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I Used My Cane at Church for the First Time and This Is What Happened

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I have several “invisible” illnesses, the most severe of which are fibromyalgia and chronic migraine. Usually, I do my very best to make sure they remain invisible. Unfortunately, that approach is very tiring and has kept me from doing things and attending events in order to avoid conversations about my medication, mobility aids, or need to rest periodically.

Together my husband and I have decided we will do our best to stop pretending in 2017. We hope doing so will deepen friendships that are worthwhile and purge people from our lives who shouldn’t be there in the first place.

So, on January 1st, when I woke up with vertigo, I decided to head to church with my cane to help me balance when I usually would have just stayed home. Here’s what happened.

When I walked in the door with my husband, the greeter (who has usually seen me without my cane) jokingly asked, “Did you party too hard last night?” I laughed nervously and the expression on my face must have revealed what I was thinking because he suddenly began to stammer an apology for his comment. I think I said something before turning to follow my husband to a seat, but I can’t remember, because that’s when the panic attack started.

Yes, I have panic disorder as well, and though it’s been under control recently, comments and questions about my illnesses can be a trigger for me. For the musical worship portion of the service I could hardly sing because my chest was so constricted, my breathing was shallow, and my hands were shaking. Thankfully I was able to ground myself pretty quickly by focusing on the words of the hymns, even if I couldn’t sing along.

Next it was time for communion, the Lord’s supper. Usually this is one of my favorite parts of the service, when we all file to the front of the church to receive the bread and wine that represent the broken body and shed blood of Jesus. It’s comforting for me to remember that mine isn’t the only body that has been broken.

My husband agreed to retreive my morsel of bread and sip of wine so that I wouldn’t have to shuffle to the front and risk a fresh wave of panic. When another congregant noticed me still sitting with my cane he quietly asked if he could help. I said thank you, but no, and was grateful that he had offered at all.

The rest of service was relatively uneventful, and afterward we started to head straight to the parking lot like we usually do so I could get home and rest. In the lobby, though, a stranger intercepted us and said, while looking down at my cane, “I’m sorry, but I just have to ask…” Oh boy, I thought, this won’t be good.

But surprisingly, it was.

We began to talk and he shared that his 23-year-old daughter has severe complex regional pain syndrome and uses a wheelchair. When she made her way out of the sanctuary he introduced me to her and though we only spoke for a few minutes, we were able to encourage each other, just because we didn’t have to explain every abbreviation or define every term we used to talk about our experiences with chronic pain.

When I finally arrived back at home I was exhausted by the emotional and physical roller coaster I had been through at church, but as I reflected on the morning, I realized I wouldn’t change a thing. Yes, choosing to be OK with the visible aspects of my “invisible” illnesses is going to be very hard. However, using my cane at church for the first time has also shown me that the opportunities I have to educate and encourage people are well worth the initial awkwardness (and even the occasional panic attack).

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Lead photo by Thinkstock Images

Originally published: January 3, 2017
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