Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Lessons from Being Sick

by Troy Chapman

(published October 04)

Week 6 (or 7 — not sure at this point) of my illness and still no diagnosis or treatment. It’s Thursday and I should be able to see the prison health clinic again Monday. They are tired of me and have made it clear they’re in no great hurry to figure it out.

This whole process has been teaching me a lot. In the beginning I was worried about all the projects and work that I was ignoring. After the first couple weeks of wondering if I was going to pass out if I got out of bed, I realized that what I “get done” (or don’t) is not as important as I thought it was.

Without sounding melodramatic (I hope), I confess that I’ve thought at times about the possibility that I could die of whatever this is. This is partly due to the illness, which has rendered me unconscious three times, and has come with a host of scary and very strange symptoms. But it’s also partly due to the sense that my living or dying is not really that important to those to whom I have to turn my life over at times of illness. The clinic has treated me more as a nuisance than a physically ill person who is dealing with a very stressful situation.

Yes, some have been kind, but even then I get the sense that a) they’re humoring me and practicing a “management” skill on me, or b) that they are truly kind but helpless in a system more geared toward assembly-line economics than human beings.

This set me to thinking about all the people in here and out there who don’t have the resources I do. Most do not have angels like Maryann and all of you others out there who care about me. Many do not have the friends, or the kind of friends, I have in here. Many dealing with these kinds of things also have emotional or mental illnesses that diminish their ability to navigate the fear and confusion of an ordeal like this.

A man I see and speak to almost daily has been bleeding from his rectum for some time here. He’s in his 70s with no chance of being released. Whenever I saw him, he was pleasant and joking. Yet this was going on for some time and he never told anyone. When someone else finally noticed it and told the staff, they took him to the hospital; before they could treat him he had a massive heart attack. He’s now on life support without much chance of making it.

I’ve seen many die here from old age and other problems and to be honest I have — to some degree — closed my deepest mind to it. You try not to do that, but it looks so much like your own future that you don’t want to think too much about it.

My illness has given me a front-row seat to all the emotional stuff acutely suffering people deal with all over in our world. I’ve heard that illness makes people self-centered, and maybe that’s true in some ways. Yet it has wakened me to all the suffering around me as well. It’s strengthened my compassion for people in general and given me a flood of gratitude for (and awareness of) all the good, loving people in our world.

I just feel like I want to remind myself and all of us to take care of each other in any ways we can. Even when life hits us with stuff no one can do anything about, feeling the kindness of fellow human beings — just knowing people care and want to help — is medicine this world needs more of.

I want to remember this myself but also to advocate it every chance I get. The Dalai Lama said, “My religion is kindness.” That’s how I feel and I want to be more zealous. I want to live true to kindness and convert as many of my fellow humans as possible in this life.

If there’s hope for us (and I think there is), it lies in this: simply taking care of each other with no conditions.