Friday, November 22, 2013

The Struggle For Acceptance In The Face of Illness

As I look through my blogs, I can see that writer's block has befallen me for many months now. What once came so easily is now a struggle. The one medium in which I could really express myself has been just out of reach and that has grieved me. I didn't understand why, but lately some things have come to light.

I have been struggling with grieving and acceptance. This past year has been such a test, not only for me, but my family as well. We have been hit so hard in every aspect of our lives. The part I have been struggling with the most has been my own health. 

I have been volunteering in the mental health field for several years now. I have personally experienced the extremes of PTSD, and I have multiple family members who suffer with devastating mental illnesses.  These experiences have motivated me to lend a hand in whatever way I could. 

It is interesting that in the past year, not only did I encounter stigma for my involvement with this set-apart world of people who have chemicals in their brains that have gone awry, but I felt stigma and struggled with self-acceptance involving a rare, invisible set of health conditions that has turned my own life upside-down. Although my health condition is not a mental illness, it has given me a better understanding of being set apart, avoided, turned away from, and the struggles that accompany all "invisible" illnesses.

When I refer to an "invisible" illness, I am talking about illnesses that don't necessarily show on the outside, but devastate on the inside and cause a loss of function in one's life. 

It hurts when people no longer ask how you are, or avoid saying hello and ignore you. It hurts when the people who you thought cared turn out to be fair-weather friends just when you needed them the most. I could go on about the hurt I have experienced, but instead I want to look at what I can do for me and how I can move past the struggle to feel included when I feel like an outsider looking in.

The first thing I think about is the struggle for self-acceptance—how to accept who you are, and what is in your life TODAY. Today, I am not able to work or to do anything for more than maybe an hour without getting exhausted, dizzy, and out of breathe. Even though I take more medications and supplements than I care to name, and I periodically get extremely painful shots in my spine, I still deal with pain most of the day. I always have a degree of pain, but some of it has become "normal." When I say I am in pain, I am talking about the kind of pain that keeps me from being able to take walks, sit up straight, or comfortably assumed any position. I still try to make the best of each day and thankfully I have a great doctor who continues to look for more answers. 

For a person who wants to do so much, but has instead had her passion relegated to the back seat, this is devastating. The hardest part is not being able to be transparent with anyone except others who share the same illness. We seem to be a fairly isolated group of people. People with chronic illnesses lose friends, family members, and even sometimes their spouses. I pray every day that God helps me to handle my illnesses with grace. While I am grieving the loss of old dreams, I am looking for more realistic new ones. There is a false guilt and shame that comes from how others respond to my illness. I dread going to my church because most people I know no longer take the time to say hello, and that is a weird feeling. I have had friends who wrote asking me about my physical condition. When I gave a brief and honest answer I never heard back from them again. How much of their response is because of me? Could they be reacting to my inability to regularly attend church or be an active part of groups or events? I don't have an answer to that question. 

This is where self-acceptance is particularly valuable. It is not my fault that I am sick. I may not be in a wheelchair, or have a terminal illness or missing limb, but that doesn't make my situation any less challenging. I do not want to be on disability and I did not choose to live the life I am living right now. It is a horrible to feel out of control of your own body, and to not have answers on how to get better. Like many I know, I am extremely proactive in seeking answers and trying things to help me get better. It is hard to accept that I don't know how much better I will get. I sometimes feel like I am losing me. 

On the flip side, I clearly know who is in my corner and I value those people more than words can say. I have also learned to depend on God in a whole different way. It is so much easier to go to people first when we are in need emotionally. That is not what the Bible tells us to do. While going to a person can get you physical comfort, the answers you want to hear, and immediate gratification, going to God ultimately brings us the best long-term results. We grow in our faith and our relationship with Him. He uses our trials to develop us into the people He wants us to be. As I do this more, I feel a peace that engulfs me, at least until "I" jump back into the picture. I am starting to see that it isn't really about understanding but more about knowing. 

Someone once asked me how to treat someone who has a mental illness and my answer was to treat him or her just like anybody else. I now realize that also applies to “invisible illnesses” and it is something that we all understandably crave.

James 4:8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
Luke 6:31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
Romans 12:10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Out do one another in showing honor.
Matthew 11:28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.