Symposium The Magic Medicine of Love – 16 May 1992 at the Free University, Amsterdam
The Healing Power of Self-acceptance, a lecture by Jacqueline Berg (journalist and founder of the Working group Spiritual Health)
The old woman in the bed next to mine, willingly answers the many questions asked by the doctor: when did her heart bother her for the last time, whether she felt pain in her chest before, does she have a high blood pressure? The whole floor is listening. The woman tells her story: how her heart troubled her one morning, when she was on the toilet. How she fell really hard on the stone floor, and damaged her skin. She lifts the narrow sleeve of her striped nightshirt.
We all look at the deep red color and sympathize with her in silence.
After about twenty minutes, we know exactly who Mrs. Hurt is, what illnesses occurred in her family, how her bowel movement is, and what medicine she takes. I say ‘welcome’ to her in my thoughts. When the doctor is about to leave, the woman says to him suddenly in a loud and clear voice: “You know, doctor, all of it started when my husband died last year, I have not been happy since.”
‘Now it is becoming interesting’, I think. The eagerly expected response from the young doctor does not happen. Instead he just wishes her a pleasant stay in the hospital, and hurries away. ‘Avoiding feelings,’ I suspect.
The woman across from me does not speak Dutch. With her hands she indicates that her chest hurts. Her face, almost hidden in a shawl tied around her head, looks scared. Without words I try to appease her so I press the button next to my bed to notify someone.
“She is in pain”, I tell the nurse while pointing to the other side. Non-verbal communication does not seem simple, and a cleaner is called who speaks to the Berber woman in Moroccan. The good man yells so hard to her that it seems as if he is fighting with her. I feel unsafe. The woman whispers something in return, and the man yells even harder at her. At last, he shrugs his shoulders, makes a face to the nurse, and walks away, leaving us behind in a dark cloud of confusion.
The cardiology department.
They give the woman yet another pill for under her tongue, the umpteenth. Resigned she lets it melt. She sinks away in her bed and looks at me. I nod to her with understanding. Everyone here has pain and everyone here is scared.
Next to the window, there is a woman who nearly suffocates. A couple of times a day, she has to put a machine to her mouth, which the nurse jokingly calls her ‘peace pipe’. With her grey uncombed hair sticking up from her head, and the big clouds of steam coming out of her mouth, she indeed looks like an old chieftain. Her stomach hurts, but she cannot have a bowel movement.
“Pain,” she says. Everyone nods with understanding. Someone says to her: “It must be really annoying for you.” But the old woman doesn’t see or hear anything – deaf and nearly blind – and so she repeats. “Pain.” The woman next to me takes a breath and yells with a high, nearly peeping voice: “Annoying.” “What do you say?” the woman mutters. “An-noy-ing.”
“I can’t understand it,” says the old woman in a resigned way. A couple of hours later, when the food has just been brought in, she has cramps and she wants to go to the toilet. She is put on the potty next to her bed and presses the stony stools out of her intestines into it, as we are eating beans and tomatoes. Mixed feelings on the floor.
In the other corner there is an old woman who has flashes of forgetfulness and who once in a while roams into the beds of her roommates, especially at night. She walks around with Mrs. Hurts glasses on, and takes the pillow of my neighbor. Because I can’t sleep, she leaves my things alone and I see her roaming into the hallway. She is brought back on the arm of a nurse. For the fifth time tonight.
Apple pie with whipped cream
I am so tired, but I cannot relax. I want to go home, but I really feel too sick. What’s wrong with me? The cardiologist proposes a walking test to make sure that nothing is wrong with my heart. So what do I have? “No idea, but for sure it is not your heart. Isn’t that great?”
They ask me whether I can walk to rehabilitation. I answer truthfully “no”. I see them think ‘such a young woman’, but at last they send someone with a wheelchair.
They are surprised when I arrive sitting in a wheelchair to do a walking test, so am I. Calls are being made back and forth. “Let’s do it anyway, otherwise she is not allowed to go home”. I feel really sick. “They increase the speed slowly, and at the end it is like you are running up a mountain”. If I had been able to run, I would have run away. But I am too tired. Before I realize it, I am standing on an escalator with tubes sticking to my chest. “Hope you don’t mind us eating”, says the assistant jokingly as she bites into a big piece of apple pie with whipped cream.
“I am really tired now”, I called out after ten minutes and three speeds up, but it takes another five minutes or so before I am saved from this bad dream. The physiotherapist calls out that “it looks great” and if I could go upstairs again – 3 floors up – by myself. I say “no,” as I fall in the wheelchair with a spinning head. I have the feeling as if my head is exploding, as if my arteries are snapping. I feel more sick than ever, but am allowed to go home. “Isn’t that great?”
At various times in my life illness has knocked at my door, but I cannot say that I have always welcomed her like a guest. We didn’t really get on well. Sickness was like a defeat to me, a destiny which hit me all of a sudden. A suffering without any meaning. An unwanted delay. The enemy of my happiness.
After a long illness, about sixteen years ago, I promised myself to never be sick again. And so far, I was able to keep that promise. By being sensible and living very carefully, I managed to keep ahead of illness. And especially by never leaving anything up to faith.
I read and thought a lot, about being able to give a meaning to sickness/illness. Sometimes it is a means to get attention or love, although careful dosage is then required. Sometimes it is a temporary flight, a last excuse to leave things as they are – for a while or for a long time – and to have some breathing space.
Sometimes it is a way to legally create time for processing things that you have not gotten around to. Sometimes processed things simply have to be eliminated by way of the body: residues of sorrow, disappointments or unfulfilled ideals. To make a break with the past.
If you look at illness that way, it seems easier to handle. It’s less scary.
But it is a totally different story to make a pact of friendship with your archenemy.
Sick, scared, in pain. The advice of the G.P.: “With the ambulance to the emergency room.” I protest; “Again?” “Yes, you can never know.” There they are stomping into my bedroom with their big black shoes. They spray under my tongue and again, they hesitate.
“We’ll take her, or what?” they ask each other, as if I am load of cheap goods. “Let’s do it”.
Can I walk to the front door myself, then they don’t have to drag the stretcher inside? Willingly I get up and am strapped to the stretcher on the front porch, in front of the whole neighborhood. Again the same questions. They spray two more times: “If it does not bring any benefit, it probably will not do any harm either”.
They deliver me to the Emergency Room with the words: “There is a woman here, you know her, she has quite an ambiguous story. Somewhat contradictory. I don’t know. Strange”.
In the almost 45 minutes that I am waiting to be ‘seen’, I hear explicit stories – with all details – of a zero-positive man, of the treatment of a man who pulled a muscle in his arm while roller skating, and a conversation about myself.
For the umpteenth time in my life, I am ashamed that I did not just break a leg, or get a knife stuck in my side, or that I did not just fall on my head.
Why a broken heart?
A befriended radio-maker who just made a program about people who suddenly are institutionalized, puts me at ease later on. “In your case at least it is only a physical thing. Imagine what it’s like to be just mentally ill!”
When you are ill, suddenly everything seems to have meaning. Who gets in touch with you, when and about what. How superficial or how sincere is someone’s wish for a speedy recovery. How much can someone tolerate from you, or just the opposite, will they just panic and flee from your sickbed.
It seems as if you are able to look through everything: the friendly concealed disinterest, the cleanly covered up fear, or the civilized distaste for sick people.
But also your own mixed feelings.
How are you?
On one side, you want genuine attention and love, because you’re sick, aren’t you? You recognize immediately when someone wants to hurry away when the conversation becomes a bit too sensitive.
On the other hand you get scared when they want to take a chair to ‘just have a chat with you’. Then you would like to curve your back like a big cat, and hiss “Sssssh. Go away!” But even when you are sick, you are not safe from these people who always want to cross your boundaries and take possession of your life.
On one side you don’t want to know anything about the world anymore, not even to read a newspaper – what a relief! – but when you suspect they are keeping something from you, you immediately have the feeling of not belonging anymore. Sick, and therefore devalued.
There is the feeling anyway that no one understands or respects you.
When they ask you “how’s it going?” they mean “how’s your body?” or “what did the doctor say?”. Hardly anyone asks: “How are you?” But when they have the courage to ask you, you think: “That’s none of your business”.
Once you are past your first fear, your second irritation and your third anger, you have accepted the fact that you are sick, then at that point you really get sick.
From my room I see the pink rhododendron blooming. “Nice,” I think, “for the flower”. “But also for you,” they say, “such a nice thing does make one feel better, no?”
I look in the mirror and I see someone I don’t know. Two wide-open eyes without meaning are looking at me. Who is that woman? Everything seems to go wrong with her. Completely out of balance. I feel I have lost myself as I lie in my bed with my hands across my chest. As if I want to cherish, protect, stroke and appease the world of feelings I have inside. “Take it easy, sweet heart”, I say, “I will listen to you. I now have the time.”
It took another couple of months before I could distinguish between them: the broken heart, the bitter heart, the fake heart, the jealous heart, the critical heart, the narrow minded heart, the revengeful heart, the surrendered heart, the weak heart, the resentful heart, the trampled-on heart, the misunderstood heart and the hurt heart of a child.
It took a lot longer before I recognized the censorship of my own tyrannical mind, which, without consulting me, took the breath away of my feelings – like a narrow bodice.
Not that I ever thought consciously: “Let my heart be broken”, but I did wish secretly for a breakthrough in my world of feelings. For total transformation, a permanent deep feeling. For real experience. For truth.
The well meant wish of my visitor ‘to become better quickly’, brings me into conflict with my longing to really be sick for once. To let go of everything that I have wanted to lose for so long. “Just let me be sick”, I snap at the inoffensive visitor.
Why does everyone want me to get better quickly anyway? Why doesn’t someone write a card ‘enjoy your sickness’ or ‘stay sick for as long as you want’. So that I can relax at last and don’t have the feeling that I need to deliver yet another achievement. Which is, healing quickly. Or, learning a lesson. How painful were the letters which told me, with an undertone of anger and accusation – that I should ‘now reflect more, that I should learn and trans-form!’ Yes Sir, to your orders!
I have learnt that to become sick is different from being sick, and different again from becoming better. These processes each have their own time, energy and feeling. Just like the four seasons. You need time to get used to your sickness, to accommodate her, to place her.
Healing is like a wave, in which fallbacks can be experienced as positive too. They are even of unknown importance.
First I negated my illness, then I fought with it, and lastly I raised the white flag and surrendered to her completely. Only then did rest come, acceptance.
When your body can’t take it anymore, when your mind surrenders, and when your heart starts speaking, then you get to know yourself again. It is not a directly romantic encounter, full of passion and intensity. Not love at first sight. It is as if you meet someone whom you vaguely know. You hassle your brain, ‘Who is this again?’
At first I tried to hold on to the framework that I had chosen to outline my being human. But very quickly I noticed that these limits did not offer any foothold. Were they ever even there?
Very quickly you stop to exist for the outside world. First they are taken aback – “You’re that ill” – then they are surprised – “How is it possible, you live such a healthy life” – and at last – “Boy, still sick, what a long story. And not able to work, poor thing!”
When my boss comes to check on me, the first thing he says is “You look good,” while I am nearly going through my knees and am barely able to talk. Very soon it appears that he would like for me to continue to work, like I have always done. “Even if you take it slowly, as much as you are able to”. Just before he leaves he tells me that “It is possible that our company will be taken over, and that I will be let go.” “Let go?” “Yes, let go.” “I see.”
Socially discounted and suspect, physically broken, mentally veiled, all that is left are feelings.
Two plastic small bags
When the doctor arrives in the morning, she finds a heart in my bed. Big, hypersensitive and restless. She talks to me as if I am a patient with hyperventilation. She asks for two small plastic bags. I can feel it coming. One bag she uses to demonstrate to me how a person in need of breath has to act, the other one is for me to imitate her.
I watch her like a movie and I think ‘how crazy’; a slightly stressed woman next to my bed is gasping into a plastic bag at six in the morning.
I know that I’ll never use mine, because this heart does not suffer from hyperventilation, it only hurts.
I ask her for valium. After nearly 50 sleepless days and nights, I would like to relax for once. She gives me a low dosage, and so it barely works.
I figure there must be something I am not allowed to see.
I would like to hold on to something, even if it is just a hand. But I am being taught to let go. It even seems important to give up on hope for a while, because it is also an expectation which suffocates. It is starting to look a lot like pre-meditated murder. Could it be that someone here has to die alive?
“What do you want from me,” I ask an imaginary someone. In thoughts I hear “What do you want?” For weeks I make an inventory of my desires, and I always end up in the same place.
At last I speak the magical words: “Please, give me love.”
A couple of days later, it is the first day of spring, an explosion takes place in my chest. It is as if my heart bursts. An nearly violent experience, but afterwards there is an unknown peace. Liberation. My chest expanded at least ten centimeters. It is as if a too tight elastic snapped and made my shirt one size bigger.
Cautiously I start to breathe. As if for the first time. I experience the deep silence after a heavy storm.
On a notepad, I write an Ode to Love.
‘Love. Never have I been able to forget You. I have always been faithful to You, like a dog to his master. Because You feed me and give me strength to live. You are the energy with which I exist. I will always defend You, come up for You for as long as I live. And never, never, never will I be content with less than You.
When we are together, I will negate all lies about You, and live in truth. Come back in my life, Love, You are mine. I don’t have to ask for You, let alone beg for You.
You fill the bottomless pit, the endless longing. You comfort me and You appease my deep sorrow. Love. Innocent Love.
If I’m guilty, then I would like to confess. Against all rules I claimed You and forced You, I was afraid to lose You, and so I lost You. Love, I love You.’
Hell and heaven switch places. Sometimes I have the feeling that I am in a mine field, sometimes I float away on a self-created cloud of light.
Then I stroke and heal my painful heart.
With forgiveness and reconciliation I remove the bitterness and anger, and I end up with peace. In that silence I find myself again. I encounter long lost and found again feelings and ideas.
Self-love. Self-respect. Without danger for my own life, I slowly but surely let go of the next layer: the myth of embarrassment about self-love.
I won’t tell anyone that I am getting better, because then I know for sure that they’ll think that I will be better quickly, and that I will be the same old one again soon.
But luckily enough I will never be as I was before. And this thought really makes me feel better.