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Meaning as Medicine in Chronic Illness

why meaning is as important as food

special guest

by Sweigh Emily Spilkin


Lone Tree


WHEN WE DEVELOP A CHRONIC ILLNESS, our basic way of understanding the world dissolves. At least that how it feels. At least that’s how it felt in my case.

Somewhere in my 2nd year of living with severe multiple chemical sensitivities, I began to feel as if I were in a dying process. Not a physical death (though there were many nights when I wondered if I’d wake up in the morning), but a psychological death. I felt like my way of understanding who I was in relationship to the rest of the world, had been stripped. I was no longer a teacher, or a workshop leader. I was no longer a nature guide, or a healer. Hell, I wasn’t even someone who could buy groceries without feeling like I was going to pass out. I felt purposeless and adrift. Although I was doing everything I could to heal, I wasn’t sure I was someone who was healing. In short, I had begun the descent into the “underworld.”

Illness as an Underworld Journey

There are many descent myths which are relevant to the process of living with and healing from chronic illness. In the myth of Persephone, Persephone is pulled down into the underworld by Hades, against her will (or at least, against her “conscious” will). How many of us living with chronic illness feel as if our lives have been stolen from us? The myth can be read not only as an abduction, however, but also as an evolution. According to the evolution theory, Persephone needed to let go of her identity as a maiden in order to blossom into the full maturity of a queen. Her kidnapping, though terrifying, was necessary. It was only through her trials in the underworld that she could develop the hard won skills required for her new role.

Although the process of becoming ill is, at times, unbearable, it can, like Persephone’s abduction, bring gifts as well. It can help us find gratitude, it can open our hearts, it can help us realize that we need others’ support and open us to receiving that support, it can force us to slow down, and it can help us get our priorities in order. In short, although we would never have consciously chosen it, chronic illness can be a powerful initiation that opens us up to larger possibilities. Instead of a mistake, chronic illness can be a cosmic wake up call.

When I became ill, the descent myths became living metaphors through which I could view my experience. We need meaning like we need nutrients. We need to feel whole in the midst of the horrifying process of becoming, like many who enter the underworld, dismembered.

Sacred Nothingness

Another powerful medicine that myths and archetypal stories hold is that they validate “not-knowing.” They help to contextualize the times in our lives when we are “wandering in the wilderness” or “lost in the labyrinth.”

In the United States, we tend to value knowing over not knowing, and industriousness over non-doing. We like action, forward movement, success. Chronic illness, however, is filled with empty space: lying in bed; waiting for the new supplement to work; waiting to feel better; waiting to get in to see the new doctor; waiting. In a culture that values doing, non-doing, or waiting, can feel like failure.

In the middle of my illness, isolated, alone, “allergic to the world,” and lying in bed, I found myself reading a book by the Mayan Shaman Martin Prechtel. In the book, Prechtel described how the elders (or “hierarchy”) in his village would dress up and wait for their ceremonies to begin. Waiting, Prechtel explained, was as an essential part of the ceremony:

The hierarchy was good at waiting. All the Tzutujil had to be good at waiting, but the hierarchy were the best there was because their waiting was sacred. They knew after years of ritual that waiting beautifully and well was a major part of every ceremony. Every aspect of a well done ritual (including waiting) was part of what they called food for the spirits.” Martin Prechtel, Long Life, Honey in the Heart.

Wow, I thought, what if I viewed my waiting like that? What if, instead of seeing this illness as a punishment, or a life sentence, I viewed it as a sacred part of a larger ceremony? Prechtel’s words gave me hope in the midst of my despair. Reading and re-reading this passage, I reminded myself that perhaps this illness was also valuable.

Learning to Value Non-Doing

I was recently talking to a poet friend of mine about her creative process. “What are you working on right now?” I asked. “I’m gestating,” she replied. “There’s a lot going on beneath the surface, ideas coalescing, the beginning sparks of a new work, I can’t even articulate it, but I know that everything I’m reading, doing, thinking, feeling, is feeding this not yet written thing.”

Being sick is a lot like this. It requires bravery to recognize gestation as valuable. It requires the willingness to be in the dark, a fertile place, where it looks like nothing is happening, but actually, everything is happening, underground.

Perhaps if we as a culture began to value “non-doing” as much as we valued doing, people living with illness, forced to “drop out,” of the bustle of daily life, wouldn’t feel so lost, unappreciated, and alone. In the meantime, I suggest that those living with chronic illness try and reframe their passage and honor the sacredness of their process.

In order to realize illness as important, in order to assign new meaning to our dissolution, we have to recognize that somewhere there will be an emergence. That healing is happening, regardless of how it appears.

The Trees Begin Their Blossoming in Winter

In the Jewish tradition there is a holiday called Tu Bishvat, which celebrates the birth of the fruit of the trees. What I love about this holiday is that it is incredibly optimistic; it celebrates this birth, not in spring, when the buds are already forming, but in icy February. Tu Bishvat honors the truth of what will be, even when all sensory evidence seems to point to the contrary.

Individuals living with chronic illness can learn a lot from this. Yes, we must accept what is, love ourselves in the midst of our suffering, but, I believe, we must also acknowledge the power that is awakening in us underground, even as we feel that we are falling apart. This underground movement is healing. And the ability to trust this is faith.

We have all read the studies about the power of belief and the placebo effect. Our beliefs can and do effect our bodies’ capacity to heal. If we view our illness as meaningful, view it as a learning process, an evolution, than we are assuming there is a, as Gertrude Stein wrote, a “there, there,” an otherside. Although that otherside may not include the full return to “normal” functioning, it will include some sort of healing—the gifts that the heroine the descent myth emerges with: humility; gratitude; an open heart; a stronger relationship with the divine; the capacity for self love; maturity—and sometimes even physical healing as well.

How to Use Meaning to Cultivate Faith in Your Own Healing

Great advice, you might be thinking, but how do I find faith in my healing process when all I can feel is my suffering? I suggest the following to help you re-contextualize your illness:

  1. Honor where you are. Give yourself room to grieve and be with the heartbreak of what it means to live with a chronic illness (for more in depth information on this, see my article “There’s No Right Way to Be Sick: How to Befriend Yourself in the Midst of Suffering“).
  2. Research and read some descent myths. Try the myth of Persephone and the Myth of Innana to start (Google them). Also, if you get the chance, read The Alchemy of Illness, by Kat Duff, a heartwarming and resonate book which helps to make meaning of illness, and try listening to Spiritual Madness, by Carolyn Myss (Sounds True audio).
  3. Start talking about your healing process as if it were a transformational journey. Language has power, harness it. When people ask you about your health, talk about it as a transformation. Speak of yourself as if you are in the underworld, as if you are wandering in the wilderness, or in a dark night of the soul, acknowledge that you are the hero or heroine of your own epic journey and that many others have passed this way before you and found their way to the otherside.
  4. Grow your support system. Find someone supportive to talk to. Surround yourself by individuals who will share in this “transformational journey” perspective and who have faith in your healing. Also, reach out to what is larger than you. Try journaling or speaking out loud to whatever you consider the divine (God, spirit, your higher self, your own center). Ask for help, over and over, and then feel yourself receiving that help. This last part is essential. It is easy to feel like we are always asking for help and not getting it, but what is it like to feel that help entering into your cells?
  5. Find a good therapist who understands the process of chronic illness and can help you be present with yourself, re-frame your experience, and make meaning of your passage.
  6. Begin to journal from the voice of the underworld. Give the stripping and dismemberment process a voice in your journal, but also give voice to the healing that is emerging. Write a letter from you in the future, the one who has already emerged, to the you now who are still in it. What does this “healed” part of yourself have to tell you?

In Summary

How we think and talk about the process of living with chronic illness is as essential in helping us heal as what foods we eat or what supplements or medications we take. As the to the poet, Muriel Rukeyser, wrote “the universe is made of stories, not atoms.” Our bodies, like the universe, are made up of stories as well. What we believe absolutely influences how we feel, and how we feel about how we feel. Stories, descent myths, dark night of the soul metaphors can all help us re-contextualize our illness, view it as a valuable and essential part of a larger healing journey. Seeking resources (books, friends, a therapist, a connection to something larger than ourselves, our own creative process), can help us to re-contextualize, and to heal.

copyright © 2008 Sweigh Emily Spilkin, MFA, CHT

photo credits: Winter tree © Paradoks_blizanaca | Dreamstime.com


Sweigh Emily SpilkinSweigh Emily Spilkin, MFA, CHT is a body-centered psychotherapist and energy healer who is constantly inspired by the resiliency of the human spirit and our tremendous capacity for self-healing. She considers it a privilege to support and follow that healing as it unfolds in each of her clients. She has a private practice in Boulder, and has been teaching transformational workshops and classes for more than 10 years. Call (720) 771-4778 to contact Sweigh for a free 30-minute health coaching phone consultation.
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