THE BLOG

Finding Power in the Powerlessness of Illness

01/15/2014 08:48 am ET | Updated Mar 17, 2014

Chronic illness is like a thief: tiptoeing around your house, slipping your china and jewelry out the door before you even suspect an intruder. As the days pass, you realize just how much he got away with. Where is my favorite painting? Didn't we used to have a food processor? I know I owned a camera! Things you valued, but took for granted, are nowhere to be found.

Like a thief, a diagnosis never considers your future plans, your new job, or that you just fell in love; it doesn't even care that you are a parent or wanted to be a parent. One moment everything is intact, the next your energy, ability to concentrate and peace of mind is simply gone.

You are left to adjust your schedule for doctor's appointments, surgeries and recovery. You have to make room for tests and worries and decisions. And you do all of this knowing that the sense of control and security you once though you had over your life, over your body, was only an illusion.

When the doctor first mentioned that I may need a kidney transplant, my corporate finance career was on the rise. I had a nice cozy projection of how the next five years were going to play out. Transplant was a thief I wasn't expecting.

My kidney function was low due to a renal malformation from birth that caused chronic kidney infections during my high school years, but I thought things were stable. This new prognosis sent me into a tailspin of too many Google searches and endless wondering about what I could have done differently to change my fate. All of that worry was making me tired, short of breath and on edge. I felt completely powerless.

After a few months of licking my wounds, I calmed back down and decided to make some changes to protect the health I had remaining: I started an exercise routine, became vegan and learned to meditate. Eventually, I took the scary step of leaving my corporate job to pursue my passions of speaking and writing. My new lifestyle had a positive impact on my stress level, to the point that my doctor cut the dose of my blood pressure medication in half.

I saw that the thief could take things and change things, but what he stripped away only uncovered power I hadn't noticed before.

When you are healthy, it seems that you will always be that way. This premise will lead you to put things off. You don't have to take that vacation, start your own business or write the book now because you have all the time in the world.

Illness teaches that nothing in life is guaranteed. When the thief takes your health, or threatens to, it becomes clear that everything is a gift. Life has a sense of urgency and importance that were always there but not always recognized.

My kidney prognosis pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I no longer had time to procrastinate pursuing my life's purpose. To my surprise, I had the power to do things that intimidated me. I could introduce myself to strangers, write a book and speak in front of large crowds.

My health also upped the ante on my spiritual practice. I had studied personal development for years. I said affirmations, created vision boards and communed with my inner child. I professed to be spiritually minded, but my practice had not developed depth.

When I had to face a body that was doing things I desperately wanted to control, I realized that I had missed the most important piece of spirituality: acceptance. I wanted everything on my terms. I was unwilling to surrender my will to life's reality. It was as if I had argued for years that I wanted the sky to be orange instead of seeing beauty in the blues it offered.

Allowing myself the compassion of acceptance dramatically reduced my stress about having to deal with a thief. I saw that I was the one with the power to have peace in each moment, with or without becoming healed.

Lastly, illness showed me that I am not my body or my accomplishments. I am not any label. It is so easy to wrap our personal value together with our abilities. If we are sick or don't succeed at something, somehow we become unworthy. This could not be farther from the truth.

Leaving corporate America was difficult. I wrestled with knowing my value because my ego was bolstered by my identity there. I had to reexamine my sense of self and discover who I was without all of the stories and pretense. Doing this allowed me to become a more authentic person.

When I would experience pain or worry about my health, I said the mantra, "I am not my body," over and over again. For a while I had to trust that something deeper was there, eventually I sensed something far beyond anything that could squish between two arms and two legs, a resilience that could never be damaged by illness. I found a power source that never felt powerless.

Finding my power didn't mean that I was magically cured. The thief stayed with me: I am now three months post kidney transplant.

Chronic illness takes many things, but it teaches many things too. I have learned that life should be lived urgently, acceptance is vital to spiritual connection, and that I am more than my body. Power was found in the most unexpected place.

Sometimes it takes a thief to show us just how resilient we are.

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