Regression or Reinvention?

Being diagnosed with a chronic physical illness certainly changes people's lives. Depending on many factors (e.g. the age one is when diagnosed, how much adjustment is required in order to deal on a daily basis with the illness, how much support one has, what the treatment requires of the person), one may put a halt on certain academic, professional, or social progress. Progress...it can mean many things. Not only may external aspects of one's life seem to reach hiatus, but being diagnosed with a chronic physical illness can at times follow with an experience of internal, emotional, or psychological plateau, regardless of one's age or position in life. For example, there are some people who have experienced themselves as largely independent of their parents, have made their own decisions for years, and have felt that they are fully capable and functioning adults, and suddenly they find themselves feeling very similar to what it was like when they were adolescents or even children. Old dependencies may re-emerge. Some may not like this encore of early life, fighting it tooth and nail, while others may fully embrace and welcome it without any seeming conflict around it. This is only one of many examples of how being diagnosed with a chronic physical illness can create the experience of a regression to one's past ways of being.

Broadly speaking, regression means retreating to ways of being from an earlier stage of development. There are many events that can occur after being diagnosed with chronic physical illness, which can look like regression. For example, not being able to work as many hours or at all, taking a break from one's studies, needing to speak with one's parents much more frequently, becoming emotional over things that have not upset you in years, engaging in comforting bad habits that you had quit years ago, among others. Sometimes people do regress and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Being diagnosed with a chronic physical illness can be a traumatic event and sometimes the best a person can do to cope temporarily is to experience some comforts from regressive acts. However, many people are resilient and have enough of what is called, ego strength (i.e. the ability to effectively cope with the demands of life) to eventually exit this period of regression and to actually make use of the regression as an opportunity to reinvent the trajectory that they had envisioned for their lives.

There is a difference between people who lose hope when being diagnosed with a chronic physical illness and decide that there is no more opportunities for them to have satisfying independent lives with their own goals, and those who temporarily regress to cope while working on reinventing themselves. Of course the former can become the latter as change is always possible, and if you find yourself in the former group, you may consider talking to a professional and seeking some help. The others who use regression to reinvent at some point recognize that the necessary changes that have to be made might not be so bad after all. People may start to realize that they needed to regress as a period of rest and reflection--an open space that allows fresh ideas, desires, drives, and motivations to emerge, and are now ready to move on. One may think, "OK so I can't do the same job that I have done my entire life, but I always wanted to open my own business, with flexible hours that I determine." Or on a more internal note, "I have always placed so much value on my appearance and my body. Now my body looks completely different from what I always considered beautiful but surprisingly i have come to appreciate what is really beautiful about me. I found a new sense of self worth, and aspects of myself that I seemed to have neglected because I was too focused on my appearance."

Reinventing one's life could be anything and is specific to each person. The important thing is that reinvention occurs. Regression, like all defense mechanisms, is not a bad thing. Defense mechanisms are there to help us cope. It is only when they are under or overused that they become a problem. Sometimes it can be frustrating to find yourself or your loved one who is living with a chronic physical illness in a regressed state. It is important to think about how long has the regressed state lasted, how long ago was the diagnosis of the illness made, are small changes in the person's life being made, ect...? The person might just be in the process of reflecting and reinventing. Give it some time and see, and if you find yourself or your loved one stuck in a regressed place seek professional help in an effort to kick start the process of reinvention. I have heard many people say how they would never wish their illness on anyone but having an illness has made them realize certain things about themselves and their lives that they never would have otherwise.

According to Buddhist thought, existing in a world of dualities, where things are either good or bad, is part of what causes human suffering. Nothing is either or but rather everything is everything. A wolf can be a big and scary creature but it is also cuddly, playful, and maternal if you reinvent what aspects of it you choose to see. Your illness can be bad, destructive or traumatizing, but it can also bring you wisdom, opportunity for growth, a sense of generosity towards others, a feeling of acceptance, and a greater tolerance for unpredictability. Its all of this and more. What aspects you wish to hold onto...your choice.