Crisp air, sunshine, green grass, vegemite and apple sandwich on fresh white bread, freshly squeezed orange juice, … and my mother. I was the youngest, smallest, sickliest, runt of five children in a family in chaos and this was precious time alone with my mother with mental illness, who I had mostly experienced as not present. And the reason for this precious time was yet another bout of bronchitis.
I was a young child but this was already a recurring illness that had begun at the age of two with pneumonia. I cherished this space from the outside world, which already seemed scary, and this feeling of being nurtured and loved. Until recently there have been very few moments in my life to rival this exquisite golden moment of love.
What followed was a pattern; an internal battle between wanting to be strong to keep up with my siblings, to ’show them’, and being sick. Bronchitis became asthma, a near-fatal tick poisoning at 11, back pain, depression and anxiety, endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, dangerous births and finally Multiple Sclerosis. I developed an identity as a ‘sick person’, that was my place in the order of life.
All this illness was woven with rowing, sailing, tennis, dancing, walking, natural birth, and, and, and … to prove I wasn’t the runt of the litter, any litter not just my family. I felt defiant independence that waxed with a crippling emotional dependence. A desperate need to be different and an equally desperate need to be loved. It was a rollercoaster, perhaps a physical expression of my mother’s bipolar disorder.
And underneath this physical battle lurked the increasing feeling of madness. A guilty secret that I couldn’t tell anyone, not even myself. My cover was arrogant calm, a demeanour that kept people at a distance, and the personal identity of a sick person who was doing her best. This madness manifested with my family, when I was premenstrual, post-natal anxiety that lasted long after the birth of my children and finally, clinical depression.
Yes, I had MS, yes, I was in a wheelchair, yes, my marriage was dissolving and I was facing an uncertain future but really, I had just run out of cover. I had exhausted my energy to not be mad, and I was in the open and exposed. This is where healing began.
As I reflect on my life, I can see the reality in the story. My illnesses were all diagnosed in the evidence-based medical world; I have brain scans, blood tests, ultrasounds, surgeries, hospital records and reports, there have been real traumas. Yet I can also see the story, in reality, they are inextricably entwined.
The story gave me an identity when I felt lost but it also interfered with my healing. I didn’t know how to be well. It also caused me inexplicable guilt; that I may have caused my illness or that it really may not have been real, that I have caused my own suffering and the suffering of my children.
The reality has caused me pain, disability and disadvantage, And as I have travelled my healing journey, I have swung between addressing the reality of physical illness and addressing the story of my mental and emotional identity.
I am now understanding that the key to my own healing, and possibly healing more generally, is to embrace the wholeness of my experience of life, in the cultural context I have grown. It is not reality or story, physical or mental, physical or emotional, physical or spiritual, it is ‘and’ – reality and story, physical and mental and emotional and spiritual healing.
I am learning the importance of progressing my whole self and embracing the technologies, both ancient and modern, that are available in modern western culture. We are embodied, social beings who experience life emotionally and mentally. We have histories that bring us both suffering and joy and impact on our relationship with ourselves and the world around us.
Disruption to any aspect of our whole results in disruption to the whole hence healing requires a holistic approach. Healing the whole is what I bring to my students and clients. I have learned that the reality and the story are not independent, and there is no ‘wrong’ in this interlinking, it just is.
If we can remove fear and guilt from reality and story, we can allow both to be seen in their totality, with kindness and compassion. The issues that are exposed by this gentle awareness can then be addressed, limiting wrongness and guilt, and ultimately reducing suffering.
For example, a client who has been suffering a chronic condition for three years will have grown an identity around being chronically ill. Without awareness, this identity may interfere with healing and create confusion and further suffering. With gentle, non-judgmental awareness she can notice the expression of this identity and manage her choices accordingly. Consequently, her whole being moves along the healing journey, with congruence across all layers of experience.
My golden moment of feeling nurtured in the context of suffering was formative. For a long time, I thought the lesson was to seek to be nurtured through suffering but now I understand the lesson is to look for joy and peace in the context of suffering. This is what I share with my students and clients.
My journey has taught me to understand the importance of care in the world of healing. The intersection of reality and story and the need to yoke all the layers of our experience into one intertwined peace – yoga.
Lynnette Dickinson is the author of A Journey to Peace through Yoga, and teaches yoga, relaxation and meditation in Canberra and via Skype or phone. Classes, personalised programs and yoga therapy. Visit www.splendouryoga.com. Listen to Lynnette telling her story click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2, and be inspired.