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The Hidden Benefits of Illness

A physician I know who specializes in the treatment of chronic, degenerative illness, asks first-time patients the following question:

What will you have to give up in order to be free of your disease?

Her reason for asking this question stems from her observation that all of the patients she’s treated in one way or another were deriving benefits from being sick. Usually, they were not conscious of this, but invariably they wanted the benefits to continue. In order to heal, becoming conscious of such benefits and discovering healthier, more appropriate ways of receiving them can often be essential.

None of the above is to suggest that all of the illnesses we experience in our lives are due to such issues as unresolved emotions, or that dealing with those issues will automatically result in healing. The world we live in is complex and filled with daily stressors and environmental toxins, both of which play big roles in the disease process, as do poor diet and other unhealthy lifestyle choices. I think it is simplistic and misleading to say, as some people do, that health and illness are solely states of mind. Tell that to the child with leukemia born and raised in an environment rife with industrial pollution!

On the other hand, however, an increasing number of healers and physicians I respect have told me of the frustrations they have over not always being able to heal their patients’ mental/emotional issues, which they say perpetuate physical diseases that should, in their clinical experience, have otherwise been resolved. This only confirms the saying, “Healing is an inside job.” For it to truly occur, each of us must examine our inner, as well as our outer, life and see what is there for us that still needs to be dealt with.

As you consider this, ask yourself the following questions:

Overall, are you happy and enthusiastic about your life?

If you aren’t, what areas of your life are you dissatisfied about?

What changes could you make to improve those areas?

What, if any, of those changes have you resisted making up to this point?

What is it in life that you fear? (Nearly all of us have fears of some sort that still need addressing.)

If you are currently ill, can you identify any benefits you are receiving from your illness?

Can you see a way to still receive them without being sick?

Are you willing to do what is required to do so?

Illness, especially of a chronic nature, can often be symbolic of something else within our lives that we have previously been unwilling or unable to address. This can be true even of serious conditions such as cancer. In fact, I have met dozens of long-term cancer survivors who have told me, “Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me.” They say this because, for them, cancer was a wake up call that there were issues in their lives that needed to be addressed and healed.

Each of the cancer survivors I’m referring to recognized their illness as an impetus for doing just that. In the process, they invariably discovered that they had neglected themselves in some way, and made a point of doing something about it. For some, this involved leaving careers that were secure but unfulfilling to embark upon the livelihood they’d previously lacked the courage to embrace. For others, it meant deepening their relationships with themselves and their loved ones and/or leaving relationships that were no longer appropriate in order to open themselves up to ones that were. In every instance, these people not only resolved their cancer, they also recreated their lives in order to better fulfill themselves. Had they not done so, they’ve told me, they don’t believe they would be alive today.

Such people are hardly unique. There are many former cancer patients who were catalyzed by their illness to positively change their lives, nor are cancer patients the only ones to do so. Given that fact, it makes sense to consider whether there might be hidden “messages” within our less serious illnesses and minor health complaints, so that we can deal with whatever unresolved issues they pertain to before such illnesses transform into something more serious. But how do we go about determining what, if any, “message” is waiting for us?

There are various ways to do this, including considering the questions listed above. Another effective technique involves having a dialogue with your illness. This technique has a number of variations to it, and has been shared with patients by leaders in the fields of mind/body medicine and guided imagery such as pioneering healers O. Carl Simonton and Martin L. Rossman for many years. Not only has it proven to be a very helpful tool for uncovering potentially hidden “messages” and “benefits” from being sick, it’s also very empowering because you can do it by yourself. Simply get pen and paper and, in a relaxed, reflective state, ask yourself the following question:

“If my illness/ailment could speak, what would it want to tell me?”

Without editing yourself, immediately write down the first impression that comes to mind as an answer. You may be surprised by how detailed a response you find within yourself, or you may initially only catch a glimpse of the answer you are seeking. If the latter, don’t get discouraged. Keep asking yourself questions related to this exercise and writing down the responses that arise within you. To further abet the process, consider writing down your answers using your non-dominant hand (the hand you normally do not write with). According to some mind/body researchers, writing with your non-dominant hand provides a deeper link with your unconscious mind and therefore can reveal insights that might otherwise elude you.

The biggest obstacle to achieving success with this method is our so-called adult, rational mind, which may interpret the exercise as childish, ridiculous, etc. If that is your reaction to what I’m suggesting, do the exercise anyway and see what happens. It’s OK to be skeptical, but I find no wisdom in being a cynic. (To me, the difference between a skeptic and a cynic is that the skeptic is willing to test his or her viewpoint, while the cynic holds fast to pre-formed conclusions without taking the time to be proven wrong.)

Once you begin to get the answers/messages of the exercise, your bigger task awaits you – taking action to follow through on what you discovered. For some people, this can be the biggest obstacle to healing – the fear of or resistance to change (the resistance wouldn’t be there if fear hadn’t gotten there first). Learning how to move past such fears, no matter how frightening they may at first appear to be, can be a crucial step in creating lasting positive change in our lives, including long-term healing..

In the journey back to healing, we can often benefit by examining the beliefs and attitudes we hold about ourselves and the conditions we are facing. Scientists are increasingly finding that such beliefs and attitudes can either substantially improve are ability to heal, or impede our efforts. By way of example, let me share with you an anecdote told to me by Dr. Bernie Siegel, the well known, pioneering physician in the fields of holistic medicine and mind/body medicine. Years ago, I interviewed Bernie by telephone, after he’d accepted my invitation to join the medical advisory board I was putting in place with my friend Burton Goldberg, for the first edition of Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide.

During the course of our interview, I asked Bernie what had led to him shifting his medical practice, since he was trained as a conventional physician. He told me the shift was largely due to a patient who had come to him years before, who wasn’t feeling well despite having no noticeable health problems. A series of diagnostic tests revealed that the man, who was fairly on in age, had prostate cancer that had metastasized. It was quite serious, and Bernie wanted him to begin an immediate course of conventional cancer therapy.

The man asked how long the course of treatment would take, and Bernie told him it would go on for month. The man’s reply was that he couldn’t make the time, because gardening season was about to begin, and he was passionate about tending his flowers. Bernie was taken aback by what he then considered to be the man’s inappropriate concern, telling him that if he didn’t begin treatment immediately, he would most likely be dead within the year, due to how widespread his cancer was. But the man calmly yet firmly refused, insisting that he needed to do his gardening. After unsuccessfully pleading with him for a while longer, Bernie finally said goodbye to the man in exasperation, thinking his choice would prove fatal.

Six years later, he came across the man again and was pleasantly surprised to find him looking much healthier than when he’d last seen him. Bernie went up to him and commended him on following his advice after all, for that was the only logical reason Bernie had to explain that the man was still alive. But the man surprised him, saying that he’d never had any treatment; he’d simply tended to his garden. For all Bernie knew, the man still had cancer (he never followed up with him), yet somehow, seemingly miraculously, he had long exceeded the conventional prognosis Bernie had given him. It was this incident that led Bernie to reconsider his medical training to ponder the importance of the patient’s own attitudes and beliefs. Since that time, Bernie has devoted himself to exploring just how significance such attitudes and beliefs can be.

I have no way of knowing what beliefs and attitudes were held by the man Bernie told me about, yet it seems clear that he received his diagnosis without fear, choosing instead to continue to devote himself to an activity that gave him great pleasure. Somehow, doing so kept him alive for at least another six years without the necessity of treatment. I can only surmise that this man was blessed with positive attitudes and beliefs, not only about his health condition, but his life in general. For how else can we explain the equanimity he displayed when Bernie tried to impress upon him the urgency of his condition? Most people, given such a diagnosis, would most likely have reacted in fear and dropped everything in order to stay alive. Instead, this man’s attention seems to have been more on the welfare of his flowers than on himself, hence his ability to face his diagnosis so calmly.

Next time, I will share with you ways in which you can better discover your beliefs and attitudes and, more importantly, replace those that don’t serve you with those that do. Till then, see if you can discover some of your current attitudes and beliefs in the following areas: your health, growing older, happiness, the relative safety of your life, your relationships, etc. Write them down as they occur to you and keep them handy for what I’ll be writing about next.

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