Notes on Anatomy and Physiology: Narrative and Deep Illness

Many of the posts to come will look at why the practice of the Taoist Tai Chi™ internal arts of health has such a profound impact on both body and spirit.

Since many people already have significant health difficulties when they first encounter this art, I would like to look first at the experience of deep illness itself and the stories we tell when gravely ill.

A deep illness is one that is seen as enduring, as affecting all of life’s choices and decisions, and as changing who we are. Most all of us will eventually face this. Serious illness and the suffering that is its companion are part of life.

Arthur Frank is a sociologist at the University of Calgary. In the essay, “Just Listening: Narrative and Deep Illness”1, he describes three principal themes found in stories about deep illness. And he takes care to remind us that these three narratives always intertwine. What follows is a brief summary of his observations.

The illness story preferred by all of us is the restitution narrative: we become sick, we’re treated and restored to health. Happily, sickness usually resolves in this way.

But what happens when a return to usual health seems unlikely? When the abdominal distress turns out to be bowel cancer or the stiffness is diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease. We then shift to the chaos narrative of deep illness. We see our disability only increasing, pain proving permanent, physicians either unable to determine what is wrong or unable to help. Medical problems proliferate, we lose our ability to earn an income, we experience increasing stress, family tensions develop, and friends feel overwhelmed and often slowly drift away.

The chaos narrative is fearful and all about how thin the ice that we all skate upon, and how cold and deep the water that lies beneath. Indeed, a hallmark of this story is that by simply listening to it we feel as if we ourselves are drowning. For our own sake, we are tempted to quickly reassure the storyteller that everything will turn out fine, that they will quickly get back to normal.

But to deny the truth of this narrative is to intensify the suffering of the person living this story. Too quick assurances that this or that will have dramatic benefits only demonstrate our own discomfort with what is being told. We are better to quietly and carefully listen and then return to the shared practice of our art.

A quest narrative may develop out of the chaos. While maintaining an unflinching view of the reality of our illness, we no longer look for a return to our old self but start to ask where we go from here with what is left us. What can be reclaimed of life. We look for the most viable way to carry on. We search for what can be learned and then shared with others.

I recall a woman in her early fifties with multiple sclerosis who came to her first health recovery class. She was in a wheelchair but still working fulltime. Because I sensed unused strength and balance in her body and was eager that she decide to continue to attend the class, I suggested at that first meeting that she might well recapture her ability to stand. She finished the class but never returned, convinced presumably that I was not really listening to her situation, that I was a modern version of the snake oil salesman, offering impossibly simple cures for a complex dilemma.

She reminded me that each one of us tells the stories we need to tell at this point in our lives. And that each story deserves to be honored in its time of telling.

To learn more about illness narratives, I refer you to Arthur Frank’s book, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics.2

As Mr. Moy enjoined us, help people while they are living and comfort them while they are dying or after death.

Dr. Bruce McFarlane

1 Families, Systems & Health, Vol. 16: 197-212, 1998

2 Arthur Frank, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics, the University of Chicago Press, 1995, ISBN 0-226-25993-5

© 2010, Taoist Tai Chi Society of Canada


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