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Thoughts on Being Sick in Paradise: How Do You Decide What Your Life Means?

The balcony doors of our Penang apartment are open to the sea view and the bird calls. The kids are at school for the morning. I have space to stop and think, to take up the writing and coaching work that I’ve missed. Ahhhhh.

I’m grateful to be at a stopping point because the ride getting here was rough. I have to admit that I lost my usual sparkle for the first time since we announced Operation Hejira.

Back in August, I spent hours sorting through all of our stuff to do the final pack for our overseas flight. Saying good-bye to family was heart-wrenching. Then came the rigours of a long-haul trip with young kids, flying from Toronto to Hong Kong to Singapore and then taking the train through Kuala Lumpur to Penang.

And I did it all while coping with one of the worst colds I’ve had in years. Heavy chest congestion, wracking cough, plugged-up ears, drippy nose, stabby throat. My head was in a fog, I couldn’t breathe deeply. And it went on for four weeks.

I so wanted to feel elated and giddy, the way I did when I got married and when I met my kids for the first time ~ My dream is coming true! And there were moments of delight, don’t get me wrong.

  • Riding a roller coaster high over the ocean at an amusement park in Hong Kong.
  • An elegant breakfast buffet in view of a waterfall at the Sheraton in Singapore.
  • Watching Shawn and the kids swim in the hotel pool in Kuala Lumpur.

There were quiet times when Shawn and I exchanged a look that said, Can you believe we’re actually doing this?

But mostly I felt like I was hanging on, waiting for my body to get better while reconstructing daily life from scratch in a week (new apartment, new school, new food, new routines). No wonder I felt wrong-footed, searching for the rhythm of this dramatically different way of being.

We have many choices about how to ascribe meaning to the events in our lives.

We can chalk everything up to random chance. We can celebrate our good luck and bemoan our bad. We can seek out scientific explanations. We can label things as God’s will, fate, karma. These choices place the meaning of our lives outside of ourselves, in a realm we can’t necessarily control or understand. They can lead to feelings of helplessness, confusion, and anger.

I could tell myself . . .

I got sick because: a stray germ got into my system.
I got sick because: my immune system was depressed due to stress and lack of sleep.
I got sick because: no reason, it just happened.
I got sick because: I deserved to be punished for getting what I wanted.

I can’t prove to you that there was a particular reason for me getting sick just as we started our overseas life. Sure, I could send a swab to the lab and identify the nasty virus that laid me low. But that doesn’t speak to the significance of the illness within the context of my life story.

And I choose to see my life as a story.

I am the protagonist and also a co-author. Some of the action is in my control: I can change the setting, introduce new characters, ratchet up or dial down the conflict. I handle all my own dialogue. 🙂

Sometimes all I can control is how I frame the events that happen to me:

I got sick because: my body and psyche are doing incredibly hard work to shift me to this new phase of life.
I got sick because: I was trying to protect myself from the full emotional impact of all these changes.
I got sick because: I’m holding on to grief and anger that need to be released.

Assigning meaning is a potent and dangerous ability we have, because meaning affects our feelings so strongly. That second list of reasons makes me feel proud and tender and resourceful, satisfied that all is unfolding as it should. It also helps me take positive action to care for myself and heal my body and spirit. (Many thanks to Bridget Pilloud for her wonderful emergency life-shift session with me.)

Of course, there are times when a hat is just a hat, as Flannery O’Conner reminds us:

Week before last I went to Wesleyan and read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”  After it I went to one of the classes where I was asked questions.  There were a couple of young teachers there and one of them, an earnest type, started asking the questions.  “Miss O’Connor,” he said, “why was the Misfit’s hat black?”  I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats.  He looked pretty disappointed.  Then he said, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?”  “He does not,” I said.  He looked crushed.  “Well, Miss O’Connor,” he said, “what is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?”  I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone.  Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature. From The Letters of Flannery O’Connor

Sometimes a cold is just a cold. But not this time, I don’t think.

In writing the story of our lives, it helps a lot to know our style, our themes, and what’s at stake.

Then we can ascribe meaning to our lives that looks beautiful and feels true and matters to us.

This is foundational work that I’ve done for myself and with my clients, because it’s hard to design a life when you don’t know what the parameters are.

And I’ve come up with an evocative process for writers and artists to bring to light their personal beauty, truth, and purpose — by spending a few hours with their body of work, reading and looking at past creations to find what is most intriguing and essential. This process was part of the Map Your Artistic DNA course I led in the spring, and the women in the course found it very illuminating.

Now that we’re settled in Penang, I’m developing this process into a self-guided retreat that you can do on your own! Watch for that to be released in early November. (Update: You can find The Field Guide to Truth and Beauty right here!)

My cold is gone now.

I can’t tell you the relief when my ears popped and my sinuses started to drain. I’m so eager to take up my work again in this warm, gorgeous place, where I feel so supported: in a spartan right-sized apartment with delicious cheap food, a great school for the kids, and a regular housekeeper.

If we had just come to Penang to hang out and enjoy the good life, that would have been nice. But what makes this change significant to me is that I have the time and space to write. And that, my friends, is paradise.

Tell me, when you get sick, how do you decide what that means to you?

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Rachel Gordon October 10, 2011, 12:00 pm

    Hi Alison! Your post brings me back to the period after I dropped out of graduate school after an excruciating process of decision, working through expectations, loss of identity, working myself to exhaustion, throwing myself into the unknown, and pulling myself back from the brink of who knows what. I was wickedly sick for an entire month. All I could do was lie on the couch and read romance novels (something I had never done before) and watch Bruce Willis movies (another thing I had never done before). I had no energy, I coughed, I sweated, I slept. I felt like I was being cleansed from what was before to be able to more lightly go into the new.

    I guess that is mostly how I look at being sick. My body needing to get rid of something. I wish I could say that I always honor that and allow the process, but I’m not that evolved! 😉

    I also used to have a lot of problems with my back ‘going out.’ Incredibly painful at times – sometimes for weeks or even months. Reading John Sarno’s book on Healing Back Pain gave me such an insight into bodies and being sick and the power of our minds and bodies to do what they think is best for us. Alot of his theory is that our bodies try to protect us from hard emotional experiences in particular by causing pain to detract us from the issues at hand. I totally saw a thread of that with my back pain. Learning to talk nicely to my body and thank it for trying to protect me while assuring it that I not only could but I wanted to deal with whatever is going on was amazing.

    Glad to hear your are feeling better! So glad you have a housekeeper – yay!!! Thanks for the great posts

    • Alison October 10, 2011, 2:51 pm

      I love your stories, Rachel! Sometimes us creatives can be so much in our heads and imaginations, and our bodies have to do drastic stuff to get our attention. I am with you on honoring the process more and catching things before they get to the emergency stage!

  • Melissa Dinwiddie October 11, 2011, 8:04 am

    I’m so glad to hear you’re feeling better, Alison! It’s so miserable to be sick, especially in the middle of such an enormous relocation! Yikes!

    I’ve dealt with illness, and even more so injury, that has really thrown a wrench into the works of my life. Many times. Although on the one hand it could certainly be seen as a purely random patch of bad luck, I choose to ascribe different meaning.

    The fact is, every injury has led to an unfolding of my life in new and unexpected — and beautiful — directions. Not how I would have chosen to go, but often a direction I’m grateful I found, though not necessarily at the time!!

    Being sick or disabled in some way sure has a way of sharpening one’s sense of gratitude for health, doesn’t it?

    • Alison October 12, 2011, 1:28 am

      Hi Melissa! I hear you — getting depressed was one of the worst and best things to happen to me. And rememberin that time (it was about 10 years ago) makes me so thankful for being mentally strong and happy now.

  • Natalie October 12, 2011, 4:23 pm

    I don’t have time to write about how my body talks to me right now (you know it sure does!), but I want to know: is that really the view from your apartment?

    • Alison October 13, 2011, 12:43 am

      Hey Natalie! Yes, I am thrilled to say that’s what I see when I look out the balcony window these days. We’re on the third floor of a high-rise building, and it’s a three-minute walk down to the beach. I’ve resolved to go every day.

      And come back any time to share how your body talks to you. You speak “embodiment” so fluently!

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