In 1998, Sheila received her Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California. Below is another excerpt from her powerful thesis, “In Sickness and In Health: The Impact of Chronic Illness on the Well Spouse.”
In some ways the experience of living with chronic illness can be compared to an abduction into the underworld as in the story of Persephone. The youthful maiden is out in the field picking flowers when the ground suddenly opens up and she is taken below by Hades, her abductor, the terrifying God of the Underworld.
As the earth swallows her, Persephone wonders what it is to be her fate in thisworld where skeletons and rotting corpses surround her in the darkness. Before this encounter with Hades, Persephone was innocent and protected. From this point on, she bears the knowledge of the “good” and “evil” of existence and realises her emotional an
d physical vulnerability to what lurks beneath the apparent security of everyday life. Persephone is now “twice-born.”
As I continued to sift through the stories of spouses living with the partner’s chronic illness for my thesis, I went into a period of anxiety and depression that threatened to paralyze me. I tried to move forward with the work, but couldn’t. The suffering was calling me down into it.
For a few weeks, I gave into my own sadness, anger, and despair, unable to see my own resources or potential positive outcome. I threw myself into my counseling work, spending hour after hour listening to my clients stories of trauma, abuse, and neglect. I found something healing in sitting with them and being fully present to their suffering. It brought me back to my own experience of severe clinical depression six years ago (1992).
I had been working long hours as a corporate consultant to extremely difficult and powerful clients who were resistant to change. I felt and fought each day as an uphill battle in which I had to constantly prove myself. Eventually, I became ill and had to have my thyroid gland removed. The wound became infected and did not heal properly. My doctor did not monitor my hormone levels to adjust to the physical changes. As a result, I fell into a deep depression that came on like a freight train going 100 miles per hour. I was unable to work, drive, cook, read, talk on the phone, or make the smallest decision. The only thing I could do was be with myself.
I began therapy and dealt with my feelings about my husband’s illness after ten years of hating it and trying to go on in spite of it. It took an incapacitating illness of my own to shock me into stopping my ceaseless rat-on-a-wheel efforts. I learned about limitation and woundedness, what I can control and what I can’t. I began to discover a new freedom to drop the things I didn’t care about and focus my limited energies on what was most meaningful and nourishing to my soul. I learned a tremendous amount during the nine months it took me to heal and can look back now on that frightening time as a gift to myself.
I experienced directly the healing power of quiet, stillness, and being alone with myself. I found myself drawn to nature in a very powerful way. I created a wonderful woodland meditation garden for my husband and an ever-changing perennial garden for me. Working in my garden, I felt my heart open and a sense of wonder and mystery stirring my soul. I became more sensitive to birds and butterflies, creatures of the air, planting things in the ground to attract them. I felt connected to the elements of sun and sky, earth and rain. Each plant or bulb became one of my offspring and I cultivated and nurtured them with great care and attention. I watched some plants die and others come to life. I saw the cycle of creation and transformation in the soil before me.
As I first was pulled directly into my suffering and then drawn out from it to connect with the larger world, my depression lifted and my perceptions changed. To do this, I had to let go of the useless suffering surrounding my pain, accept the reality of what was happening to me, and stop wishing I was living under different circumstances. From that position one can say “Okay, here I am. Now what? What can I make of this?”