“A cat purring on your lap is more healing than any drug in the world, as the vibrations you are receiving are of pure love and contentment.” ~St. Francis of Assisi
We all know what it is like to be sick. At some point in our lives we get the flu or a bad cold, but we know the course—get lots of rest and before you know it you are as good as new. But for some of us, we live with chronic illness.
Chronic illness brings with it day-to-day symptoms, the ones you cannot get away from. Coping with chronic illness is really tough.
You wonder if you will ever get well, grieve the things you used to do or want to do but can’t, stress about how to maintain employment, and feel invisible to those who don’t know what it is like to be sick.
Autoimmune illnesses affect 50 million people in the United States and includes over 100 illnesses (aarda.org). I have an autoimmune disease—Crohn’s disease. It is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease.
Crohn’s disease has many symptoms, which fluctuate day-to-day, and like all autoimmune diseases has remissions and relapses. I don’t know when I wake up if I am going to have a good day or a really bad day.
Some days it is overwhelming, but others I feel supported and hopeful that I will get better.
When my twenty-year-old cat Yochabel was diagnosed with bladder cancer, now two of us in the same home suffered with a chronic condition. As we faced our health challenges together, something remarkable happened.
She became a mirror of myself. I thought I was coping, but she challenged my current perceptions of illness. I had room for improvement as Yochabel, my dear cat companion, offered me lessons for coping.
Obviously, I didn’t have feline bladder cancer, but her condition, similar to my own, was chronic, and unpredictable. Similarly, treatment direction was unclear and despite seeing diverse specialists, opinions were confusing and conflicting.
Whether it is cancer, autoimmune disease, or another illness, there are common themes among them. I think of illness as painful, uncomfortable, disorienting, stressful, frustrating, and even depressing from time to time.
But to my surprise, Yochabel introduced me to a positive aspect of illness. Illness brought irreplaceable gifts to both our lives, one of which is gratitude.
Notice and Appreciate the Small Things in Life
When we know our time is limited with those we love, suddenly our perspective shifts. Instead of focusing on what we don’t have, we focus on what we have. Each day Yochabel was physically able to walk to her litter box I was grateful.
First thing in the morning, I ran into the room where she was sleeping, and when I saw her big beautiful green eyes wide open and heard her purring, I felt gratitude. I noticed that while I was able to appreciate these things in Yochabel, I couldn’t in myself.
My body, just like hers, was giving me many moments to be grateful for. Despite living with Crohn’s disease for decades, my body gifted me with the ability to walk to see Yochabel, the senses to see and hear her, and a heart that filled with love when I thought of her.
My body gave me life—a life that I could make the most of because it was my choice regardless of illness.
Being Present: One Step, One Moment at a Time
Throughout the ups and downs of adjusting to the bladder cancer, I noticed the stark contrast between Yochabel’s responses and my own. I wanted the answers to be clear and results from treatment immediate. I was impatient and outwardly frustrated.
Meanwhile, Yochabel’s life was consumed with frequent trips to her litter box. Back and forth each morning I watched her squat to urinate, return to her bed, and start the process all over again. Her pacing made me anxious and angry.
I asked myself again and again why is this happening to her? She didn’t deserve it.
I watched her take one step at a time, as though each trek to the litter box was a new one. I, on the other hand, accumulated her sufferings, each trek to the litter box being “stacked” on top of the prior ones as I angrily said, “Here we go again!”
Meanwhile she was calm and present in each step.
I wondered how does she do it?
Then I concluded, it was truly about being in the moment—taking one symptom at a time. The more we accumulate and stack symptoms, the harder it is to cope. One symptom at a time is more manageable.
I wondered if I could handle my symptoms one at a time.
It is almost as if she knew this was a process that her body had to unfold in its own time.
As I watched her presence and approach to a very annoying constellation of symptoms, I realized how much energy I expel trying to rush healing, obtain immediate answers, and get to the end of treatment. This negative response steals energy away from my healing in the form of stress.
Stress doesn’t help healing, it makes it worse. It was a major difference: Yochabel seemed to manage stress much better than I do.
It is All About Perception—We Are What We Think
One side effect of bladder cancer is bleeding. Despite my knowing this can be a common symptom of cancer, my perception of blood is “scary,” and painful.
In fact, it causes me to freak out!
Yochabel didn’t perceive blood as alarming. Therefore, every time she urinated blood, while I panicked, Yochabel remained present and calm until my nerves and actions alarmed her.
To my amazement, even while bleeding, she still purred and sought my companionship and meals.
I wondered if I could be this calm as my body did strange things; it would certainly be useful.
It was all about my perceptions.
Joy and Illness Can Coexist
The most perplexing to me was Yochabel’s ability to show a joy and zest for life despite what I perceived as uncomfortable—cancer.
While bleeding, urgently urinating, and dealing with her own lifestyle changes she was upbeat, kind, patient, and obviously joyful.
I couldn’t think of a day in my life where I exuded outward or inward joy while in a Crohn’s flare. Not to mention, I was irritable towards those around me when I was suffering.
Yochabel, staying in the moment, never allowed her illness to displace her joy or relationship with me.
She was always kind and full of gratitude.
Pet Companions Help Us Heal
Living with chronic illness inspires me to continue developing and refining what my body and mind need to heal.
Through the years I have explored many approaches for healing Crohn’s disease and strengthening my immune system.
I tried physical interventions: diet, routine blood work, and taking vitamins and supplements and emotional interventions: seeing a licensed mental health therapist and addressing the impact of childhood trauma and stress on my health.
These were all effective in their own ways, but sometimes healing can be simpler than we think.
Our pet companions are critical assets to our healing.
Not only do they provide us unconditional love and support, but they are some of our greatest teachers. In the presence of a pet companion, there is no such thing as invisible illness.
They see us for who we really are and their wisdom and intuition is something all humans can benefit from.
Hold on to the Gifts in Front of You
Illness is life changing for caretakers and patients.
However, the greatest lesson I learned from Yochabel is that some of the difficulty is of my own creation.
Rushing the human body beyond its natural ability to heal is counterproductive, anger and frustration toward loved ones and oneself is damaging, negative perceptions create stress and confusion.
Just because illness is present in our lives does not mean we have to surrender to it. We still have our joy, quality time with loved ones, ability to make decisions moment to moment, and hope that things can get better.
While Yochabel had the cancer, I seemed to be the victim and the “sicker” of the two of us.
Because she didn’t let go of any of these gifts.
Her focus was holding on to them moment by moment and when I do the same, I can cope much more easily.
About Casey Hersch
Casey Hersch, MSW, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker, author, and founder of www.lightyoursparkle.life. She specializes in integrative treatment models for chronic illness by bringing awareness to the connection between our physical and emotional bodies. Our passions are at the center of health and ballroom dance and pet companionship are vivid examples. Inspired by her own struggles with autoimmune illnesses and trauma, she educates about empowerment and how to build individualized healing plans.