Chronic fatigue and chronic illness is a call to action. It is a fateful event. As Carl Jung told us, “When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside us as our fate.” There is always a disconnect happening within us. Like it or not, we are off the path in some way and we must find our way back to it if we wish to truly heal. The things that are being demanded of us are most likely the last things we would ever want for ourselves. It seems deeply unfair. Everyone else seems to be able to do all kinds of things without becoming seriously ill. They are getting away with it when we can't.
This was certainly my situation when I was first faced with chronic fatigue. I felt I was being unjustly punished; like I'd been placed in a strait-jacket. Utterly restrained, jailed from some unclear crime and in some sort of Kafkaesque position of unspecified crime and punishment, I deeply resented my illness and the limits it placed on me. I was far too young to be so limited, or so it seemed.
As a trained healer, I knew I had to do certain things to get well, and I was doing the best I knew how at the time, but there were inner barriers that constantly threw me off course. I struggled to stay with my herbal therapy and diet. It seemed I could only get one thing right at a time. If I was regular with my herbs and other supplements, my diet would decline or once I really was on track with my diet, I would start missing my supplements. And periodically, I would just feel very hopeless about it all and seriously wonder if I was actually making any progress at all. My need for rest was so huge. I was in bed most of the time a good five days per week. My saving grace was that if I did that, I didn't feel so terrible. So long as I was lying down, I didn't feel constant misery. But if I was up too much, it was overwhelming.
The isolation of the illness is one of the greatest causes of the suffering involved. Yet this alone time is also potentially one of the greatest blessings. I came to feel that life was demanding more of me. That this illness was here to force me into a higher way of life whether I liked it or not. It was this process that I eventually came to call “wrestling with the angels”.
This is an inner path that must be walked alone, no one else can do it for you. To be chosen in this way is not about having what you want. The illness will teach you that what you want may in fact be the worst possible thing for you. Do we have a destiny? Perhaps, our own nature is our destiny. For many of us, learning to be who we truly are is the hardest lesson we will ever have to learn. The Angels are our better nature, perhaps our fate, and when they come for us, we may spend many years running from them.
The Angels are not cute little cherubs. They are powerful beings who will drag you kicking and screaming to where you are meant to be and into who you are meant to be. They are all about the toughest love imaginable. The pain and illness will never let you go until you stop struggling and surrender. This requires letting go of the life you thought you wanted or deserved and embracing and working with the life you have.
Realizing that desires are endless and are made up constantly by our amazingly imaginative minds, we must learn to discriminate true needs and true direction from mere pleasures and ego drives. Aggrandizement and short term pleasures demand huge amounts of energy and the pursuit of such things are often an important part of the path to exhaustion.
Whenever we place limits on what we are willing to do in order to heal, we are wrestling with the Angels. “I'll take the pills but I am sure not going to give up (fill in the blank)”. It could be sugar, smoking, drinking, drugs of all kinds, exhausting sports or exercise, starving to maintain an unrealistic body image, or an insane work schedule. All of this perhaps in service of a certain house, car, or other possessions and social position.
Of course, every type of addiction including substances, co-dependence, food addictions or process addictions such as work, sex, spending or religious obsessions is a way of wrestling with the Angels. Surrender means being willing to do whatever it takes without reservation. Only then will you know that the Angels are your greatest allies and are truly leading you to a life you are incapable of even imagining now.
Why do we wrestle with the Angels of our better nature? It is because we are changing, really changing. When real fundamental change is being required of us, we will resist it. True change requires a willingness to go to war with our habits and comfort every day. In fact, if you aren't at war with yourself, you are not really changing.
Habits develop over many years and we have perfected them from long practice and they don't give up without a fight. Understanding how habits live and how habits die is the key to having any new choices in life and in health. Habits have so much control over our life that unconscious habits can truly eliminate our free will and choice. As long as those habits dominate all of our actions, we will not be able to change no matter how painful our current reality is.
Good habits will carry you, bad habits will bury you. The development of good habits is absolutely essential for full recovery from chronic fatigue. You need those good habits to carry you. The lack of energy present means you just cannot afford any bad habits. You will pay a very high price with interest for every one of them. They are a luxury that is way beyond your means. And this can be very upsetting and be a significant cause of resentment and even poor self image for many people.
Our society has a sort of macho attitude toward bad habits and almost sees them as some sort of God given right. We imagine that we should all be able to eat or drink anything we want no matter how toxic it is. We should be able to work all the time and then play just as hard with no need for rest or recuperation. We resent any physical or mental limits at all and drive ourselves mercilessly. We indulge in negative thinking, impatience, unrealistic expectations, judgement of ourselves and others and the constant creation and feeding of desires. All of these things will eat you alive. They drain and block your living energy at every turn.
From my long observations, I see two main drivers of these obsessive behaviors and beliefs. These are very broad categories which contain many aspects of ourselves and our actions, but basically it is either guilt or greed that drive these unhealthy habits. It is amazing but true that many people feel or are made to feel guilty for not drinking, taking drugs or medications and not eating sugar and other junk foods.
I hear all the time how people who are struggling so hard to recover their health are attacked by everyone they know for giving up junk food and not drinking. The need for rest is called every name in the book. It seems it is never a valid activity in some people's view. What a world. No wonder so many people are becoming chronically ill. Good habits are attacked and ostracized by children and adults. So the war of change goes there too. You have to be willing to stand up for your right to live a healthy and rewarding life and to do the good things that will give you those results.
The other big driver is greed. It is not a pretty word but our insatiable desires for more drive so many bad habits. It is a big cause of over-working although guilt can be just as strong a motivator in that area. Addictions have many causes and coping with pain of all types is a big one, but they all begin with a desire to get something for nothing. To take what seems to be the easier path away from pain. To avoid the actual cause of the pain so we don't have to change. Denial and avoidance and blaming anything but our own actions for the kind of life we have is all there to protect us from having to fight the war of change.
It is not easy. And perhaps the greatest greed of all is just for that. The easy way. We naturally want to avoid pain and rightly so. But, refusing to learn the lessons that pain is here to teach us and running from it without ever considering its cause and the real cure for it, will end up creating more and more pain and suffering for ourselves until we cannot get away from it and it becomes our whole existence. This denial and avoidance is always happening to some degree when chronic fatigue is present. It is like a black hole that has been sucking all of our life and energy into it. This kind of energy hole must be addressed and eliminated in order to recover.
However, one of the biggest enemies of real change is all or nothing thinking, and unrealistic expectations about just how fast you can change. Fight one battle at a time. You cannot change every habit at once. Trying to do it all at once is a guarantee of failure. And it is also an attempt to again take the quick and seemingly easy way. Day by day and step by step is how you truly change. But each victory, each battle won, each habit changed makes you stronger and stronger in this skill of making and breaking habits. So start with something you can succeed at no matter how small it seems and build from there.
As you feed the good habits by practicing them, repeating them and perfecting them every day, they will begin to carry you. Practicing and developing strong, healthy habits teaches you the meaning of the old saying, “virtue is its own reward”. Good habits include eating well, taking your supplements regularly, healthy exercise, journaling and meditation, proper rest, study and learning, maintaining order, keeping your commitments, creative activities, patience, humility, compassion, understanding, observation, clarity, and setting healthy boundaries and limits. Healthy, positive habits are self-reinforcing for the most part because they are the real source of happiness, health and joy in life.
As the good habits begin to carry you, and to lift you up, even though you are still very fatigued, you will be able to accomplish more. The good habits will be there for you, keeping you on the path to more energy and sparing energy as these activities become automatic. It becomes just what you do each day and it gets easier and easier.
I worked all day every day during most of my years of recovery from chronic fatigue. I called this process treading water. Just show up and do what you are supposed to do. Be present and do your best, but work at a steady pace and don't do more than is necessary to get the job done. Keep it simple, don't try to prove anything to anyone. Slow and steady really can win the race.
At the same time, you starve the bad habits by refusing to feed them, refusing to practice them, stopping them every time they try to take over. You must be willing to end them. For you to live, they must die. And they will fight for life. They will give you plenty of reasons and excuses why you have to go along with them. Don't Listen. Don't believe those lies any more. Get tough. Don't let those bad habits walk all over you. Their time is over.
This is the war of change. Your habits know all your weak spots, all your fears and doubts and they will go for the throat. Know that it is all lies and manipulation, and don't give in. Look it in the eye, and see that bad habit for what it is: a vicious creature who doesn't care how much it hurts you. Put it down and walk away. Keep your eye on the prize of health and happiness. It is worth this fight.
The paper tiger is their favorite ploy. A deeply disturbing and frightening image that will stop you in your tracks. It says "turn back now, don't change, stay the same". But if you can become conscious of those images, and really see them, you will see they are not real. They are as thin and flimsy as a paper tiger. It looks like it is about to pounce and eat you, but it is only a movie at best. Turn it sideways and see how thin it is. Nothing to be scared of -- keep going.
They will win some, especially if you are in a particularly weakened state, overwhelmed in some way or just full of doubt as to whether it is worth all this effort. That doesn't matter. So long as you win over that habit even slightly more than you lose to it, it will begin to weaken. As it weakens, you will prevail more and more often which weakens it even more. There will be a turning point when the habit gives way and you are truly free of it. Now that freedom will take you further and further away from ever needing it again.
These habits had a reason for being, and they worked for a while. But they simply were not the real solution to your problems. The problems remained unsolved and just kept getting worse. Breaking a destructive habit is one of our greatest opportunities for growth and change and we have habits on every level. As recovery grows and continues, you may find yourself looking for more habits to break. The war of change becomes subtler and deeper but it continues as long as life and growth continue. Life is worth fighting for.