How I went from Anger to Acceptance of My Illness

Woman holding her head and looking stressed

By Lisa Mark, C.P.O.

It is said that the stages we experience when dealing with a life-changing illness or injury are similar to the stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

My illness was so extreme, life-altering, sudden, acute, severe and painful that I skipped the denial stage and went straight into anger. What turned out to be Gastroparesis was at the time a mystery that stumped my doctors, whose responses to me ranged from outright disbelief to hostility. So, yeah, I was angry.

My anger was caused partly by the awful managed-care practitioner I was seeing at the time. He had the ‘Denial’ stage down pat and accused me of lying about my symptoms to hide what he said was the true cause of my illness: Anorexia. Or maybe Bulimia.

But it was also because I was really, really pissed about having gotten sick in the first place.

I was pissed at myself for ignoring my initial symptoms until they became too severe to ignore, and for my weakness in getting sick in the first place.

I was pissed at my managed health practitioner for not believing me when I said I wasn’t making myself throw up.

I was pissed at the ER docs who misdiagnosed my illness as ‘vague stomach upset’ and sent me home with an antacid and order to ‘get some sleep.’

I was pissed at my health plan for providing so few good health care practitioners in my network.

Angry that I had to stop nursing my infant daughter because the medications I was on might cross into my breastmilk and affect her.

Pissed that while I was struggling to get better, my friends were caring for their kids, going on vacation, working and living their lives.

Angry at the cost of the financial and other resources my illness was sucking away from my family.

Angry that the life I’d laid out for myself was not turning out as I’d hoped.

Angry at the lack of acceptance from friends and family members who didn’t believe I was ‘really’ sick.

I had two little kids, aged 5 years and 3 months at the time of my first illness, and they needed me, their mom, to be healthy and available. And I was anything but. I was pissed about that, too.

I just couldn’t accept the fact that I was so sick and unavailable during these critical first years with my kids, a time when my family really needed me to be healthy.

Yeah, I spent a lot of time being pissed. Which made it difficult, if not impossible, for me to heal.

The Turning Point

My friend, one of the few who didn’t abandon me when I needed her most, stopped by to sit with me so my spouse could go to work. I was so sick that I couldn’t be left alone. She sat next to me on my sofa, patiently listening while I ranted and railed about the unfairness of it all. Why me? I kept saying. Why did IIII have to get sick? Why couldn’t it have been any one of a number of other women that I knew?

When I was finished, exhausted and tear-stained, my beautiful friend turned to me and asked me the question that would start me on my journey of acceptance and healing.

She asked me why I thought it would be any fairer if illness had happened to someone else instead of me. In essence, she was asking, ‘Why not you?’

I hate to say it, but she had a point. Why, indeed, not me? Who am I to think I am exempt from this illness?

And it was at that moment that I started to accept my illness, let go of my anger, and heal.

Laughter & Healing

By Lisa Mark, C.P.O.

When I was in the throes of my illness a friend dropped by a pile of books for me to read. She told me, ‘Read the Bryson book first so you can laugh a little bit. It’ll be good for you.’ I don’t remember if I ignored her or didn’t hear her but I immediately dove into ‘The Color of Water’ by James McBride. This incredible memoir was both sad and serious.  I cried my way through the next few days as I read the book.

I was already spending a lot of time crying and really could have used a laugh. When I finished The Color of Water, I pondered the rest of the books in the pile my friend had left me and settled on Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods,’ a hilarious autobiography detailing the author’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. I laughed my way through the book and found, to my surprise, that although I was still terribly sick, laughter brought a sense of well-being that I hadn’t yet experienced during my illness.

As I travel through my journey with illness, I discover that there are actually centers that research the effect of laughter and psychological well-being on healing. One of them, the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, was founded by author Norman Cousins after he was diagnosed with a particularly painful type of arthritis. During the course of his illness, he noticed that spending some time watching funny movies improved the way he felt and even enabled him to sleep for a few hours despite debilitating pain.

From the Cousins Center website:

“Science is beginning to uncover some of what happens inside the body in response to laughter. Laughter Researcher[s have] found, in clinical studies, that laughter has positive effects on the neuroendocrine-immune axis by reducing some classic stress hormones.”

There is even such a thing as ‘laughter therapy.’ And truth to that old adage: laughter is the best medicine. So despite illness being no laughing matter, perhaps a bit of laughter can help us all to feel better.

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