How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers – Toni Bernhard
How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard is brimful of tools and ideas to help those who are chronically ill deal with their (new) reality.
While I’m not a Buddhist (more of an Atheist), and you don’t have to be to learn from Bernhard’s valuable experience.
“You are going to be okay,” in these circumstances, means “Things are uncomfortable now, but you will get well. You will be better.” But it doesn’t always happen that way.
This is a book for people who will not be their old self again and for all those for whom, at least now, getting better isn’t possible. This is a book that most reassuringly says even to those people, “You, too, are going to be okay – even if you never recover your health!”
How to Be Sick is “how to live a life of equanimity and joy despite my physical and energetic limitations.” The book and the practices contained therein are easy to read and understand, although I did have to read it over a period of time. The reason for this was both to take the time to absorb the information, but even more so for me to accept that I needed to know these things.
While the tools would indeed be useful to anyone – sick or not – as someone who has only in the past year become seriously sick, it is at times difficult to read about other people, who are also chronically ill. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, and yet I am so incredibly grateful to learn from the experience of others who have had to deal with chronic illness. And while I still have hope that I’ll find a way to get (somewhat) better, I also have to accept the reality of this moment.
You can argue with the way things are.
You’ll lose, but only 100% of the time.
– Byron Katie
It’s just so hard to, first, truly recognize that you’re chronically ill and, second, to accept that this illness is going to require you to change your plans for life in ways you never imagined, not the least of which is giving up the profession you loved and worked so hard to build.
However, I also found great hope, that even during extremely difficult circumstances, it is possible to find meaning and purpose in life, which I truly believe that Toni Bernhard has. I am so incredibly grateful for her work, both in her book(s), and in her writings for Psychology Today.
How to Be Sick is a great introduction to Buddhist concepts (that I think are thought-provoking whatever your beliefs) one of my favourite concepts are the four brahma viharas, frequently translated as the four sublime states:
Metta – loving-kindness; wishing well to others and to ourselves
Karuna – compassion; reaching out to those who are suffering, including ourselves
Mudita – sympathetic joy; joy in the joy of others
Upekkha – equanimity; a mind that is at peace in all circumstances
I felt a special connection to the concept of metta, which is not just compassion or loving-kindness for others – but also for ourselves and our bodies in illness:
Using metta phrases can also become a powerful forgiveness practice. I might repeat to myself, “Be peaceful, sweet body, working so hard to support me.” When I repeat a phrase with that sentiment, I’m also forgiving myself for getting sick. It’s not my body’s fault that I’m sick. It’s doing the best job it can to support my life.
Karuna, or compassion, is equally important. Having compassion for yourself and your sickness:
I blamed myself for not recovering from the initial viral infection – as if not regaining my health was my fault, a failure of will, somehow, or a deficit of character. This is a common reaction for people to have toward their illness. It’s not surprising, given that our culture tends to treat chronic illness as some kind of personal failure on the part of the afflicted – the bias is often implicit or unconscious, but it is nonetheless palpable.
At the back of the book is an excellent guide covering specific challenges, and which practices from the book might be most useful.
I highly recommend How to Be Sick to all who are chronically ill – and even those who aren’t (although in that case you might be interested in Bernhard’s other book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow).