Journey into the underworld of illness
Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the Hero’s Journey serves as a metaphor for our own journey with chronic illness. In Part One of this article I discussed the call to adventure. After getting sick and refusing the call, you eventually find the guide who will lead you to your goal of wellness.
If you want to teach to your weakness, place yourself in challenging situations — this is a warrior trait. Everything that happens to you, if you take a warrior’s position, is simply a challenge. It’s not a good challenge, it’s not a bad challenge, it’s not a pleasant challenge, it’s not an unpleasant challenge. Those are evaluative functions. It’s simply a challenge.John Grinder, Turtles All The Way Down
The next phase of the journey is called initiation, the journey through the underworld. Here, there are a number of trials to test the hero. This is the part of your journey that can take the longest. In the various world myths, most of the stories take part during this phase. During their travels the hero always encountered strange beasts to defeat, mischievous deities, and any number of trials and tribulations designed to test the hero’s resolve and character.
So too in chronic illness, we often find the same lessons being taught us over and over again until we get it right. Even if we think we’ve succeeded in a trial, it will arise again and again to ensure that we’ve learned our lessons and truly embody the changes that the challenges pose.
Here are some of ‘trials’ I’ve experienced personally, as well as what I have observed in others throughout this stage of the journey.
There's got to be a first time,
Well everything starts that way.
And it can come when you least expect it,
A lifetime starts in a day.
Changing normal dietary patterns
Before I became ill with Graves Disease, the only thing I knew how to cook was hot, spicy food. My Chinese Medicine practitioner advised me that I needed to eat the opposite in order to get well. This posed a great challenge, as it completely disrupted my routine.
Normally, I would decide what I wanted to eat in the moment of getting hungry. This usually led to eating take-away food. Now I had to plan my meals in advance. I had to write a shopping list and purchase ingredients I was unfamiliar with. I learned that supermarkets didn’t carry the things I needed to be eating, so I had to find where I could get them from, which usually required more planning.
This is all normal for me now, back then however it was challenging and disruptive. But I did it. However the real challenge has been maintaining a diet that is appropriate for me as my physiology changes with age. My lifestyle two years ago was different to what it was ten years ago, and what it is today. My dietary patterns are different now, adapting to my different needs and circumstances. The lesson was not that I shouldn’t eat hot, spicy food — but that I needed to eat foods that were appropriate for my physiological and nutritional needs.
I had a patient not long ago who was trying to lose weight for health reasons. Their fitness training and exercise routine was inappropriate and taking them further into burnout. There weight was increasing and they were getting sicker. In order to achieve their outcome, they had change their belief about what was appropriate for their body and health at this time, and ignore the messaging from mainstream medicine and fitness gurus.
Similarly, another patient of mine was seeking help with high cholesterol levels. Before they came to me they were following the usual wisdom around low-cholesterol diets, and it was not working. This person also had to change their belief about what they’d been told about this condition, as the Chinese Medicine approach required them to do something quite radically different.
In both examples the challenge was in changing a personal belief about their illness and what it would take to get better. Their limiting belief previously had led them to where nothing ‘conventional’ was working for them, so they came to Chinese Medicine. Taking a leap of faith and changing their belief was a massive step for both these people.
Even the belief-change was challenged however. Beliefs don’t have any effect on us unless we embody them. Old beliefs have become so entrenched neurologically that they’ve created patterns in our bodies: how we move our bodies and move in the world. It’s not enough to change our intellectual understanding of what needs to change; we need to truly feel that it is right for us. Usually, belief-change will be a major hurdle, and our bodies will do whatever they can to stop it. Illness and symptoms can worsen, and we will think it is a sign that we should go back to the ‘old ways’. But it’s not.
Seems like only yesterday
I thought I had my life together
Ain't it funny how some things change
For it is today I feel uncertain
About my whole world
All once familiar is now strange
— The Waifs
In the midst of healing from chronic illness, there will be moments of self-doubt where you can’t see yourself getting better — especially when you are in the midst of changing entrenched patterns of belief and behaviour. You’ve made all these changes, you’re sticking to regular treatment regime, and still you can’t notice any difference. In fact there are times you feel worse.
“Will I ever get better?” you think to yourself. “Am I ever going to feel alive and happy again?”
Of course you are. Recovery from illness — like the journey through the underworld — is long. This is the trial of patience. The reality is that chronic illness doesn’t just hit you like an acute infection. This is a physiological dysfunction that has been steadily getting worse over time.
From little things, big things grow
— Paul Kelly
It will take time to redress the imbalance and get your system functioning as it should. It’s taken years for this condition to manifest itself in the signs and symptoms that made the illness apparent. It will take time for it to be reversed too. Patience is always rewarded in the end.
One of the things the hero encounters in the Underworld is temptation. It is like the Sirens call, drawing Odysseus’ ship to its doom. Of course there will be times when you get tempted to eat the old foods, live the old ways, etc. The more you succumb to these, the longer and harder it will take to recover.
However there is also no need to hold guilt and shame around slipping up from time to time. As long as it doesn’t become a pattern, that slice of pizza once or twice over a couple of months is not going to completely ruin all the amazing work you’ve put in so far.
Remember however that temptation will always be there to test us. Of course it’s easier to eat take-away, or avoid exercise. Of course it’s more convenient to just pop a pill rather than drink herbs and attend regular acupuncture sessions. The point is that the easy and convenient way of living is what brought you here in the first instance.
Temptation tests us to see how badly you want to change. How much do you really want the new, extraordinary life? How far are you willing to go to feel real and vibrant.
There is also a flip-side to temptation: fanaticism, or the striving unattainable and unsustainable purity. This is where you find yourself so tempted that you force yourself into isolation, to get as far away as possible from that which you are avoiding. Whilst this may work for a while, others may get tired from your attempt to push your lifestyle onto them. Inevitably you are doomed to fail, as what may be working for you may not work for others.
If it only works whilst you live in a bubble away from family and friends, obviously it’s not going to be kept up for long once you crave connection with those you love.
We exist in a world
Where the fear of illusion is real
And we cling to the past
To deny and confuse the ideal
Once inside we conceive and
Believe in a God we can't feel
— The Tea Party
In the monomyth of the hero, after a time of extreme purity in order to avoid temptation, there follows a reconciliation. In the myths, the hero usually reconciles with some kind of father figure or patriarchal deity, which is usually interpreted as the ego.
In the case of chronic illness, this is when we come back into some kind of balanced lifestyle. You realise that life must still go on even as we heal and recover. This is the most important part, as you learn to temper the changes in diet, lifestyle, exercise practices, etc.
Cleared the fog that was veiled around me
And blurred my sights
Suddenly, I'm no longer aching
To honor my plights
Rising moon and my skin is peeling
Suddenly, I can't justify
What I had become
The gift of immortality
The ultimate goal in all these stories was the attainment of some gift, like the holy grail or the Golden Fleece. In many of the myths, this gift or treasure led to immortality, something that raised the hero up from humanity to something more god-like.
Having discovered the changes to diet and lifestyle that bring you back to a state of good health, and having learned how to temper it and begin living your life in a healthy manner, you eventually find yourself not just healthy again, but more vibrant and alive than ever before.
You have undergone all the trials, moved through your symbolic death, been tempted, gone to extremes, and then finally found the sweet-spot of health and happiness that allow you to live in a thriving, energetic state.
The gift you gave is gonna last forever
The prospect of return
All of the trials and challenges during the initiation phase of the hero’s journey are about testing you and making you better than you were. It’s the way you change and evolve. Throughout this phase, a guide is always there to support you and bring you the wisdom of how to overcome each challenge.
In Part Three, I will explore the third and final stage of the Hero’s Journey: the return to the old life.