What if recovery from illness could be unrelated to how illness arises?
A basic hypothesis of a narrative approach to illness is that the conditions of a person's life are more or less conducive to illness or to recovery. This differs from previous mind-body approaches or psychosomatic medicine that locate the source for illness within an individual and his or her intrapersonal dynamics. In a narrative approach, it is the entire story that must be considered. The story includes all aspects of the context as well as all involved individuals. Through a narrative approach, we enter a larger model than our science has previously been able to grasp. The model is confusing. It defies simple statistics. It resists linear cause and effect. It proposes that illness arises as an emergent, dynamic condition supported and maintained by all aspects of the situation. This new model both reduces human agency and increases human freedom. It is distinctly similar to aboriginal models of health and disease. Mathematically it requires complex systems methods rather than simple statistical formulae.
Illness has the potential to serve as a stimulus for personal transformation. It can also transform a social network. One of the most profound changing experiences of my life came from being part of a network ofpeople connected to a young woman who died of adrenal cancer. Though she died, those of us who were ostensibly helping her, were irrevocably transformed.
A narrative approach also has the power to move us beyond the defective people model toward an optimizing systems model.
Illness can awaken us to previously undeveloped qualities, perceptions, sensibilities, and abilities. It may be the catalyst toward emotional healing. It can allow us to emerge into greater sense of meaning and purpose. Illness can serve as a call to spiritual practice, or, in the West, become a spiritual practice in and of itself. It can become an antidote to modern Western visions of growth based on developing personal ego power. Jonathan Kabat-Zinn (1993) and Deena Metzger (2004) compare the illness experience to excruciating physical endeavors which ancient spiritual seekers willingly undertook for the sake of their own spiritual development.
Narratives exist of people who have been able to "wake up" through their illness, who tranform through the real life experience of illness.