Cover of Israela's self-help book
A sudden and scary diagnosis threw me off balance without warning, transporting me on an express train from the land of the well to the land of the sick. This kind of crisis happens to millions of people as illness plays no favorites in attacking all socioeconomic, ethnic, and religious groups, affecting family members and caregivers as well.
Cancer is a frightening disease requiring extensive and expensive treatments that wear patients out. Each stage of the illness requires new adjustments and recalibration of who we are and what we can still do in life. Sojourning in the land of the sick creates isolation and raises perplexing spiritual questions without answers.
Moreover, navigating today’s complex high tech medical system with its unfamiliar procedures and treatments is an additional major stressor. Waiting for test results and having to make complex decisions about medical treatment can be anxiety provoking and overwhelming.
Chemotherapy and radiation treatment schedules take over daily life, and almost all available energy is needed just to get by. I felt as if I had stumbled into a vast wilderness without a map or a working GPS to navigate the confusing territory.
Few people are trained beforehand to deal with these experiences and there is way too much on-the-job training for patients and their families.
When our bodies ache, our spirits ache as well. I soon realized that sustaining my spirits and preserving my identity in the face of illness would be a daily challenge. During my illness I often felt as if I was standing on a bridge overlooking troubled waters. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov reminds us that although we all walk on that narrow bridge of life, we must not succumb to fears and despair that paralyze us on our journey. We desperately need a guide, coping tools, and connection to others to help us navigate this difficult territory.
“From whence will my help come?” I wondered as I reflected on Bnei Yisrael wandering in the wilderness after escaping Egyptian slavery. What gave them the strength to go on? They received protection and direction from God, who provided a pillar of cloud and of fire, manna for sustenance, Torah guidelines for life, and a purposeful goal of reaching the Promised Land. They also did a fair amount of complaining!
Judaism has many symbols that remind us of our past struggles and how we overcame them, survived, and triumphed.
For example, the miracle of the Red Sea, a rainbow signifying hope, a burning bush that offers inspiration, and Jacob’s ladder signifying transformation.
Jewish tradition also has many spiritual tools developed over the centuries that can help people by addressing mind, body and spirit. I was fortunate that I did not have to go far to find sources of wisdom and encouragement to face my struggles.
I began gathering Jewish and other spiritual resources to construct a down-to-earth practical toolbox for coping.
I turned to complementary and alternative medicine (acupuncture, homeopathy, massage, yoga); creative expression (art, humor, journaling, music, poetry), inspirational wisdom, meditative practices and nature.
Within Judaism I turned to Psalms, prayer, rituals, stories, and even small acts of tikkun olam. I found that actively using these resources not only helped me during my illness, but these tools can also serve as a manifesto for healing and healthy living.
Here are just a few examples of how Jewish spiritual resources helped me cope with illness and treatment.
As I lay on the gurney just before going into surgery, flanked by my Jewish gynecologist, Moslem gynecological surgeon and Christian anesthesiologist, I took out a prayer that I had brought to bless the doctors’ work and pray for a positive outcome.
Although my voice trembled as I read the words of the contemporary Mi Sheberach prayer, my doctors listened attentively, smiled and nodded ‘amen’. My act of agency and their response helped me feel more prepared for the operation by soothing my mind, calming my body, and experiencing that I was in the hands of a good collaborative team.
An emergency PET scan, scheduled because of doctors’ concern for spread of disease, required my sitting alone in a dark room and drinking a large volume of liquid, while anxiously waiting to be called for the test. Would the news be good or bad? To help calm my nerves and express my emotions, I began reciting and singing Psalm fragments such as “Min Hamaytzar” and “Esah Eynai”. I closed my eyes to visualize caring and protective family members around me. This activity kept me busy, distracted, less panicky, and more hopeful before and during the test.
On my first day of chemotherapy treatment, the attending nurse had to stick me five times before finding a vein for drawing blood, after which she proclaimed: “My dear, you have feeble veins!” Neither I nor my veins appreciated this disparagement.
Perhaps this was the moment when I decided to come equipped with some spiritual coping tools for the next visit.
Before the nurse began searching for a vein, I closed my eyes and hummed a special Hebrew prayer describing the Divine creation of the human body with its vessels and channels that must open or close for proper functioning, “Asher Yatzar”.
I turned inward to access an almost meditative state as I acknowledged God’s creative power, and I visualized my blood flowing wondrously through my veins. When I used this prayer as a coping tool, the nurses’ batting average improved from five tries down to one or two. One nurse even told me that she said a prayer as well: “O Lord, guide me to those veins.”
Reflecting back on my illness journey as a survivor, I was enormously grateful to God and my doctors for life and health. I also experienced the benefit of having a guide when you are on a journey.
During illness I was able to develop a M.A.P.S. perspective that eventually turned into a self-help book, Bridge to Healing: Finding Strength to Cope with Illness.
M.A.P.S. is an acronym that stands for M(Meaning), A(Agency), P(Practical tools), and S(Spiritual connections). M refers to meaning and purpose, which helped me find small goals and a reason to get up each day. A refers to agency or empowerment through trusting one’s inner spirit and learning to advocate for oneself. P refers to practical tools that increase our sense of perceived coping and act as countermeasures to stress. S represents spiritual connections, being connected to a Higher Power and/or people in a community to feel supported, cared for, and less alone.
While coping with illness is difficult, these four elements can serve as cornerstones to building a more stable base of support during illness and other difficult times. While spiritual tools don’t cure illness, they can help lessen anxiety, sustain our spirits, and strengthen our coping efforts.
I personally believe that actively using practical spiritual resources can help, as in the words of Auschwitz survivor and psychologist, Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
Israela Meyerstein LCSW-C, LCMFT*
*LCSW-C is Licensed Certified Social Worker-Clinical, LCMFT is Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist
See also: www.bridge-to-healing.com