Disease is Not a Gift.
If I hear one more person trying to convince themselves that they need to be grateful for their illness, or one more coach recommending that people with physical and psychological disorders need to embrace the “gifts” of their illnesses, I just might scream.
It’s not that I’m against the power of positive thinking. It’s just that I’m much more interested in the complexity of the truth than in glossing over the tough stuff by pretending that everything’s sunshine and roses when it isn’t.
I hear the truth in Kris Carr’s words when she says that “cancer is not a gift. It’s not a pony,” and in Barbara Erenreich’s writing about the way that positive thinking can direct us away from the truth of both our personal suffering and systemic injustice.
As someone who has recovered from life threatening illnesses myself, I’d like to propose a re-frame that will allow us to start talking about the complex truth that’s at the heart of the healing process.
Disease is not a gift, but it can be an opportunity.
Disease is not a gift, but it can be an initiation into a hero’s journey. Working to navigate the trials, the suffering, and the struggle can lead you to treasures that you might never find any other way.
It’s hard to talk about this in the abstract, so I hope you’ll forgive me for sharing some examples from my own life. My struggles aren’t special—all of our stories are equally precious. However, my struggles have been my teachers, and I hope they may also offer you some hope and affirmation as you carve your own path to healing.
It’s true that if I had never been so deep underwater with depression, I wouldn’t have the depth of empathy that I have now for my clients who are facing similar struggles. It’s also true that those struggles nearly cost me my life, and they did cost me friendships, opportunities, lots of money, and an untold amount of pain and suffering. If I hadn’t passed through the humiliation of being hospitalized against my will, or of surviving multiple suicide attempts, or the gripping terror of healing my own trauma, I might not be able to sit so courageously with others who are staring down their demons. The gift I received from depression and mental illness was a kind of soul-deep courage and a loving optimism that never runs away from other people’s pain.
It’s true that if I hadn’t almost died from ulcerative colitis because I was uninsured and unable to access medical care, I would never have become a clinical herbalist. My commitment to making natural medicine available to people from all walks of life would never have been this strong if I hadn’t felt the pain of being denied care in my own body. The gift that ultimately came from those nights of 104 degree fevers and blue-lipped shivering was the conviction to do what I can to return the tools of herbal medicine to people who can’t get the care they need from our current system. But make no mistake—-colitis was not the gift. I found the gift of my calling by doing the work of unpacking my experience. The gift came later.
If I’d never come down with an autoimmune bleeding disorder in high school that kept me out of class to receive IV treatments, that left weird bruises and marks on my body, and that made me vulnerable to serious damage from even a tiny injury, I never would have experienced the mysterious power of spiritual healing. I never would have known that sometimes, miracles happen. I never would have believed so strongly in the power of the mind and heart to heal even the most dramatic physical illnesses. The gift of having ITP was a kind of deep faith that there’s more to this world than just the physical nature of reality.
Again, the illness itself wasn’t the gift, but it did present me with an opportunity to experience an extraordinary kind of healing that opened me up to a deeper experience of faith.
So, if you’re struggling to stay positive while you’re suffering with a physical illness, the aftermath of trauma, or the loss of a loved one—I want you to know that it’s okay to let go and grieve. It’s okay to feel bad. It’s okay to say that everything sucks when it does. It doesn’t make you less spiritual or less likely to heal. Admitting how hard things are doesn’t mean that you’re attracting more suffering or dooming yourself to stay in a place of hurt and pain forever.
The gifts of illness, loss, and struggle come when you can allow yourself to be present with the seemingly opposing truths of suffering and opportunity at the same time.
Some days, the best you can do is to ask for help, cry on a supportive shoulder, and rage in your journal about how bad things are. Other days, you’ll have more space to reflect on and cultivate the gifts that are hidden inside the suffering. During those times, and after the suffering lessens, you’ll be able to find the inspiration, the empathy, the resilience, and the gratitude for the support you’ve received.
Remember—healing is a journey. You don’t find the treasure the moment you enter the deep, dark woods. Keep breathing. Keep asking for help. Keep loving yourself and giving yourself permission to feel everything that you feel.
The disease is not the gift—but if you stay honest with yourself and get the help you need to navigate the experience, you’ll find (and create) real gifts in the aftermath of your suffering.
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Ed: B. Bemel