Wednesday, February 22, 2017

An Outside Perspective Pt 1: Understanding Chronic Illness

(of an illness) persisting for a long time or constantly recurring.

     When was the last time you were sick? (Last Friday in my case). No fun, huh? Did you curl up in bed and watch movies, waiting for your aches and pain to pass? Did you power through cold symptoms at work or school while your nose dripped, your throat burned, and your head was in a fog? Being sick is miserable. It stinks. When we get sick we put life on pause if we can, and if we can't, we may feel a bit sorry for ourselves. We try to get rest, move a little slower, and trust people will have grace for us if we're not in a particularly cheery mood. Then we get better, and life goes on.

     But imagine, if you will, that miserable feeling being a constant. Rather than hitting hard and moving on with a possible week or so of recovery afterward, imagine it stretching on for days... weeks... months... years. The specific symptoms may be different (and often worse) but if you have been imagining along with me, you have gotten a taste of what it's like to be chronically ill.

     I am not chronically ill, but my mom and brother have a chronic illness (as do 2 of my closest friends) so I have, in a sense, lived with it and seen its merciless effects first hand. It is isolating. It is discouraging. It is wearying. It is misunderstood. It is frightening. In writing this post, I'll try to do in text what I often have in conversation- explain at least a little of what makes chronic illness so hard.

      First, chronic illness is hidden. Most of those who suffer with it don't look sick, and consequently, they are often misunderstood. They have to function as best as they can with pain as a constant companion, because that's just how life is. So when you see them a smiling and laughing that doesn't mean everything is fine. They may be an expert at hiding just how bad they're feeling, and what you also don't see is that the price of today's social event may be a crash tomorrow, as they expended far more energy than they really had. For them, doing things we take for granted comes at a high price. As energy is limited, activities must become limited. As they are forced to step back from things they enjoyed before, as they have to keep saying "no," life keeps going on, and they may increasingly feel forgotten or left behind. Chronic illness is by its nature isolating and lonely.
     Second, chronic illness is... well... chronic. It just keeps going, long past the point one would feel they could endure it. People ask, "how are you feeling?" and the choices are either to hide the truth with a simple "fine" or to be honest and say "pretty terrible" over and over and over and over. There are ups and downs, but when the truth is usually discouraging, sometimes people get tired of asking. There's often no end in sight, and even when one's faith is strong, enduring pain day after day after day is wearying. Also, many chronic illnesses are hard to diagnose, and often it can mean years of doctors and tests with no answers... and then when answers do come the implications may be bleak. They need prayer for endurance.

     I feel safe in saying that possibly the most hurtful thing for someone who is chronically ill is for someone (especially someone close to them) to doubt that they are really sick. When someone is fighting pain and exhaustion day after day, the implication (however well it is meant) that it's all in their head is like a dagger. I have seen this happen more than once, and I can't begin to describe the pain it causes. Remember, chronic illness is hidden. Just because you can't see it, don't understand it, and may not have a label to attach to it doesn't mean it isn't there. If someone you love is chronically ill, and you are struggling with skepticism, please, please do not express it, and do not judge them. Try instead to be there for them. Try to be humble and teachable, ready to believe them, And if you are truly struggling with reservations about it, I do understand, it's hard to understand its effects when you haven't witnessed them first hand. Let me encourage you to bring that before God, and ask Him to help you see the situation as He sees it.

     Even having witnessed the effects of chronic illness on a day to day basis, it's still easy for me to forget or minimize just how bad those I love are feeling. That's why I'm sharing all this- in the hope that we might, as brothers and sisters in Christ, be able to have a better understanding of something that is often hard to grasp. In the next post I'll share some thoughts about practical ways to love those who are chronically ill, but in the meantime, just trying to understand (and praying!!) is a good place to start.

***Chronic illness is a broad term, and as with anything else, there is no universal stereotype for those who are chronically ill. What is felt by and/or helpful to one person might not be the same as someone else. I don't pretend to speak for all those who suffer with chronic illness, only to offer what I have observed in the hope that it may be helpful. 

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