We tend to view illnesses as dysfunctions that cause us pain and should, therefore, be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. But what if their real function is not to cause pain but to help us avoid pain? What if they are strategies for bypassing or managing deeper pains than we are equipped to face?
In my 20 years as a metaphysical healer I have observed that disease in the body often reflects three specific dis-eases in the mind. Many illnesses arise as strategies for managing mental pain, specifically these:
1. guilt and shame
2. blame and disdain
Let me share some stories to illustrate the different functions of so-called dysfunctions. See if you recognize yourself in any of these scenarios.
Level 1: a strategy for managing guilt and shame
Janice is a quintessential 41-year-old superwoman. A successful and sought-after teacher, she organizes volunteers for community initiatives, serves on multiple boards, manages her children’s schedules and her family’s social life, and is the primary breadwinner in the household.
She came to see me because she was afflicted with debilitating migraines and painful skin rashes. Each time this happened, she’d have to take a few days off to lie in bed and recuperate. When we looked more closely at the timing of her symptoms, she recognized that they always followed an intense feeling of overwhelm and anxiety. “When I hit that breaking point, all I can think is ‘Stop the world, I want to get off,’ ” she said. She desperately wanted to be relieved of the burden of her responsibilities, but she didn’t want to let anyone down. Her migraines and skin rashes, we recognized, were giving her an acceptable “out.” Some of the main problems or pains her condition helped her avoid were the pains of feeling guilt and shame for not wanting to continue being there for others in the way she had been.
Could your ‘condition’ be giving you a way to say ‘no’ without feeling guilty or ashamed?
Level 2: a strategy for managing blame and disdain
Mary’s physical symptoms reflected deep anger and frustration that she could not easily resolve. Mary was about 55 years old when she came to see me. As we began our conversation, she blurted out that she was going though an extremely acrimonious divorce that had dragged on for five years. She described her husband as cantankerous and argumentative. Their fights had slowed the proceedings to the point where her lawyer had told her she was not allowed to speak to her husband. This, she said, was so infuriating that she felt crippled. Mary’s body was expressing physically what she could not allow herself to express verbally. Her fingers and hands were curling into fists, the neurological symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease, with which she had recently been diagnosed.
Are your symptoms reflecting unresolved anger, blame, frustration or disappointment?
Level 3: a strategy for managing boredom
At the subtlest, or most essential, level, dysfunctions in your body can arise from boredom. I don’t mean the ho-hum, twiddle-your-thumbs, ‘what-should-I-do-today?’ kind of boredom. I mean the deep, quiet, dreadful anxiety that arises in your very core when the life you’ve been living and the work you’ve been doing no longer inspire you. All the effort you’ve put into building the life you’ve built, being the person you thought you were born to be has started to feel meaningless. You’re bored with being you. The emotional pain that swirls in your mind feels like anxiety, confusion, depression, apathy and boredom. There is a restlessness in your soul. It’s calling you to die to the old in order to live, but you don’t know how to stop being you.
Illnesses with these roots can be viewed as a strategy for challenging and invigorating your will to live. The deep struggle these diseases can help us to manage is the pain of being addicted to ourselves. Illness at this level calls us into the dark night of our soul, asking us to retrieve and integrate the parts of ourselves we gave up to be who we’ve become.
Twenty years ago when my mother, Katherine, was ill, I took her to see a woman who had cured herself of cancer. She told my mom that the one thing she saw that all her female cancer clients had in common was that they were bored. I was shocked when my mother – a well-respected, busy, philosophy-teaching, circle-dancing, cutting-edge metaphysical healer – said, “You know, you’re right. I am bored. I’m tired of being a healer, of doing my work. I feel like I’m waiting for something to pull me forward into life. I just can’t figure out what that is.”
The function of illness in such cases is to drive us into deep explorations of our innermost longings. It forces us to get in touch with our heart’s priorities and the aspects of ourselves that we have been denying in order to create the life we’ve been living, which no longer feels fulfilling. The pain of the illness can, paradoxically, assist us in breaking the painful addiction to being who we think we are supposed to be, and set us free to be a more integrated, fuller expression of ALL that we are.