One of the aspects of disease and illness that regularly causes a lot of pain and heartache is the dealing with the change it brings. Prior to being ill, the now patient had a sense of who they are and what to anticipate in themselves. A strong sense of identity that was based on what they have (or have not achieved) in their life and on how they know and relate to their own bodies. Daily life and expectations are defined by this relationship, to either positive or negative effect.
However when this identity is challenged, eroded or even lost in the face of what has happened, things can become much more complicated in terms of the healing process. I remembered an amazing conversation with a man one evening the year before, while on night duty in hospital who himself had had a stroke. From the medical point of view he had lost 'fine motor control' in his right hand. Yet from his point of view he had lost his ability to play the guitar. While both are arguably the same thing, they are also profoundly different.
From a medical point of view he will recover most of his movement in his hand, but from a guitarist's point of view he will never play to the standard that he once was proud of and had painstakingly attained. Talking to him was both fascinating and heart breaking as we discussed how much of his life was playing music and how much he could express himself through that. Part of his on-going recovery from what had happened was to attempt to come to terms with this and let that side of his life go. The stroke had essentially forced this man to lose part of what made him him, and until he was at peace with that then he was in danger of trying to return to someone that was no longer possible.
As humans you could argue that we are perpetually changing all the time. Purely in terms of the molecules that construct us, we are different at every given moment of the day. The act of breathing actually changes us in some way. Our body builds, maintains and repairs itself by the molecules in the food, drink and air it ingests. In parallel to the saying by Heraclitus of 'you never step in the same river twice' I wonder if this could be applied to anything. If we are changing all the time, then it is fair to say that we never speak to the same person twice (as both molecules and experiences will have changed since we last saw them), never see the same view twice as what we are looking at is always moving, growing or decaying. And in fact we never do the same activity twice as both ourselves and what we are doing are subtly different. While the changes may be minimal, they still have happened and there is no exact repetition.
If our sense of the world and ourselves is static, then we misunderstand. Change is happening both in us and all around us at some level at every moment of the day.
Yet this is where we come into conflict with our sense of identity. This, by and large, tends to be fairly fixed when we think of who we are and who the people we know are. We construct the identities of ourselves and others based on experiences and selective memory. We remember some things and fail to include others. We create inner pictures that then define how we relate to ourselves and the wider world. This perhaps explains why we often come into conflict with family members and old friends in our lives when we have come through an experience that we believe to have changed us (or vice versa), as the others have not incorporated it to their own inner picture. We make the basic mistake of believing that we 'know' each other and result in making present assumptions based only on historical information.
In my own case one of the tough parts of the initial healing process was this discrepancy of where I was with the recovery and how I remembered myself to be. Just before the stroke happened I was feeling on flying form. I was really enjoying my job, seeing my medical work more clearly than ever before, thoroughly revelling in married life, feeling fit (having just run a 42 miler through the Brecon Beacons) and happy.
It became increasingly apparent that one of the deeper challenges of healing was to attempt to let old versions of ourselves go and not go chasing 'them' to feel a sense of health and wellness. We need to let the past go when it no longer is of any value to the present both in others and in ourselves. Otherwise we cannot grow, but are destined to remain in a cyclical and tightly boundaried movement.
I began to recognise that in order for me to move through this stroke, I needed to let go the person I knew before it, and embrace whoever may follow. That doesn't mean there was necessarily to be drastic difference, but that I must be very wary of spending my recovery chasing someone who may not completely exist anymore.