The invisible language

The changes wrought by illness to our habitual movements and sensations affect, of course, not only the emotions experienced but the manner of their expression as well. It is difficult if I am in a wheelchair to stomp off in rage or to get away quickly to cool off. Many of the symptoms of a variety of chronic illnesses include physiologic responses that in our culture we have learned to read as signs of emotional upset or stress. Headaches, diarrhea, skin rashes, and fatigue, for example, are all popularly associated with feeling upset.

Many of the us use these symptoms as clues: we track them back to their source in some personal difficulty or concern. When we’re ill we may come to identify such somatic complaints as manifestations of illness. We often may have to create a new geography through which feelings are located and alternative routes by which emotions are tracked and articulated.

Ironically, if we acquaint ourselves with the worlds of deaf persons or watch ourselves and others closely, we can discover how much we take for granted the web of connections and interweaving of body, thought, emotion, communication, and sociability that we inhabit. We all have personal patterns of posture and gesture, intonation and facial expression. Reflect how quickly we or our partners can pick up who we are speaking to on the phone.

What many people without illness cannot understand is how the changes in our bodies affect the way we feel and, in turn, who we feel we are. Feeling the smile on our faces, hearing ourselves laugh, and gesturing with our hands is a process that contributes to our experience of pleasure, our idea of ourselves as happy sorts of persons, and the very words and phrases. Wanting to jump or yell or swing our arms are all things we did before because we felt good doing it, and it was a way of signaling to others that that’s what we feel as well.

Let’s say our illness affects our strength, stamina or breathing. Maybe we get breathless easily. It’s very scary. So we’re very careful about how happy or excited we get. Being demonstrative becomes more difficult and it’s harder to show warmth. We become more irritable. The back-and-forth of feeling and action that we were accustomed to is disrupted and we’re disturbed because of it. My body doesn’t feel like me, and so I don’t feel like me either. I’m a stranger to my body, and I’m not sure there is a ‘me’ that’s not my body too.

I think it is possible that much of what is diagnosed as depression among some with chronic illness is a function of a shift, whether dramatic or more subtle, in the body’s emotional communications process. Work in the area of trauma has demonstrated that catastrophic events have major effects on a wide array of cognitive, emotional, and physical functions. Postures and gestures are all means by which we express and exist for ourselves and others. The changes in postures and gestures resulting from illness, accident, imprisonment, or some other unwelcome event must surely have great impact on my sense of body and, therefore, of self.

As our conditions worsen, it is possible we no longer speak as fluently a “silent language” in the expression of emotions or ideas too elusive for ordinary conversation, for the back and forth between movement and thought may have been disrupted. Remember that our bodies shape our thoughts. We and our families learn to be more mindful of the “silent language” that our ill bodies speak.

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