Chronic Healing II
By Laura Hankins Rand
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after 9/11, I felt that my life was toppling down at my feet much like the Twin Towers. I had good doctors. I liked them. But no information was given me about what might be helpful in managing my disrupted world: my emotions, my family’s turbulence, my finances, my vocation, my sexual identity, my spiritual well-being. The crazy thing is – we know that simply dealing with the physical condition is not enough. There is quite a lot of talk about integration of treatments that include the body, the mind, and the spirit these days, thankfully. But I see very little true “integration” going on – health providers working together, referring to different modalities, caring for the whole many-faceted people that we are.
Research clearly indicates that those with chronic physical illness also have mental health issues and needs. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website that in 2005, 133 million Americans–almost one out of every two adults– had at least one chronic illness, and seven out of ten Americans die of chronic illness each year. The most common chronic illnesses are heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, respiratory diseases, and arthritis. But the category is wide and can include weight and eating issues, autoimmune diseases, mental health issues, and many other conditions. Depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. And according to the World Federation for Mental Health, chronic illness is one of its major risk factors. Commonly, persons with chronic and severe illness have prolonged periods of anxiety that surface physically with symptoms such as chest tightness, headaches, dizziness, and difficulty breathing. What is going on in our lives, our emotions, and in our bodies all affect each other. We know that it is normal and even logical to feel anxiety when we have a disruptive illness. In fact, it would not be “normal” to experience no negative emotions about such serious issues. Mental health issues are – I will say it – normal.
As I’ve related in past articles I’ve written for WNC Woman, one of the many changes I made in my life after my cancer experience was that I went back to graduate school and became a Licensed Professional Counselor with the goal of working with those who are experiencing life-altering illnesses and transitions. And while I no longer had cancer, for several years thereafter my life looked to me much like Ground Zero looked after 9/11. When the cancer was gone, my life was still broken. My problems and issues weren’t removed with the cancer. I got a pathology report about the cancer but not one about what was going on in the rest of my life.
I stumbled through the following years. A handful of friends and family were near. I learned much about myself and those around me. I still bear a scar from the cancer, and I still want to turn away from it when I see myself in the mirror. But that scar is my signpost, and I can say: “Ah. Here is the mark that signifies my mortality, my struggle, my triumph.” It is a beacon leading me to deeper understanding and experience of my life. In all its “ugliness,” it has marked me.
So I am learning not to cringe when I look at myself in the mirror. I am letting my scar lead me to a larger understanding of its presence and I am exploring its meaning. That is the work of a lifetime for us all, whatever “scars” we bear. Life wounds us, all of us. Yes, you may have a chronic or severe illness. Your wounds may be of another kind. But healing can be ongoing. Healing, like our wounds, scars, and illnesses, can be chronic.
Laura Hankins Rand is a Licensed Professional Counselor. She will be starting a therapeutic support group for people struggling with chronic illnesses. The 6-week group will explore grief, identity issues, self-care, families, and body issues. The group will meet weekly on Wednesdays from 10/16 – 11/20, 5:15-7:15, $25/session. 828/216-3357; www.lrandtherapy.com.