Chronic Illness & the Hero’s Journey, Part One

Medicine, mythology, and the construction of meaning

Whilst reflecting on my personal experience with serious illness, I started to recognise parallels between my journey to recovery and the monomyth which underlines mythologies from all cultures, past and present. This is the first part in my contemplations on a new way of approaching healing and health.

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My current work with the I Ching has inspired me to explore some wonderful memories, and consider certain aspects of my life from a different perspective. Inspired by some of the amazing work being done in the @naturalmedicine community, I began to meditate on the reasons I left the Natural Medicine profession. I’d left partly due to personal dissatisfaction, and I’ve wondered if it was because I was practicing in a way I knew intuitively wasn’t working. I’m still continuing to meditate on this, and will continue to use this medium as a tool to explore these new ideas.

What role does the construction of meaning, belief, and neuroscience have in the process of healing from illness?

As I contemplated my own experiences with thyroid disease, I remembered something from a couple of years ago, where I had a realisation that the journey of chronic illness and recovery follow the patterns described by Joseph Campbell in his ground-breaking book The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

In that book, he provides a comparative analysis of various global mythologies and points out that there is a pattern to the journey that the archetypal hero takes in these stories. I highly recommend reading it if you’re interested in mythology and/or psychoanalysis.

This is a summary of the first part of the hero’s journey – departure – and its similarities to chronic illness.

The call to adventure

Said I can’t go on, not in this way


The ‘call’ comes when the first signs of physiological dysfunction appear. These are signs such as the inability to eat foods that would normally digest well, or constantly succumbing to colds & ‘flu. There could be breaks in your normal pattern of wellness, or changes in your bowel habits. Perhaps you experience changes in menstruation (such as flow, cycle, regularity, etc), or headaches/migraines that start to occur regularly.

Sometimes, amongst these signs and symptoms (which at this point are not debilitating), there’s a sense that there is something better ‘out there’.  You may experience dreams which disturb your sleep, or noticing that you get strangely tired and don’t have as much energy or enthusiasm for your normal daily routine.

The refusal of the call

The more you ignore me, the closer I get


Irrespective of these various signs and symptoms, you ignore them. It’s easy to dismiss them — after all, you live healthy, right?!? You pop a paracetamol and keep on with your normal daily grind. You want your life to continue the way it always has. Medications are help you to “soldier on” with the normal state of affairs.

However the root of the problem remains. Eventually, the medications stop working. You either increase the dose, or change drugs. The refusal still being the case, stronger medications are sought. Perhaps you even take it up a notch and seek to simply remove the offending part of you with surgery. That way, the pain can be avoided and you can continue on with your normal daily routine.

However, the longer this is refused and avoided, the worse that the pain or the illness endures. You may remove the offending part, but other things start to go awry.

Unsuspected assistance

The secrets never end 
And now they call, 
They sing, they play, they dance 
For you, from out of the blue, 
What can you do?

Electric Light Orchestra

Lots of messages start to come to your attention. Articles and stories appear in your news feed which are uncannily similar to your experience. You find you’re reading many suggestions on what to do about it.

Maybe you find you are regularly meeting people who also suffered as you do now. They share their stories about how they dealt with their problem, and you are sometimes amazed at how effortless it sounded like.

Others you meet will look miserable, and you’ll realise you don’t want to turn out that way. Their tales of suffering will trigger you to know you don’t want to end up like that.

Either way, these mercurial messages remind you that there is something you need to pay attention to. Something is calling you to go on this journey and find out what can be done.

The first threshold

With every ounce of passion I speak till my lungs both billow out.
“I’ll give you something to hope for.”

The Dear Hunter

Now, you seek out and find a health professional who is different to the rest.  They are someone who is different to all others you have consulted so far. Someone who has different answers, someone who will support you in heeding the “call to adventure”.

This practitioner will beckon you forth from the comfort of your everyday life and says, “Yes, there is a way to wellness; but the journey herein lies fraught with danger and difficulties”.

When you cross that first threshold into the journey away from how things have been, you can either succumb to fear, and run back hoping to never again be face with these challenges. Or you can choose to boldly go forwards.

This is the pivotal point in your journey. Which way do you choose to go?

Entering the underworld

I feel asleep on a dark and starlit sea
With nothing but the cloak of god’s mercy over me
I come upon strange earth and a great black cave

Bruce Springsteen

If you choose to enter the “belly of the whale” then from herein “there be dragons”. Once having passed through the threshold, you enter into the mythical underworld, the main part of the hero’s journey.

Having departed finally from the life you once lived, you find yourself facing any number of challenges and trials. In all the mythologies, this is the symbolic ‘death’, and in the narrative of illness this is the moment where we choose to properly heal from this chronic illness.

Here, there is a recognition that things may be darker and more difficult for a small time ahead. The sooner you surrender to this, the quicker you pass through the underworld. Once you have entered, there is no return to your old way of life.

This is where we have to choose to stop eating those foods that harmed us; or cease that destructive lifestyle that gnawed away at our natural state of health & wellbeing. The choices from the past may have served us then, but they have also led to where we are now, journeying through the mythological death and journey through the underworld.

The challenges are often many and seemingly relentless, but eventually you pass through them.

There is a way out of this underworld, and you will find your way through it. That’s the next stage of the hero’s journey, which will be continued in Part Two…

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