Many philosophies and religions regard life as a journey through which we travel from birth to death. Some see this life as one of many we may have, that we come from somewhere and, on death, return there. Many myths and stories about our passage through life also use the image of The Journey. This Journey may be seen as the journey of the Self, the development of the person from birth to death, and all the stages of growth and change that one's journey through life entails. Images, myths and stories have been used in all cultures, throughout history as a means of revealing to us much about the human condition, what it means to move through our different life stages, what it means to suffer loss, what it means to love, and what it means to lose one's power or abilities. The search for the meaning of life, for our sense of a place in the world, is part of being human. The mystery of life is addressed by all the world religions. For believers, such mysteries can be made sense of and lived by through their religious convictions; for others, the myths and stories told, read, enacted or sung as they grow up bring meaning and a sense of place. We find that in every culture it is the major life events that make us ask ourselves questions about the meaning of life - such as the death of someone close to us, or the onset of illness or disability. Such events shake us out of our everyday ways of thinking and being. We become more conscious of the deeper questions of life and can either pursue them more seriously, not knowing where they will lead, or ignore them and stay in our familiar world, feeling that to go any deeper is too risky. Becoming conscious of the deeper questions of life can be seen as the 'call' to begin a new stage of our Journey, a stage in which we are fully aware of our selves, our inner needs. Such a call can bring us into a new and often deeper sense of our more spiritual selves. This part of our journey may well become a momentous journey of self-discovery, during which we are destined to learn a great deal more about ourselves, and hopefully acquire some wisdom that we can then pass on to others travelling on their own journey. Illness is commonly looked upon as a nuisance, and to be cured or for symptoms to be rapidly relieved. But for many people who find themselves chronically ill, this poor state of health can lead to healing and recovery. Healing and recovery are not necessarily synonymous with one another. Healing refers to the restoration of the real person from one's ideal image of oneself, while recovery means restoration to full physical health, free of the debilitating symptoms of illness. Healing does not always lead to physical recovery. The message of the illness may simply be to teach us to listen more closely to the needs of our body and our spirit. We may have, over many months or years, completely disregarded or barely noticed, for example, levels of tiredness, irritability, or perhaps digestion problems. We may have been caught up in some work or life event that felt more compelling than anything else. Our illness is a signal, a chance to reflect and to make different choices about how we live. Physical recovery is more likely to come once we have begun to listen to the symptoms as signals, and see the possibility of a gateway onto the path of our inner healing journey.
Illness as Exile or Sanctuary?
Being suddenly transformed from being a well person to becoming chronically ill symbolises an enormous and dramatic change in one's life. Such illness represents an unplanned, undesired deviation from the life we might have expected for ourselves, and suddenly we find ourselves thrust into an unfamiliar and often frightening new landscape, the landscape of chronic debility. It is as if we have suddenly been transported, against our wishes, to o foreign country, in which all its aspects are bewildering and alienating - the language, its people, expectations and customs, the nature of the terrain. We find we can no longer communicate or behave as we did 'at home', that people treat us in a strange and often hostile manner, that we are floundering, trying to cope, trying to understand where we are, how we got here, how we can get home. For many people with chronic illness it is as if we have been sent into exile - not even into another country, but transported to Planet Illness, the most distant planet in the solar system, held in solitary confinement in a colony for people imprisoned by their illness! Here, in this strange Land of the Un-well, people speak the language of symptoms, diagnoses and treatments, each person using a different dialect, recommending different courses of action. The currency is remedies, experiences, one's own story of relapse and recovery. An utterly new diet may be forced upon you, through sudden intolerance of once 'normal' foods, and now you have to find foods that your system can bear. The healthy inhabitants may regard you with pity or anger or contempt at your apparent laziness, reluctance to work or look after yourself and your family properly. They may accuse you of malingering, scrounging, exploiting others' goodwill. You may have to deal with officious bureaucrats of the "Immigration Department" - are you ill enough to be allowed entry to the Land of the Un-well? Unintelligible forms have to be filled in, while cruel interrogations may follow, and, if you are one of the fortunate ones, you may be offered a meagre sum on which to survive. Your friends and family may try to reach you, but they too may feel lost and helpless with your new situation; they too do not know how best to help you, or to find their way to reach you in this strange country. And throughout this traumatic journey into exile you are having to come to terms with who you have become: An Un-well person, sent by force into a land whose terrain is so wild it bears few well-trodden paths to follow, few signposts or guides for the newcomer, no landmarks or exit routes clearly shown. But this seemingly bewildering and hostile land need not be as terrible an ordeal as it may at first appear. Having a debilitating illness, and often feeling despairing as a result, can also become a time of new possibilities for ourselves. As we begin our journey through the Land of Illness, we can discover our own guides and companions, landmarks and languages.
As with the mythical Hero's Journey or Quest, we follow the route that leads us away from the known and the familiar towards the unknown and often fearful. When serious illness comes, we can no longer rely on on what we have so far taken for granted. The challenge for us is to trust that we are on the right road, a road that will help us to learn more about ourselves and our needs. The reward of facing this challenge is to en-courage us to travel more certainly away from exile and, stepping along the Road to Recovery, finally to return home. We may even discover that, rather than having been flung forcibly into exile, we may at times feel we have been led (by our illness) to a welcome sanctuary, a haven from the stresses and concerns of normal life. Perhaps we are the special people of this world who have been offered (metaphorically speaking) psychic or mental space to retreat from the normal stresses of the outside world in order to explore our inner world, therein to find the voice of a lost wanderer in life, seeking purpose and spirit and self-knowledge. And, of course, the possibility of recovery to full health.
My Personal Journey
I began my own journey on this path when I had my last major relapse of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or M.E., some 10 years ago. At that time I was teaching and doing research in a British university as an earth scientist, but had become so stressed and unhappy with the institutional constraints that I had become ill with CFS. I was advised to take early retirement (at age 44) but I resisted, fighting against what I regarded as such cruel destruction of a career I had cherished for so many years. Eventually, as my illness barely improved over six months, and then a year, I was finally forced to take early retirement on health grounds. Suddenly, I was no longer an acclaimed and respected academic in my field, with an excellent research record and teaching duties, having travelled the world, and on a rising career path. It was as if, overnight, I found myself on a different path, a path of despair and isolation, as well as grief at the self I had lost, and anger at the university for driving me to illness and rejection. I was angry at myself too for being, as I saw myself, stupid and weak for letting myself become so ill, for not standing up to the system, for not finding a way to survive and get well. I no longer knew who I was, where I was going, what to 'do' with my life. I became bed-ridden for many months. But amidst the despair and confusion, a strange and wondrous thing happened. I began to draw. It was as if my geologists' mapping pen, with its delicate nib, simply took over the page. Instead of rock sections and maps, hundreds upon hundreds of weird and extraordinary images started pouring from my pen. Monsters, bizarre creatures, multifaceted faces and bodies, birds and buildings seemed to spread at will across the paper, each picture unplanned and with an energy of its own. Everyday, sometimes for only a few minutes, my pen worked away, while 'I' watched in awe and amazement at the flood of images that came forth - as if they had been accumulating over the years, just waiting for the moment when my left brain had shut down, and the right brain could flourish. Indeed, in my mind's eye I could even picture the compartment in my head in which a great tangled mass of black thread was constantly being replenished; the thread became the black line I was drawing, by-passing my conscious brain completely! I became utterly preoccupied with the images that filled my mind. And I noticed that, as the months passed, the images became more disturbing, as if, once the first layer of the unconscious has been peeled away, the more obscure, less palatable monsters must emerge to have their say. Some of my latest drawings contain numerous human bodies, writhing, crying out, punctured with holes. Better out than in, I suppose! As my recovery progressed, I began to search for ways of bringing my creatures to life, to give them more body, more solidity. On my proscribed daily walks I started picking up pieces of plastic, metal, rubber from the gutters and pavements. At home, these discarded bits of waste, together with pieces of wood from forests and beaches, became transformed into bird-creatures - they just seemed to grow by themselves under my hands, guided by an unspoken need to see my creative spirit embodied in a three-dimensional creature. Now, I have an aviary of bird-creatures and bird-houses made of all kinds of found pieces of waste, from 2-m wooden birds to tiny, colourful plastic or silvery birds only a few cm tall. It took me over 4 years of gradual and painful recovery to come to accept that I was no longer who I thought I was, nor that I could ever return to being that person.
It has taken many more years to discover why I became ill, and to welcome where my illness has led me. I know now that my illness came in order to release my creative spirit in the only way my psyche knew how. My illness saved me from spiritual destruction. My illness led me on to a new and vital path, and a new understanding of my self. I have come to realise that my work symbolises for me the search for the meaning of life, and for my (our) place in the cosmos. The line I draw, the fragment of rubbish I pick up, can become anything at all, and often does so, regardless of context. Through my work I explore how all things can become transformed, revealing to me that all things are really part of one thing - thereby expressing the oneness of the spirit and of the cosmos we inhabit. The line I draw is my 'life-line' - it leads me to a deeper understanding of my journey through life. It has helped me identify the role of my illness in my life, and allowed me to free new channels from the unconscious mind to the conscious, helping me to access more fully the world of the imagination and creativity. And my companions on this journey have been my bird-creatures, constantly re-affirming the power of my spirit self, the bird-houses providing a precious sanctuary for my creative spirit. My new life as a dreamer and artist symbolises the beginning of a much more creative life for me. Months of lying in a quiet, darkened room were perfect for allowing my imagination to roam, and visualisation, dreaming and drawing (or creating whatever) is one of the most exciting tasks that someone with chronic illness can actually undertake. Indeed, for many such people it may be the only activity that enriches one's spirit, in an existence that may otherwise seem bleak and hopeless. Through these inner travels, and with lots of help from my travelling companions (both birds and real humans!), I was gradually able to see myself in a more positive and empowering light. Instead of a victim of life, a "scrounger" on the state, a pathetic failure in life, I realised I was a traveller on a challenging journey, a warrior, a pilgrim, a shaman, an explorer, an artist.... For all of us, the options of who we really are are infinite, as our imagination can provide us with any number of positive images of ourselves on our journey through Illness to the Land of Well-ness. Once I was able to hear the message of my inner traveller, and acknowledged a deeper knowledge of who I really was, rather than who I thought I was, I felt that self-healing and recovery were able to take hold.
Healing and Creativity: The Journey from Exile to Sanctuary
The use of the metaphor of the ill person being the Traveller on the Journey to Recovery offers us a powerful symbolic approach to coping with illness; it can help us find ways to transcend the difficulties of chronic illness by bringing a more spiritual, imaginative and creative dimension to living with long-term illness. This view can bring strength to us, as it provides the key to transforming the experience of illness from one of forced exile in a hostile land, to one of sanctuary and refuge, of peace and healing. And opening our souls to our creative spirit can provide the foundations for a new, nourishing and meaningful path through life. Resting for a while in the sanctuary of illness can, for some, provide us with a path into a new, enriching and restorative world of creativity, expressing it in whichever way our spirit calls us.
Further Reading The Alchemy of Illness. Kat Duff. Virago Press. 1994. The Intuitive Healer. Marcia Emery, with Foreword by Caroline Myss.Thorsons. 1999. A Rose to a Sick Friend. A Positive Way to Approach your Illness. Tessa Goldhawk. Gateway Books, Bath. 1989. A Picture of Health. How to use Guided Imagery for Self-Healing and Personal Growth. Helen Graham. Piatkus. 1995. Surviving Breakdown. Elizabeth Wilde McCormick. Vermilion. 1997. Art and Healing. Using Expressive Art to Heal your Body, Mind, and Spirit. Barbara Ganim. Three Rivers Press, New York.1999.
PS I'm still not very well!!!