One of the worst things about facing a life-changing illness or disability is the isolation. Mother Theresa says that the biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, “but rather the feeling of not belonging. In our society this disease has reached epidemic proportions.”* When you’re sick or disabled, you often feel like an outcast: alone.
One day, Morley** came to his session with a hunch in his shoulders and a downcast expression in his eyes. He told me that an old problem had come back. Morley has diabetes, and the complications have increased as he has aged. He told me that five years ago a fierce nausea swept into his life, and he was wracked with inexplicable daily vomiting. Doctors could not tell him what was happening to his body. It went on like this for two years, and it nearly drove him to suicide.
I listened to my client’s story of his suffering, and felt that I alone could not adequately hold it for him. Morley was also a member of our hero’s journey writing and storytelling group, and I invited him to write the story of his nausea for our next session a few days away. I asked him to do his best to help us fully understand his experience.
On the day of the group, Morley said he had not found time to sit down and write the story, but he would like to tell it. He told a harrowing tale, and I noticed that all of us in that room were sitting on the edge of our seats. The empathy in the room was palpable. When his story was finished, Morley let out a big sigh and said, “Thank you. I feel so much better. I feel like a load has been lifted off my shoulders.”
This was hard for some of us to believe, I think. We wanted so much to fix it, to give him hope for a solution to this terrible specter that had returned to shadow over his life. If we could have handed him a magic potion, we would have.
Most of us fall into that trap of wanting to fix things. But sometimes things cannot easily be fixed. And sometimes, just listening with a full and open heart can help transform suffering into healing. When Morley was able to tell his story and those of us in the room were fully present to contain it, he was not alone.
Two weeks later, he returned for a session after a weekend getaway, and his face was aglow. The week had flown by, he said. I asked about the nausea. Like the ocean tides, ruled by the enigmatic moon, just as mysteriously as it had returned, it had receded.
* In Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
**not his real name