The Mighty Logo

Finding Hope for the New Year in the Blessings of Chronic Illness

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Nine years ago, I was a healthy, 31-year-old woman. A mother to three young children, I worked full-time and prioritized exercise. Running was my favorite hobby. It sustained me physically, emotionally and spiritually. I ran in the winter in the snow, in the nighttime with flashing lights on my shoes. I was running between five and 20 miles a week and completed a marathon at the age of 32. I was slow, but I was fierce. I loved that euphoria of running, also known as the “runner’s high,” the feeling of endorphins that rushed through my body after pushing myself to my physical maximum. I even loved the post-run soreness. It was a good kind of pain. A pain that somehow made me know that my body was getting stronger.

Everything changed in 2013 after I gave birth to our beautiful fourth child. As hard as I tried, I could never get back into my physical fitness routine. I chalked it up to my calling into ministry, being older and having four children. But one summer things dramatically changed. I realized that when I wasn’t at work, I was in bed. Everything culminated before my oldest daughter’s 8th birthday one early September. I did a 20-minute YouTube video workout, and the next day I was as sore as if I had done a 15-mile run. It took days to recover from that short workout. I noticed that my right leg started to drag, and I started experiencing tremors in my hands and my head.

Wanting to rule out multiple sclerosis, my PCP ordered an MRI which cleared me of any lesions. I was tested for Lyme disease, lupus and an array of other autoimmune and thyroid disorders. After four more neurological visits in two different cities, several diseases were ruled out. No ALS, no Parkinson’s, no MS. Eventually, I was diagnosed with probable fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis). Yet despite these health challenges, and in the mourning of my old self, I have been incredibly fortunate.

My call into ministry led me to being appointed to my own church, which is calling that requires an incredible amount of emotional labor. I work with congregants who have cancer, who are exhausted from their chemo treatments, who have autoimmune diseases, diabetes and other conditions that affect their quality of life. I minister to families who lost loved ones to the above-mentioned diseases, and walk with them and their grief and mourning.

While I can’t compare my own illness to the illnesses of others, I can empathize with what it’s like to lose one’s physical abilities. I know what it’s like to be too tired to take my kids on a walk. These legs that once ran 26.2 miles now get fatigued from going up two flights of stairs. I have learned my limitations and am careful as to how I spend my energy. Fortunately, ministry and being with other people actually gives me energy. As an extrovert, I thrive from the fellowship of others and find it healing.

Being called as a minister and having a chronic illness offers a unique perspective on human relationships. I learned very quickly that you never know what one carries with them. The person behind you in the grocery store may be grieving the loss of a child, or a miscarriage. The store clerk who was unfriendly to you might have a parent dying of cancer. The customer service person who was short with you on the phone might be struggling with chronic pain or could be a caregiver to someone struggling with a chronic illness.

Despite the pain and the fatigue and the loss of things that I want to do, I am choosing to bring in the New Year by looking at the blessings of chronic illness. Yes, there are blessings even in illness. While I may no longer have the energy to take my children to the park or go on a bike ride with them, we spend lots of time snuggling under covers and reading books.

Illness forces us in our way to be still. To listen. To slow down. To be mindful of the moment. But most importantly, illness gives us the lesson of grace. By knowing our own limitations and empathizing with others who share in those limitations, I am a better and stronger minister to those who struggle physically, mentally or spiritually.

I am 40 now. Every once in awhile a Facebook memory pops up on my timeline and I envy the woman I was seven years ago, at a lighter weight with a lot less gray in her hair, and a brighter spark in her eyes. I know that there will be no more marathons in my future, but there will be a lot more mission and ministry. A lot more loving and understanding. And a lot more gratitude for the things I can still do. I will not let my pain or my fatigue limit me from the person that my God created me to be. I have been called to minister, to love, to comfort and to heal. And while there are times I feel physically broken, my ability to empathize with others more fully makes me realize that even in dreadful illnesses, there can be great gifts.

My hope for you this New Year is that you find inspiration in the things that sustain you. Whether it be your religion, a support group, your family, your pets or your friends. Chronic illness robs us of many things, but there are some things that we must refuse to let it take from us. It cannot take our love for others, and it cannot take our hope.

My hope for all who have chronic illness is that you know you still have gifts to share with this world. You are valuable, you are believed and you are an instrument of hope. And may you know but even in your illness, you still have the capacity to be a change-maker, one person, one life at a time. Share your stories, advocate for research and cures, and cling to hope. May you find blessings in 2019 in the least likely of places, and may you know that you are a blessing to others.

Getty Image by dangphoto2517

Originally published: January 7, 2019
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home