Split in Two Selves

As a writer I often turn to the work of philosophers, artists and poets to expand my understanding of the human experience. As a medical humanist my knowledge comes firsthand from patients, their loved ones and healthcare providers. I can’t presume to know what it’s like for another to face a life-threatening illness. I can only imagine. In his memoir “Wrestling with Angels,” Max Lerner offers us insight into his lived experience of illness. He tells us, “I felt split in two selves— the sick self I had to live with and the other normal one I tried to live by.”

It’s a difficult balancing act trying to reconcile the two selves. One patient explains, “I was someone who never had to take more that an aspirin. Now, I am dependent on medication for my nausea, anxiety and sometimes more.” Another says, “Every day you

wake up and your whole sense of self has changed whether you want it to or not. You have to think of yourself as different.” And, how many times have we heard someone say they wished they would wake up and find out that it’s all been a dream.

Although it may sound like a form of denial, I have also heard patients talk about the many blessings that being ill has brought to light.

I recall a patient confiding, “Only if I could have all the wonderful things that have come from this…the realizations and the appreciations and all the fine senses and all the love, gratitude and spirituality without having the diagnosis. It’s impossible not to admit that some good things have come out of this but I still wish I didn’t have pancreatic cancer.”

No doubt that patients often experience an ebb and flow of profound and unsettling emotions, even extending into survivorship. We expect to hear about disbelief, fear, anxiety and despondency or depression. Yet, a patient facing a dire prognosis reminds us of “all the wonderful things that have come from this.” In my role of medical humanist, I often observed that illness can help bring to the fore a deeper appreciation of those in one’s life who truly matter and the simple things that may have been taken for granted. Living in the world of illness can feel like being split in two selves and an emotional roller coaster. However, if we take notice, it can also be a rich awakening to the blessings in one’s life.

Whether you’re a patient, loved one or healthcare provider, I invite you to share your experiences or observations with unexpected blessings that arose from illness.

One Comment

  1. Ellen Perry Berkeley

    I am amazed still, as I think about it, at how my beloved husband handled his oncoming death. He was diagnosed with his 7th cancer in 2008, and in early 2009 received the startling news that he wouldn’t be alive in another few months. But he didn’t go into a depression, didn’t seem angry. Instead, he worked with ME, to make me comfortable with soon being alone. And I worked with HIM, as we laughed together, cuddled a pussycat together, admired the view together, remembered all that we had with each other, laughed together, and enjoyed our many fine memories together. We “built” each other as we had done during our lovely 43 years. I find it remarkable to recall, now, how thoughtful, how generous, this was on his part. It’s not how we talk with doctors,. It’s also how we talk with ourselves, and with each other. This made a big difference to me, I’m sure, in how I survived his death and moved on with my life. He is still with me, in many ways. We’ve now had 54 years together.

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