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When You Worry About Worrying With a Chronic Illness

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Moments of clarity often come when you least expect them. I recently sat down at home to watch the movie “Bridge of Spies” – little was I prepared to hear a simple wisdom that I would carry with me for the rest of my days.

Actor Mark Rylance won an Oscar for his portrayal of Russian spy Rudolf Abel, a deeply profound man of few words. Throughout the story, as his situation becomes increasingly dire, his lawyer (James B. Donavan played by Tom Hanks) asks him if he is worried. Abel’s answer is always the same.

“Would it help?”

Consider that for a moment.

I have an anxious disposition. It runs in my family. That’s certainly not a justification for past behavior, but it is a fact. Here’s another fact. It took a rare blood cancer for me to truly start addressing that anxiety, and for me to gain the wisdom that it would not be an easy process. Simple, yes, but never easy.

In 2011, I was diagnosed with a myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN). In a nutshell, MPNs are a group of diseases that affect normal blood cell production in the bone marrow.

As with all chronic illness, it initially raised many uncertainties – events like these are automatically designed to make us worry.

But then, of course, we get additionally worried that all this worrying will make us even more sick.

And once we realize the absurdity of this thought pattern, we begin to worry that we worry because we worry. It’s what British philosopher and Zen practitioner Alan Watts called the “mind’s vicious circle.”

It’s all far from helpful, which leads us directly back to Abel’s response. In an already difficult situation, why engage in behavior that can only make things worse?

Because, as Watts said, “Once you’ve learned to think, you can’t stop. We are addicted to thoughts. It’s a drug. But you really have to stop if you want to be sane.”

That’s all well and good, but have you ever tried to just stop worrying? It’s not possible. Watts said it’s like trying to smooth out rough water with an iron — the intentions are good, but you will only succeed in making it more turbulent. The only way is to let things be. Eventually the water will become still. Your mind will quieten itself.

It took a while for me to understand what that meant in practical terms. It began with the realization that, for the first time in my life, something had happened where I couldn’t just outrun with empty distractions like material possessions, dopamine rewards and superficial attachments.

I needed to turn inwards – towards my fear – and learn to get comfortable.

After all, I now had a permanent passenger on my journey whether I liked it or not, so I may as well get to know it intimately.

Soon it became clear that the experience of my illness was just a metaphor for a much bigger picture. Life is uncertain. Everything changes. Nothing is permanent. The only things in my control are my thoughts, words and actions in the present moment. Now.

Armed with that simple insight, I found myself led to meditation and I’ve since been able to achieve an element of stillness through regular practice. For me, it at once raises and answers the question of “would it help?” by creating space in my mind where worry cannot exist, or perhaps more accurately, shows me that the things causing me to worry are not worth my mind’s attention. I am slowly learning to detach from them completely.

Of course, there are still the frustrations of bodily symptoms to contend with and how that impacts daily life – not just for myself but for those around me – and I still get flashes of anger when I can’t complete a task, or people don’t seem compassionate enough, or offer ill-begotten words of advice.

But as I stated at the outset, all of this continues to be a work in progress. At least now I can hold onto what I’m learning, and try to use the experience of my illness as an opportunity to grow and benefit others. And hopefully that will help.

Originally published: August 15, 2016
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