Dealing with Illness
Illness is something we all face. If we haven't ourselves fallen ill, then we've realised that the day will come when we will; or there are folks around us that are suffering from it in one form or another. How should be deal with it? How can we help others? Dr Grigor very kindly shares with us her experience of illness.
When the Editor first approached me to write an article on the subject of dealing with illness, I hesitated for a number of reasons. I had not been acutely ill — certainly my illness had not been life threatening. I live a perfectly normal life, untouched by the ravages of a continuing illness. That time in my life which was marked by a limiting illness is in the past. Is it proper then to consider issues which are for many a daily and perhaps progressive burden?
What was made clear to me, however, through an illness which lasted for a number of years, is that illness has a capacity to open Important and quite fundamental doors in human experience. In undermining our strengths it shows us what we have in common and what we need. We are revealed as pilgrims on a journey made bearable only by the love and sustaining power of the Lord and of one another. At the same time, as individuals seeking to walk with God, we have scope to influence the impact which a particular time of difficulty will have upon our lives, for good or ill. To the extent therefore that I shall draw on my personal experience in what follows, it will be to bring into focus points which might apply to people more widely, and perhaps be of help.
Having previously been thoroughly healthy, for a period roughly from 1980 to 1986, I seemed to suffer from one minor illness after another, usually put down to a viral infection. Then in 1986 my health took a sudden downwards spiral. I caught the flu and could not recover. I had to return to my family, where after investigation a diagnosis of Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome (often called ME, or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) was confirmed. There followed a time of 18 months in which my capacity increased very gradually. I began to undertake some work on a freelance basis. Over the last number of years this has increased until I now work fulltime again without restriction.
The effect of this time was to change my life dramatically. After six months of sick leave it had become clear that I would have to give up my job with the Social Responsibility Department of the Church of Scotland. My house was put on the market, my belongings packed into cases, and I left Edinburgh to return to my family in the Black Isle. I am now based in a new home of my own in the Black Isle, self-employed and undertaking work for a number of clients.
It is hard to convey the experience of total exhaustion which was the main symptom of this illness and which therefore went along with these events. Imagine a coffee jar upturned, totally empty and you have a sense of the total lack of all resources which this was. Sounds, light, even being in the company of another person were too much to bear, as they drew on resources which were just not there. On a good day, suddenly, without warning, as if someone had turned on the Hoover, all energy would flood away. Yawning would start from deep down, eyes begin to water and bones and joints would ache. In the middle of a conversation words, and reasoning, would disappear, like a computer going down. It felt like cotton wool had taken the place normally occupied by brain. Slowly retreating, this was to last for months extending into years.
What It Meant
What is it about illness that makes it so daunting? For me, it was a combination of things. There was the fact that, quite unbidden, life had been turned upside down. Gone was the path on which I thought I was set. There was the total removal of choice: it had happened — I had now to act on the results. This was new territory and I didn't know the rules. What was I supposed to do? And there was the persistent awareness that life would quite simply never be the same again.
In this respect the experience of the onset of illness is probably similar to that of many of the other traumatic events which change our lives — the loss of a loved one, the loss of work or breakdown in relationship. There is the deep desire to put things back the way they were, alongside a knowledge that this is not possible, the facing of an unknown and unwanted future.
Two major factors clearly affected my attitude towards this new situation. The one is that I was assured at an early stage that, although we could not estimate the timescale, I could hope to get better. The other is the fact that I was affected by an illness which appeared to be flavour of the month in the popular press, attracting all sorts of wild comment. I was greatly helped by a doctor who kept my eyes simply on the road to recovery: here I was and I just had to get on and deal with it.
Everything was underpinned by the lack of energy which I described above. The need to manage the energy I had became central. I did not have the energy to cope with anything of a negative or upsetting nature, so I gave no scope to such thoughts. The clear message of the illness was that I could not ignore or fight against it. This was so commanding I would have to go with it, wherever it was taking me.
Given the situation, I resolved to pull out of the experience anything of good that was in it. This time could be put to my benefit, or, through resisting, I could allow it to warp my life — it would be up to me. I consider it a mercy that I was spared the tendency, which more energy might have provided, to allow worry to rush in, to try to work out the future or to go on in my own strength.
Dealing with Illness
I was given a very real sense of contentment. Many people, having reached the end of their own resources, would be able to say the same. In the loss of my own strength I found a nearness to God such as I would never have imagined. From experiencing these limits and being carried by the Lord, there developed a complete reliance on His strength with an increased sense of the reality and necessity of it. In place of choice or decisions about what to do with my life there is a deep conviction that our lives are not our own.
This has at least two aspects: the comfort of being loved and provided for by God as one of His children; and a renewed sense of duty to do what we can for the Lord as the purpose of living. There is the sense of confidence which comes from knowing that we have a Lord who knows us through and through, nothing hidden, and who loves us. This gives freedom to take risks in living for Him, knowing that He knows our heart and motives. There was the conviction spoken to my heart at those times when my mind might have strayed into worry that, whatever happens, "it doesn't matter"; what would matter is what I let this do to me.
First, I was given a confidence that, eventually, everything would be alright. Then, when so much had been swept away and having seen the passing nature of things, there was a deep knowledge that in life little matters — beyond becoming the people God wants us to be. Alongside this, it was impressed on me with fresh meaning that "sufficient to the day is the evil thereof". I may have had the strength to deal with today; the demands of tomorrow were a matter for tomorrow. And, from personal knowledge of the character of God, came the awareness that He had allowed what was happening and from his knowledge of me would not permit more than I could endure — when the doubts would threaten to overtake me I could resist them, for when hardest pressed I knew most clearly the assurance that I would cope.
Later, as I inched forward towards better health and eventually a return to work, I was afraid in case I should move out of His will, with increased energy be more likely to run on in my own direction. I have found that, with prayer, I have simply had to push at open doors as circumstances have provided for me. And I can say at this stage with great confidence, God is good.
God and Others
Having said all this, and in acknowledging that the experience of illness has been a most valuable one, I would stress that there is nothing heroic or pretty in this. Illness and the suffering which it brings is awful. For me, throughout this time and since one of the most helpful images has been of Jesus weeping when his friend Lazarus died. He did not set himself above the suffering of Lazarus' family or explain it philosophically as part of the divine scheme of things. The Lord does not stand over us, giving marks out of ten for the way in which we face up to difficulties. He is in it with us each step of the way. We do not need to paint a rosy picture or put on a brave face pretending that we are coping better than we are. We can acknowledge to Him just how bad it is, how difficult it is, knowing that He knows this and grieves for us.
Much of the strength which I was given at this time came from the unquestioning love and support of my family and friends. It is hard to relate just how helpful it is, when so much of your life has been taken away and you know that you are not as you should be, to have people treat you as the normal, thinking, feeling person you know you are underneath it all. This gives a hope and confidence to carry on. It must surely be so, too, for people whose lives are changed by tragedy, broken relationships, even wrongdoing, whether by themselves or others. In any of these circumstances, when you do not have the strength to string together coherent thoughts in prayer, it is a very real help to know of the prayers of friends.
In many ways, the person who is immediately affected by the illness or other suffering may find this easier than do friends and family. The one who is ill is faced with the task of dealing with the problem and its results. Those most close may know a terrible sense of helplessness, perhaps anger and frustration. It is important for everyone involved to have the opportunity to speak to someone openly and honestly about what they are feeling, without any sense of guilt or betrayal, of each other or of providence. While in prayer and diligence we may be helped to draw good from these sufferings, they are in themselves utterly unacceptable, the result of sin in the world and as such hated by God. With His grace we may be helped to deal with them and to be thankful for the opportunity. For those closest to the sufferer also there is in prayer an essential channel through which to unload their burdens before God; they need the support and prayer of others, too, as they seek to respond to a possibly perplexing and exhausting range of pressures.
When you are stretched to your limits, it is not easy to see clearly what is going wrong, what you should do or where someone else might have a role to play in helping. You try to keep going, doing all the usual things. Yet the situation is getting more difficult. You almost get used to things being terrible. But, we have a Lord who makes all things new. We therefore have scope to face up to the problem, know that it can be made bearable, and commit ourselves to doing what lies in our hands to make this possible, so that we will come through.
It is important to any of us that we should be able to make the decisions that make a difference to us, but sometimes we will require help. And when we are weak or overwhelmed it is important that we should be open to receive help. This may require that we ask, in prayer or directly with our friends, to be shown what we need. The wonderful thing is that, having come to see our weakness and need, rather than being made to feel more hopeless, we then have opened up to us enormous resources of love and care. There is the Lord who is with us always, and there is the new awareness that our illnesses, our problems and sadness do not separate us from the rest of the world; they are part of what we share in being human, along with the precious times of joy and celebration.
"What a friend we have in Jesus..." — it is true. In this quality of friendship, revealed perfectly by Him, we are shown what we may be to each other. For surely when all else has been stripped away it is with the persons we have become, and our relationship with Him and one another that we are left.