Can We Stop Telling Others to Embrace the “Gift” of Their Illness? ~ Melanie St. Ours

Via Melanie St. Ourson Aug 6, 2013
Photo: flickr.com | Lissi Elle
Photo: flickr.com | Lissi Elle

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.

 

Like elephant journal on Facebook.

Ed: B. Bemel

About Melanie St. Ours

Melanie is a clinical herbalist who helps clients find natural solutions to depression, anxiety, and reproductive health challenges. She’s also the host of the popular iTunes show, “The Creative Wellness Podcast” and the creator of “Unwinding: A Free Program to Transform Stress” which you can access for free by joining her mailing list at www.psycheandsoma.com.

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13 Responses to “Can We Stop Telling Others to Embrace the “Gift” of Their Illness? ~ Melanie St. Ours”

  1. Sofia says:

    As a cancer survivor, spiritual seeker and cultural activist, I loved the hell out of this piece. You nailed the nuance in which we have to reframe illness i.e. it's not a gift but it can be an opportunity. I especially appreciate your calling out how relentlessly positive thinking can perpetuate systemic injustice and being transparent with your own experiences as a model. Thank you, Melanie!

    • Melanie says:

      Thank you, Sofia. I think the insidious role of things like "The Secret" and even more general applications of positive thinking in perpetuating the idea that we live in a culture that's a meritocracy (albeit a spiritual meritocracy, of sorts—which is perhaps even more distasteful to me) instead of a culture in which opportunity is behind gates of privilege that many people can never be admitted through. I'd much rather see us talking about the ways that spiritual practice and personal healing connect to tearing down the gates that keep people out. Very often, the gatekeepers in the external system very much resemble the internalized voices (inner critics, etc) that we learn to dismantle in our personal healing process.

  2. Emma says:

    This is all so very true. There is so much pressure in our culture today to constantly put on a happy face and remain positive, and I definitely believe in the powerful healing properties that positive thinking can have, but that doesn't mean that we need to sacrifice the vast spectrum of emotion. Great gifts of empathy and insight are born out of the ability to allow ourselves to experience pain, grief and loss in healthy ways. Acknowledging all of the aspects of an illness or struggle is a critical part of the path to acceptance, and, ultimately, a sense of peace with what we are experiencing. Thank you for sharing your experiences so openly, Melanie. We can all relate to and learn from what you have been through.

  3. Judy says:

    What a wonderfully written piece Melanie! Thank you for sharing.

  4. Jess Ryan says:

    Wonderful post Melanie! I am right there with you, especially on the screaming part! Being a coach, I find myself sometimes fending off shame for not being able to "stay positive about" or "heal myself of" my depression. I get frustrated that I have all the tools and methods to do it, and forget that what I really need is love, support, and compassionate presence, both from others and myself. I find that other well-meaning coaches frequently go down the "it's a gift" path and I end up getting pretty infuriated, especially when it's coming from those who have (fortunately!) never experienced depression themselves! This is the first time I've come across your blog, and I can't wait to learn more about your work!

    • Melanie says:

      Jess—you're speaking for so many people in the helping professions when you share this truth. It's often true that people are called to the helping professions because we ourselves have been through painful experiences. It's universally true that all humans experience pain and suffering regardless of their professional expertise or their ability to support others.

      And yes—I think sometimes practitioners go immediately to the "it's a gift" perspective because they are afraid of the pain and difficulty that the client is bringing forth. One of the benefits of having our own painful experiences as practitioners is that they can be a training ground where we can practice navigating tough stuff, staying conscious, and finding the courage to face difficult things that need to be faced.

  5. Natalie says:

    Melanie, you so nailed this! I am so honored to have you as friend and colleague. One who tells the truth about her own experience, even though it is not so shiny, so that you can help others find their own healing. You are an inspiration. Please keep sharing your stories. There are so many people out there that need to hear them.

  6. Katie says:

    Melanie, thank you for sharing your personal experiences. Your strength is amazing and knowing you personally, I can attest to how far you've come from those days of illness and how much passion you have for your profession now. Your words of encourage to keep pushing, trusting and healing are inspiring. And to remember that the gift, the opportunity and the light at the end of the tunnel are indeed, on their way, but they're hard to see in the dark moments. You've given the gift of faith and trust with this article!

  7. Silvia says:

    Melanie, I was so moved by your article that I had chills throughout my body reading it. I can't agree more with you. There can be a shallowness in the so called spiritual community that does a disservice to the lifelong – sometimes heart wrenching, deeply difficult- journey that being on a spiritual path demands.

    Your strength and courage comes through this piece loud and clear and there's no doubt of the profound preparation that is the gift of your mission.

    I was raised by a manic depressive mother that had to go through almost yearly electric shock treatments to keep her functional, so I know too well the hardships of severe depression. My mother's suffering started me on a spiritual path from a very young age and yes, that was a gift, but that didn't make dealing with it easy or fun. It just gave me the opportunity to see the circumstances differently. Love or fear? Which is it? Luckily we always have that choice and my experience with her made me able to deal with all the curve balls life threw at me later and I can still smile a lot.

    You are the gift Melanie.

  8. Love Blonde says:

    Depression is a bitch.. and yeah… once I get over hating life when I'm in the downward spiral…. I'm actually that silver lining girl who looks for well…. the silver lining and the "gifts," but I have to say…. wish I didn't suffer from depression for the last 35 years. Even when it leaves for a while, I know it's coming back again and frankly as I get older… escaping explanations of why I just disappeared from existence for 5 months…. when in truth I couldn't eat, get out of bed and showering twice a month became my mainstay…. I'd love it if you could do a post on what to tell people you must attempt to keep appearances with… because everybody's gotta make a living unless you've got a trust fund or a rich spouse… and as much as I'd love to spill my guts and share my depression trauma… some people shouldn't be privvy to hearing about it….

    • Melanie says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your story—and of course you wish that you hadn't suffered in this way for 35 years. I empathize with the pressure to explain myself to others, having lived with that for many years of my life. At the time, I often handled it by lying, which "worked" in the sense that it gave me some of the emotional space that I needed, but didn't work in the sense that it drove a wedge between me and some of the people who could have potentially been part of my support system. I think you've raised an excellent point about a part of self-care that isn't often talked about, and I'll be sure to write on this in the future or talk about it on the podcast. Meanwhile, I'm sending all my best wishes to you for healing, comfort, and recovery.

  9. Lyle says:

    Clearly, you have the gift of outrage. LOL

  10. Joanne says:

    Your words say what I have privately thought and said for years.Whilst I understand that people can derive understanding and better awareness of themselves through illness,I have always thought it patronising to say the least to refer to some conditions as gifts.

    I too suffer from mental illness and I do feel it has enabled me to empathise with people who are experiencing their own problems but I would refer to this as as result of this but not my having this as being a gift.

    Also why should people with conditions with cancer always be referred to as brave when battling the disease.I realise you could just give up and cry or have a fighting spirit,but they don't have a choice in the matter of having this terrible condition.

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