Lessons on illness from someone who knows!

Everyday I think of how blessed I am to have had such an amazing role model in my life to help me face illness. What an absolute bonus, that I didn’t even have to look outside my immediate world to find that person. It was my Dad, who only recently passed away after a thirty five year journey with four major illnesses. He taught me so many valuable lessons that I have been able to apply to my own journey with lung disease.  These lessons are his legacy to all those who knew him and maybe even some who didn’t.

To set the scene my Dad was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in his early forties, heart disease in his early sixties, followed by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease and Dimentia in his late sixties. I distinctly remember having a conversation with one of his doctor’s back in his early fifties, when I was told his lifespan would be significantly reduced due to his illness and the negative impact of high levels of medication. As it turns out he ended up defying medical odds and outliving all the predicted life expectancy estimates. Ok… so seventy seven isn’t record breaking in the longevity stakes, but when you consider what he endured, and the prognosis for each of the illnesses it really is quite amazing. To this day I’m convinced it was his attitude to illness, the one key element modern medicine can’t measure that made all the difference.

As I said in my Eulogy at his funeral, he not only embraced illness and accepted it but he rose above it and lived. He would not be defined by it. I am in awe of the fact that over those thirty five years he never once complained about illness…I mean never! I’m only  eight years in on my journey with illness and have already complained……numerous times.

Upon reflection, I can now see that this was one of Dad’s purposes in this world to teach others how to face adversity. I don’t think he realised the impact of his amazing gift, but it’s now my  role to spread his wisdom in the hope that it may give comfort and inspiration to others facing adversity.

So as an onlooker, and as it turns out an apprentice who had to learn the ropes about dealing with illness here’s what I observed.

  1. Don’t fight illness….. embrace it, accept it and rise above it and live.                                         My Dad never fought illness. He didn’t surrender to it, but he went with it accepting there were aspects he couldn’t control. “Why try to control the things you can’t” he would say. This proved a great strategy I think because he could direct his energy and focus to the things he did have control over. I was blown away by his acceptance of his situation. Anyone with experience of mental illness could attest to the fact it is a bugger of an illness. I remember sitting down with him for a cuppa a few short weeks after he had suffered a nervous break down, following blacking out behind the wheel of his car  and being amazed my his resilient and positive attitude. I guess given what he was dealing with, and the hours and hours of tears he shed in the weeks following that I expected him to say things like “why me?… this is too much…or I can’t do this”, but instead when I asked how he was going with coming to terms with it all he looked me in the eye and said “Jane this is just one of my life tests from which I can learn” To say I was flawed would be an understatement. I almost dropped my cup of tea in shock and amazement. What a great attitude to have.

2. Allow yourself to feel emotions…even the tough ones like anger and then get on with it.

A few years after my Dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease his physical body started to fail. When he lost control of his bladder, and realised he would have to wear incontinence pads for the rest of life he shed a few tears. I remember him looking me in the eyes and saying “my body is failing me”, to which I responded “well your body may be failing you but it doesn’t change how I or anyone in your life feel about you. You are still you and that’s all that matters. It can’t take your spirit”. He continued to cry for a few minutes and then smiled and said “you;re right and at the end of the day all that matters is I have my loving family around me”. It was in this moment, true to form, he wiped away the tears and asked in his upbeat tone “so how about we go for a cuppa at the cafe” Such a great example of resilience in the face of adversity.

3. Keep a sense of humour.

After walking around a local park with chest pain for several months my Dad decided he should probably tell my Mum about his symptoms. Needless to say, shortly after he headed off to the doctor for tests and found out he needed to have triple bypass surgery for heart disease. Soon after he’d had surgery I thought I had the ideal opportunity to finally convince him to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Now you’d think after a health scare of this magnitude you might be shocked into making some positive lifestyle changes but not my Dad. When I asked him if he intended to eat healthier he laughed and said “well it took me sixty years to fill up my arteries the first time, so judging by my calculations I won’t have to worry as it’ll probably take me the same amount of time to fill them up again. This was not the answer I was expecting. All I could do was laugh with him and give up my mission to turn him into a healthy warrior.

4. Find pleasure in the simple things.

Towards the end of my Dad’s seventy seven year journey through life his physical deterioration meant he was restricted in what he could do. instead of complaining about it he found pleasure in the simple things. He enjoyed the company of family and friends and pursued his hobby tracing the family tree with incredible enthusiasm and vigour. It didn’t take much to keep him happy. Oh and dare I forget to mention it….. his passion for his beloved Tigers in the AFL. He had a habit of topping the leader board in the nursing home competitions and did gain a bit of a reputation as the quiz king. As I said he had good reason to whinge, but he chose to get on with it and make the most of his situation.  He lived with a spirit of gratitude for the things he did have rather than what he lacked.

5. Focus on what matters.

My Dad’s focus was his family. We were his whole world. When I spent time with him I felt like I was the centre of his world, even in those phases where the Bipolar would take over I could still feel it. In his final days when he could no longer speak to me, I could still see and feel love in his eyes and smile. Someone recently said to me if you have given love and received love in this life then you have lived. My Dad ticked this box in a huge way. When you exit this world you don’t take with you all your worldly possessions, but you do take love and move on to where love knows no bounds. I know this because I had the privilege of witnessing his final moments of indescribable peace, love, light and beauty. My late father-in-law who I unfortunately never had the pleasure of getting to meet in this life apparently once said “at the end of your life if you can count on one hand the friends you have then you’ve done well”.

6. Adopt an attitude that works for you

As you can imagine with a diagnosis of four major illnesses the prognosis wasn’t great. We had been informed when Dad was in his fifties that his lifespan would be significantly shortened. Instead of worrying about what was ahead, Dad would live each moment and do what he needed to do to give him the best outcome. I lost count of the number of times his blood tests would come back perfect, and there would be no sign of organ damage despite years of taking hundreds and thousands of tablets. This baffled his doctors in particular, and us, until I realised that it must be his positive attitude that was making the difference. Of course I couldn’t prove it but there seemed to be no other explanation. When I was with him I would ask him how he was feeling, and he would give me an update and then turn his attention to me or my family. Illness was never his focus and consequently it never defined him.

As I reflect back on my Dad’s life I am so proud of who he was and all that he’d become in life. What an incredible example he was of how to approach illness. I remember shortly after my he died, so overcome with grief, wondering how I could celebrate at his funeral service a life that had been filled with so much suffering. It quickly dawned on me that I had so much to celebrate. A man who had worked out what mattered most in life and chose to rise above illness and live. Now that’s something to celebrate!


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