Oh, the joys of having a chronic illness! You think I jest, but I don’t. You think I’m crazy, and though that is true, there is actually a strange joy to be found in the life of one who suffers. Many of you can relate who may to the struggle, though not with a chronic illness. I think we who struggle have learned to hold tight to certain things that matter and have had to learn to relax our grip on other things, things that we might try to juggle “if only . . .” But the truth is, this is our present reality and we must learn to surrender, pace ourselves, and learn to let our lives flow so we can keep going.
Several times debilitating chronic migraines have interrupted my life and the life of my family. Twice in high school, once in college, and three/almost four years ago the pain descended again and has turned everything upside down — but what if it’s turning things right-side up?
It’s odd to me that laundry, once the bane of my existence, has become a source of hope for me. Believe me, I know that sounds strange! Over a year ago, we became a family of six when my husband, three children, and I began caring for my brain-injured sister. Due to incontinence issues with my sister, it is rare to not need to start the day washing bedclothes. Originally, I dreaded beginning the day this way, but it has become something that I can do even with a pain level of seven. I have begun to look at things with this perspective, that even if I can do only a little, I can celebrate the fact that God has helped me do something. Typically, I find myself running at least a couple of loads a day, and depending on how I am feeling and what my pain level allows, I often can get them folded and have family members help put them away. If I’m really struggling, my kids help with the folding.
I know this sounds like common sense, but there is a great deal at work here. There is recognition of what is actually going on in my body. I have to assess honestly what my pain level is, what household chores I can accomplish with the energy I have and what I need to ask for help with. Here rests the strange balance with surrender and pacing and a life that flows.
Over the years I have had to seek counsel to help me through the depression/anxiety that follows me around like a shadow as I deal with chronic pain. One word comes up over and over again with my therapists: control. I have little to no control over the pain. There are techniques, treatments, therapies, but the pain is an ever-present part of my life, even during seasons of “remission” when it is not as severe or debilitating. The truth is, I want to do all the things and I want to do of them well. As a Christian, I say I believe God is in control, but I act like I need to do it all myself. I have to surrender my illusion of control, discover things I can do on hard days and then release everything else. Surrender isn’t easy, but when I release, I find immense joy in watching how God meets my needs.
I find that as I humble myself and ask for help, He teaches my kids how to have servant-hearts and develops compassion in them. He nurtures friendships with kind people that I may never have gotten to know well, people who are willing to help me with my responsibilities. Suddenly I discover I am grateful for things I took for granted before, services like grocery pick-up, convenient appliances like my washer and dryer. It’s easy to become embittered with ongoing relentless pain, but when I realize what I do have, it makes all the difference in how my life can flow forward. I can discover with a new-found heart of gratitude how best to pace myself and I’m not spinning downward in a spiral of self-recrimination for what I can’t do.
I discover, to my joy, that I’m thankful for these hard lessons, for learning how I need to surrender and pace myself. I discover that though I don’t enjoy the pain, I’m so grateful that God can use it in my life to refine me, to make me more like Him, I pray.
So, I may be crazy, but there is joy in this life of pain. Having just published my book, Memoirs of a Headcase: Held by the God of HOPE, I’m discovering more and more reasons to hope and rise above the pain. I think a great many of us have hard things in our lives like this that can chase us to rejoice.
Photo credits: Wout Vanacker, Priscilla du Preez, Dan Gold