“Everything Happens for a Reason” Why this is a Dangerous and Spiritually Detrimental Thing to Say

“What is this about?” she asked me. I’d gone from having no breathing issues to anaphylaxis multiple times a day, from travelling and researching to being housebound. My therapist believed this stemmed from emotional issues, my doctor recommended staying calm, an immunologist recommended meditation. I was getting a massage and the massage therapist, too, wondered what tensions or trauma I might hold in my body that would cause these  issues. “What is this about?” she asked, “I mean, everything happens for a reason.” And there it is! The most useless thing you can say to someone facing trauma, grief, or illness. Not just useless, but damaging. 

What was it about? A bite, bacteria, parasitic infection, and medical neglect! If I’d been able to get Lyme treatment when I’d started asking about it months before, none of the level of fallout that was happening would have ever started.

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If Lyme is a gift, I’m giving it back!

I needed medical expertise, I needed the support of friends who would ensure chemical reduction so that I wouldn’t be isolated…needs that take acknowledging that something not okay is happening. When we put the responsibility on someone for horrible experiences being part of their spiritual path, it is too easy to release our responsibility to help make change in others’ lives and in the world

I’d been meditating and doing yoga for years and been pretty damn happy with my life before the illness hit. I felt very much that I was on my path and I still believe that this was true (breathing, being able to breathe is so my path!). Questions as to how this illness (stemming from medical neglect and a tick I’d never wanted to encounter) was part of my spiritual path, began to read just as victim-blaming.

However, to claim the illness didn’t have spiritual implications for me would be far from the truth. The illness seriously shook up my sense of spiritual connection and for me that is a very alienating thing. Lyme does this. It can make a person feel foggy and far away from themselves. It can make it hard to access feelings of love or joy or even a very basic sense of being “real” (it can also cause other symptoms such as really weird visual distortions and sudden paralysis). Needless to say, this shook me up and “everything happens for a reason” platitudes just made it worse. I stopped meditating. I needed answers but the question became only, “why can’t I breathe?” which is limited in its spiritual scope.  When I looked for G-d, spirit, meaning, or a sign from the universe (call it what you will) for why this was happening, I only came back with a sense of being alone in the struggle. 

One piece of the puzzle that has helped me to move away from this awful sense of aloneness came from a morsel of wisdom in the BBC series Call the Midwife. The main character had just undergone a huge loss and was having a crisis of faith, asking what God (again, substitute the word, or not, as it works for you) had to do with it. The nun she is speaking to replies that God is not in the event but in the response to it–in the love that is shown and the care that is given. I cried when I heard this and immediately watched the scene again. While it may be surprising that a yoga practicing, Jewish, Unitarian found spiritual inspiration from a moment in a show that took place in a convent– I’m good with it.  

I hold that the illness is a wrong and horrible thing in my life, but I find grace in many of the responses to it. For example:

  1. Living near woods where my pain is reduced
  2. A spouse willing to pool any resources we have to help get me well
  3. In-laws who have supported us
  4. Friends who helped get me to appointments
  5. Loving animals that are comforting when my symptoms flare
  6. Slowly finding a treatment plan that helps.

This is not a call to be grateful for everything or to find joy in every circumstance. For me it is about changing where I look for meaning and connection: the response, not the event. Of course, many things have helped to turn this spiritual crisis around for me since then, not the least of which is medical treatment that has reduced the bacteria and the cloud of disconnection it creates. I do not claim that spirituality as my cure-all, but it broke up the feeling of being set adrift and that is no small feat. Looking for meaning in the illness was a bleak and lonely experience for me; but when I look for G-d in the response to it, I find some of what I now call Pockets of Grace. 

I also find this re-focusing useful for the implications it has as to how we can respond when the s**t goes down in other people’s lives. What if it really isn’t our job to have anyone see their circumstances in a particular way? What if our responsibilities lie in how we give care and show love? I’m not saying that you have to find Pockets of Grace in your own life when crises hit, but I am suggesting we try to be that when other people are in crisis. You can feel however you feel about the turmoil you are in. Maybe folks around you can manifest some freaking grace in the struggle by showing up with cookies while you cry or rant. 

If you have a chronic illness, loss, or trauma in your life, my wish, if it serves you, is that you find release from searching for the meaning of it. My wish for all of us is that we make meaning for each other in times of crisis through the love and care of our responses. 

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I’ve Got Nothing to Prove: A Super Healing Powerhouse on Learning to Rest

I was in my early 20s when I finally was able to hold onto the childhood abuse memories that had always floated around the periphery of my memory and truly know them. Not just fear an awareness of them, but know them. And, being me, I started reading. I read The Courage to Heal, I read The Survivor’s Guide to Sex. It turned my world upsidedown. I remember standing in a little neighbourhood bookstore in shock: I didn’t have dozens of strange issues that didn’t make sense, I had very normal post-traumatic stress. This changed everything, every way that I had been raised to think about myself. Like many families with scary secrets to hide, my family centered their attention on a scapegoat, me, the one who would be the most likely to speak out. If I was always already dismissed and dissmissable, they had less to fear. 

I kept reading; I read narratives by beckylane, Dorothy Alison, and Anna Camelleri. So many who were queer and as fierce as I aspired to be. I pondered their observations that often survivors were either the really good kids or the really bad kids growing up: we urleither were able to put on a nice face to cope with life outside of abuse or we acted out to demonstrate that something was wrong! Growing up I had been the black sheep of my family–too big, too loud, too many feelings. Often immobilized by the gravity of trauma while growing up, I was unable to do as well in school as I would have liked or pursue change as I wished. Once on my own, I was determined not to let this stop me or define me. I spoke out. I spoke out against the abuses I’d faced along with the familial and dominant cultural norms that enable them. I spoke out and lost my family. But damnit, I was fierce. 

I was an abuse healing superstar. I didn’t just read books, I joined a 3 stage abuse recovery group. I helped to lead a 4th stage. I went to therapy. After so many years

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Very fierce. All the time.

slightly dissociative, I got massages to find a way back into my body. I hosted massage evenings to make a space for others to be able to feel comfortable in their own skin. I journaled, I went to workshops, I led workshops. I wrote a children’s book about a girl who travels in time to tell her younger self that her body was never bad, that this was not her fault.

Don’t get me wrong, none of this was bad. It was freeing– I could finally live the extent of who I was without my family’s narrative about how messed up I was holding me back. I wasn’t messed up, I was a freaking badass healer who had been through messed up things but was ready to take on the world! The actions weren’t a problem, but the narrative was exhausting: I am doing so well because I’m separate from the people who hurt me, I am doing so well because the abuse does not define me, I am doing so well because I am bigger than my past. It all rests on something–that I am doing well. So what about when I’m not? 

It wasn’t till 10 years later that I began to build some nuance into this narrative. I was living on my own for the first time and discovering what my rhythms were when there was no one else to be influenced by, annoyed with, or self-conscious around. I made a commitment to myself to do yoga from home every morning for a month. There was no goal to reach, the goal was just to have a practice. It was just me so there was no one I could accidentally compare myself to. I was mid-sun salutation on the second week and it hit me: I don’t have to be “doing well.” I had needed to end unhealthy relationships and I did. Whether I did better or worse than they thought I would, it didn’t make my decision to separate from my family any more or less valid. The goal was always already accomplished: I was out of relationships that were toxic for me. 

I finished this practice, mulling over this truth–I had nothing to prove. If I was having a hard time and needed help, it didn’t mean anything other than that. If I was soaring and taking on the world, I still had nothing to prove. I was just as worthwhile, sitting alone in yana mudra in my apartment as I was putting on a symposium. Just breathing. I was enough.

Survivour work is incredibly difficult. It takes being such a tough warrior to even face the truth of your own experience. All the workbooks, therapy, journalling, and support groups are courageous acts of self-love and society-changing bravery. They help to shift the cultures of silence that make the climate so ripe for childhood abuse. If you are doing this work, in any capacity, I’m sending you my undying respect. I am also sending my wish that you have moments in which you can experience yourself as enough, with nothing you need to prove. Your body as it is right now, well or struggling with illness, is doing amazing work to heal and to protect you. 

You are always already enough. 

Supported
Supported child’s pose… I’ve got nothing to prove!

 

The Myth of 50/50: Chronic Illness and New Ways to Think about Reciprocity in Relationships

Reciprocal. 50/50. Equal. You name it, chronic illness changes it. So many folks I know with chronic illnesses doubt what they have to offer in relationships when they can’t “pull their own weight.” I face this shame in mainstream circles, in queer counter-cultures, and battle against internalizing it. We need a new way to frame give and take in committed relationships that’s not alienating for folks with chronic illness. 

Before I got sick my wife and I were division of labour superstars. We had this whole

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We took a partner yoga class where we created a pose. We’re ungraceful but figuring it out .

morning routine where I would begin prepping smoothies and coffee while she showered and she would finish making breakfast while I showered and then we’d both sit down to eat together. Now I am in mind-numbing pain if I don’t get way more sleep than an adult who is well would ever need. I wake up groggy, fatigued, and nauseous but still need to organize over 60 meds for my day (naturopathic, homeopathic, and allopathic– it takes everything with Lyme). Doing yoga first thing will significantly reduce my pain. Would I be able to eat, let alone make breakfast, in the midst of this? Not bloody likely. But my wife leaves me a nutrient-rich, protein-filled, anti-inflammatory smoothie every morning. She does more than half the chores now. She makes dinner more often than not. She runs more errands.

I’ve had a lot of angst about it. It was, and continues to be, hard not to see myself as a drain on her energy and feel bad about the multiplicity of costs my illness requires. Comments people made can illuminate myths that add to the difficulty I faced. Here are just a couple of examples:

Comment: “Poor Colleen! She does too much.”

Myth:  Partners of people with chronic illnesses should be pitied.

If you think we had too much on our plates, you’re right! Folks saying “poor Colleen” weren’t offering to come help us with dishes or pick up some meds from the pharmacy, they were just talking about her with a sense of pity. This, of course, didn’t help either of us and just made it harder for me to not feel like a burden. At one point I got sassy and started answering “how is Colleen,” when asked with a pitying tone with “well, she married her soulmate this year so that’s pretty damn great!”

Comment: “Oh wow, so then you were supporting her !”

Myth: People with Chronic Illnesses Don’t give Support.

My wife is steadfast and routine oriented. My personality (illness notwithstanding) is such that I’m generally up for a spontaneous adventure. One time we had camping plans go awry: the campground on the island we’d just sailed to was closed for the season. I got us back to the ferry terminal where there was a connecting sailing to another island. I pushed us to switch gears quickly and while it stressed her out at first, she was then relieved and happy that we had a lovely place to go. I know her well and know when this will be okay. When I recounted this story to a friend, she said, “Oh wow, so then you were supporting her !” Hey folks, this sentiment rests on seeing folks with disabilities as sponges who take but do not give. That’s a myth.

To counter this, my wife and I brainstormed ways that I support her that are not based on mobility and energy. Here’s a partial list:

  1. I hold her hand when she is sad
  2. I snuggle with her every night
  3. I listen to her process work and life stress
  4. I inspire us to meditate together
  5. I have creative ideas for low-energy dates
  6. I am reassuring through upheaval
  7. I’m a problem-solver, able to coach us toward solutions
  8. I am a silly-head and make her laugh by being my weirdo self

I have a PhD in Gender Studies and do not want to perpetuate unequal partnerships. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that folks let themselves off the hook and hang out playing video games while their partner makes them dinner if they could get up and help out. I’m not excusing the person who has a drink with their buddies while their spouse does more than their share of the housework.

I’m talking about replacing the notion of 50/50 with something else: that everyone in a household does 100% of what they can do. When I was at my most sick, 100% of what I could do was to have help getting to the bathroom and back or sitting up so that I could eat food that was brought to me. I still do 100% of what I am able to do and so does my wife. And guess what? Our relationship is still mutually-supportive regardless of dish-washing count.

I encourage you to reframe “giving” from transactional scales to wholehearted engagement. 

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