Kat Duff has written in The Alchemy of Illness of the toxic cultural assumptions and illusions of illness that prevent us from seeing it as an opportunity for transformation, instead viewing it negatively, as something that must be fought and overcome, denied and ignored. The well shy away from the shadow-lands of disease and disability. But for those of us who dwell in those dark places (or descend to them frequently), there is the knowledge that illness, and our weak, vulnerable, and dysfunctional bodies, can be one of the most powerful teachers.
I want to feel better than I currently do. I want to have the energy to write and make art. But I believe that CFS has come to me for a reason, to teach me something, and I do not want to suppress it, to overcome it, without having learnt the lessons that are meant for me.
These passages from The Alchemy of Illness have spoken loudly:
Our concepts of physical and psychological health have become one-sidedly identified with the heroic qualities most valued in our culture: youth, activity, productivity, independence, strength, confidence, and optimism. (1)
Sickness, by these definitions, is not only a breakdown of normal health but a personal failure, which explains why many sick people feel so guilty and ashamed—or angry at anyone who intimates they have done something wrong … When symptoms persist and illness becomes chronic, we often find fault with the victim, we call it a lack of will power, a desire for attention, an unwillingness to work or change, rather than question the assumption that it is within our power as human beings to overcome sickness and, in fact, it is our job to do so. Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig has termed this tendency to accept people only when they get better, heal, or want to heal, “wholeness moralism.”
In our infatuation with health and wholeness, illness is one-sidedly identified with the culturally devalued qualities of quiet, introspection, weakness, withdrawal, vulnerability, dependence, self-doubt, and depression. If someone displays any of these qualities to a great extent, he or she is likely to be considered ill and encouraged to see a doctor or therapist. In a perversion of recent discoveries of body-mind unity, self-help books encourage sick people to cultivate positive attitudes—faith, hope, laughter, self-love, and a fighting spirit—to overcome their diseases. As a result, many sick people are shamed by friends, family, or even their healers into thinking they are sick because they lack these “healthy” attitudes, even though illnesses often accompany critical turning points in our lives, when it is necessary to withdraw, reflect, sorrow, and surrender, in order to make needed changes. (2)
From personal experience, I can say that developing a positive attitude has brought much good to my life. Yet it is not a cure, merely a technique for coping better, for rising above the negative feelings so that they do less overall harm. And crucially, positivity and optimism, while important, cannot be maintained constantly. Not even a healthy person is capable of that! There are times, for all of us, when there is a need to surrender to grief, to vulnerability, to confusion, doubt and disenchantment—to hit rock bottom, as it were—because it is from this quiet, lowly, dark place, that we begin to see with new eyes. Rebecca Solnit has written of Virginia Woolf: ‘in her essay “On Being Ill” she finds that even the powerlessness of illness can be liberatory for noticing what healthy people do not, for reading with a fresh eye, for being transformed’. (3) And having found this different perspective, we can begin the process of re-enchantment, of finding our place in the world once more. Furthermore, this process is cyclical. We are required to undergo it many, many times, throughout or lives.
This is where I am right now, and it is tough; but part of me wants to be here, to let it work its magic. Perhaps I am coming into a new phase of my life. Perhaps unknowns are blossoming within me, and, with time, and careful tending, they will emerge into the light, full of mystery and beauty.
I am not well. I am not productive or strong. But this is all right. I am just dormant. Waiting. Transforming once again, in readiness for what is to come.
1. Kat Duff, The Alchemy of Illness, Bell Tower: New York, 1993, p. 40
2. Ibid, pp. 41–42
3. Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me, Haymarket Books: Chicago, Illinois, 2014, p. 103