By Nandini Murali
A wrenching account of a movement through illness towards transformation and wholeness
The nurse entered carrying the impersonal one-size-fits-all Operation Theatre (OT) dress. I felt like a marooned raft on a desolate island, as she handed it to me. Mechanically, I shed my favorite pink salwar kameez – clothes stamped with my scent, my identity, my dreams, aspirations and hopes – and slipped on the sterile aseptic OT dress. The nurse fastened the OT cap, and socks. My transformation from person to patient was complete.
The anesthesiologist, who hovered in the background, now took charge. He plunged a needle into my left forearm. I grimaced, and my body yielded as the sedative hit the muscle mass. Within nanoseconds, I drifted into nothingness… beyond pain… beyond despair… beyond knowledge… beyond hurt…
Later, I opened my eyes and saw people around my bed.
Waking was painful. Sensation swamped my body, bombarding my nerve endings, and set sleepy muscles to twitch.
“There’s no more pain in my leg,” I said in disbelief.
On that eventful December morning in 2002, I had just been through a spinal fusion with a titanium implant – my fourth spine surgery within four years. Ever since I was 24, I had waged a war of attrition against chronic backache for 15 painful years. A series of operations trapped me in a maelstrom of pain and agony. I felt isolated, fragmented, splintered. Was I just my body? Or worse, in the reductionist viewpoint of modern medicine, just the L5-S1 level of the spine?
Today, four years after my last operation, I stand in the realm of health and wellness. How did I make the eventful transition from illness to wellness? My journey to wellness was an act of faith. I believe that if I leap, the net will appear, and that “a thousand unseen helping hands” will receive me. Optimism and resilience were my constant twin companions.
When I look back, I find it difficult to pinpoint when and where exactly my journey to personhood and wellness began. My journey is a process studded with several important moments that have synergised my personal growth.
As an adult, I negotiated twin burdens – illness and infertility. I often wondered, why me? Why do ‘bad’ things happen to ‘good’ people? Like most people, I grew up believing that prayers were meant to be answered the way I wanted. In my naiveté, I believed that if I wanted something and prayed with faith, my prayers would be answered by a benevolent God who knew unerringly that the ‘good’ deserve only the best. The basis of my God concept and religion was wish fulfillment.
Illness and infertility led me to question this perspective. When what I considered ‘reasonable’ wishes, did not materialize, I was disappointed with the potency of prayer as wish fulfillment. The idea of a benevolent, patriarchal, ‘male’ God in heaven ready to dole out wishes, is now passé for me. However, I did not abdicate prayers, turn agnostic or atheist. Instead, I realized that prayer is a means to an end. In my case, wish fulfillment gave way to personal growth and transformation. It also marked my transition from religion to spirituality.
I now began to perceive God as universal spirit or energy pervading the universe. “God is everything, and everything is God” – the pantheistic notion seemed meaningful in new ways. While intellectually, I expanded my horizons through extensive reading of mysticism, philosophy and feminism, experiential encounters with several defining moments and people – people who had been through similar situations, people with sensitivity and insight – have been catalysts as well.
I began to live in harmony with the Way of the Universe. Like Winnie the Pooh, the lovable bear in The Tao of Pooh, who lives life based on the ideals of Taoism, I too began to appreciate, learn from, and work with whatever was happening in my life. After years of struggle, fighting against the unknown, endless futile attempts at deconstructing the ifs and whys and why nots of life, I gradually let go of my conditioned beliefs and judgments – of myself, people, and life. True knowledge, I realised, is felt and experienced; not understood intellectually with the mind. My newfound ability was evident in my approach to my doctorate in women’s studies that enabled me to view knowledge through the lens of life experiences.
From being a blocked stream, I rediscovered my ability to flow, negotiating curves and obstacles; knowing when to hold on; when to let go. For as Lao Tzu writes in Tao Te Ching, “Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.” I gradually sloughed off my victim identity, and moved on to take charge of my life in ways that underscored a commitment towards change and empowerment.
My moment of awakening came when I realized the need to slow down. For too long, I was living life on auto-pilot mode. Because of my long tryst with illness, I was constantly in memory mode; either constantly planning, or worrying. In addition, my ongoing engagement with infertility had me “trafficking in possibilities” in a futuristic mode. Both these responses clearly abstracted me from the present moment – the now – the only reality.
My awareness of being abstracted from the present, however, was an important turning point in my personal growth. Present moment awareness helped access my deepest inner feelings, and the ability to live life with mindfulness. It also enabled me to get in touch with health in its myriad dimensions: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. It freed me from being a hostage to the past, and unfettered me from the chains of stereotypes and limitations – both self-imposed and societal. I no longer consider myself in the self-defeating ‘childless’ mode, but rather view
As I affirmed my daily need to evolve into a better person, I received the strength and wisdom to gracefully accept life with its joys and sorrows, which at one stage would have been impossible for me. Have my prayers been answered? Many times. I did not get many things I wanted, but everything I needed. I do not have the children I so much wanted, but have discovered meaningful ways to bring joy and happiness into the lives of children. Writing sublimates. It transmutes my pain and sorrow through the very act of creation, of giving voice to experiences.
My odyssey has transformed me as a person. Illness and personal pain are like Rorschach ink blots. How you view it depends on the kind of person you are. You can either become embittered or cynical, or it can catalyze your growth as a person. Extensive reading on illness and wellness (a genre called autopathography dealing with illness narratives, or autobiography that is inspired by or that focuses on a disease or disorder that afflicts the author), self-nourishment through fitness, adequate sleep, nourishing food, daily practice of meditation, and sublimation through writing have healed me. I feel complete, and experience a synthesis at the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological planes.
My life today is imbued with the glow of spiritual consciousness. I feel like an “incandescent power, illuminated and perhaps forever talked to by the Divine”. I delight in the small everyday miracles in the ordinary, and joy in the unexpected. I believe that the Great Creator is forever responsive to our hopes and aspirations. Like Icarus after a fall, like the Phoenix from the ashes, like the desert plants after showers; my journey to wellness has been transformative.
Did I need to go through so much pain to arrive at such an altered level of self-awareness and personal growth? Are there less painful ways to grow and be? I have no answers… All I know is that for me, pain was the Way.
My journey to wellness was an act of faith. I believe that if I leap, the net will appear. – Nandini Murali
A new philosophy, a way of life, is not acquired for nothing. It has to be paid for, and acquired with much patience and effort. – Dostoevsky
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