Other Titles by Tony Humphreys

Self-Esteem, the Key to your Child’s Future

Leaving the Nest

The Power of ‘Negative’ Thinking

Myself, my Partner

worth & Worth, Take back your Life

A Different Kind of Teacher

A Different Kind of Discipline

Whose Life are you Living?

The Mature Manager

All About Children: Questions Parents Ask

Book Titles with Helen Ruddle

O’Connor, J., Ruddle, H., and O’Gallagher, M., Caring for the Elderly, Part II: The Caring Process: A Study of Carers in the Home

O’Connor, J., Ruddle, H., and O’Gallagher, M., Cherished Equally? Educational and Behavioural Adjustment of Children

O’Connor, J., and Ruddle, H., You Can Do It: A Life Skills Book for Women

O’Connor, J., Ruddle, H., and O’Gallagher, M., Sheltered Housing in Ireland: Its Role and Contribution in the Care of the Elderly

O’Connor, J., and Ruddle, H., Business Matters for Women

O’Connor, J., and Ruddle, H., Breaking the Silence, Violence in the Home: The Woman’s Perspective

Ruddle, H., Strengthening Family Communication to Prevent Misuse of Alcohol and Drugs: An Evaluation Study

Ruddle, H., Donoghue, F., and Mulvihill, R., The Years Ahead: A Review of the Implementation of its Recommendations

Ruddle, H., and Mulvihill, R., Reaching Out: Charitable Giving and Volunteering in the Republic of Ireland – The 1997/98 Survey

Ruddle, H., Prizeman, G., and Jaffro, G., Evaluation of Local Drugs Task Force Projects

Ruddle, H., Prizeman, G., Haslett, D., Mulvihill, R., and Kelly, E., Meeting the Health and Social Services Information Needs of Older People

The Compassionate
Intentions of Illness

Tony Humphreys
Helen Ruddle

Front Page Icon.jpg

First published in 2010 by Attic Press

Attic Press is an imprint of Cork University Press
Youngline Industrial Estate
Pouladuff Road, Togher
Cork, Ireland

© Tony Humphreys and Helen Ruddle

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording or otherwise, without either the prior written permission of the publisher or a licence permitting restricted copying in Ireland issued by the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency Ltd, 25 Denzille Lane, Dublin 2.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

ISBN-13: 978-0-9552261-9-9

Cover image:
‘Daffodil II’ copyright 2010, David J. Bookbinder (where 2010 is the year the image was copyrighted, as stated by the Licensor).

I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections. And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill. I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self. and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help.and patience, and a certain difficult repentance long, difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing of oneself from the endless repetition of the mistake which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

.D.H. Lawrence, ‘Healing’

We are deeply grateful to all those individuals who shared their stories with us in courageous and open ways. To protect their confidentiality, no one person’s story is revealed. The case studies do reflect real lives but are a composite of several stories.


Everybody Experiences Illness

llness, death and dying are part and parcel of human life. Despite amazing advances in medical science, there is never going to be a time when we can prevent against ever having the experience of illness. For hundreds of years, men and women of extraordinary ability, creativity, dedication and courage have pursued the quest of discovering the causes and the cures for the most frequent killers of their time. In our own time the quest has focused greatly on cancer, a quest fraught with controversy, contradictions and extremes of optimism and pessimism. There is no question but that these efforts have contributed greatly to the alleviation of human suffering. This book does not belong with the quest for causes and cures – a quest that is properly the domain of medical science – but it does seek to add to the alleviation of the suffering of illness by finding greater understanding of the psychological meaning and purpose of that experience.

Illness, while it manifests physically, also involves deep psychological and social processes on the part of the person suffering the illness. (Illness is also a spiritual process, but exploration of its spiritual dimension is outside the scope of this book.) While we do consider the social processes of illness, to the extent that we consider the personal and professional relationships that surround the person who is ill, the main focus of the book is on the psychological meaning and intent of illness. If, as this book sets out to explore, ways can be found of approaching illness which take compassionate account of the different physical, psychological and social processes that are involved, and ways of responding to those different processes can also be found, then truly great strides will be made in alleviating a suffering that is an all too common experience of human life.

When any one of us becomes ill, we deserve to have all the stops pulled out in our care. Comprehensive care means the institution of appropriate medical care in response to the physical causes and symptoms of illness and, alongside medical treatment, the institution of appropriate psychological care in response to the psychological intentions – the intentions of the self – underlying the illness.

While the alleviation of suffering is a compelling cause, in this book, with its focus on the psychological meaning of illness, we are concerned primarily with a larger process. The larger process involved is the continual impetus of the self towards unconditional love, towards safeguarding wholeness, and towards open, direct, conscious self-expression. Physical ‘cure’ may, and often does, occur as a result of undergoing this larger process, but it is not the primary focus. As yet, information on the physical ‘causes’ of illness is limited, but there is even less understanding of the psychological ‘intentions’ of illness. We seek to contribute to an understanding of the intentions of the self in illness. We recognize that there can be a social reaction to illness which implies that it is a punishment or warning to the ill person from forces outside the person or even from within the person’s own body; a reaction that implies that somehow illness reflects badly on the person’s level of personal maturity or character, that somehow you ‘brought it on yourself’, or that the body can somehow ‘turn on you’ and become your enemy. But in this book we emphasize that ‘there is no enemy within’, that illness springs from your always wise and compassionate self, that you are not a victim but a powerful and awesome creator in what is often an unsafe psychological environment.

Any reading of medical science literature reveals the enormous complexity, even mystery, of our physical being; this book springs from the recognition of the equally wondrous complexity and creativity of our psychological being. When the self experiences threats to its expression, it creatively uses many canvases, including the body, to reveal and, ultimately, restore wholeness. The book gives the self centre stage. It is the self that orchestrates your responses to your life experiences. The impetus of self is always towards maintaining the place of unconditional love, towards protecting the wholeness of being in whatever ways possible, and towards providing the opportunities for an aware expression of self to emerge. When it becomes dangerous for a person to express an aspect of his or her being, whether as a child or as an adult, the self finds a substitute way to bring attention to that repressed aspect. Among the myriad substitute responses available to the self, illness is one very powerful possibility. The purpose of the illness, as with all substitute responses, is to reduce the threat to well-being (wholeness) that exists and to alert us to the need for that block to expression to be resolved.

Safety is the crucial context for conscious and direct expression of the self in the various forms available to it: physical, emotional, social, behavioural, intellectual, sexual and creative. Illness, as with every human experience, takes place in the psycho-social context of the level of safety that is present in our different worlds – starting with the womb and on to the family, school, community, workplace and wider social systems. In this book we are concerned with the psycho-social contexts within which illness occurs and the creative response of the self to those particular contexts and the threats they pose. We consider illness to have the same fundamental purpose as other psychological and social symptoms – such as depression or aggression or anxiety – which is, in a substitute way, to safeguard the integrity of the self when it is under threat. These symptoms have the further purpose of drawing attention to the real responses that are needed to resolve the existing threats. The combination of psychological safety and real, rather than substitute, action is highly likely to lead to an amelioration of the symptoms, but the larger purpose of the self is to safeguard wholeness.

Joy and well-being, and pain and illness, are part and parcel of being human. There are no human beings who are safe enough always to give expression, consciously and directly, to their amazing and unique self. In truth, we all have experienced threats to our well-being in the different environments in which we operate and, as a result, have repressed many expressions of self. Those expressions of self that have had to be hidden wisely and inevitably reveal themselves in symptoms, these symptoms signifying the underlying issues that require resolution. The symptoms may be physical, psychological or social in nature; generally, a combination of all three. We attempt here to show how illness is no different from other symptoms that alert us to blocks to conscious expression of our true self. In the same way that, for example, depression, chronic anxiety, aggression, addictions, obsessive-compulsive behaviours are very powerful indicators of what lies hidden, so too is illness. The intention of all physical and psycho-social suffering is to protect us from an ever deeper pain – alienation from self – and to alert us to the need to resolve that alienation. It is important that we do not condemn ourselves, or others, when illness occurs. There needs to be compassionate understanding of the fact that, at any time, for any one of us, relieving an illness symptom can present itself as a safer undertaking than to take on the challenge of relieving the darkness of repression of some, or all, expressions of one’s true self.

Children, if they have been held with safety in the womb, start out by wonderfully and unconsciously expressing the fullness of their nature. But children encounter adults, who, out of a need to survive, have repressed aspects of their true nature and who, as a consequence, are unable to encourage and celebrate the child’s self-expression. The cycle of repression then gets repeated, because it would be highly dangerous for children to maintain spontaneous expression of their nature in the face of threats from significant adults upon whose care they depend. Even as tiny infants, we begin to develop our protectors and defensive strategies in the face of threat; we build up a shadow world behind which our true self lies hidden and protected.

Take the case of the child who presented with recurring vomiting; vomiting that totally stopped when the mother held the child physically close, but would recur when the mother returned to rejecting ways. The vomiting, in a substitute way, served the wise purpose of having the need for emotional nurturance met and it drew attention to the mother’s repression of the spontaneous expression of love and its blocking effects on the child. It was not safe for the child to reach up spontaneously to the mother for love; earlier experiences having resulted in a painful non-responsiveness and sometimes harsh rejection. The self of the child, the executor of the child’s being, cleverly found an alternative way to draw attention to its need. But compassionate responding to the mother’s dark interior world is the ultimate resolution required in such a case of child illness. It is not that the mother deliberately rejected her child; the mother was operating from a place of repression, below consciousness. The child’s illness served also as a wise alerting signal for the mother.

The self as creator needs to be understood if we are truly going to reduce further the extent of human suffering. The self is wise, all-seeing, and knows when it is safe for the person ‘to be’ and when it is safer ‘not to be’. The self creates the protectors that are most likely to be powerful in any given situation. It is for this reason that the same illness present today may have a different meaning when it appears at some other time. Furthermore, because each person is unique in his or her experiences of the worlds he or she inhabits, the same symptoms in different people have an individualized meaning; any generalizations, by losing the particular meaning for the individual, miss out on the vital intention of the symptom.

This book provides guidance on how to uncover the particular intentions that your self has when an illness becomes present in your life. The uncovering of intentions is a deep and sensitive process. The process is deep because the roots of the repressions involved are likely to go back a long time to early life. The process is sensitive because it was threat in the first place that led to the repressions. There can be huge sadness when we come face to face with the threats that have been there for us, and the protectors or substitute responses we have had to create to survive. There may be a sense of regret that we have had to use the canvas of the body to bring into the light the pain, unmet needs and disharmonies that have emerged in our lives. Accordingly, the process of uncovering intentions calls out for compassion, patience and loving kindness.

When the self is operating at an unconscious level – which it does when the environment is too unsafe to do otherwise as, for example, in childhood – the language it employs is often metaphorical. There is a great wisdom in the self revealing what it needs to reveal in indirect ways, which are less likely than direct ways to bring further hurt and abandonment. An understanding of the layered meaning of the language used, particularly when the person is describing his or her illness symptoms, helps enormously in uncovering the underlying intentions, and in providing a compassionate response to illness. The location of the illness and the function of the body part in question, along with the person’s description of symptoms, often ‘spills the beans’ on the hidden psycho-social issues that the self, through the illness, is attempting to bring forward into conscious awareness. It is the privileged task of those of us who help others who are suffering to create the unconditional relationship and accompanying profound safety that will enable them to explore the deeper meaning and creative intentions of their illnesses.

From what has been said thus far, it may be clear that while medical professionals are, necessarily, concerned primarily with the causes of illness, psycho-social practitioners are more concerned with the intentions of illness. The intention of the self in illness is to find a substitute way of maintaining wholeness, of offsetting threats to well-being, and of gaining some kind of attention for the hidden hurt that needs to be resolved. A further intention of the self in illness is to alert us to the threats that are present and, when safe, to find real ways of eliminating or reducing those threats. Take the example of the teacher who suddenly falls ill some days before a school inspector is due to carry out an examination of the school’s performance. The teacher’s illness is real, its cause may be traced to a virus, but its intention may not be uncovered unless the teacher’s illness is explored in the context of his present personal and professional worlds. The medical practitioner may effectively prescribe for the presenting physical symptoms, but the possible deeper issues of dependence on approval, fears of failure and criticism, and performance anxiety will continue and become more entrenched, and are likely to reappear, particularly when emotional threats of judgement and criticism and performance demands become present in the teacher’s life.

The core of this book is to provide the understanding and guidance that will enable the reader to at least begin to uncover the wise intentions of any illness that may arise in one’s life. Further, the book offers guidance for any person in a personal or professional relationship with someone who is ill to provide the safe environment and compassionate responding that make it more likely that the intentions of the illness will indeed be uncovered and resolved.

Medicine does what it does very well. Medical achievements – to mention but very few – include the relief of pain, treatment of infections, the removal of diseased parts of the body, the life-prolonging use of technological aids such as pacemakers, the maintenance of mobility through hip, knee and other replacements, as well as the provision of a range of prostheses used, for example, in limb and breast replacement. If, as this book proposes, illness is a wise manifestation of the shadow world we necessarily have created, the elimination or reduction of illness symptoms plays a very important role in making it physically possible for the ill person to work on the deeper ‘dis-ease’. When, for example, you are in the middle of an experience of intense migraine headache, ruptured appendix or severe back pain, it is not possible for you to give consideration to what these symptoms are compensating for or alerting you to resolve. But while relief from the physical experience is necessary, ultimately the healing of illness lies at the deeper psycho-social level. Medicine provides the necessary relief from physical suffering that makes it possible to look at the deeper intentions of the illness. Many medical practitioners recognize that there is a deeper intention in illness and refer the individuals treated by them to psycho-social practitioners, who can assist in uncovering the unique intentions of the illness for the individual concerned. Of course, it is not the remit of the medical professionals to treat blocks to conscious, authentic expression of the self, but they can certainly add to the amazing work they already do by recognizing that illness does have meaning and wise intention.

In order for others to help the ill person to respond to the deeper intentions of his or her illness, it is necessary to have compassionate understanding and to create the physical, emotional and intellectual safety that will enable the person consciously to take up the healing that is being called for. Each one of us wants to be in a conscious place of wholeness and well-being, but unless there is safety for us in our worlds, the self wisely will keep hidden the secrets of the hurts experienced. Patience, too, is essential, since the greater the hurts and abandonment experienced, the greater the fear of ever trusting anybody again. Some individuals have been so cruelly abandoned that giving the psycho-social helper even a glimpse of their real self is far too threatening. These people deserve perseverance in compassionate responding, even though they may not ever feel safe enough totally to avail of such responses from another.

It has to be recognized that professionals involved in any way with illness themselves undergo the very same psychological processes as the person exhibiting the illness. It is for this reason that they need to be provided with the safe opportunities to look to their own inner terrain and their own protectors and substitute behaviours. Sadly these opportunities are not typically provided; this is unfortunate because the interior life of each professional involved will largely determine his or her effectiveness in treating the person who is ill. No matter what model of illness health professionals practise, the nature of their relationship with self and with their clients is a critical factor in the progress of the illness. The book provides guidance to enable care professionals to be mindful of their own relationship with self and to see how, out of that central relationship, they then relate to the person presenting with illness.

Responding to intentions is a loving act and calls out for commitment, open-heartedness and deep compassion. This is a challenge for each one of us, since, at one time or another, each of us will inevitably experience illness. What a challenge also for others in a relationship – personal or professional – with a person presenting with illness! But it is a challenge for which we have everything we need, provided, of course, that we receive the necessary support, guidance, backing and training. Our motivation in writing this book is to contribute to enabling each of us to rise to this challenge.