Nearly 1 in 2 Americans (133 million)1live with chronic conditions and illnesses, such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis (MS), diabetes and lupus.
Their symptoms—like pain, fatigue, muscle aches and weakness, disturbances in vision, cognitive difficulty, intestinal distress and memory loss—aren't always visible to the naked eye. Harder still, friends, family and co-workers can't always recognize a sense of loss, loneliness and isolation.
Despite the obstacles sufferers must overcome on a daily basis, experts agree that, yes, people living with chronic conditions can live full and meaningful lives, regardless of the severity of their condition.
In this series of articles, we want to explore the impact chronic illness has on life and relationships. You'll learn how sufferers develop rich prayer lives and intimacy with God, rediscover latent gifts and abilities—even launch new ministries and careers. Faced with physical and emotional limitations, they discover joy in life's simple pleasures: the laughter of a child, God's artistry in nature and a slower, more reflective pace of life.
Mental health experts, pastors and the chronically ill weigh in on the issues that matter most—how to adjust to life, rebuilding your life after the diagnosis and what the Bible says about pain and suffering.
We talk about the grieving process, feelings of purposeless and the loss of identity those with chronic illness often experience. We discover that, although our chronic illness robs us of many aspects of life, it cannot take from us our greatest freedom—to choose God in the midst of our suffering, to seek His glory despite our pain.
In his book, Man's Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl shares this story:
"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. "2
"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. "
We can choose to become bitter about our illness, or we can choose to use it as a catalyst for growth. We can choose to focus on what we cannot do, or we can look for opportunities to use the abilities we have to honor God. We can choose to believe that the most significant seasons of our lives are past, or we can choose to believe God's Word—that He delights in using the weak to confound the wise and that His power is made perfect in our weakness.
We hope this series of articles inspires you to make healthy choices—to seek God in your pain, to find the help and support you need and to turn obstacles into opportunities for growth.
The choice is yours.
Adjust to life with chronic illness?
It might seem counterintuitive, but according to experts, you can live a full and meaningful life despite having compromised health. Millions of people living with serious chronic conditions have used their struggles as a springboard for spiritual, relational and emotional growth. Many have gone on to launch new ministries, careers, and friendships.
"Eventually, you adjust to a new normal," explains Lisa Copen, founder of Rest Ministries, Inc™*, an organization that serves the chronically ill.
According to Copen, once you find the right doctor, medication and support, you can learn to cope successfully with your limitations—as long as you remember that you're not just dealing with your physical well-being; instead, you're learning to cast your relationships, emotional and spiritual health and physical health in a different light.
Couples should devote as much time to managing their relationship as they do to managing the illness, advises Deborah B. Dunn, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
"Find a third-party, outside of the family, who is supportive, encouraging and able to help you process the changes," she says. "Don't let your illness define you or your marriage."
She also advises against telling children that "everything will turn out fine."
It may not.
"Don't make promises you can't keep," she says. "I've talked to so many children during the years who have gotten so angry with God because they think He fell down on the job. Be honest without being graphic."
Family relationships are not the only ones to suffer. Friends, co-workers, neighbors—even people from church, may not know how to respond to the "new" you. Some may reject you because they're uncomfortable with your physical or emotional pain.
Copen also advises relying on a confidant who understands what you're going through.
"If you're having trouble finding support at the local level, use the Internet to find the help and support you need. In addition to Rest Ministries*, organizations like Joni and Friends* and Dave Dravecky's Endurance* offer tools and practical resources to guide you."
For many, healthy grieving, which includes periods of shock and numbness, denial, anger, disorientation, and intense emotional pain, is the greatest challenge. Experts say it is essential that you engage your grief reaction. If you do not, they warn, it will surface in other, more destructive ways.
Here's another important point experts want sufferers to remember: While, the "grieving timetable" is different for everyone, changes in your condition may provoke additional losses and seasons of mourning. That's why it is important to practice patience with yourself, eat well, get sufficient rest, express your feelings—journal, cry, sing, and talk to others about your pain.
Scott Twentyman, M.D., a practicing psychoanalyst in the Washington, D.C. area, urges the chronically ill to watch for signs of depression and to seek professional help when needed.
"Trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, weight gain or loss, loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyable, lack of energy and certainly suicidal thoughts… all are indications of clinical depression."
And if you are depressed, don't rely on medication alone.
"Treatment for depression is more effective when medication is used in conjunction with therapy," says Dr. Twentyman.
Here are some additional tips that will help you adjust to life with chronic illness:
One of the biggest fears those living with chronic illness face is about the future. While no one can predict it, the experiences others have faced can help it if we have to deal with chronic pain or illness.
Trish Robichaud lives with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis and depression.
"My health challenges…have taken my life in a direction that I would never have gone with the illness."
After her diagnosis, Trish built a home-based business that gives her flexibility and allows her to manage her condition.
"It's been a blessing," says Trish, "and I thank God daily for where I'm at in life today."
Then there's Linda Aufrance. She suffers from Lupus, but she believes her health issues has taught them compassion and sensitivity for those who are hurting; it has had positive affects on her marriage.
"As hard as it has been, my illness has brought me and my husband closer," she says.
Trish and Linda still struggle with physical pain. Still, they live rich and meaningful lives. And so can you.
It can be difficult to see God's hand in our pain. But we can be confident that, in Christ, there is always hope for your future.
A diagnosis of chronic illness can bring with it feelings of denial, anger and grief. But, at some point, the emotions subside and you are faced with a harsh reality—you are no longer the person you once were. Chronic illness has robbed you from your sense of identity and purpose. Do you even stand a chance of rebuilding a meaningful life?
According to Judy Gann—a breast cancer survivor who suffers from fibromyalgia and other autoimmune disorders—you can. She took her experiences of living with chronic illness and her desire to comfort others and wrote The God of all Comfort: Devotions of Hope for Those Who Chronically Suffer.
"God has transformed a shy, quiet woman into one who shares His comfort and hope with chronic illness support groups throughout the United States," she says.
Mari Eronen discovered her "creative side," after reducing her work hours due to complications from Type 1 Diabetes.
"The part-time work hours may be a drain on finances, but they are definitely enriching my quality of life!"
Judy and Mari have rediscovered joy and purpose in their lives, and they are not alone. Many with chronic illness have rebuilt their lives and have gone on to launch new ministries, careers and friendships. Others have developed gifts and talents they never knew they had.
Making this life transition yourself can be easier if you know how other sufferers of a chronic illness dealt with it. The key is to keep it in perspective.
"Rebuilding or redefining normal is a long process," explains Georgia Shaffer, a psychologist, professional speaker and life coach. "It can take years."
Given just a 2 percent chance to live in 1989 after a recurrence of breast cancer, Georgia lost her job because she was too weak to work, and her husband walked out on her. After piecing her shattered life back together, she wrote A Gift of Mourning Glories—Restoring Your Life After Loss, to serve as a guidebook to help others rebuild their lives.
Here are a few of her suggestions:
Volunteering builds self-esteem, contributes to feelings of value and worth, helps overcome social isolation and gives you a sense of belonging. To learn more about volunteer opportunities, visit Rest Ministries* or Christian Women Today.
Rebuilding your life while living with a chronic illness can seem like a daunting task. Take heart. With a little knowledge, creativity and encouragement from others, it's possible.
Just remember that God has a plan and purpose for your life, and he will lead you each step of the way.
If God loves us, why do we suffer? Christian or not, it's a question that comes up repeatedly during times of grief and tragedy. In times of distress, we want to know that our suffering matters to God and that He cares about our pain.
"Sometimes a fresh word may, in fact, be a very old one," write Joni Eareckson Tada and Steven Estes in When God Weeps—Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty.
Pastor Tim Hager, an associate minister in the Washington D.C. area, asserts that we suffer because we live in a fallen world.
"When sin entered the world, death entered," he says. "Chronic pain, illness, and disease are a form of death."
Despite this harsh reality, Richard C. Leonard, a minister with a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, urges the chronically ill to take their questions to God rather than allow them to become a wedge in their relationship with Him.
"Follow the example of the Psalmists," he says, "who sometimes cry out to God as though taking Him to task for their problems, but who persist in their conversation with Him; eventually [they received] an answer, reinforcing His faithfulness to His servants."
Suffering, in many ways, remains a mystery, one that we will never fully understand this side of eternity. We can, however, glean these truths from God's Word:
Suffering produces intimacy with God (Job 42:5).
Job, who endured unspeakable suffering, said, "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you."
Intimacy with God is often borne in the furnace of affliction.
"There's an opening of the soul that happens during times of stress or duress," says Dr. Hager. "During times of suffering, we experience God at a deep, profound level."
Suffering equips us to comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
Suffering gives us compassion for others who are hurting, enabling us to minister more effectively.
"Sufferers want to be ministered to by people who have suffered," writes Stephen F. Saint in his essay, "Sovereignty, Suffering, and the Work of Missions."
Those who have suffered make the most effective comforters.
Suffering refines us.
We can read in Isaiah 48:10 that "…I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction."
The meaning of this verse makes it clear that pain and suffering have a way of bringing our strengths and weaknesses to the surface. When the dross floats to the surface, God skims it off; he purifies and refines us to be the radiant bride of Christ.
Suffering produces growth and maturity (James 1:2-4).
If we turn toward God in our pain, He can use our suffering to mature our faith. We see this biblical truth illustrated through the persecuted church. After hearing their testimonies, few would deny that suffering produces beauty and maturity of spirit.
Suffering conforms us into God's image (Romans 8:28-29).
We may be tempted to read these verses to say that God will bring good out of everything. While He can and does redeem pain in our lives, these verses speak of being conformed to God's image through our suffering.
"If we are willing to sit still and let God work, we will find ourselves being transformed into the image of Jesus," says Pastor Paul Daniel Jackson, a pastor at a church in Tucson.
And Jackson speaks from experience.
His wife, Jodee, suffered with breast cancer before passing away in 2002.
"Though this horrendous experience, God did incredible things. Her mother accepted Jesus Christ as Savior…God also changed those who cared for her. Our lives were enriched by suffering [Emphasis mine]."
Simply put, when we seek God through His Word and prayer, we find Jesus. Remember, Jesus understands our pain because he, too, suffered.
We read the words of Psalm 22:1: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?"
Did God abandon His Son in His hour of need? We find the answer three days later—God raised Him from the dead! Because of this promise, we have hope for our future.
"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Christians get high marks when it comes to ministering in crises. But when it comes to meeting the long-term needs of the chronically ill, many fail to get a passing grade. Sure, their intentions are good, but information, tools and resources keep them from doing a job well done.
Ministering to the chronically ill effectively means walking a mile in their shoes. Ask: How can we understand those people who have to manage their pain on a day-to-day basis, and how we, as the body of Christ, meet their needs?
Elizabeth Burchfield lives with multiple chronic conditions. Myofascial pain disorder and arthritis force her make a lot of concessions in her life.
"You get lonely," she says. "You want so much to see someone else but don't have the energy to even go to church."
Rennie Ellen Auiler, a cancer survivor who lives with ulcerative colitis and other chronic illnesses, describes the fatigue that comes with chronic illness as completely debilitating.
"Not the tiredness that healthy people experience after a long day," she says, "but the mind-numbing, crawl-into-a-hole-and die kind of fatigue that never goes away."
Judy Gann, who lives with fibromyalgia and other autoimmune system disorders, describes her life as a roller coaster.
"I may feel reasonably well one day and be flat in bed the next," she says.
Symptoms like these make it difficult for the chronically ill to participate in activities others may take for granted. Attending church service, sitting through a Bible study, walking around a shopping mall and driving to a retreat can all seem daunting to someone living with a chronic illness.
We need to step outside the four walls of the church and into the homes and communities of those in pain to meet the needs of the chronically ill most effectively. We need to enter their world. It's what Jesus would do.
Rev. Liz Danielsen, Chaplain, and Founder of Spiritual Care Support Ministries, says the best gift we can give to the chronically ill is time.
"Simply saying, 'I would just like to be with you.' Jesus did that," she says. "I think we need to talk less and be present more."
When we do say something, it is critical we say something that helps, not hurts, the chronically ill. Experts offer these suggestions:
Keep in mind:
Lisa Copen, founder of Rest Ministries, Inc.™ and author of So You Want to Start a Chronic Illness/Pain Ministry and Beyond Casseroles: 505 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend, offers some ways local congregations can serve the chronically ill:
The needs of those who chronically suffer are unique. It takes effort and commitment to minister effectively. Because suffering is such an individual experience a good rule of thumb is to talk less and listen more.
"It's sometimes best to put the books aside and just let them teach you," says Liz Danielsen.
The truth is the chronically ill have a lot to offer. Their experiences give them insight and sensitivity that others may lack. When you meet someone with a chronic condition or illness, why not ask yourself, "What can I learn from this person's life?"
You might be surprised.
"I'm sorry, but there is no cure."
Stunned, I burst into tears. Rheumatoid arthritis. A systemic disease causing inflammation in the joints, rheumatoid arthritis — or RA as it's commonly called — slowly digests bone and cartilage in the joints, resulting in pain, inflammation and debilitating fatigue. Over time, it can result in deformity, loss of mobility and disability.
I drove home in a daze, crying and praying. Oblivious to my surroundings, I felt "dead." I didn't realize it at the time, but a feeling of death would be my companion for two more years as I grieved my losses, one at a time.
For months, my hands had bothered me. Pain, stiffness and swelling made it difficult to bend my fingers or to grasp objects with my hands. I continually dropped things.
"You need to slow down and be more careful," teased my husband, Paul.
A typical Type A personality, I was always in a hurry to get things done.
At one point, his amusement turned to concern. "You should probably have that checked out."
I agreed and scheduled an appointment with the doctor. I suspected something was wrong, but the diagnosis blindsided me.
My condition deteriorated rapidly. Everyday activities — brushing my teeth, driving my car, getting dressed for work — grew more difficult by the day. I knew I needed to make some changes.
I had recently accepted a new job, but the constant deadlines, long days and occasional travel was more than my body could bear. Within a few weeks, I resigned. I was grateful when my employer offered me a part-time job in another department.
My symptoms worsened over the next several months, forcing me to give up my roles as youth leader and Sunday school teacher at my church. Aerobic dance classes, Bible studies and even friendships also became too difficult. My friends eventually stopped calling when it became apparent I could no longer keep up with them.
Surprisingly, my faith never faltered. Even though I never asked God, Why?, I do recall saying repeatedly, "Lord, I don't understand."
Throughout it all, I sought comfort in God's Word. And, while it did bring me solace, it didn't lessen the physical symptoms.
The doctors prescribed a cocktail of pills and injections; sometimes, it made me feel worse than the illness. My hair fell out in handfuls, and I grew depressed.
My husband assumed responsibility for the household chores — doing the wash, grocery shopping and laundry. In bed by 6:00 p.m. each night due to the debilitating fatigue that accompanies RA, I was not much of a companion to my husband. Still, he tirelessly devoted himself to the tasks at hand.
My son felt the strain as well. After giving myself an injection one afternoon, I went to lie down. A few minutes later, my son gently knocked on the door. He poked his head into the room, paused and quietly said, "I don't feel like I have a mom anymore." I could see the tears in his eyes. Embarrassed, he closed the door and padded down the hall to his room.
I was heartbroken.
While feeling particularly low one morning, I reached for my Bible and came across a familiar verse.
"'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'" (Jeremiah 29:11).
Although I had read that verse hundreds of times, this time, the words leapt off the page. I prayed and asked God to reveal His plans for this season in my life.
God's revelation couldn't have come sooner. I had once dreamed of writing for publication. Although I had had a few articles published when my son was a baby, I hadn't written anything for years. I enrolled in a writing course, and with encouragement and training, it wasn't long before my writing began to sell.
Over time, invitations to speak came in as well.
Through my writing and speaking ministry, I've developed many meaningful friendships that enrich my life and challenge me spiritually, creatively and emotionally.
Now 10 years later, I've gained perspective. Yes, my life is more difficult than I could have ever imagined, but it is also far richer than I could have ever dreamed.
Early in this journey of learning to live with a chronic illness, I took comfort in Isaiah 61:3: "To console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified." (NKJV).
More than just a Bible verse, it is now the reality of my life.