Story: A Journey Through Chronic Illness

By Mary J. Yerkes
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Focus on the Family
One woman struggles to adjust to life with chronic illness. God comforts her through His Word, rich friendships, and opens surprising new doors for ministry.
“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 ‚Äî or RA as it’s commonly called ‚Äî 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.

Mounting losses

My condition deteriorated rapidly. Everyday activities ‚Äî brushing my teeth, driving my car, getting dressed for work ‚Äî 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.

Difficult Times

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 ‚Äî 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.

New beginnings

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.

© 2014 Focus on the Family

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