DYING TO LEARN
When I look back over decades of my life, I discover my greatest treasure trove of learning comes from the experience of having Crohn’s disease. An old adage often voiced states, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I believe this; and also that it makes you wiser.
The first lesson I learned from Crohns was how to deal with pain. This lesson slapped me up the side of my head for many years before I ‘got it’. In accepting pain as a given in my life, I lessened its importance, and thus reduced its impact.
While coping with the disease, I reached a deeper level of empathy. When my husband pushed me down the hospital corridor in a wheelchair because I was too weak to walk, we passed a diabetic woman who had no legs. At one point, I was attached to so many machines, tubes and drains that movement was out of the question, yet, in the next room the nurses unhooked machines from a patient who couldn’t be saved. Crohns put me in the hospital, where I learned compassion and gratitude.
I was 29 when I was diagnosed, and at that time, I ran my life like a balance sheet for giving and receiving. It was okay for me to give more than anyone gave me, but I must never run a deficit. My lengthy illness made caring for my family or myself impossible at times. I became a ‘taker’ on a large scale. This caused me considerable stress until the epiphany that in accepting someone else’s gift I gave them back a gift. I provided the opportunity for their act of generosity—so they could reach beyond their own problems and feel good. I learned that instead of saying, “you shouldn’t have” or “It wasn’t necessary”, I could ennoble their gift. I could wrap my appreciation up in the bow of sincere words like, “The energy you saved me by bringing dinner let me play with my children for an hour. Thank you.”
I concluded early if I couldn’t walk in someone’s moccasins, I could at least try them on. I gained a new respect for all hospital employees. In the long waits for test, I practiced patience. In coping with the mistakes of doctors and nurses I acquired tolerance. And I came to see I didn’t improve a situation by being negative, complaining or whining. Crohn’s forced me to grow up. (A caveat here. I admit my inner child still shows up to pout and stomp verbally.)
I can testify some people really do keep marriage vows and follow their spouse into hell. Though he often teased my mother with, “if I knew she was in this bad of shape I’d have bought a warranty,” my husband suffered terribly, as men do, who feel helpless. Yet, he stayed through sickness as well as health.
Crohns also introduced me to a few new philosophies and strengthened some beliefs I already held. I received the proverbial second chance at life and learned each moment is precious – not to be sullied or wasted.
I proved to myself over years of hospitalization and experimenting with wellness that humans are potentially self-healing by design. So, I must create the balance of mind, body, spirit that induces healing.
Out of every difficult situation comes good and I recognize the benefits at some point during or following my travail. Just as the difficulty encompass many people, so does the good – often it is a blessing with immeasurable results. For example, the changes in our family life, because of my illness, molded our children into strong, independent, adults.
I learned “man really is an island”. Granted I could reach across the water surrounding me for help and often even hold the hand extended, but bottom line is you make the hard choice alone. “Yes, I’ll have the surgery.” or “No I won’t allow you to give me that treatment.” Only I could throw the dice of life and death.
With these beliefs as an intellectual springboard, I created the lifestyle that best allows me to honor them. We built our home by the river. I do the work I love. I actively seek the solitude and quiet I know will keep me in balance.
Crohn’s disease appeared like a terrorist, inducing fear. In fighting the fear with love, I grew and flourished—body, mind and spirit. I broke free of its cruel death grip with a will to survive that amazes me to this day. Occasionally, my illness attacks again, and I struggle against it. But I do so now with deliberation rather than rage; because I am certain this fierce combatant still has more to teach me.