In Sickness and In Health: Illness as a Rite of Passage

My client, Martha, emailed me before our session yesterday, to say she was in the hospital. She had had an asthma attack so severe that her husband took her to the emergency room. She wondered if I’d be okay if we could do our session while she was in the hospital. A lot was coming up with her and she wanted to talk about it sooner, rather than later. Of course, I was absolutely fine with that. I had no doubt, especially in conversation with Martha, some wonderful revelations would present themselves.

Sitting in the hospital, Martha experienced a lot of anger. As she reported to me, this anger—this fury was way out of proportion to the situation at hand. She hated that she was diagnosed with asthma and would have to accept that this is a condition she’ll have to live with for the rest of her life! She was not a happy camper!

Martha is 69 years old. And, though she has had these attacks on occasion, this one triggered more emotions and upset then in the past. What’s up with that?

Martha grew up with a mom who had frequent bouts of illness—asthma being just one of the many. Martha experienced her mom’s illness as a way of getting attention. When her mother was sick, Martha, became one of the caretakers, and her own needs as a young child were neglected and ignored. At the age of eight, Martha caught on to her mother’s strategy and vowed she would never get sick, because to her, it meant that other people would be neglected and ignored. She didn’t want to submit other people to what she experienced herself. Getting sick was not an option!

When the Student is Ready the Teacher Appears

I’ve heard many times, when a person gets sick, that they blame themselves for their illness. They feel guilty, because they believe they’ve done something wrong, which caused this sickness to happen to them. Quite often, they seriously consider the possibility that they are being punished for something they’ve done in the past. On top of the discomfort of physical symptoms, just like Martha, most of us burden ourselves with emotional dis-ease as well. 

Through our conversation, Martha was able to make sense of some of the things about her experience of her childhood. The aspect of her, that as a child experienced the consequences of her mom’s disease as a negative, hurtful and isolating, today is in emotional turmoil. She is fighting and resisting the truth that her body has some challenges. This young, innocent child-self, within Martha, doesn’t want to be the kind of person that other people have to take care of. In her eyes, it’s a sin to be sick and to take attention away from others. This is a lot for any person or child to be with. But, here she is, with this big fat be-with!

For me, I see Illness and Diseases as a Potential Rite of Passage.

Few of us, now a days willingly go on a vision quest, where we meet potential life/death moments, which either grow us or kill us. I see sickness, especially cancer, as moments where we are given opportunities to meet ourselves as we’ve never done before. In these circumstances, we can choose to judge and interpret illness and disease as a teacher, as a punishment, or, well, as anything we wish to. 

A friend of mine, Corey, was recently diagnosed with stage 4 Cancer of the Pancreas. This is a heroes journey to say the least. Facing this kind of diagnosis shatters a persons sense of stability in the world. Dreams of future adventures with family, fantasies of retiring to a wonderful warm destination—GONE!!! There is only the big fat be with, and what we make it mean.

A hero’s journey requires being lost, being sidetracked, falling down and maybe never getting back up. And the truth is, none of us is exempt from our own personal rite of passage. None of us is exempt from our own hero’s journey. 

The initiation into a rite of passage—a hero’s journey comes in all forms and circumstances. It requires aloneness, while we cultivate our own private courage. Though support from others is invaluable, we each, individually meet ourselves perhaps for the very first time. Inviting in the wisdom of others, who have traveled such a path, assists us in exploring the unexplorable. It takes courage to walk this walk. And it takes courage to ask for support.

Martha engaged me as her thinking partner. And yesterday, she explored the unexplorable—that which underlies her abject horror at finding herself sick. 

As she mines into all that she carries from her youth, she experience an inner wisdom that became available to her, because of having this episode with asthma. She is grateful to have someone who can look at the circumstance and put a positive spin on the situation.

Every single one of us struggles with the reality of being in a body that is vulnerable to dis-ease. The idea of aging certainly casts a shadow on the potential to thrive in later years. Regardless of what science says about the incredible potential we have to live well and to thrive, even over 100 years, our Western culture gives us no hope—illness, decline and decrepitude, we believe, is a matter of fact.

“Why Must I Focus on This Yucky Stuff?”

I see so much potential for thriving within any circumstance that is in front of us. Good, bad, or ugly—it doesn’t matter. 

I know each and every human being to be brilliant in our capacity to make the most out of any situation. Perhaps one person wants to make trauma and drama. Another person wants to make lemon aide from lemons. Truly, we make what we choose to make of our lives. I see that, if we choose, there is a whole lot more delight and wonder to be experienced, even when it looks as though its all going down the tubes!

At the core of everything I write is a seed of hope that whoever reads my pieces recognizes within themselves that which they so want to avoid seeing. And at the same time says, “thank God, someone sees beyond my fears. Thank God, there is hope for me yet!” 

For me, it goes way beyond hope. You are exquisite. You are brilliant. In every moment of your life you are building the capacity to know yourself, to love yourself, and to embrace all that is—no matter what.

I would love to hear your comments, questions and feedback. 

If you’d like more of Dr. Rosie, check out her website: You’ll find blogs, books, videos, podcasts, paintings and more. And her books are available through Darvill’s. She is available as a thinking partner and coach.

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