The Me...The Not Me? Integration!

Unless diagnosed in very early childhood, most people who live with chronic physical illness experience a good chunk of life feeling little seperation between physical body and sense of self. Chronic illness, much like other traumatic life events, can leave one confused about what is the "me" and what is the "not me"; what is part of the self and what is an invader? There are multiple reasons ways this new and oftentimes unwanted experience occurs. Imagine, a person has a very serious case of Grave's Disease and s/he is required to undergo radiation with the intention of killing the thyroid. How about people who live with certain cancers that require that body parts be removed, such as in breast cancer or testicular cancer, among many other types of cancer. Think about people who live with lupus where their own immune system attack their own organs.

In just these few, out of many many examples, two or more different aspects of one whole person are forced into odds with each other. What more can a person do but split themselves up into different pieces and view certain parts of him or herself as "me" and other parts as a "not me?" As such, the thyroid in Grave's Disease is a threat, it is "not me" but rather a traitor who betrayed the "me." Just as in cancer where the cancerous cells are the "not me" and in lupus where one's immune system, the supposed artilery of the person, becomes the enemy. People may question and cry about why their body has betrayed them! It becomes the "me" versus my body the "not me."

Although splitting the self into parts is something that all people do from time to time, and with people who live with chronic physical illness is oftentimes a matter of survival, eventually one does benefit from moving into a position of integration. Consider when a person needs to undergo a treatment that will target his or her own body, it is only natural to view one's body or certain parts of it as the "not me" so that it is tolerable to "attack it" via treatment. This is where it can get tricky. For example, the original illness in one's body feels like a traitor so then it is treated, but sometimes the treatment itself can create additional splits of the self by being responsible for visible, painful, or unpleasant side effects (e.g. naseua, hair loss, memory loss, confusion, blood clotting, headaches, seizures, depression, anxiety, and the list goes on). It is easier to see the side effects as "not me" since one can say they are caused by the treatment, which originated outside of the person; however, they are still part of the whole person's experience and eventually needs to be integrated as such as well.

After some time of living with the chronic illness (this will vary from person to person and illness to illness), all these different parts of the whole person can come to be experienced as "me." Just like all people have personality characteristics that they do not like about themselves (e.g. envious, aggressive) but that are acknowledged and accepted as just part of who they are, people have bodily characteristics that are also pieces of the "me." When people hate aspects of their personalities and try to reject those componenents of who they are, it only makes those parts of the self stronger, just like what happens when you continue to see your illness as "not me." Thinking about how much you want a symptom to go away puts a lot of mental focus on the symptom and you are likely to feel it even more. You are also more likely to feel badly about yourself for having been "invaded" by the illness. However, you did not ask for the illness, it just for whatever reason is a part of your life, and ultimately a part of you. Even if your particular illness is cured and you are in remission, it will always be a piece of your life experience. Living through it is a part of you...the "me." Love all parts of yourself, even when you do not necessarily like all of them. If you recognize your illness as the "me" then you will take care of it when it needs attention, let it fade into the background when it is not getting in the way, and be able to attend to the pieces of you that need to be acknowledged in the moment. If the illness stays as a seperate unintegrated "not me" then you may stay in a position of threat, often anxious and alert about when the illness' wrath will strike again, and neglectful of the other components of who you are that may need attention in the moment.

This is not an easy process. Accepting "unhealthy" things as constituents of who you are requires a lot of time and a lot of reflection. It may take years for some people, so be patient with yourself and with your loved ones, and seek out help if you need it.