From Suffering to Transformation: A Spiritual Journey
Two women faced life-threatening illnesses and share how what could have been tragedy turned out to be a gift. This beautiful short story is a must-read for anyone facing illness and suffering and wanting to learn how to overcome it.
Her world was vibrant and she was an active participant in it until a life-threatening auto-immune disease changed her life’s trajectory.
Glenn came into my world at the time we were each grieving the loss of a mutual friend. We supported each other in our grief and helped each other get beyond the loss. Through the years we have shared with each other the experiences that have been part of our spiritual journeys. We have shared love and laughter, pain and suffering, joy and peace. Our friendship has allowed each of us to explore who we are, to grow, to seek our authentic selves, and to deepen our spirituality.
As an adult in her 50s, my friend became deathly ill from unknown causes. After months of tests performed by physicians in various medical disciplines, she was diagnosed with Primary Biliary Cirrhosis, a life-threatening autoimmune disease which affects the bile ducts, preventing them from removing toxins from the liver. Glenn became aware that her life would never be the same. For years she has endured painful procedures and been treated by several specialists in various medical facilities. She did research on the condition and she and I attended regional and national conferences on the topic. Glenn began to accept the serious limitations to her normal functioning.
Perhaps Glenn’s need to rest contributed to opportunities for our long, leisurely conversations. I had shared information about my childhood, including a near-death experience with diphtheria that changed not only my childhood but my entire life. I was out of school for two years and when I returned I was older and more mature than my classmates and became the teaches’ pet. Later, teachers mentored me, encouraging me to go to college and made it possible for me to attend.
My parents had only an elementary education, so they did not encourage college for any of us. If not for these teachers who saw my potential, I would never have gone to college, to graduate school, and on to receive my Ph.D. From graduate school I went on to enjoy a successful career as a clinical psychologist, as a mother, and as a writer.
Glenn grew up in an educated family in Roanoke, VA, a metropolis compared to my rural upbringing. Yet her challenges seemed equally great.
“What was it like growing up in your family?” I asked.
“We were poor enough to need family hand-outs” she told me. Yet, my Grandmother had strong ideas about what was ‘proper’. In my family, appearance was everything, trumping reality every time.” Glenn went on to say, “My so-called aristocratic family did set a record of sorts. In just five generations they produced 17 bona fide alcoholics, all successful of course because to be unsuccessful would be just too ‘common’.”
Glenn’s spiritual development had its roots in her early childhood. Born in the 1940s, she was the daughter of alcoholic parents. In one of our conversations she said that her parents “lived their lives in denial, pretending to be members of the aristocracy when in fact, I often heard my father called “Poor Charlie.” After he came back from fighting in WW II, he could not hold down a job or control his rage.”
Due to her home-life situation during her early years, she isolated herself, spending much of her time alone in her room creating her own world through her vivid imagination. Glenn developed a rich fantasy life from her ‘School for Stuffed Animals’ which she founded and served as Head Teacher, to pinning creatures gathered from her yard into a notebook called ‘A Book of Bugs and Worms’ which she kept in her basement. Under each specimen she included a short description: ‘Moves fast’, ‘Has long wings’. After a few weeks, a horrible smell emanated from the basement. “My scientific experiment led to the discovery that dead bugs and worms start to smell, and that they should be left in their natural environment.”
“Creativity is intelligence having fun,” Einstein said. I admire Glenn’s creativity which began in early childhood. She described it as connecting her to the Divine. “Sometimes I have at least 10 creative ideas before breakfast,” she said. Her mother, who loved theatre and had been a local sensation on the amateur stage, insisted Glenn take a role on a Saturday morning children’s TV show.
As an adult she became a gifted teacher, the creator of several educational programs at the state and national level, a successful grant writer and later a mentor to disadvantaged children, teaching them creative outlets for expressing themselves. “I like including art, music, and drama in teaching, and in all my activities.” I reminded her that she is also a gifted editor, making the writer’s material come to life.
“I just punch it up,” she said. “And it’s great fun for me.”
We both laughed. “Maybe this is where some of your creativity began,” I wondered.
“Maybe so, she said with a smile. “Some of this creativity comes from a period of relative isolation following a serious accident I had when I was about seven.”
“What happened?” I wanted to know.
“I was playing in the backyard and climbed on the roof of a low shed. I fell off and ripped off part of my face, requiring several painful operations. I was frightened, and my heavily-bandaged face made it difficult to talk. But I managed to ask my mother, ‘What is going to happen to me?’ My mother took my hand. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I have been praying all the time you were in surgery. I have put you in God’s hands and He has told me that you will be beautiful on the inside and out. God has assured me that you will be fine.’ I believed her. “
“Now the scars are all gone,” I said.
“Yes, physically and I think emotionally, too. I learned a lot from this time in my life and I still think about it from time to time.”
For Glenn, a medication called Urso not only stopped the progression of her liver disease, but also reversed some of its effects. But it took enormous amounts of time, patience, and commitment to follow the necessary steps to curb the disease. In addition to the medication, she had to follow a strict diet: low-sodium, no fatty or fried foods, no red meat, no alcohol, no dairy products. “I spend so much time identifying what I can eat, shopping for it and then preparing a meal,” she said.
“Sometimes I wonder if I still have a meaningful life if all I do is follow this rigid diet and the demands of taking care of my body. My yoga training and my exercise class help deal with various pains, soreness and stiffness. Sometimes I feel like an old, broken-down piece of furniture. Then I remember the Leonard Cohen line, ‘There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.’”
Following this rigorous diet, and later becoming gluten-free, Glenn’s health improved dramatically and she was no longer considered to be in crisis. Instead, she was seen as chronically ill, but stable. This news inspired those of us who had, for many months, watched with sadness as her health progressively worsened. Now we all had hope.
Glenn accepted that her medical condition would require life-long constraints, but she was determined to take the best care of herself without letting this disease define who she was. I accompanied her on almost all of her doctors’ visits and to all of the national and regional PBC conferences she attended. It was during these stressful times that we began to talk about our spiritual journeys, in what ways our stories were similar, and how she understood her own journey. These discussions would bring both tears and laughter, and a growing sense of the deep bond that had developed between us.
“Can I ask how you saw your parents when you were young?” Glenn curled up on my couch. “Well,” she began, “From my perspective as a small child, the War Between the States came shortly after Jesus in order of importance. For me, history consisted of Jesus, then something called The Dark Ages, and then the Civil War which, my parents insisted, destroyed the glorious South. They never spoke of Daddy’s wounds or his medals from his service which I discovered in a box after he died. To them, nothing important had happened since the South lost that other war.
“Because members of my family had served as Confederate soldiers, the Civil War conveyed upon my family their social position among the landed gentry. The problem was, it wasn’t real. My parents held on to this belief and insisted that we share in this charade. My father was a broken man, increasingly turning to alcohol. My mother saw herself a gifted, frustrated actress who gave up a budding career for her family. She also began to drink heavily. I can remember that when I was a child all parenting ceased as ‘happy hour’ began and continued through the evening. I lay awake in my bed, sometimes crying, too afraid to get out of bed to go to the bathroom for fear of being seen.” Tears filled my eyes as I thanked her for telling me this story. It was getting late and we said goodnight.
As a child, Glenn was taken to church by neighbors and she sang in the choir. Later, as an adult, she joined a local Episcopal church, sang in the choir, and involved herself with church members who were community activists. “Giving up on ever having the ability to help my family,” Glenn told me, “I looked for ways to help others. I still do.”
Her love of languages and her interest in other cultures have played a major role in Glenn’s journey. When she was 14 she was hired by her Sunday school teacher to spend the summer traveling with the family as a nanny to the teacher’s four-year-old child. When they visited El Paso, she met her first Spanish-speaking friends and she fell in love with the language and the culture.
Later, she spent a summer in school in Spain, living with a local family and learning the language. And she fell in love with this family’s son Damaso. “At the end of the summer I contacted my parents to tell them I would not be returning home. ‘I’ve sold my return ticket and I’m going to stay here, work in the wheat fields, and become fluent in Spanish. Why should I come back there to study Spanish when I can learn it here? And besides, I may be getting married!’
“My parents thought I was crazy. The next week, the Guardia Civil arrived and dispatched me to the nearest American Consulate where a return ticket awaited. Angry at my parents and sad over leaving my boyfriend, I returned home, re-entered college and continued studying languages: Russian, Portuguese, and Italian since I had pretty well conquered my major. I soon discovered that I was gifted in languages, and wanted to pursue a career teaching. But alas, after graduation I did what kids of alcoholics usually do: I married a verbally-abusive, neglectful alcoholic, whom my family embraced because he had aristocratic credentials. It was after 13 years of marriage and the birth of two children, that, with good therapy, I finally found the courage to divorce him.
“I was a lost soul, devastated,” she said. “I continued therapy, joined a local church, stayed busy rearing the children, all the while seeking to make some sense of my life. I fell into a deep hole of depression that would take me years to climb out of. I’m so blessed that both my children survived these years with my weak mothering skills to become successful adults who, along with two grandchildren, enrich my life so.
“This has been a spiritual journey for me,” she said, “taking me to the depths of despair before lifting me up and setting me on a higher path. I have used therapy several times in my life, especially during times of crises. I worked hard during these sessions to explore and understand myself and to operate from my Highest Self. I’m still trying,” Glenn added. “And after marrying again I have been blessed with 35 years of love and support and happiness, as well as having had someone who loved and supported my children.”
I thought of the words of Lao-Tzu, “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”
Glenn’s traveling, which has included long stays in India and Mexico, continues to enrich her life. “From early on, I became even more aware of my language skills, and that I could communicate across cultures and belief systems.” In each country she stays long enough to immerse herself in the lives of the natives, to study and learn from them. She would often say that her spiritual journey had been enriched and strengthened not only by her several trips to India, but also by her stays in Mexico where she and her husband have built a home on a tiny island off the coast of Cancun, called Isla Mujeres. She feels so alive there as she continues to teach and to support children who want to learn to speak English. Many of these students, who knew almost no English when she began working with them now lead successful lives, working in careers of their choice.
In the 20 years we have been close friends, Glenn has invited me on many of her adventures. We have traveled together from Biloxi, Mississippi (Where we attended our first conference after her diagnosis of PCB) to an Ashram in India, where my transformative stay included a trip to visit The Valley of the Saints, where more than 100 Muslim saints are buried. A spiritual energy was present there that I had not experienced elsewhere. Later, our travels included a breath-taking cruise to the Panama Canal, to California and New York, and to Isla Mujeres, which feels like a second home for me.
During our times together there we snorkeled, ate too much guacamole, shopped in the little village, enjoyed authentic Mexican food, and put the finishing touches to my book, The Knack of a Happy Life. We visited with families in the neighborhood who, because of Glenn’s fluency in Spanish and her genuine interest in them, embrace her as one of their own. They welcome me as well. It is a blessing to me and my spirit soared with each visit.
A few years ago, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor which could not be safely removed because of its entanglement with several parts of my brain. After 29 radiation treatments, months of physical therapy, and finally finding a group of medications that help keep everything in balance, I am now doing well. But this experience was terribly difficult, involving several hospitalizations, followed by weeks in rehab facilities. Through this time my adult son Eric has been my rock, staying with me through surgery and taking me to all radiation treatments. More than three years later, he continues his compassionate care of me.
When Glenn sensed the long road to recovery that was ahead of me, and knowing that I would no longer be able to work part-time, she began sending me a monthly check to help with medical expenses. When I started gaining a lot of weight due to the health issues and the medications I had to take, Glenn bought and mailed new, larger-sized outfits, sending clothes for each season that fit my permanent new size.
She continues to mentor a young woman she met as an at-risk third-grader. Glenn’s support, both financial and with compassionate care, enabled this young woman to graduate high school, attend college, obtain a job in the medical field, and begin to raise a family.
It has been more than 15 years since her diagnosis, and Glenn continues to hold her own. Medications, a strict diet, exercise and yoga help keep her condition stabilized. Through all these years, despite many crises and near-death experiences, Glenn has never lost her faith, optimism, or her sense of gratitude.
As we shared our medical issues over the years we began to count our blessings and to see the transformative power in suffering. We have talked about what suffering has taught us and what we are still learning. I began one such conversation by sharing my awareness that my own suffering has transformed me.
“In what ways? “ Glenn asked.
“Well, I am more patient and loving, I think, and I have been able to switch from living a fiercely independent life to depending on others. I have lost my ability to drive but have been surrounded with several church members who drive me to all appointments and have become close friends. My son and I have always been very close but now we have a stronger relationship and love that is so life-giving. I have a deeper relationship with the Divine, and I can appreciate the contemplative life. And I’ve found a peace and serenity that I haven’t always known.”
“How about you?” I asked.
Glenn sat thoughtfully for several minutes. “It’s hard to put into words,” she said. “Transformation is both immediate and the work of a lifetime. Here’s an example of immediate transformation. I recognize I’m saying things to myself that make me miserable, and suddenly it is laughable and not true. I ask: ‘How long do I want to be miserable? Only I can decide to cut this out!’ That issue never bothers me again. In a moment there’s transformation. But transformation comes at a cost. For me it included years of therapy, study, travel, meditation, prayer and slow preparation.
“Motivated by panic, depression and constant misery, I began seeking help as soon as I left home at 18. By the time I was in my late 30’s, I had learned to take responsibility for my feelings, do something about my own reactions and speak up for myself. I did more spiritual work in my 40’s and shifted the focus of my consciousness from my head to my heart.
“I am full of laughter, and fresh air blows in my soul each day. I’m content to do things badly and with great humor and enthusiasm. With some short-term memory loss, I have become more creative! Everything old is new again. Most of all, I love with abandon and without too much concern for being loved back. I know I’m loved. I love my own life, my own growing self. The rich, full life I once knew has been replaced in part by an even richer one. From suffering I have learned to be less controlling, less critical, less judgmental. I, too, feel more connected to the Divine, and I see God’s love in everyone. I’m more about unity than focusing on what divides us. And I know that in the end, only love prevails and I find that thought comforting.”
We often talk about not what we have had taken away from us but about what we have gained.
”I don’t want to waste time focusing on the past or worrying about the future,” she told me, adding, “I want to continue to ring the bells that still can ring.”
Recently, after one of our many talks, I asked Glenn, “How about if I write a short story about your life and your spiritual journey? I think it could be an inspiration to others.” She was quiet for a moment and then said with a smile, “Actually I’d be honored. And I can’t wait to see the spun gold you weave from the straw of my beautiful life.”