – alienation from one’s unique and sacred
When we consider the many other ways that a person reveals his or her dark inner terrain – depression, chronic anxiety, obsessiveness, perfectionism, aggression, addictions to substances, addictions to work, what others think and say, to the ‘body beautiful’, anorexia nervosa, hallucinations – are we equally going to say that ‘these creations are off the wall?’ It may be easier to accept that the foregoing distressing symptoms are creations in times of emotional danger, but, in fact, illness has exactly the same compassionate intention. After all, each of the conditions mentioned are cleverly devised to draw attention to a troubled and troubling interiority. It is not that a person wakes up one morning and consciously decides ‘I’m going to create a depression or, indeed, an illness today’; no, this process occurs unconsciously, and necessarily so, because without emotional safety, consciousness of the creative and defensive nature of the depression or an illness would weaken its power.
Be reassured, when the Self has the emotional safety to be real and authentic it will express openly its unresolved hurts and seek the help and support needed for these wounds to be healed. The hope is that its unconsciously created depression or illness will be detected by some mature individual or wellbeing practitioner as a symptom of a hidden Self – and not flown in vain. Depression is deep emotional pain – sometimes no words can capture the utter despair that is being experienced – but without that emotional pain – like physical pain – we would not know what needs to be healed. For example, we can unwittingly cut ourselves, but the resultant physical pain compassionately draws attention to the wound incurred. The pain is not the enemy; rather it is a creative ally. Whatever the presenting condition is – for example, anxiety, depression, substance addiction, migraine headache, heart disease, back-pain – there is no enemy within. However, when individuals believe that there is an enemy within – like a depression or a heart disease – and they rant and rave at the injustice of it – they are creating yet another defence, because there exists no safety in their current relationships to voice the hidden emotional pain of not mattering. At least when we are depressed we draw some attention – albeit of a substitute nature – to the darkness within, but I still not dare express to the significant other – parent, teacher, lover, spouse, sister, brother, boss, doctor – the truth of feeling abandoned, judged, controlled, less than others, invisible. Nevertheless, the being able to talk about being depressed, despairing, even being suicidal is some comfort – though cold – and protects from utter despair. However, if somebody was to spot what one really wants to talk about – how even more creative the depression then becomes. Now, real rather than substitute resolution is possible and the sky is the limit.
I believe illness offers similar opportunities – either at the substitute or real level. It is so understandable how reluctant we are to let go of the idea that illnesses are random happenings over which we have no control. Understandably, because illness is one of the most powerful ways of being able to talk about feeling and being sick without revealing what you are truly and deeply sick of – emotional abandonment. At least when you are sick you are highly likely to receive attention in the form of sympathy, nurturance, kindness, old wives’ remedies, visits to the doctor and medical ‘cures.’ Who would not be sick when your daily diet has been of harsh rejection or of not being worthy of being considered. Illness in such situations is a compassionate and creative balm to the deeper underlying wounds. Ultimately, the causes of all human misery lie in a lack of loving. When illness becomes the means to either reduce the intensity of such abandonment or brings to light the unbearable plight of having been hidden for so long, it is surely an ally, never the enemy.
Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology including The Compassionate Intentions of Illness which is co-authored with Helen Ruddle.