What I have learned from my illness

© Dan Klimke
© Dan Klimke

"Life is the ultimate teacher but it is usually through experience and not scientific research that we discover its deepest lesson." ~ Rachel Naomi Remen


I could not agree more with the above quote. Indeed through my life experiences, I keep learning its wisdom over and over again. When one goes through unexpected illness and suffering, it is hard to imagine what good can come out of it.


However, with the benefit of a hindsight and ongoing reflection, I am genuinely grateful for what life has taught me especially in the last few years as I battled with my illness and stroke recovery. Today, I would like to share with you five important lessons that I have learned.


1. Embracing the mystery of life

There is no better way to experience the mystery of life than by being a witness to it. Being the control freak that I am, mystery is unnerving and I only like it from a distance like in a book or movie. Yet as I watched my life unfolded in the last few years I begin to appreciate and embrace the mystery of life.


To be comfortable with the unknown is a gift that needs to be nurtured because whether we like it or not, life is unpredictable. When I am able to surrender myself to life's mystery, in essence I am saying, "I am ready. Bring it on." 


One thing that amazes me profoundly is how Psychology found me and in turn helped me tremendously in my life. It was never been my ambition to be a Psychologist. However, when it found me I too discovered my sweet spot. Having the experience, knowledge and coping skills from being a Psychologist certainly enabled me to cope with my illness better. And now I am so grateful that I survived to share my stories and help others.


2. The power of human resilience.

In Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser speaks about the Phoenix Process, which is a transformational process where we die and experience rebirth whenever we confront change and adversity. This is a necessary process in order for our true self to arise from the ashes.


In the same vein, psychologists have studied the effect of posttraumatic growth where people experience positive change as a consequence of overcoming a major life crisis or a traumatic event.


On a personal level, I have never expected myself to be so calm and positive in the face of not just one but multiple ordeals. I found the truth in the axiom, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger". Human spirit is not easily broken and as long as we persevere and refuse to give up, we can surmount any challenges, even those that are beyond our imagination. We just have to keep showing up, taking one step at a time and say YES to life.


3. Be mindful of the values I impart to my future child(ren).

I have mentioned that my parents raised us to believe in God and in the power of prayer. This is categorically the best gift that they have given me because my faith saved me from falling into the pit of fear and misery.


When I went through my treatment, my dad had passed on for 5 years and my mom could only visit after my operation was over. Yet what they had taught me lives on as I turn to my faith as a stronghold whenever I face any challenges in life. 


This prompted me to give serious consideration to what I want to impart to my children. Because life is unpredictable, I may not always have the blessing to be physically or emotionally there for my children in times of adversity.


Thus, I need to instruct them with the right core beliefs, values and skills since young so that even when in our absence (for whatever reason), they will have the faith, resilience and skills to go through life courageously.


4. It is OK to be vulnerable.

Prior to my illness, I was a stranger to vulnerability. The value of vulnerability is a lesson that I have to learn repeatedly because of the need to unlearn what my environment has taught me about being vulnerable, imperfect and needing help.


Self-sufficient and capable have been my middle name for ages. I pride myself for being in control of my life, having the autonomy to pursue and direct my life and achieve my goals.


One of the challenges that I faced while undergoing treatment is the fact that I needed assistance in various ways. I had to deal with vulnerability whenever I experienced a mini stroke.


An episode occurred while I was at work. When I noticed that my speech started to slur and I experienced numbness on my arm, I managed to inform someone. I was terrified and tears started to roll uncontrollably. I was a huge mess. Clearly my ex-colleagues had never seen me in that state before and they were so gentle and kind. While it was painful for me to expose what I perceived to be my weakness, I learned that it is liberating for me to be vulnerable and not be in control all the time.


Recently I read a book entitled The Gift of Imperfection, which talks about vulnerability as the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love. The argument is that we cannot selectively numb bad stuff without numbing other affects such as joy, gratitude and happiness. In order to lead a wholehearted life, we need to embrace imperfection and vulnerability as well.


5. The danger of Judgment and Labeling

As if being afflicted with a rare illness is not challenging enough, I judged my performance and abilities following the strokes harshly. I chose to work part-time after my first hospitalization in 2004 and it was a difficult time as I struggled with judgment and label.


At age 28, I was supposed to be making a good stride in my career and not be working part-time and taking time off because of my frequent headaches. It was hard for me to accept the kindness of my peers because I felt that I had let them down by being sick and not carried equal weight. I wanted to be fair.


I didn't feel "normal" and I hated that. It was not constructive at all. The danger with labeling is that it sets up expectation of life that is so compelling that we no longer see things as they are. They are colored by how we think it should be.


Indeed, life in us is diminished by judgment more frequently than the illness itself. It is what that illness signifies that burdened me. I didn't want to be treated and perceived differently simply because I had an illness. Yes, my ego was talking. Unfortunately, self-judgment stifles and blinds us to other possibilities. I realize now the importance of being compassionate towards myself in terms of how I perceive and judge my weaknesses.


We started this post with the picture of the caterpillar and I am going to end with another picture. Can you guess what it is? :)


© Penny Williams. Life offers us opportunity to morph from a caterpillar to a gorgeous butterfly.  Such is the mystery of life when we trust the process and embrace life on its own terms.
© Penny Williams. Life offers us opportunity to morph from a caterpillar to a gorgeous butterfly. Such is the mystery of life when we trust the process and embrace life on its own terms.

Food for thought: Are you in a situation where you are challenged to go through a Phoenix Process? Take heart and be mindful of your own resilience and resources that can help you surmount the ordeal. If any of these lessons resonates with you, please share your view and/or pass this on to someone who might benefit from it. 


Come, let's flourish together!


Sources: Kitchen Table Wisdom, Gifts of Imperfection, and Broken Open.