For the final post in this series on illness, I'd like to look at illness's aftermath: that tricky transition from the slow, deep work of recuperation back to the bustling workaday world, the final part of the fairy tale journey when we emerge from the forest at last. In mythic terms, the end of shamanic initiation is not the ascent from the Underworld, re-born and carrying new knowledge and skills from the spirit realm; it's the return to the tribe and the use of those skills in the service of community.
"Contact with the mythic realm, and the knowing that that imparts, changes the very being of the initiate," writes Kat Duff (in The Achemy of Illness); "he or she is never the same again. Perhaps that is why so many sick people come to divide their lives in two: before and after getting sick."
Duff continues: "The final phase of initation -- emergence from the underworld, return, and reintegration into the community -- is a very delicate one, for the incessant activity of the mundane world can be painful, even devastatig to the initiate so sensitized by contact with the mythic realm. Many do not make it. Since I have been getting better in recent months, I have dreamed more than once that I am a bear coming out of hibernation, all groggy and clumsy -- and blinded by the light of day; in the first two dreams I just crawled back into my hole.
"Newly 'hatched' initiates are often protected for a short while , sometimes rocked or suckled like newborns, to help orient them to their new lives. Similarly, people recovering from serious illnesses need a quiet place, a safe haven, where they can gradually recollect themselves and establish a new center of gravity."
I couldn't agree more, and yet our modern society -- obsessed with youth, speed, perfectionist ideals and relentless productivity -- rarely permits the time and practical support for our slow re-orientation to lives that have been profoundly changed by the enormity of what we've just been through.
"Unfortunately," Duff laments, "few of us get that support, as we are pushed by the demands of contemporary living back into the hustle and bustle as soon as we are able. There are debts to be paid, children to be attended to, and jobs that will not wait forever."
In initiatory rites around the world, the initiates return not only schooled in new spiritual knowledge but also carrying sacred gifts, like the tobacco seeds in Tuesday's story. Duff notes that in traditional society these gifts often took the form of new songs or dances. "I suspect," she says, "that these gifts actually ease and ensure a successful reentry by calling forth the body's memory, which is so much more detailed and accurate than words or ideas, of the mythic realities encountered during initiation. Of course, these gifts are also responsibilities; initiates are often required to perform their songs or dances at later dates, for the continued well-being of the community of life. We too need to carry something of what we've experienced back into the world of the living, to remember the dreams, follow the imperatives, or use the powers we have been given by our sojourns in the underworld. That takes courage, clarity of mind, and the willingness to follow one's truth even if others cannot affirm it, especially in our culture, which does not recognize the initiatory role of illness, in fact actively resists it by encouraging us to 'get back to normal.' "
"If we do not carry what we have learned back into the world," Duff continues, "we risk getting sick again, for the energies unused can revert into their destructive forms, in what I consider to be one of the hidden cruelties of illness. It has happened to many people -- including [the great Lakota Sioux medicine man] Black Elk. When Black Elk first received his great vision at the ripe age of nine, he knew it was meant to be shared, but he could not figure out how to do that, and so he did not; eight years later he got sick again and was tormented with fears until finally an old medicine man told him that he must do what his vision wanted him to do -- enact the horse dance for his people to see -- and helped him to do it.
"When initiations are successful, the survivors slowly return to their communities with new eyes to see, new ears to hear, and the courage to act upon those perceptions. [After recovering from a heart attack,] Carl Jung went on to do his most important work, explaining that 'the insight I had had, the vision of the end of all things, gave me the courage to undertake new formulations.' [In The Cancer Journals,] poet Audre Lord spoke of feeling 'another kind of power' growing within her, one that was 'tempered and enduring, grounded in the realities of what I am,' with the determination to 'save my life by using my life in the service of what must be done.' Just as girls are 'grown' into women through their puberty initiation rites, many people who have been seriously ill become what they must become, what they are meant to be, whether that occurs through death or recovery."
"And so, through processes well described by alchemical formulas and initiation rites," Duff concludes, "we are both diminished and enlarged by the agency of our illnesses, and so opened to the possibility of new life. The losses are many and visible; the harvest grain is smaller than the standing stalks, but so much more useful. So Nietzsche observed: 'I doubt that such pain makes us "better"; but I know it makes us more profound...from such abysses, from such severe sickness, one returns newborn, having shed one's skin.' "
"Cancer changes people," writes Doris Brett (in Eating the Underworld). "It is one of those marker events that delineates a 'before' and 'after' in our lives. It forces us to define and redefine ourselves. And then, because the experience of cancer is an extended process and not a static event, it forces us to do it again and again.
"And it is right that we are changed. As with any descent into a feared and terrifying country -- whether it the country of illness or the country of a grieving heart -- we have entered the underworld. And we have eaten its fruit. I remember all the mythical stories of those frightening journeys, and with each one the rule is inviolate. Those who ingest the food of the underworld are bound to it in some way. It is not the binding of instruments of torture and the roastings of hell. Instead, it is the binding of that terrible, clear sight that can only be gained in the depths. The knowledge of ourselves, the knowledge of others. We cannot remain unchanged."
"The end point of the cancer survivor's narrative," writes Brett at the close of her luminous book, "is inevitably the 'what I learned from cancer' finale. We expect it in the way we expect swelling music as the movie ends. It is more than expectation, it is a need. And we need what is learned to be good: 'I learned how loved I am,' 'I learned I am a survivor.' It is a way of waving away the dark; a way of reassuring ourselves; a way of saying that even though it was hard and punishing, it was worth it. It meets our deep and often unspoken need to complete the story; the familiar bedtime story that tells us that everything will be alright in the end.
"When I began my dance with cancer," Brett admits, "I imagined that this is what I would emerge with. That when it was ended, what I would hold in my hand was the silver lining. I imagined that I would be changed, but that was the point at which my imagination failed. All I could imagine was a better, brighter me -- the steel that is finer for having been tempered in the fire.
"What I learned is very different from what I expected to learn. I have learned that I am loved. I learned it from old friends who stood by me, and new friends who helped in unexpected and touching ways....But I have also learned from others that where I thought I was loved, I was not. I have been attacked when I was most vulnerable. I was deserted by those I thought would gladly stay with me.
"I have learned that things turn out well. And that they don't. I have had moments when I thought I would die from the sheer physical beauty of the world. And moments when it merely seemed to mock what was happening to me. I have had wonderful things happen and terrifying things too.
"My journey through cancer was supposed to be a simple one, along the lines of St. George fighting the dragon. Instead, it led me to revelations about the underside, the flawedness, of all things -- myself, my family, my friends, my world. Recognizing and accepting these has required far more courage than facing cancer. It is what I never expected; fought hardest to avoid -- and yet perhaps it has been the truest gift to come out of all of this.
"In many ways, it is hard to live in the real world with its lack of delineations, in inequities, its ambiguities. How do you keep going in the face of uncertainty? Not just the uncertainty of mortality, but the day-to-day slogging on your dreams, unsure they will ever come to fruition; the investment in relationships, unsure of what they will turn out to be; the tender nurturing of hopes, aware they may be shattered; the knowledge that nothing is purely one thing or another.
"But it is only by emerging from the shimmering world of make-believe that we have a chance at finding our true lives -- our strength, and with it, our authentic capacity to love. Because love must be about seeing the shadow as well as the light, otherwise it is merely the love of a fantasy, an image created to soothe the wounds in our soul. And strength must involve recognizing one's own fear and vulnerability, but standing up anyway."
Though we are talking here about the end of the journey, the "before" and "after" of a serious illness, for many of us there is no clear "after," but, rather, the ups and downs of a recurring condition, or the slow deterioration of a progressive one, or an illness marked "cured" in a medical file that nonetheless leaves one weakened and vulnerable to others, debilitating in their own right. Each flare up, each descent, is another mythic journey, and it rarely gets any easier with repetition or familiarity. But still we go on. We ascend from the depths. We emerge from the forest. We return to the world with tobacco seeds in our pockets, with a new role to play, with new stories to tell.
This one's mine. And Kat Duff's. And Doris Brett's.
It may be your story too. If so, I wish you well. Be safe. Be strong. Perhaps we'll meet somewhere in the dark woods, and we'll find the path out together.
Words: The long passages quoted above are from Eating the Underworld by Doris Brett (Random House Australia, 2001), and The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff (Pantheon, 1993); all rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: The heart-rendingly beautiful paintings above are by Jeanie Tomanek, an America artist based near Atlanta. The titles can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) To learn more about Jeanie's work, visit her website, her Facebook page, or read my article about her here.
A related post on returning to a creative life after illness or trauma: "Re-kinding the Fire Within."