It is through imagery that we and our families can often begin to tackle the range of pain and suffering that afflictions such as illness or disability may bring. Metaphors express common ways we live through illness.
We capture psychic configurations that possess and animate individual lives for a while and then move on. We are not meant to be taken literally or as “types.” To do so would be to repeat the error of the physician or psychotherapist who mistakes the reality of a person who suffers for the utility of diagnostic nomenclature
Home and its attachments suggest a familiar embrace. The term “home” connotes safety and shelter. The complex feelings we may have about our own particular home pale beside the rich and resonant meaning of wished-for, and somehow expected, support that the simple four-letter word implies. As a rule, those symbolic connections, whatever our actual experience, are expected to be positive. We sense that something is awry if they are not so for another or ourselves. For most people, for example, the invitation to “make yourself at home” evokes feelings of ease and relaxation. One is offered the opportunity to enter into an atmosphere of familiarity and comfort.
Whether or not my actual home was or is a source of wellbeing, the phrase is understood by all to be a gracious gesture, bringing with it the possibility of intimacy and an unreflective loosening of constraint. A sense of place and of home is deeply rooted in our personal, social, cultural, and, indeed, animal histories. In the autumn, we look up at the millions of migratory birds managing by some little-grasped means to return to their nesting sites of previous years. We can find something to identify with in that instinctive behavior. It is soon after, at Thanksgiving time, that “homeward-bound” humans fill the skies as well.
The situation of many of us newly diagnosed with chronic illness is well illustrated by Alfred Schütz (1945/1970) in his essay “The Homecomer.” The stranger who arrives in a different land “knows that he will find himself in an unfamiliar world, differently organized than that from which he comes, full of pitfalls and hard to master” (pp. 294-295). The homecomer, on the other hand, expects to return to a setting both intimate and familiar. If he discovers that his anticipations are in error, his mind may easily travel to thoughts of disaster or betrayal.
Imagine the surprise and shock of those of us and our families with chronic illness when we discover that many of the most routine actions and habitual expectations by which home life has been defined can no longer be carried out with the ease of prior times, if at all. We take for granted the layout of our home’s interior, the arrangement of furniture, the operation of the infrastructure of plumbing, heating, electricity.
The comings and goings of our home’s inhabitants become routine. We pay attention only when changes are negotiated, before a welcome regularity is once again restored. Some of the same process is at work with chronic illness, but the stakes and the costs of variation are usually much higher.