Chronic illness: Perplexed, but not driven to despair
I wrote this on 25 July 2014:
On this day, 25th July — the Feast of St James, in 1986 I submitted my DPhil thesis in Chemistry. I don’t remember the date of the viva which followed (somewhere in mid-August to allow me to enter the Jesuit novitiate in mid-September) but I do remember the submission day — not as a calendar date but by the Feast. I remember being amused at first and then moved when I saw the first reading of the day (2 Cor 4:7-15) — how apt it felt after all the struggle to write and the many setbacks! Indeed, I used it as a dedication to the dissertation. Here it is in the NAB version:
"Brothers and sisters: We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh So death is at work in us, but life in you."
It resonates in a different way now as I read it from a place of diminishment due to chronic ill-health. I have just seen my new GP in Oxford. He happens to be the GP I had when I was a student all that time ago. He is — unfortunately — readjusting my medication routine according to his principles. He has every good intention but by adjusting drugs, changing dosages and removing others he is making my life more unpleasant. I am seeing old symptoms I haven’t seen for years. They aren’t going to kill me, they just wear me down a bit more. It is frustrating to be powerless to protect my well-being.
Being at the mercy of others
This experience of being at the mercy of others is not uncommon to people with ME or, from what I hear, people with chronic illness in general. Do I find meaning in it? Can I proclaim with Paul that I am ‘constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in my mortal flesh’?
Not really — or at least not directly. I don’t find nobility or anything like that in being ill. I don’t find I can helpfully align my sufferings with those of Christ. I don’t even truly believe that my being ill is God’s will (except in the way that everything that happens is) and certainly he has never intimated that it is his desire. I struggle to abandon myself to trust in providence — after all does God always get what God wants?
God ‘shows up tenderly’
But ill or well he does intimate. Become intimate. Show up tenderly. I don’t think he does so more generously because I am suffering. But this is how I am and this is how he meets me. If anything because of my problems with attention and concentration I am aware of him far less than I used to be. But ‘I greet him the days I meet him and bless when I understand’. And that seems enough for him even when it isn’t for me. He is the generous one in this relationship. And the one with the lighter heart.
I write this, almost four years on, as I wake up on my 60th birthday. How on earth did that happen! Last time I looked I was 50. Where has it gone to? I feel 30 and 90 at the same time!
Milestones and memories
Life is a list of little milestones. With chronic illness it is in danger of being a list of little losses. The last time I had a birthday party. The last time I went on holiday. The last time I presided at the Eucharist. The last time I ran for a bus. The last time I went to the cinema. The last time I woke up rested. It seems turning 60 has made me maudlin… The problem with chronic illness is that it is – d’oh – chronic. It is always there, looming. Blessed are the days when I can forget its presence. But milestones are all about remembering.
What I am asking today, God – what I want more than anything, I realize with tears – is to meet you and greet you again. For turning 60 not to be about loss but about presence, to be present and to know your presence and maybe even tenderness, even intimacy. Suscipe…
This is part of a series for Mental Health Awareness Week. Read the others:
We will be considering ideas, offering prayerful support and sharing experiences. However, please seek professional help if you are concerned about yourself or somebody else.