Lessons from 18 Months of Illness, Silence, and Solitude
Once upon a time, my life ended.
Like some tragic fairy tale, it was while I was in the midst of the greatest adventure of my life.
I was on my way to becoming a nun. After 13 years of feeling called to share this big Love I had found, I had entered a convent. There, I relished the rhythms of religious life: four hours of prayer a day, living in community, offering spiritual direction and retreats.
A few months back I found a list of life goals that I wrote at age 19. I can check off several big ones from that time in life:
Live in another country for at least a year
Speak another language fluently
Live a rhythm of life that allows me to enjoy the sunset with a glass of wine (thanks, Italy!)
Serve people in a way that helps them know how deeply they are loved
Set the world ablaze
And yet, while this seemed to be the fruition of my deepest desires, life had far more in store for me.
I had yet to fall apart.
Every summer, the community I was with spent a month in the mountains in northern Italy. It was part family reunion, part strategic planning.
One summer, I began to feel incredibly off.
There had been strange symptoms developing over the past year-- things I didn’t have words for.
I remember praying liturgy of the hours, a practice that involves praying the Psalms aloud multiple times a day-- but running out of breath before I could reach the end of the line.
The line was seven words long.
I remember feeling like I was in a “funk”-- I didn’t know what else to call it. I felt overwhelmed, but none of my usual outlets were helping. I tried going for long bike rides, connecting with friends, or sitting in front of the tabernacle and declaring “I’m not leaving until You do something about this!”
Then, that summer, it all came to a head.
When I first mentioned to the sisters that I was feeling very off, I was told “it’s probably just the altitude,” and everyone moved on.
Except that, by the end of the month, I was bedridden, and had to be flown home in a wheelchair.
I flew home to my parents’ place in rural South Dakota. There, I proceeded to spend the next 18 months being shuttled from doctor to doctor, trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Each specialist had their own theory; all were baffled.
Much of the time I was bedridden. There were days I did not have the strength to lift a fork to my mouth. All of my normal anchors had been pulled up. Most of the time, I lacked the mental focus to meditate, read, or offer anything that seemed like prayer. After being the joyful servant that was on a mission to conquer the world, this felt like the end of everything.
I reeled. Who was I, if not a heart on fire? It was as if someone came and stole all the fuel for the flame--that flame that had been the motivator of my life and hallmark of my personality. I was completely extinguished. What would I do if I were bedridden and too weak to smile for the rest of my life?
Was I dying?
The divine surgeon was doing his work, and while it hurt like hell, I also knew he was saving my life.
I didn’t know how to cope. The big questions bubbled up, this time with nary a clear answer in sight.
Who am I, if I can't contribute or serve or even feed myself?
Who is God, in the midst of so much chaotic suffering?
How am I supposed to live this fog? What is my purpose?
My physical and emotional life was turned upside down. I learned that the “funk” I had in Italy was what most people called anxiety-- the word had just never entered my lexicon. Now I was having attacks, and the slightest stimulus would overwhelm my system.
I remember once a fly buzzed by, and I thought I would come unglued.
There were days I would sob and scream into my pillow. Why is this happening? How the **** am I supposed to respond to this?? Why must I feel so completely and utterly unhinged?
And yet, in the midst of the upheaval, beautiful things were happening.
I had a spiritual director to hold my hand and walk with me through bewildering landscapes.
I felt held and understood by the mystics, whose works I was now devouring (when my brain allowed). They had been there. They knew what was happening.
I spent countless hours sitting in front of big bay windows that looked out upon the purple South Dakota hills. The silence slowly rendered me, melting my defenses like wax near a flame, warmed, soft, and pooling. The stillness drew me into wordless spaces. I seriously pondered becoming a hermit.
Those who have been through deeply transformative times will understand when I say that those 18 months were just as beautiful as they were painful. I cannot describe to you the agony it was. It was like being blown open on the battlefield, chest asunder. I needed emergency open-heart surgery. There was no time for anesthesia. The divine surgeon was doing his work, and while it hurt like hell, I also knew he was saving my life.
Then slowly, at the speed of a heavy cloud hung resolutely in the sky, my heart was gathered back together.
The massive questions that felt so bewildering before revealed themselves as companions.
The mystics reminded me that the divine was Mystery--and that there was an eternal invitation to enter in.
Not to be conquered, nor understood-- but explored. Held softly. And loved.
Life settled in me in a new way. It’s hard to put into words. I was deliciously at home in my own skin. (An interior hygge?) It seemed I could join the cosmic choir without effort. I stepped into my place in Reality, and it all felt so... simple.
Gradually--so gradually it hardly felt like movement-- I stepped back into life. I got a part time job, and then another. As my health improved, I found myself stepping into a leadership development role for a group of companies. Life began to gain color after the frozen stupor it had been in. A door cracked open; my curiosity and spark, which I once feared dead, emerged again. That spark grew into a small flame as my love for the interior life found expression in my new role. I was certified as a professional coach, and got to help executives and managers thrive.
I was deliciously at home in my own skin. It seemed I could join the cosmic choir without effort. I stepped into my place in Reality, and it all felt so... simple.
I smile at the similarities and disparities of life before and after illness. My new role as coach was not unlike spiritual direction. Interior growth, no matter the angle from which you approach it, is interior growth. Becoming a deeper, freer, whole person will always impact the way you lead, love, motivate people, and relate to the divine. What the corporate world called “business skills,” religious life had called “human virtue.”
The agony of illness prepared me for new chapters in ways I couldn't imagine. When you're in the midst of such suffering, everything is opaque. The fog is so thick that sometimes all you can do is throw your hands up, plop your butt on the ground, and cry.
But then at times you sense the barely perceptible movement of the fog. Fog is simply a low-lying cloud, after all-- and clouds are anything but static. The water, though in a different form than you're used to, retains the gentle currents of the ocean. Freed from being earth-bound, she pliés and jetés in new ways.
When we're stripped of accomplishments, control, roles, and even the ability to take care of ourselves, we're left existentially naked. And it feels absolutely terrifying.
But it's also when we're exposed, nerve endings flaring, that we become tender enough to sense the invisible movement of the fog.
And while your mind cannot fathom it, your body can. Your spirit begins to breathe in the moisture until her movement is in your bones. Some new, unspoken knowing spreads into your limbs. As your nerves calm, you begin to wonder if being stripped naked isn't the most wonderful thing that could have happened to you.
In an inexpressible way, the fog that once inspired terror becomes the place of ultimate freedom.
Sickness or Healing?
There are so many stories I could tell you about my time of illness. I could tell you about the month where my community broke up with me, I was diagnosed with cancer, and a good friend declared his desire to date me. (I almost got whiplash in those 30 days.)
I could tell you how this man loved me back to health.
I could tell you about how I developed a crush on Russia, and its native mysticism. The path of Beauty is strong in the East, and there is so. much. we in the West have to learn about living from the heart, instead of always from the head.
I could tell you about learning the mind-blowing importance of healthy boundaries, and how to stop spiritualizing my excuses for not having them.
I could tell you how my sense of embodiment was blown open, and how I connected with my body and my sexuality for what seemed like the first time.
I could tell you about the trauma that emerged, and the ongoing journey of welcoming healing and wholeness.
I could tell you many a story--
But for now, I will simply tell you: the divine gave me sickness for my healing, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Kelly Deutsch specializes in audacity. Big dreams, fierce desires, restless hearts. When seekers are hungry for unspeakably more, she offers the space to explore contemplative depths and figure out where they fit in the vast spiritual landscape. She speaks and writes about divine intimacy, emotional intelligence, John of the Cross, trauma-informed spiritual practice, and neuropsychology. Kelly offers spiritual direction, coaching, contemplative cohorts, and retreats. She is the bestselling author of Spiritual Wanderlust: The Field Guide to Deep Desire. When she isn’t exploring the interior life, you might find her wandering under Oregonian skies or devouring red curry.