The Gift of Illness

April was an extraordinary month.  For two very different reasons.

To start, the month was filled with an unusual amount of family visits.  Given that most of my immediate family and relatives reside in other states (Alaska, Florida) or countries (Europe, New Zealand), the ability to have all my weekends this month filled with family time was truly glorious and unprecedented.

I got to visit with my cousin, her husband, and their four kids (all under age 7) as they were passing through Colorado on their road trip.  I hadn’t seen this cousin in over 10 years because she resided outside the country until 2 years ago.

If you ever need a self-esteem boost, hang out with school aged children.  The two oldest children, age 5 and 7, thought I was pretty much the coolest person on the playground and I reciprocated the sentiment.  We played until the only light illuminating the playground became a single street lamp and gentle moonlight.   Around 10pm, my cousins got all four children into their pajamas and hit the road, choosing to drive at night while the children slept in order to keep their sanity.

I share this memory because it was easily one of pure and unaltered joy, and it also happened mere hours before I became very sick.  Here arrives the second extraordinary aspect of April: the following morning was the start of a pretty serious string of back to back illnesses that left me out of commission for almost three weeks.

I’m out of the woods now, and after all those hours I spent laying in bed, listening to S-Town and counting down the minutes till I could take my next Tylenol, I am able to to recognize and recount the unexpected gifts that came from this time of illness.

Letting Go 

Unfortunately, this illness occurred when my parents were visiting Colorado for the first time since I relocated to Fort Collins several years ago.  Given my Type-A disposition, my parents’ visit might be a great recipe for days of worry and preparation.  Is my apartment clean enough? What activities should I plan? What will they think of …(insert endless string of thoughts here.) 

Yet, I was sick. I was sick leading up to their visit so the state of my apartment had to be what it was.  The plans had to be what they were.  Once they arrived, I didn’t have the energy to try to control the situation.  When we socialized, I didn’t have the energy to try to guide the conversation or read into their words.  I was just too sick to be anxious. 

Guess what: the world didn’t end because my apartment wasn’t clean or I didn’t prepare for their visit as I had liked or because we spent a lot of time sitting around eating popsicles.  

Anxiety has this funny way of making minor things feel so important, when they really aren’t at all.  

The gift of being ill during their visit is that I had to let go of any outcomes.  Due to my lack of energy, anxiety was sidelined to make way for me to experience what happens when I don’t get to control — or have the illusion of controlling — the situation.  I choose to utilize the limited energy I had towards being present and enjoying myself the best I could.  I had to let the visit be what it was. (Epilogue:  Everyone had an amazing time, myself included.)  

Hunger and Fullness

I hate when I am in the middle of something compelling, completely engrossed in an activity and…my stomach grumbles.   I get annoyed to have to stop to make a meal, because I just want to get it all done, you know?  Why does my hunger have to cramp my style?

When I was sick, I didn’t have an appetite.  Nil. Nada.   It was so disorienting, like a sense of vertigo without the actual movement.  Surprisingly, without either hunger, or satiety, I felt numb and oddly disconnected from my body. I didn’t realize I was accustomed to the consistent, internal reminder of “Oh hey, I have a body and I need to feed it.”  

 While sick, I didn’t have those ‘annoying’ hunger signals, but I also didn’t have the joy and satisfaction that comes after providing basic nourishment to my body.  As I started to feel better, I welcomed and savored the waxing and waning of hunger again.  As opposed to a feeling of annoyance when my tummy grumbled, I rejoiced!  Now I grasp how much my hunger and satiety help me feel connected to my body.

The Privilege of Medical Care 

Like all people, there are areas where I have privilege and where I don’t.  This illness allowed me to deeply feel the privilege I have as it relates to access to medical care, sick leave, and general health and vitality.  I recognize that I had a limited, acute illness that was resolved with prolonged rest, antibiotics, and access to health care.  Many people do not have access to health care. Many people do not have sick leave, nor can take off work, nor can they fully rest due to non-negotiable obligations.   Many people struggle with chronic illness, where there is no reprieve, there is no amount of rest that will result in feeling well.

After my body had been racked by fever for over 10 days, I vividly remember the morning I woke without fever and I could take my first deep breath without coughing.  I felt the sharpness and alertness returning to my brain.  I felt the lack of pain in my bones and limbs.  I felt a lightness of vitality slowly returning to my body, reviving me.

We often are very aware when we are not feeling well, but how often do you wake up and think: “I am so glad that I can breathe easily! I’m so glad I’m not in acute pain!”  Just like with the passage of time, we take health for granted until we don’t have it anymore.

Receiving Help

As someone in the helping profession, I may struggle to be on the receiving end of help.   I celebrate and value my autonomy and independence.  

You would think that the hardest part of this illness was the actual physical experience.  It wasn’t.  It was allowing myself to be helpless; reliant on others to help me with things I wanted to do on my own.  It was asking my friend to wait at the pharmacy until 10pm until my prescription was ready.  It was knowing that my partner would sleep poorly while I was ill, but I still asked her to comfort me by sleeping next to me.  It was taking sick days off work, when I knew that would impact the families and people I work with.  It was the guilt as I had to take multiple naps while my parents were in town (My guilt was imagined: they didn’t mind, they need their naps, too.)

I realize that my concept of independence is an absolute illusion. Our human brains were built to need human connection.  I can’t do it all on my own. I need people to help in both tangible and emotional ways.  I realized that receiving help is not damaging to others, it actually strengthens the bonds I have with them and allows me to feel a sense of interconnectedness.

The Inevitability of Pain

“Difficulties are things that show a person what they are.” – Epictetus

As humans, it is impossible to avoid pain or difficulty.  While we do need to have a space where our pain can to be seen, processed and validated (i.e. loved one, higher power, support group, therapy), we also have a choice in how we respond to it.  Seeing the gift in difficult situations is one way for us to make meaning when nothing makes sense, find hope when the pain feels endless, and feel control over how we react to the inevitable challenges of the human experience.

What gift or silver lining has come from your most recent difficulty?  Can you see these gifts in the moment or does the awareness arrive afterwards? 

Arianna Smith Counseling LLC
Call today for a free consultation.  

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