Daniel Catalaa

The opportunities of illness

(Authored by Daniel Catalaa on July 31st, 2009)
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At the age of thirteen I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and later with Crohn's disease. These are life-long chronic ailments that affects the intestinal track. Today my health is affected by these conditions, but I also enjoy moments of stability. In case you are in a similar situation, I wanted to share with you what silver linings I discovered in illness and the lemonade you can make with your lemons :o)
Better use of time

Unless you are going out of your way to live in unhealthy ways, you do not pick an illness, the illness picks you. And when it does, if the consequences are important, the illusion of immortality is shattered. You are the "other person" to whom "things like this happen".

But once you accept death, your greatest vulnerability, a funny thing happens: time will stand still. You are no longer in a hurry to live; if anything, you want to slow down and savor every moment provided your level of physical or emotional discomfort is not too high.

Besides becoming very aware of time, I also became more selective on how I spent it. Time becomes a limited resource when so much of it is taken up by doctor visits, lab work, prescription pick ups, resting and recovering, taking medications, treatments, and plain old convalescing. If you have only 4 hours of up time per day, you chose much more carefully who you spend your time with and what you are going to do.

I also noticed that my determination to do things increased. Given half a chance, I proceed headlong without hesitation to tackle any short-term project I wish to undertake. This is because I do not know when I will have a relapse and the bottom will fall out, so if I can do something, I do it. In general, uncertainty has become more of a driving force than a paralyzing one.

When it comes to taking action, I noticed that healthy individuals around me postpone, hesitate, compare alternatives, get cold feet, forget, or just stay put. I can honestly say that illness has given a sense of urgency that has allowed me to complete many projects and try many new things. In essence, constant uncertainty makes me perceive time as precious, so I use time in precious ways.

Genuine love

Ever since I got sick I saw my mother make sacrifices and show empathy over the span of decades in a way that I thought a human being could not sustain. She is the embodiment of altruistic love, often to a fault, and I feel privileged to have been the recipient of so much care and to have witnessed how she provided nurturing under very adverse circumstances. My hope is that I will be able to transmit to others the attention, affection, and care that I received from her. The illness I have brought the best out of her and, had I been healthy, I would not be able to understand that love this deep was possible.

Having an illness is going to make you unusual. You will find it harder to live a conventional life. For example, you may only be able to work part-time or not at all. You may need to bring medical supplies constantly with you in a bag or in a purse just in case an accident happens. A four year college degree may take you six and a half years, or you end up living with your parents much longer than you ever thought you would. I am familiar with these situations because all of them happened or are happening to me. In addition, I have scars from multiple surgeries, embarrassing symptoms like farts, diarrhea, and anal incontinence.

Yet, inexplicably, there are people in the world that will be able to look beyond all the things you try to hide about your illness and will still love you, despite everything. How and why? They may admire your courage and tenacity. They, or a family member of theirs, struggled with illness and they are not scared by it. Or your charisma and personality won them over. In any case, illness can bring you closer to genuine love in a way that 100% healthy cannot do.

Exploration of identity

When your body becomes an inadequate reflection of your interior vitality and desire to be healthy, you may start to ask yourself "Who am I?" This occurs because so much of our identity is associated and invested in our body. It is what we wake up with every morning, it is what we see in the mirror, it is the vehicle by which we receive and express love, and it is what allows us to be visually distinguished from somebody else.

During my own journey I started rebelling and saying "I am not my illness"; in a way I was also trying to say "I am not my body". I thought of of my body as a car and that my authentic (spiritual) self was the driver. I fantasized that if I was given a different healthy body to "drive", I would finally be able to explore my full potential and reflect my true identity.

My latest reflections regarding identity are that there may be no separation between body and mind or between myself, nature, and others for that matter. If the universe has health and illness within it, then I will experience both at a personal level. Illness is an unfortunate part of life, but it's also a normal part of life.

In conclusion...

Thirty years after my initial diagnosis I can tell you that my illness provided me with the focus to make good use of my time, it gave me the determination and drive to have many different experiences, it allowed me to experience genuine love, and it prompted me to reflect on my own identity. It still sucks to be sick, but there are also unexpected gifts among the peaks and valleys of a chronic illness.