Lyme Lessons: Acceptance and Why You Need Lyme Disease
Let’s start off by saying this title is a joke – half a joke anyways! This article is not pro-everyone-get-Lyme! Rather, it’s about all the lessons that I have gained in exchange for the ones I lost when I got sick. The most valuable thing Lyme has taught me is acceptance.
It’s hard not to reflect when you’re sick.
In reflection, we come to terms with unfulfilled goals and everything we put on hold only to find the day of returning to our old lives has not arrived. Chronic illness may be your toughest challenge, but it won’t be your last. Your humility and strength from what has not yet killed you. Both will be invaluable in all of life’s challenges.
Coping with a chronic illness is hard. It’s one of the hardest things you may ever do. But it’s, well, chronic. You may never feel as energetic as you did before you got sick and you certainly will never feel as energetic as you did when you were a child. But being negative makes it no easier. There is another option, and it’s better than perfect health: acceptance.
You are owed nothing. Your blood moves through your body, your heart pumps, food is digested by your stomach, and without asking why, you take credit for these functions. When illness strikes us, we feel betrayed, as if we have been robbed of something we never earned in the first place. Instead, we should be humbled by being forced to recognize our impermanence.
Chronic illness forces us to face our mortality. We can look with fear and freak out about every sharp pain and short breath, or we can look with gratitude. We give up so much time to fear, when gratitude can get us through the losses that we all inevitably face, with so much more grace. There are moments to take action, go to the hospital and get help; the rest of the time, try to practice equanimity.
Fear, pity and downward spirals
Chronic illnesses like Lyme have high failure rates. You may try many treatments that don’t work and get discouraged. But don’t allow your thoughts to make you fall into an even deeper hole. I’ve gone to support groups where I watched a pity contest the entire time. No wonder Lyme sufferers are not getting better. Pity is a negative emotion, one that invites you to take the “easy” route when really, there is no easy route. You are sick, you know suffering well, but adversity can make you or break you. If it makes you, you’re on the fast track to wisdom and discipline beyond your years.
In general, people have beautiful ambitions, but many never reach their full potential because they are afraid. They make excuses. As a sick patient, it’s sometimes hard to find the line between taking it easy because you are sick and making excuses (I have learned this again and again). Sometimes I am in pain or tired so I don’t do strenuous exercise, but I still manage 5 or 10 minutes. Other times I feel so defeated that I stop exercising. Then I get in the habit of not exercising at all, which makes me feel worse. And although I know that it would be so much better for me to move, I get angry that I have to start from scratch and instead, accept defeat. The longer I go on like this, the harder it is to exercise, and the more “viable” my excuse becomes.
Ego is not just about arrogance
Another issue is ego. When our opinions, judgments, and reputations rule our minds, it’s hard to better ourselves. It’s especially hard to deal with treatments and drugs that fail to help with an illness when you are in a race to hurry up and prove yourself in more superficial ways. We may define ourselves as people who had so much going for ourselves, but illness ruined any chances we had. Being sick can make you feel inferior in a world where youthfulness and beauty are of prime importance. Kathleen Singh says it beautifully:
We may fear loss of physical attractiveness, physical strength, and capacity for independence. We may fear the loss of easy acceptance and dignity and respectful recognition. Many fear the very loss of place in culture that would prefer to eject the aged as a too-vivid reminder of decrepitude and mortality. We may fear the loss of mental agility, glowing health, and the circumstances of our lives as we’ve become accustomed to them, with their veneer of freedom. We fear these attacks on who we think we are and on what we think we need and on how we want to be perceived. We fear the loss of our illusions of control.
Our culture – provider of the thoughts and attitudes of most ordinary minds – has taught us to view sickness in only the most superficial ways. It paints a picture of the archetypal human as having seemingly permanent strength and hope untouched by tragedy. People who have faced less adversity may hold their sickly counterparts at arm’s length. We all have friends who have distanced themselves while we were at our weakest. They try to spare themselves from seeing mortality at work.
Don’t hold it against them, but don’t measure yourself by their dogmatic values either. This fear limits their experience of living to be short-sighted. It’s the kind of fear that makes us cling to our reputations, self-image and unexamined attitudes and behaviors.
Want to be future-oriented? Consider death in your list of long term goals. Peace, compassion, sanity and commitment to enlightenment have little to do with cultural values. Sometimes I would rather hang out in an IV room with cancer patients who have experienced the gifts of adversity, than my youthful friends who properly fit their societal roles, complaining about work and wrinkles.
Don’t dismiss the importance of your reflections while facing adversity, just because you think it doesn’t measure up to others’ criteria. Every experience lost is an experience gained, and there is so much to gain from adversity. The world needs more compassion, more humility, more of what you have at your fingertips by having mortal experiences thrown in your face. On days when you are self-sustainable, not needing a caregiver, the world can use people with these qualities. Can you step up? Your curses can actually open doors to new opportunities. Many healers, for instance, are people who were once very sick and took what they learned in their tribulations to help others.
The days are long but the years are short
We’ve all lost days, whether to hangovers, television or debilitation. Don’t define yourself by your longevity. No matter how long is your life or how many days you put to good use, it’s a cosmic hiccup. Notice life’s impermanence, instead of being afraid of it. Look at the days lost as a lesson to cherish the passing moments ahead.
Your symptoms are impermanent, as well. In emergencies, get help and act to remedy the problem. But don’t feed daily physical pain with daily mental pain. Remember that other people out there cope daily with suffering that is much greater. One day, when I was getting acupuncture, a needle in the back of my head was hitting a nerve. I rarely complain, but I asked my acupuncturist, Stanley, if he could remove it. Instead he said “observe the pain” and walked away. For 2 hours I did just that and I when I’m in the right mindset, I still do that. Pain is just another indicator that we are still alive. It makes the days long, but don’t forget that the years are short.
Everything that can be lost will be lost
Contemplate dying. Every day. This contemplation will bring you into the moment, into the timeless present that is passing before your eyes. It’s a bit idiotic to think good health can go on forever without degeneration, anyhow. Most of what once lived has perished. What goes up must come down. What rises will fall. Seasons change. We know all us this but leave ourselves out of the equation.
Practice Acceptance, For Instance
Use your imagination and visualize yourself on your death bed. Every breath inhaled, the sound of the dog barking, the touch of your child’s hand on your skin, the texture of the stucco on the ceiling, and the light yet slightly painful pounding of your heart will bring gratitude, because it’s the last time you will experience these sensations. Keeping in mind that your time is short, you may treasure your time more and prioritize it differently.
To view death as the end goal changes the means to the end. Nothing can legitimize or reduce the value you give to your priorities more. “Just like a quick and deliberate shake of a kaleidoscope,” Singh says, “it creates a whole new patterning, a whole new view.”
Acknowledging death, with acceptance gives gratitude a front row seat in your priorities, and as a result, your life gains meaning that some other lives do not allow in until they reach an old ripe age. In my life, I look back at all the times I hit rock bottom and can see big improvements in my character once I got back up. Sickness is different; you are literally and chronically reminded of it. But as is life. Before I was chronically sick, I was chronically insecure about my freckles and scars. Now that I have real problems, my freckles and scars don’t seem so bad.
Acceptance makes you better physically and mentally
It can take years to repair the damage of chronic Lyme. Mental sanity and discipline are undervalued necessities that are essential to your recovery. Unfortunately a lot of people break. They glue themselves to their habits and attitudes. They become mad with envy over other people’s lives. They predict that life would have been glorious, that they would have been the most ambitious, marvelous people anyone could be if it weren’t for their handicaps.
These are excuses. Its okay to make them but get out of the rut as soon as possible before they become you. We all know there are rich sad people and poor happy people. There are people who suffer far worse and manage to cope. Make them your role models. Our circumstances don’t make us or break us, but our strength, disciple and acceptance do. What sounds better: acceptance or self-pity? Being out of your head and in the moment or defining yourself by what others see?
None of it really matters anyway, so why settle for the road more traveled?
Ready to get to and stay in remission? Start here.