Petrea discusses her spiritual experience and how she has learned to rise above physical pain and the challenging uncertainty that comes with disease.
It was in a tiny cave outside of Assisi that my whole life finally came unstuck.
If it weren’t for the love of strangers I would not have survived. Father Ilarino, an elderly priest, was the Superiore of the Eremo delle Carceri and he cooked, shopped and cared for me, a complete stranger. My life ground to a halt in that tiny grotto outside of Assisi where St Francis used to meditate, pray and sleep. I loved the madness and the wildness of St Francis and shared his passion for nature and animals. I found nature wondrous and the behaviour of animals of all descriptions made far more sense to me than the confusing way people behaved. St Francis felt like good company for my distressed state.
I need to backtrack to bring perspective to my situation
I was the youngest of three children with two older brothers. Brenden was eighteen months older than me and was a chaotic presence in our home while my other brother, Ross and I were growing up. Brenden exhibited ADHD twenty years before anyone knew what ADHD was. He spent his childhood falling off the roof, breaking bones, decorating the house with lipstick, clinging to my mother or emptying porridge onto his head each morning. Being a little younger than he, I tried as hard as I could to be invisible. It became second nature for me just to ‘split off and disappear’ – and not have any needs.
Brenden told me before he was ten that he knew he would take his own life by age 30. I immediately took that on as the reason for my existence. That’s why I’m here. I’m here to keep Brenden safe. I adored him, but I also found him really challenging, scary and difficult. He was incredibly bright, gifted with music, art and creativity, and his large presence filled our days.
The hand inside the glove
At the age of seven I had a profound spiritual experience that left me confused and added to my feelings of being different. I was running in the garden with my pet dog, Brynner, when suddenly the whole physical world became completely insubstantial. I was a part of this blinding beneficent light that was far more real than the physical world. Seeing through the earth, the house, my dog and the trees and none of it was solid. I can only describe this as though I was suddenly seeing the hand inside the glove; the glove being everything that was material but the hand being that which enlivened everything. While it was a very powerful, indeed profound, experience, I didn’t discuss it with anyone as language to describe it was – and largely remains – beyond my reach.
When Brenden reached his teen years he went into major depression and was hospitalised on and off for years. He took drugs that turned him into a zombie and he underwent electric shock treatment. I found everything that was happening to him to be totally awful. I felt responsible that I wasn’t able to help him even though I was only a young teenager myself. He attempted suicide several times before he finally succeeded in taking his life in Kathmandu when he was 32.
When I was eleven, I grew 23 centimetres in one year. My knees swivelled in and started dislocating and I was unable to walk without constantly falling. After months of physio, I left school at thirteen. I was admitted to hospital where I spent the next three years having a dozen corrective surgeries and learning to walk again. The surgeon cut my legs at the femur and turned my lower legs outwards.
Then he cut the tibias and turned my lower legs inwards as well as transplanting the tendons under my knees and shortening some muscles while lengthening others. After one of the surgeries I was in traction for nine months because the femur wouldn’t unite. My doctor said I would never walk again. After so many months in bed, my legs looked like two white hairy sticks attached to my body and, even with all my willpower, I could not move either of them.
Because of the unspoken spiritual experience I had at seven and then this hidden secretive life in hospital, I developed a split reality of being someone very privately to myself and someone who I kept highly polished for everybody else. In our family no matter what was happening, we always coped and never talked about how we felt; we only talked about what we thought. The attitude in our family was that we could (and would!) cope with everything. Perhaps this stemmed from never wanting to be a ‘bother’ because Brenden was being a much bigger bother!
Beyond the material world, and pain
As a child and young teenager I felt quite depressed and overwhelmed by the world. Why are humans so cruel to one another and to animals, so thoughtless about nature and the environment? I couldn’t bear a God that allowed such suffering. So I sacked that God very early on when I had the experience of seeing beyond the material world. That had been such a profound experience for me. I knew I was more than my physical body and that there was this unacknowledged dimension to life.
During my hospitalisations I had several out-of-body experiences. I suffered with terrible cramps in the leg where the femur wouldn’t unite. The cramp would start in the toes and move right up through the arch of my foot, my calf and leg, all the way into my hip. By then, I would usually pass out with the pain or I would find myself on the ceiling looking down at my body. From there I could see my body going through the motions of the cramp but the ‘ouch’ – the pain – was gone. It was very confusing; I knew I wasn’t my body because I was watching it going through the pain, but ‘I’ was alright and I felt fully alive, beyond the pain.
After recovering from the dozen operations and teaching myself to walk again, I went into nursing which, of course, was too physically demanding for me after so much reconstructive surgery to my legs. Within a year, I had damaged my spine and was confined to a back brace. It was during this time of again being laid low by my body that I was raped by a ‘friend’ at a church fellowship meeting. I was lying down resting in the bedroom of the house where we regularly met when this man overpowered me with his strength and desire.
If I had called out for help it would have been provided, but I didn’t have a voice. I was so used to being quiet, to not being a bother, not rocking the boat, disappearing somewhere else beyond the pain, beyond the humiliation and the fear. I felt, you can do what you like to me, I’m not here. It was some years before I told anyone about that experience as I had felt it was my fault because I didn’t call out for help. I didn’t even think of it as rape because I was to blame.
Seeking stillness and solitude
At eighteen I ran (limped!) away to the country feeling defeated by life and relationships. I craved the stillness and solitude I found in nature as it made far more sense than people did! I worked in western Queensland outside of Cunnamulla. From there I went to New Zealand for a year, then Holland, then England for another couple of years. I finally returned to Australia at the age of 24.
Because the arthritis in my legs impacted quite heavily on physical activities, I voraciously consumed information about diet and lifestyle and the positive impact they might have on my health. I went vegetarian at seventeen and undertook many lengthy fasts of several weeks, sometimes just with water or fresh juice. On my return to Australia I studied naturopathy, massage, homeopathy and herbal medicine.
I wanted to understand the relationship between food, lifestyle, the mind, our attitudes and health. I intuitively knew that there was far more to healing than the medical approach that always seemed to be shutting the gate after the horse had bolted! No-one seemed interested in the context or story that people held about their illnesses and yet I knew that my story had a direct impact on my recovery from the many surgeries in hospital.
I knew the mind had a lot to do with health. I noticed how different my body felt when I meditated rather than when I felt overwhelmed by fear, anxiety, hopelessness, depression, self-loathing and despair. However, no amount of meditation helped me deal with these powerful and overwhelming emotions. I knew how to escape them by meditating, but meditation didn’t resolve the underlying story that permeated my life.
Quite soon after returning to Australia I met Leo, who was soon to become my husband. We married and had two beautiful children, Kate and Simon. Unfortunately, in addition to his many wonderful qualities, my husband was also violent. The marriage lasted about eight years before its rather sudden ending.
After I completed my naturopathic studies, my husband, children and I moved to America to do our yoga and meditation teacher training. We had been there just four weeks when I thought Leo had gone for a long walk, but he’d actually returned to Australia with all our money, leaving me stranded with two small children in a geodesic dome! Brenden had recently taken his life and I was already feeling overwhelmed by grief, loss and trauma.
“Dead by Christmas”
Not long after Leo left I became very weak and ill. After two bone marrow biopsies and blood tests, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia. I was told that I would be dead by Christmas, just three months away. My very first reaction was relief. I felt in many ways that my life was a constant struggle. I was so weary of having to keep up appearances when really I felt helpless, hopeless, grief-stricken and tired of living with chronic pain.
My journey to Assisi is a longer story. But when I finally arrived there I stayed for several months in the Eremo delle Carceri, which was built around a series of caves that St Francis and his disciples used for prayer, sleep and meditation.
I would spend up to eighteen hours a day in the Grotto of St Francis. It was there I realised I’d used meditation for many years to avoid my feelings. I had many disciplines around mindfulness and concentration that kept my mind focused. This helped me to avoid experiencing any of the complex feelings that lay just under the highly polished surface of my life. So finally, in the cave, it all came unstuck. I wept for weeks. I meditated, prayed and wept; meditated, prayed and wept.
There were times when I was in a morass of self-pity. I felt totally unworthy and unlovable, and I became completely self-absorbed. I was my own universe and couldn’t see past it as I obsessed about not being good enough, of being a failure, a loathsome person. And yet, I could see so clearly that focusing on those thoughts would perpetuate my suffering. I felt trapped in my own miserable mind. While it was not an easy path, I could see there was nothing more worthwhile than to liberate myself from this kind of sick thinking. This meant liberating myself from self-hatred and judgement.
If I was going to die, I wanted to find peace before doing so. As these beliefs fell away, gradually peace became my more constant companion. Time passed and the more I dismantled my beliefs and wept tears over trying so hard to get it right, to measure up to some impossibly high self-imposed standard of perfection, to save Brenden – and the world! – I felt stronger and more at peace in the moment.
Living with uncertainty
So I returned to Australia, saw my doctor and had the first blood tests for many months. He told me I had zillions of baby red blood cells. I was in an unexpected remission from leukaemia. He assured me that leukaemia would return perhaps in a few days or weeks.
I found living with uncertainty very challenging. When you know you’re going to die, there are things you need to say and do. I’d done and said all of them. I had my will and financial affairs in order. I’d made tapes and letters for my children for the future. I’d given my children to the care of their father. I had my whole life packed up ready for the big trip… and then the plane got cancelled and I went into remission. How much do you unpack from the suitcase? How much do you live as if you’re really going to be here?
It took some months, but then I realised that everyone is living with uncertainty, they just don’t know it. Those of us who have had many traumas in life know that life can change in a phone call, a moment, a breath or a conversation – and it’s never the same again.
It’s not fair!
I well remember the day in the grotto when I realised there was nothing and no-one to blame for my misery. I could still be sitting there now – a dusty little pile of bones in the corner of the cave – muttering, “It’s not fair!”
It wasn’t fair that I grew up with Brenden. It was not fair that he told me he had to kill himself. Unfair that I’d spent years in hospital dealing with considerable pain, not fair that I was raped. Brenden attempting suicide many times before he succeeded wasn’t fair. It was not fair that I married into violence. Not fair that I was crippled with arthritis. And it was not fair that I was diagnosed with leukaemia. But none of it changed the fact that all those things had happened to me.
I needed to weep and reconcile with my past to find peace in the present and build resilience. Not the armoured kind of resilience that I had so long relied on but a soft, open ability to be present to the moment regardless of what it contains. When the mind is quiet we have access to our intuition, wisdom, creativity, insight, humour and more. These are powerful allies when dealing with the uncertainties that profound change can precipitate in our lives.
When you nearly die, and then you don’t, you’re faced with the question, ‘what now?’ What’s a good way to spend a life? How do we reconcile our suffering and make meaning of the traumas and tragedies? I am grateful for the journey that my life has travelled. It has made of me a better companion to people embarked upon their own suffering. Being with people who understand the inner landscape of powerful emotions is profoundly helpful. If we all shed a little light on one another’s paths, we’ll all find our way to peace and wholeness.
This article is based on Petrea’s chapter in the book, Transformation by Dr Tim Sharp, published by Finch Publishing.
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