As long as we are healthy, illness is something that we generally do not want to think about. It is something to be denied, hated or even hidden. In the worst case scenario, it reminds us of our own mortality. Death!
Yet illness can be a visitation of our unconscious on us, forcing us to slow down to take stock or indeed to wake up to the reality of our lives, the reality of our own unhappiness. Unhappiness with a job, relationship or a family difficulty for example can literally make us ill. We may not be fully aware of what it is that is bothering us but our illness may offer us the time and space to take stock and may encourage us to go to therapy. It may help to examine our lives and discuss why we have landed ourselves in the situation we are in. It may also help us to cope with with the feelings that are stirred up by illness, both in ourselves and in others.
Intolerance of Illness
For many, illness may not be viewed as an opportunity to recharge batteries, it is intolerable in ourselves and to a much lesser extent, in others. Why? Because it indicates weakness, incapacity and inability. It is something that should remain hidden. We do not wish to discuss our illnesses when we are suffering with diarrhoea or vomiting. We may be carriers of an infection or disease. In the past, those who were carriers of illness were often ostracised e.g. those suffering from leprosy or, more recently, AIDS.
Society has an implicit view that illness is a drain on our resources. In Ireland for many years any discussion about the provision of health services has gone hand in hand with a discussion about money. How much money is sick leave costing the economy? we ask. Implicit in this discussion is the belief that many who absent themselves from the workplace are malingering – feigning illness in order to avoid work. Again, this is a label we usually try to avoid.
Explanations of Illness
There is a drive in us to seek rational explanations of illness. Why do we get ill? Why do some of us become seriously or terminally ill? We attribute so much to diet, lifestyle, exercise, intake of alcohol or other substances. Moderation in these areas is of course healthy and commendable.
Perhaps we feel that if we can explain why illness happens then we can predict its occurrence and control it. If we can do this we are powerful, we are in control of our destiny. We are Gods!
The fact is that in many cases we cannot predict it leaving us feeling powerless, useless and frightened when it occurs. Illness frightens us!
Our Individual Experiences
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy does not offer textbook solutions to problems. It is not a one size fits all exercise. Instead it focuses on the individual’s experience and how he makes sense of his own experience. The experience of being ill may have quite specific meanings for the client.
A client of mine spoke of the violent physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his father when he was a child. He described his memory of being sick when he was 7:
My mother was really kind and affectionate towards me. She let me lie on the couch and would bring me in drinks. I could lie there and watch the TV. That was ok until my father came home and told me that I was n’t allowed to lie on the couch. He told me that if I was sick I had to remain in bed.
His father was resentful of the attention his mother lavished on him while he was sick. This could raise his father’s anger so as a consequence it was better for the boy to deny that he was ill. In later life he never acknowledged being ill or perhaps, more accurately, he never missed work due to illness.
Through counselling or therapy the way that we interpret what illness means to us can be made clear and can be a useful part of our self reflection, growth and development.