Are you a person facing a major life illness, be it a debilitating chronic illness or a life-threatening disease? For some, this can be a time of considerable confusion, even chaos. Read below for more about what this confusion and chaos can look like.
I offer support and guidance as a person seeks to find a new life story through and beyond illness: a new story offers some semblance of order out of that kind of confusion and chaos. in person by internet by phone weekly biweekly monthly
To be clear, my practice is not that of a physician. I do not offer primary care, medical workups, diagnosing, or prescribing of medications. Instead, I offer a counseling-based service that draws upon my three decades of caring for people who are seriously ill and two decades of doing wilderness rites-of-passage work. The support I offer begins with deep listening to a person’s medical story, mirroring it back, and offering guidance about ways to move forward. I often encourage people to carry issues out into nature -- "ecotherapy" -- and to bring that experience back to the work we're doing together.
The Underworld Journey of a Major Illness
I have survived my own serious chronic illness, and so I know well what it means to struggle through this kind of underworld. To struggle in the dark and, in time, to arrive and to thrive in the light of a new day. The medical sociologist Arthur Frank has helped me understand this journey well.
In his book The Wounded Storyteller, Dr. Frank writes: “Serious illness is a loss of the ‘destination and map’ that had previously guided the ill person’s life. Healing a major illness, then, is not merely physical. The ill person also needs to redefine life’s destination and recreate a map that might get him there.” He describes three kinds of storytelling that aim to do just that.
The restitution narrative: This first kind of storytelling is the most appealing because it presumes that healing of the illness is complete – or soon will be. With this full recovery a personal life story can continue on (relatively) unchanged. The plotline is straightforward: "I was healthy, then I became sick, and now I’m healthy again. I'm as good as new." As desirable as the restitution narrative may be, it can only be applied to an illness that’s either self-limited or curable.
The chaos narrative: An underworld journey is an apt metaphor for Frank’s second type of illness story: Usually we tell stories to make sense of what’s happening, but for some, a devastating illness render them incapable of making any sense of the physical decline. Rather than looking for healing, the story may devolve into "I'll never get well again." The normal flow of daily life, and the temporal order of all stories told about that life, are disrupted. Trapped in the underworld, the ill person becomes overwhelmed. The body is overwhelmed by illness. Emotions are overwhelmed by the condition of the body. And the possibility of a healing story is overwhelmed by the chaos of body and emotions. Overwhelmed by all this chaos, a seriously ill person may lack the reflective distance needed to tell a story that would give the experience shape and meaning. The chaos story that may result often isn't a true narrative: a sequence of events connected to each other through time. Rather Frank calls the chaos story an anti-narrative. "There's no way out. I'm stuck. I'll forever be sick." Such a person has become trapped in the underworld: the old life story has died, but a new story, a new life, has yet to be found.
The quest narrative:This third kind of storytelling lies on the other side of chaos. Here a person has experienced enough healing, and gained enough reflective distance, to recreate order through storytelling: "This is where I’ve been. This is where I am. This is where I’m going." An apt metaphor now is a surfacing out of the underworld journey: out of the dark and back into the light of day. A person may return to the same geographic place in life, or arrive at an entirely new setting. Either way, that person is forever changed. The greatest boon—the Holy Grail of this journey—may be the quest narrative itself. This new narrative describes, understands, and transforms a serious illness into something manageable. A successful quest narrative orients a person to a new life terrain, reaches for new hopes and goals, and allows a return to some semblance of orderly living.
If you're struggling to cope with a serious chronic illness or a life-threatening disease, how might you turn the chaos of this illness into a quest-like story?