How Chronic Illness Brought Me Closer to God
There are many ways God calls us to Him. For some, it may be the simple words of a faithful friend or the powerful words of Scripture. For others, like myself, I guess God decided it needed to be more direct and personal. From a young age I had been planning out my future. I […]
There are many ways God calls us to Him. For some, it may be the simple words of a faithful friend or the powerful words of Scripture. For others, like myself, I guess God decided it needed to be more direct and personal.
From a young age I had been planning out my future. I wanted to finish school and go to university to study psychology and drama. I wanted to write a book and work with children. I didn’t plan on getting married until I was 30 and I didn’t plan to have children until the age of 35.
Just before my 13th birthday, my life changed dramatically. I was diagnosed with myalgia encephalomyelitis (also known as chronic fatigue syndrome) after becoming mostly bedridden. Dreams for the future faded as I counted the weeks (of being sick) which turned into months and eventually years. Looking back on almost 40 years of my life, I can see how God has used my sufferings to bring me closer to Him.
In retrospect, God had been preparing me for a very different life. In child play I would have all my dolls set up as I pretended to be a mother of lots of children. My favorite movie of all time was The Sound of Music. In high school I managed to baby sit and tutor a girl with Down Syndrome that opened my heart to children with greater needs.
The first moment I had let go of my own plans was when I was about 16. I was suffering a lot due to my illness. My father brought me to a specialist and in this particular appointment, I guess you could say we were feeling desperate. I was struggling a lot. I could barely function at the best of times from severe exhaustion and fatigue, body pain, nausea, weakness, fainting spells, major brain fog and memory problems.
Sitting in the doctor’s office, the doctor turned to me and said “I have something that I think will help you. It isn’t legalised here in Australia but I can get it from America.” Suddenly all my dreams were possible, suddenly I could have my life back. I felt like he was offering me everything on a silver platter. He continued “But you probably won’t be able to have children, as it will affect your fertility.” I didn’t hesitate. I said “No.” By picking up my cross in that moment, I had also for the first time stopped being a victim. I had become a fighter. A warrior.
This was the first time I made a conscious decision to let go of all my dreams and plans for the future. Even though I didn’t recognize that what I was doing was accepting God’s plan for myself and what the ultimate ramifications were. My faith wasn’t deep; it was still a very childlike faith with many questions and struggles. I thank God that He gave me the wisdom and strength to say no to that doctor.
This has carried on with me throughout my marriage and my childbearing years. My husband and I married when I was 20. We had meet through my father when I was 16 years old and started dating when I was 17. My husband wasn’t Catholic at the time and wasn’t baptized until after we were married and our first child was born. It wasn’t until many years later that I realised that my husband’s birthday is on the feast day of St Therese the Little Flower, who I have had a special devotion to since I was a small child. I had my first child at 21 and my youngest at age 35. I have had 12 pregnancies over the last 19 years: 4 miscarriages and 8 live births (including premature babies in NICU). I have 6 autistic children to care for, along with some very difficult medical conditions for them as well including ADHD, severe anxiety disorders, speech delays or impairments, sensory issues, allergies and chronic asthma.
I would literally spend most of pregnancy on the couch too sick to move. In most of my pregnancies I was diagnosed with Diabetes, Pre-eclampsia and high blood pressure as well. It usually would get to the point where things were so bad there was nothing else to do but place it all in God’s hands. My husband often had to leave work or work around me being in and out of hospital while juggling looking after the kids.
I am sure on the outside everything looked like it was falling apart. Maybe a times it was. But we also learnt the power of prayer and of the saints’ intercession. We had to surrender and allow God to take over. God never failed us. It was extremely important to us to remain faithful and open to life within our marriage, no matter how much pressure we would receive from everyone, including doctors who would offer me an abortion or who would try to push contraception onto us. Even though at times we struggled, we knew that God’s plan and His will for us, would ultimately create a strong foundation for our marriage and our family.
The hardships and struggles that were brought on by the chronic illness are always there in the background. There have been times over the years where I would be crawling on my hands and knees to look after my children, too exhausted and weak to walk. There are times where the exhaustion is so bad I am shaking and my words become slurred and the brain fog causes me to forget words or to muddle up sentences. I experience pain in every joint, muscle and bone in my body. I also experience pain in my tissue, skin and in my nerve endings. From the top of my head and my face to the tip of my toes. Anything touching my skin, including clothes can cause pain. When the pain is at its worst I have to rely on very strong pain patches. My body doesn’t regulate body temperature very well and my heart tends to beat very fast or out of rhythm. My blood pressure has a tendency to drop low from just sitting or standing. When I am about to have a flare up or crash, I will have bruises appear and my glands under my arms and in my neck will swell up and become very painful. I also have been suffering from migraines since I was 10. Since my last pregnancy I have been diagnosed with type two diabetes and kidney disease. My husband works hard to support all of us and often has to take over the house as I am struggling more with pain and lack of energy, brain fog and confusion, the older I become. We place our trust in God for our future and our next chapter in our marriage as we move away from the childbearing years and look forward to celebrating 20 years of marriage this year.
Over the years I would struggle immensely trying to understand what my purpose in life was. How could my life have any true meaning or purpose where all I could do was lay in bed, bedridden and too sick to leave the house? I spent many years asking the question “Why me?” While looking downwards and focusing on the question which was the least important.
It wasn’t until reading about Saint Pope John Paul II that everything became abundantly clear. Pope John Paul II would visit the sick in hospital instructing them to pray. He told them that they still had a purpose in life, even though they were sick and bedridden. I was in tears as God brought the clarity that I was searching for. During immense pain from Fibromyalgia, I started praying and offering up that immediate pain of suffering, for others and for the souls in Purgatory, especially for the souls forgotten. It was then, for the first time in my life I experienced a joy like no other. Detachment has been a strong theme. I had to learn to let go of everything and place myself in God’s hands because the cross was far too heavy for me to carry alone. It was unbearable.
God has called for me to pray and to use my sufferings for the salvation of others.
He has taught me to suffer joyfully. That when we suffer for God’s will and in accordance to his plan, we are working with Him, alongside him for the eternal salvation of the world. To deny my cross is to deny Jesus Christ and I cannot do that. Carrying my cross is not supposed to be an easy, comfortable job. It is messy and painful, but there is beauty in that. Beauty in which is found in the hope of our Lord Jesus Christ, who makes all things possible. Through this cross I have learnt to appreciate the simplicity of life. That life’s smallest moments are quite often the most profound. That human life and dignity are most valuable and worth fighting for from the moment of conception to natural death. I have grown to understand and accept the purpose of suffering in my life and in this world.
Suffering had me reaching out to the Lord more. It didn’t take away from my faith. It increased it. I can now look up (keeping my focus on heaven) and say with ease and acceptance “Why not me?” God has called me and I answered. My answer isn’t always a perfect one and isn’t always a readily “yes,” but even a small imperfect “yes” leads to a larger, more perfect answer.
To know I can unite myself with Jesus through my own cross gives me great strength and joy. A joy that I never truly understood until I had experienced it during time of physical pain and suffering. This joy brings me hope and this hope turns my suffering into a purpose that is served for God and for others. This suffering thus fills my life of purpose and meaning, even when I am bedridden. Knowing this fills my heart and gives me a sense of validity. I may not be successful in the eyes of the world. I may not be able to physically do much, day to day. But I can, through Jesus, bring meaning and purpose, not only to my life but to my sufferings. It is through the very depths of my sufferings that God has revealed Himself and has made Himself known to me and my family. God has brought purpose to my suffering, and brought me closer in union with Himself.
Image: Turin, Italy – July 7, 2012: Temple of the Great Mother of God (1818-1831), built to celebrate the return of the House of Savoy to the throne, after the defeat of Napoleon. Statue of the Religion. Shutterstock: Michele Vacchiano