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  • Writer's pictureAnna Byrne

The Alchemy of Illness

It is our collective vocation to help one another transform the Darknesses of our lives into something that contains Light.

This week, on the eve of the Summer Solstice, I was invited to give an author’s talk in Squamish. It was hosted by the Sea to Sky Hospice Society as part of their Compassionate Communities series, an initiative to build supportive networks of people for those living with a life-limiting illness and for their families. Some of the folks who came were already hospice volunteers while others were just learning about hospice. There were people in their 20s all the way to people in their 70s. I shared my story about living with serious illness, becoming a hospice volunteer, and writing a book. Using the theme of light and dark, I also spoke about the alchemy of illness, how human beings have the ability to take some of the darkest experiences in our lives and transform them into something that contains light. Here is an excerpt from that talk:

“In those moments of being re-diagnosed, I was being asked to step into and live in a grey zone, a liminal space, a period of time of characterized by uncertainty and transition. I didn’t understand it at the time, but the darkness was just beginning and it would come in many forms. Instead of one year, I would spend the next seven in the medical system, undergoing dozens of different chemotherapies, tests, and hospitalizations.

I want to be clear that during these times in our lives, finding light doesn’t mean denying that there is darkness, or quickly bypassing it, or glorifying it as heroic—these times are very real and very scary. Some of my experiences were terrifying. But during that time of having cancer, I came to the understanding that I was going to die—whether that was from cancer or something else. And under the light of truly understanding that in a way I had never had to before, I knew I had decisions to make about how I was going to live and what I was going to do with this understanding.

I now think of that time as a bit like the ancient art of alchemy. Alchemy is the process of changing base, mundane materials into something precious. In myth, there are stories of alchemists taking an inexpensive metal or mineral, putting it into a vessel, adding essential elements and substances, applying various operations, then distilling it down into something valuable. So lead or tin could go into a beaker or cauldron, and then pigments, oils, salt, alcohol, heat and pressure were added and at the end of that process—there is gold.

I think what happened to me physically was a type of alchemy. The base materials of a disease in the container of my body, and over a prolonged time, the doctors, chemists, and therapists added and subtracted treatments, transfusions, and therapies in measured amounts. It was a literal chemical interaction as the chemotherapies worked throughout my blood system, lymph nodes, and organs. The doctors waited, observed, documented, tested, tinkered, and tried again. They whittled down options, looking for the right combination to produce the gold standard of medical care: A Cure.

But as my physical life declined, I also often felt at times that my spirit was being stripped down. Each relapse brought progressive levels of loss. At a time when I thought the hard work of my 20s would pay off with finishing education, a steady job, and solid relationships, the opposite happened. Many of these things were slowly stripped away. I lost the image I had of myself as healthy, young, vibrant. I had questions about my faith. I lost not only my ability to work, to do and affect things in the world, but also of my attachment to my appearance, productivity, and socializing as a measure of my worth. As I got closer to dying, I was repeatedly asked to let go of everything I had ever known. And I watched how my family was stripped down too, in grief, doubt, and sometimes despair.

Then, I started to notice that there was a parallel process happening in my internal life. What the stripping away was doing was hollowing me out, creating space, and preparing me for something new. I knew that I had to find a place where my sense of self, peace, joy, and steadiness was not dependent on the outcome of my illness or, for that matter, any other external factor. Paradoxically, many of the things that I let go of during that time—or were wrestled from my hands—turned out not to be such losses after all. What arose in the space that achieving, accumulating, and approval had previous occupied, was more love, gratitude, simplicity, and forgiveness. I often say that I did not lose control; I lost the illusion that I had control. Some of what initially looked like dark was actually making space for more light.

How did this happen? When we encounter darkness, our natural tendency is often to close into ourselves out of fear. But the structure of our eyes teaches us that the only way to let light in is to dilate, to expand, which is counter to our instincts. One of the primary reasons I came through that time in my life was because of the people who I opened myself up to, and who accompanied me. I was fortunate that I had a large, close family, and I was in my 30s so my network of friends was mostly established. And my sense of community expanded, too. There were so many people over those seven years who touched into our lives for a brief moment—other families we met in waiting rooms, patients I shared rooms with in the hospital, and the doctors and nurses who stewarded not only me, but my family during that time.

It wasn’t about what people said. It was mostly about their willingness, in the midst of my great pain and theirs, to not look away. To continue witnessing what was happening even if they were helpless to change it, and to do their own work to stay in that grey zone with me. When they added their kindness, patience, and honesty to the mix of what was happening to me internally, they helped to shift the dark to light. Many of these relationships alchemized into something deeper and more solid. We had conversations about life and what was important to us and what we meant to one another. They remained present with me throughout many difficult moments over many difficult years.

Under the sustained pressure of seven years and the parallel process of my physical illness, my spirit’s journey alchemized and was distilled down to something that I came believe was even more precious than being cured—that is, being Healed. Healing didn't mean I was cancer-free, or always happy, that I completely accepted dying, or even that I’ve escaped long-term effects of being in cancer care for such a sustained period of time. But if I am going to die—and I surely will—I want to spend my life focusing on healing. For me, this means practicing forgiveness (including forgiving reality for being seemingly unfair to me and to others); by telling people what they mean to me; and by doing things I care about.

And as many of us have seen, sometimes curing and healing don’t go together. I’ve met people who were cured of cancer but who left treatment bitter and angry. And I’ve met people very close to death who are filled with grace and peace and whose spirit still gave generously to the world. Curing and healing are not the same thing.

There’s a bit of mystery to alchemy—you never really know what’s working or happening. My illness was like that—physically, in how I survived, why I made the meaning I did, and what I took away from that experience. Writing is like that too, with what works and doesn’t work. But I believe that everything we create and put out in the world takes on a life of its own. We never know how our creative projects or other efforts are going to interact with the world and alchemize into something completely new. I think that’s true of everything we do in our work and in our lives.

In that process of sharing my story, one of the unanticipated gold nuggets that arose was that others found something of their own experience in my story. Although it’s my story, my story is really the story of humanity. In my life, there has been serious illness, death, caregiving, grief, and elements of what it is to accompany others on their journey. The book lives in the shaded crossover of acute gratitude for being alive and agonizing awareness of death. It explores the continuum between curing and healing, loss and gain, pain and joy, control and mystery, death and life, and asks how these can co-exist together and illuminate one another.

If my story is unique, it is only that I’ve been seriously ill and grief-stricken earlier than many people are, and that I’ve had the good fortune to report back. All lives, like mine, will have within it its own box of darkness, whether that’s failure, divorce, addiction, illness or something else. My story is one version of what we will all experience, of the universal story that we are all a part of, and that contains light and dark.

The question remains: How do we help one another increase our capacity and resiliency for living in the grey zone? How do we help one another find our inner resources—our inner light—to face the unknown, the quiet shadow, the fear, and the hidden side of life that is death. For me, that means community. What I’ve learned from my time with illness, my time as a hospice volunteer, a writer, and human being is that it is our collective vocation to take the many moments of darkness that are given to us throughout our life and to hold them, add to them, distill them down, and ultimately transform darkness into something with more light, for ourselves and for each other. It is in accompanying one another that we make gold.”

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Anna Byrne
Anna Byrne
Jun 28, 2023


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