This Sucks: The Fierce Grace of Chronic Illness

by Jessica Graham

I’m sitting in my room and it’s getting very boring waiting and waiting and waiting for something exciting to happen…And I am sick. I mean I have a very bad headache, and achy joints, and I’m tired all the time…and I have to get a blood test and I hate blood tests. They are my worst enemy, besides mushrooms and piano lessons.

I’ve been sick and in pain for a long time. The words above are mine from when I was about 10 and used to chronicle my life with my trusty tape recorder. I started getting severe migraines and daily tension headaches when I was 8. My ongoing kidney and bladder problems put me in the hospital at age 15. By 18, I had gotten used to constant musculoskeletal tension and pain, occasional crushing fatigue, and a whole host of other issues related to my body. No wonder I lived in my mind until I found meditation. My body was not a fun place to be. But meditation didn’t cure me, in fact up until recently, health has gotten worse, not better.

That’s right, meditation is not a magic cure-all, no matter how much we might like to think it is. But it certainly helps. For example, when I was rushed from a meditation retreat, into the ER, with what turned out to be a bleeding stomach, my practice was there for me. I was experiencing massives waves of the worst pain I had ever felt (at that point anyway). My stomach felt like it had sharp teeth and was eating itself from the inside out. And then, prompted by the stress of the pain, I got a blinding migraine. Intravenous morphine didn’t even put a dent in the agony. There was a period of time in which I became like animal, suffering in the most pure way, no thoughts just screaming pain.

Then the years of meditation practice suddenly kicked in. I remembered that no matter how much pain I was in, I could use my skills of concentration to focus on a place in my body that was peaceful and didn’t hurt. Physical awareness began scanning the body, but everything seemed to be pulsing with pain. Then the the practice said, you know how to do this. Stay present, keep scanning. And low and behold, I found my feet. There they were, a little cold, but not in pain. They were pretty neutral, even slightly relaxed. Sweet relief spilled over me, as I zeroed my attention in on my toes and the soles of my feet. I didn’t try to push away the pain, what you resist persists, instead I just focused intently on a place that didn’t feel so bad. This is just one way to work with pain, but a damn good one when the pain is overwhelming on that level.  Before long I was upgraded to Dilaudid, and soon slipped away into oblivion.

That wasn’t the only time I used my meditation practice during the 6 days I spent in the hospital. It was there for me the whole time, when they stuck a camera down my throat and into my stomach, when the narcotics made it impossible to poop and it felt like I had boulders in my guts, when one of the doctors accused me of lying about the chronic pain I was in, when my heart broke seeing how worried my partner was about me, and when I realized it was time to make some serious changes in my life. Being really sick has a way of clarifying things.

Fierce Grace

Leading up to be hospitalized I had been, as my dad used to say, burning the candle on both ends. I was in some kind of pain everyday and was plagued by non-stop fatigue, but I just kept pushing forward. I’d love to say that I got out of the hospital and all that changed. But that’s not the case. I had a book to write, a few feature films to make, and a growing private client business. I didn’t see the possibility of calling any of that off, and was compelled to keep going. So, for the first time in my life, I enlisted the help of western medicine in a significant way. I went on drugs.

Before the hospital I knew that I could be diagnosed with a host of illnesses. Fibromyalgia for one. I knew what westen doctors would offer, I didn’t want to go down the path of pharmaceuticals. The idea of antidepressants (which are prescribed off-label for many chronic pain issues) and narcotics freaked me out. So, I managed my pain using meditation and a healthy dose of denial, right up until my stomach started bleeding. After that experience I decided that in order to carry on with my life, I needed more support. Pharmaceutical support.

I had to contend with the part of self that didn’t believe in going on these drugs, and she did not want to budge. I grew up in a home where “antibiotics” was dirty word, and half of us kids didn’t get vaccinated. Unless someone was dying, we used alternative medicine over western allopathic medicine whenever possible. Plus, I was pretty attached to my spiritual practice as pain management, and there was some pride in that. That good old spiritual self can be such a sticky sucker. So being willing to try out a bunch of scary drugs required some serious deconstruction.

This was a huge gift ultimately, as it allowed me to peel back yet another layer of delusion and attachment to a fixed identity. It’s so easy to spend an entire life stuck in one version of who you think you are. Often the identities we cling to are not even all that pleasant or positive, and yet we dig our nails in and say THIS IS ME! Serious illness can force us to let go and fall into the unknown in some radical ways. Fierce grace indeed.

My team of doctors piled on the diagnoses and the drugs and I got back to work. Over the next few years I got a lot done. I’m actually a bit amazed by everything I was able to do, or should I say, how much I was able to push through. My book came out, I completed the film projects I was working on, and I started seeing more and more private clients. Then I took a month off to go on retreat in Massattutas for 35 days. I was back in the hospital after 26 days. This time I didn’t have to stay, but I had to leave my retreat after 28 days. I spent almost a month convalescing at my mom’s house, before returning to LA.

When I got home, I was truly humbled by my weak and ill body. After spending a month in silence with my pain and illness, followed by another month in bed, I was ready to say “uncle.” I was ready to stop. Almost.

Several months later, after dealing with the monstrous side effects of all the medication I was on, and yet another very painful condition that was added to my list of ailments, I decided to start the process going off all the drugs. They were just a bandaid and the bandaid was starting to smell the way they do when you leave them on for too long.

Life without pain medication, after a few years of using it, truly brought me to my knees. I could no longer drive more than a few miles without a severe flare up, social interaction drained me to the point that I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and my body hurt all the time. It was then that I became 90 percent homebound for about 4 months. Other than the bare minimum of work and basic self-care, I put life on pause. I finally stopped.

Waking Up through Illness

As hard as it was to give into the reality of my health, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I was so set on not becoming one of those sick people that never leave the house, that I was making myself sicker and sicker. When I actually let myself be sick, life started to get easier. I wasn’t fighting or numbing my body all the time. I was just sitting in the grief and pain of being unwell and it turns out, surprise surprise, that was exactly what was needed.

Coming off all the drugs, and getting acquainted with my body on my body’s terms, has been much like the very beginning of my journey with meditation. I’ve been waking up to the simple beauty of just being, the gorgeous resource of nature, and the practical basics of mindfulness.

The depression brought on by chronic pain and all the drugs has more or less lifted, and I’ve reengaged with joy. I’ve tapped into a self-love and compassion that is deeper than I thought possible. I’ve also gotten a chance to understand suffering in a whole new way, which allows me to help others more. This journey through illness and pain has humbled and matured me, and for that I am grateful. Reality may hurt like hell sometimes, but I’ll take it over delusion anyday.

Awakening is an ongoing process; one that never finds a finish line. I’ve understood this for a long time, but being sick has shown me just how true it is. When lower back pain made it impossible for me to do much of anything for weeks, more of me woke up. When sudden suicidal thoughts took residence inside my mind, more of me woke up. When I lost the ability to do the things I love, more of me woke up. When I was struck by the fierce grace of powerlessness over my own body, more of me woke up.

When you are faced with life’s challenges, and you will be, it is an opportunity to expand the realm of possibility. Suffering gives you a chance to become more human, and the more human you are the more awake you can be. Illness, loss, grief, and tragedy are direct paths to a more rich and full experience of the beauty of Now. I know how hard it can be to accept the gift of pain, but I also know that embracing your situation, with an open heart and mind, will be worth the work.

Moving Forward: Meditation and Chronic Illness

I’m now back in the world. I’m driving again, working on a number of creative projects, and as of today, back to writing. Until now I wasn’t ready to share this part of my life with you. I was in a process and needed to let it unfold before I could write about it. While my health is not perfect by any means, I am in a new place and feel ready to start offering you some of what I’ve learned about being sick in a conscious and mindful manner.

In this new series I’ll be exploring the wild awakenings and fierce grace of chronic illness and pain. I’ll also offer many tools and techniques for using your spiritual practice for dealing with pain and illness. Even if you don’t deal with chronic issues, you may find the material helpful, if not now, later. Old age and illness are coming for us all, if we are lucky.

I’ll delve deeply into the connection between trauma and adverse childhood experiences and chronic illness, diet, mindfulness, pain and sex, depression, and so much more. I won’t candy coat or tell you that all you have to do is meditate. I also won’t assume that I have “the answer” for you. Chronically ill folks get A LOT of advice. If one more person tells me to check out the Medical Medium, or about the acupuncturist who changed their life, or the remote angel healer lady …you get the idea. I just want to share my story with you and let you know that I’m in your corner. Being sick is hard and you don’t have to do it alone.

Since I started meditating seriously, over a decade ago, I’ve used my practice to work with both physical and emotional pain. I’ve also been helping others to do the same thing, and my hope is that the articles in this series can help you. While meditation may not cure you or make your life perfect, it will give you tools to actually have a life, even if you are chronically ill. Meditation also offers an option drug-free pain management system and a lifeline when the challenging emotional aspects of illness have you in their grasp. It really does work,  if you practice regularly.

I am not promoting going off your meds, or suggesting that you use meditation exclusively to treat your pain. Many folks with chronic illness and pain must be on medication. I may need to be on daily medication again at some point. I am not a healthcare professional, and I don’t know know what is best for you personally. I invite you to take what you like from my experience and suggestions, and leave what you don’t.

The series is called This Sucks, because it does. But even so, being sick has been one of my greatest teachers and has shown me how to soften and let love in, in ways I never thought possible. In the next post I’ll begin to offer you detailed instruction for working with pain using meditation. I hope that my experience both as a teacher, and as a fellow spoonie, can help you find some relief, expansion, and deeper awakening.

Read Jessica’s Mindful Sex Series

Photo by Yuris Alhumaydy

Comments

  1. As someone learning to use meditation to navigate a different version of the This Sucks experience I appreciate you sharing your experience more than I can say. Thank you🙏

  2. May I remain inspired to muster as much deep acceptance as you did and still do to face decades of chronic pain when I’ll meet, sooner or later, such harsh adversities.

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