Tuesday, 17 November 2015

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness - A Book Review

Toni Bernhard with her puppy, Scout

Toni Bernhard's new book is her third, and I love them all. But this one is my favourite. Even more than usual, I felt while reading it that she was speaking to me directly. Not all writers have this gift.

Written in the easy, flowing style so typical of Toni's writing, it's astonishingly comprehensive, covering everything from the everyday difficulties of living with chronic pain or illness, to help for the friends and families of sufferers to understand what it's like to live with chronic illness, day upon day, year upon year. This was important to me, as I expect to many other sufferers, because virtually everyone I know in what Toni describes as the "parallel world" of the chronically sick finds it hard to deal with insensitive comments made by (often well-meaning) people who are ignorant of what their struggles involve.

As with Toni's previous books, it's clearly written from a Buddhist perspective. Here though, there seems less emphasis on formal Buddhist practices and philosophy, and perhaps a little more on practical ways of coping and "living well". Toni still introduces practices that have helped her to find equanimity and strength throughout the 14 years (so far) of her illness, and she's totally disarming in her openness about her struggles and occasional failures to respond to them with equanimity. There is not a trace of self pity, however. Much of the book seems written with a view to empathising and feeling compassion for her fellow sufferers and their carers. There are also delightful touches of humour. But it remains a very practical book, and she really does show that finding equanimity, retaining the aspects of life that can still give us pleasure even though we're ill, and being compassionate with ourselves (either in response to physical suffering, or when we fail to respond to it in helpful ways), can help to enrich our lives and reduce the mental suffering that so often accompanies chronic illness. Toni's compassion, wisdom and practical experience of living with illness, shine through every page.

I cannot stress enough how easy this book is to read. The chapters are many and short, each dealing with a different aspect of living with chronic pain and illness. This may be important for many readers, because pain and illness affect concentration for a lot of sufferers - so the shorter the chapters, the easier the read. Each chapter is also helpfully subdivided. This also has the benefit of making it easy to dip in to the book and pick out sections that may be relevant to difficulties we're experiencing at that time.

As with her previous books, Toni's loved ones make appearances in the many little stories that illustrate her own experiences and difficulties. Especially when you've read all three books, you may come to feel you almost know Toni's husband, children, granddaughters and even her playful Labrador puppy. These personal appearances never intrude, however. They always help to make some point clearer, by bringing experiences from her real life to show how a life that's been turned upside down can still be responded to in ways that help to reduce suffering. Toni is also honest in recognising that in certain respects she's lucky. Many chronically ill people have no partner, no family, no home of their own, no income, or (in America) little or no health insurance. She recognises that their own experiences may be much more difficult. All this, together with her disarming honesty about her own difficulties, reveal a woman who feels very much a part of the chronic illness community, rather than an expert dispensing wisdom from on high. Although, as I said earlier, she is indeed very wise!

This is one of the very best 'self help' books I've ever read. Reading it brought me comfort, help and companionship during a difficult pain flare. I've lived with chronic pain for eleven years now, and Toni's latest book is one of those that will never be far from my bedside.

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide is available from Amazon and all good bookshops.

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