Many years ago I read a book which made a deep impression on me. It was called The Healing Power of Illness, by a German doctor called Rüdiger Dahlke. Highly controversial, it suggested that when we get sick – or even have an accident – it’s not just random, but we’re in some way responsible for what’s happened to us. (The book, incidentally, can still be sourced via Amazon.)
This is an attitude which prevails in my house, where my beloved and very caring husband goes into complete lack-of-sympathy mode when anyone in the family is ill. You’re lucky if you get a glass of water out of him, so convinced is he that you’ve brought the cold/flu/norovirus on yourself. (Mostly by allowing your immune system to become depleted enough to fall victim to a virus or bacterium. The right diet, exercise and enough sleep should keep illness at bay, he believes – and the thing is, he’s almost certainly at least partly right.)
What Dr. Dahlke espoused, though, was the notion that specific illnesses show up because of certain emotional (as well as physical) causes. Eye problems, because we’re maybe not looking clearly at a situation that needs to change. I’ve always been reminded of a dear aunt, whose daughter died tragically and who almost immediately developed Alzheimer’s – which I always felt was because she didn’t want to remember. The book’s hypothesis is that illness is a life lesson – and when it strikes, we need to look for meaning.
And I had cause to think about this on a personal level recently, laid up with a damaged knee – an old skiing injury which I aggravated while watching Morris dancing on 1st May. (I know. Watching. Not even taking part. How humiliating is that?) A careless step off a too-high pavement, misjudging the drop – and the knee did what felt like a 360 degree turn, worthy of something out of ‘The Exorcist’. Mainlining turmeric and bromelain (wonderful natural anti-inflammatories – because you won’t catch me going anywhere near a Nurofen), and packed with ice, I reflected. Because actually, lately, I realised I’d been hurtling through life. ‘Take time to stop and smell the roses,’ we’re always told. I was in ‘what roses?’ mode, as I hurtled from A to B trying to juggle different roles and pinball between speaking engagements up and down the UK.
And so the universe said: ‘Slow down’. At least, that’s what it felt like. The meaning of a leg injury? According to Dr. Dahlke, an injury like this is linked with rushing through life and the world – not just literally, at top speed (trying to notch up those 10,000 steps a day!!), but metaphorically. I needed to slow down – and think. And breathe. And boy, did I get the opportunity to do just that.
Extraordinarily, though, my knee twist happened on the Monday of a week when I was due to be at home working, rather than ricocheting hither and thither – so that at least took the stress out of worrying about missing appointments. Even more amazingly, it happened during a week which my husband was spending at home, too – and I discovered that while he may be hugely unsympathetic to ‘self-induced’ health niggles, he rises to the challenge of performing regular physiotherapy on a sore body part very impressively.
I didn’t use this as an excuse to slouch about watching daytime TV, though. I worked productively on my laptop, in bed with my leg elevated – watching the most incredible festival of chlorophyll in the garden, through my window. A window I realised that I often forget (or at least neglect) to pause and stare out of because I’ve got to get to my desk, or catch a train, or make a call. A window with what I think is the nicest view in the world – of the garden we’ve spent 16 years creating. And it made me understand: this is not a rehearsal. And I need to do this more often. Hang out with my husband more, too. (Ideally, without an ice pack in place.)
I’ve long believed in taking responsibility for my health – rather than seeing it as something that ‘happens’ to me, or handing over responsibility for treating it to someone else. (Except in the case of a real emergency.) So this idea that illness or injury has something to tell us is really just an extension of that. I soon figured out that my knee – now hugely recovered, I’m pleased to say – was telling me was to slow my pace. Stop and smell those Gertrude Jekyll roses I’ve planted. Make time for the important stuff. (Because just as nobody ever went to their grave wishing they’d spent more time in the office, I don’t think anyone’s going to go to their grave wishing they’d spent more time on Twitter, that’s for sure.)
Would I turn the clock back and take more care when stepping off that pavement? Well, I’d happily have done without the pain, the hobbling and the stick. (Even if it does have a rather fetching silver top.) But in terms of a life lesson that I needed to heed, I’d like to thank Rüdiger Dahlke for writing that thought-provoking book – and thank my knee for telling me something that my too-busy brain hadn’t managed to do…