I've been struggling with an autoimmune disease for several years now. My 20's were spent more on being sick than being healthy. Yet every year I have told myself that "next year will be better." I have literally been banking on getting "back to normal" for the last several years, it's just that the magical year of health always seems to stay one year out.
I've been telling myself that I'm just having hope. Hope that I'll get healthy again, and hope that I will one day soon not have the bad days where it's a struggle to move, to walk, and to do simple things like take a shower or use my brain. When the fog of fatigue sets in, my life becomes less about doing and being and more about surviving. I have been clinging to hope, with a choke hold, that someday soon "surviving" will no longer be a part of my life. That I can thrive and live and be and do and enjoy moments without wondering when the next survival moment will kick in.
Lately, as in, a few days ago, I realized that what I'm actually doing is clinging to denial. Yeah, I definitely still want to get healthy again. I most assuredly would love for my body to do a complete turnaround, where I never have to worry about fatigue again (unless I've legitimately done something to tire myself out). And while I still believe in healing and miracles, I also know that God doesn't always heal, but that doesn't mean there aren't still miracles.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul mentions a thorn in the flesh. This is shortly before the verse where it says, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not over-spiritualizing my health condition. I am not actually claiming that this is my "thorn in the flesh." But the principle behind the scenario that Paul writes about -- God allowing us to have weakness so that we have to rely on him -- that is what I am getting at. That is what I am seeing, more clearly now than ever before.
I can readily admit that before I had these frustrating health challenges, I was very self-sufficient. I could be independent. Not independent against God, by any means, but I certainly could fend for myself and had the next ten years of my life planned out. I "knew" what I was going to do, and expected that it was part of God's plan for me, because every door that opened seemed to be a God-thing. And then I got sick.
For years I struggled with depression, partly because it's hard to face the reality that your body isn't what it once was. That things formerly taken for granted were now major challenges, or utterly impossible. But I was also partly depressed because in one fell swoop, my 10 year plan came to a grinding halt, and with each passing year since has literally become an impossibility. All of my dreams dissipated, one by one, and I have nothing to show for it. Sometimes it feels like the only constant in my life is my exhaustion.
But this last year of my life has been an amazing one. Something I could never have planned. God brought an amazing husband into my life who has taught me so much about love, kindness, selflessness, and care. Marvin is my greatest advocate. He accepts me as I am, health problems and all, but also encourages me to rethink some of my long-held views. Particularly about my health.
I have been sad for the last few days as I face the reality that I am sick. No, nothing has changed from the last several years, but instead of living in denial that "next year will be better" I am now shifting to the mindset that I will be given grace for the now. I'll be given grace for next year, too, and beyond. But that grace exists apart from my own notions that "next year will be better, and then I won't need grace because I'll be able to function on my own again."
I suppose, for the first time, I'm really grieving the loss of my health. I'm not stubbornly living in denial, or trying to force plans that include going back to what I once was. I am accepting myself as I am.
As I have been pondering these things, I know that there are many who also have autoimmune diseases or chronic health issues who have or are processing these very things. Although I hope that others are not as mired in denial as I have been, I know that it can be an incredibly hard thing to wrap one's mind around. I also wonder how many of those who don't struggle with health situations fully appreciate the gravity of what I and others like me go through?
I don't write all of this to garner pity, either for me or anyone else who is ill. But many who are ill struggle to get their close ones to comprehend the magnitude of what they face internally, let alone the physical challenges. For those who don't "look" sick, it can be difficult as people -- perhaps even subconsciously -- expect you to function like a "normal person." They expect you to power through the tiredness or the pain or the stomach aches that come from eating 1/1000th of a particle of something you're allergic to. They expect you to be every bit as social as you once were, or get frustrated when you cancel plans at the last minute without a good excuse. For those who are ill, it can often be more depressing to feel misunderstood by loved ones than it is to actually deal with the physical challenges themselves.
Again, I'm not saying that everyone needs to drop everything and pamper those who have chronic illness. I'm not saying there's any excuse for them to have bad attitudes or live a life of selfishness. However, on the flip side, sometimes what appears to be selfish on the part of someone who is ill might really just be them taking care of themselves. When I have to cancel plans or choose not to attend something, it isn't because I don't care about the other person. My decisions must always include weighing the consequences that my body will face as a result of pushing myself. I've ignored this in the past, pushing myself to socialize for a few hours, only to pay for it by being sick in bed for a week (or longer).
One of the undeniable blessings of my illness has been my ever-growing desire to help others who face health challenges of any kind. Whether it's chronic illness, a desire to lose weight, or just the desire to eat better, my passion for caring for other humans has risen exponentially over these last years. I can honestly say that those sentiments wouldn't be here if I had stayed on my 10 year plan. That's not to say I didn't care about others, but I think there's a difference between caring for people and actually having a desire to help them. Beyond care, I also have developed compassion for those who do struggle with health issues. As a formerly healthy person, it would have been difficult for me to empathize with someone struggling with an invisible illness, which is why I don't fault people who can't understand what I'm dealing with.
This whole process of living is a journey. While mine has certainly taken a detour I didn't plan, or even want, I'm starting to think that this has really put me on the so-called scenic route. Not always smooth sailing, marked with more potholes than I'd prefer, and by no means the quickest route to anywhere, but definitely worth it for the experience, the vision, and the beauty. If there's one thing I've learned in this last year, it's that incredible beauty can be found right alongside the pain -- even in the very midst of life's darkest moments.
Maybe it's taken me longer than it should have to see that, but I now am confident that I can adjust to and thrive in life, even without assuming that I'll be better "next year." Maybe my physical body won't get better, but my outlook certainly will. There is grace for every moment, circumstance, and ailment in this life. But we do have to be willing to see it.
about the author
Aimee McNew, MNT is a certified nutritionist and a writer who specializes in women's health, fertility, autoimmunity, and the Paleo diet. She is passionate about helping others find success through simplified nutrition. Her first book, The Everything Guide to Hashimoto's Thyroiditis: A Healing Plan for Managing Symptoms Naturally released in October, and has been the #1 bestselling new release in gluten-free diets. Order it from Amazon!
All opinions expressed on this site are strictly that: opinions. Nothing replaces the medical advice of your doctor. You are responsible for your own health.