Tag Archives: Chronic Illness

Our Privilege Is Showing

I have a client who has been dealing with chronic pain and spinal issues ever since I started working with her over two years ago. Approximately 7 months ago, she went in for an injection to reduce inflammation and pain in her cervical spine (the medical description of what they did is beyond most of us, so I’m going to skip that.)

To make a long story short, things didn’t go well. Somehow, they injured a nerve during the injection, and my client noticed immediately that she was unable to use her left hand; by that evening my client was in the ICU receiving huge amounts of medications to elevate her blood pressure so that they could maintain blood flow in her spinal column.  She lived through the ordeal, but was left with excruciating pain in her left arm and very little function in her left hand.  The muscles in her hand are wasting, she can’t move her fingers very much and cannot use the hand for anything more than a paperweight. She can’t tie her own shoes, pull up and button her own pants, or pick up anything that requires two hands. She struggles with simple things like showering and getting dressed, and it’s almost impossible to do the things that would allow her to take care of her family.  Worst of all is the constant searing pain in her left arm that increases any time she puts any pressure on her left hand. Physical therapy is so agonizingly painful that she cannot eat before she goes to therapy or she vomits.

Sounds awful doesn’t it? Aren’t you glad it isn’t you? Me too.  Sadly instead of giving her a place to share her emotions and honestly talk about her agony and suffering, friends, family, and even her doctors all say the same thing to her:

“Aren’t you glad it isn’t your right arm?”

Well…yes, she is grateful that she is still able to sign a check, or write a note to another person. She is grateful that her dominant arm wasn’t impacted.

But how is that statement supposed to be comforting to her?  Imagine what it would be like if I lit your left arm on fire and it had to stay on fire for the remainder of today, just today…not 7 months of agony, like my client.  Would you welcome people saying “Aren’t you glad it isn’t your right arm?”

I’ll bet not. I’ll bet you’d want to scream “Make it stop! Make the pain stop!  I can’t take anymore!”

But no one is going to make it stop for my client. Barrows Neurological can’t make it stop. The malpractice suit isn’t going to make it stop. Pain medication barely touches it because it’s nerve pain. Nothing…nothing…NOTHING is going to make it stop.

Aren’t you glad it isn’t your right arm?

People say things like that for a number of reasons. First, they cannot feel just how much pain she’s in. Second, they don’t understand that this may be permanent and even progressive. Third, they don’t realize how much they use both hands when they need to get things done.

But the biggest reason that people say this is because they don’t want to have to acknowledge my client’s immense suffering. The idea that life can randomly, arbitrarily deal out such horrific suffering is more than most people can bear, and so they push the idea away with bland platitudes and stupid statements that demand the suffering person “see the bright side of things”. You know, because, happy and all that!

You see it in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in some of the statements on social media.

People asking why Joel Osteen didn’t open up his church to provide refuge. “If he had just opened his church…”

People stating that the people in Houston should have evacuated. “If they had just gotten out of Houston…”

People criticizing the unwise actions of those who tried to drive out of Houston after the flooding was severe. “If they had just listened to the news they would have known…”

Isn’t it easy to armchair quarterback someone else’s tragedy?  Isn’t it so clear what they should have done, how they failed to respond correctly?  Don’t you feel righteous and correct and so much more…informed and wise…than those people who should have just ….

Yeah. Once again, we’d rather turn a blind eye to the random, arbitrary suffering of others than to face the truth: no matter how hard you try to do life correctly, horrible things will happen that will almost destroy you and there will be no good reason for the destruction.

And that’s what I mean when I say Our Privilege Is Showing.

When we sit in our dry, climate controlled homes, relaxing in our comfy chair, criticizing the failures of those who are suffering because of natural disasters, we are exercising the privilege of safety to erase the suffering of the endangered and the refugees.

When we demand that sick, suffering individuals look at the bright side of their illness (Aren’t you glad it isn’t your right arm?) we are exercising the privilege of wellness to erase the suffering of the sick and disabled.

When we refuse to acknowledge the hidden disabilities of those whose chronic illnesses are not immediately visible we are exercising the privilege of wellness to punish those who refuse to be openly and visibly disabled and refusing to believe their claims of disability because they don’t meet our ‘criteria’…even though even though the government and the medical field has established clear criteria for disability.

Anytime you ease your own discomfort with someone else’s situation by dismissing their suffering or their struggle you use your privilege to make that person invisible.

Well…I’ve got news for you.

God’s children are never invisible to God. God sees all of His children: the well, the sick, the wealthy, the poor, the adequately housed, the homeless…all of them. And He sees you when you decide not to see suffering, sorrow, loss, disaster, disability, homelessness, poverty, discrimination, and inequality.

Never forget, God is watching. What will He see you doing?

Our privilege is showing.  Aren’t you glad it’s not your right arm??

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Healing the Blind

Mark 10:46-52  (NRSV)       The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus

46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher,[a] let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

My mom has dealt with chronic illness for as long as I can remember.  She has several things wrong with her spine as well as several autoimmune illnesses that cause pain and fatigue.  When you put it all together, what you get is a very tired woman in constant pain.  My mom has always handled all of this with more grace than I could ever have managed had I been in that much pain constantly. If she were able to speak through the computer she’d tell you that she loses that grace at times and just sits and cries, but the truth is that something like that is a rare occurrence.  Only recently, as age has added insult to injury, has my mom slowed down.  I mention all of this because my mom’s illness has impacted the way I view passages of scripture about healing; I can’t look at any scripture that discusses miraculous healing without thinking of my mom and the many, many times we’ve prayed for her to be healed of everything that causes her pain and limits her life.

Spoiler alert: no miraculous healing.  Sorry guys…this is not going to be a story of healing that defies human understanding.

As awful as it has been watching my mom suffer, I have to admit that I have benefitted a great deal from her suffering.  You see, even though my mom was in pain every day, she never failed to do everything that she could to make our home a most amazing place to be. She did the cooking and cleaning, she sewed our Halloween costumes, she baked homemade bread and canned delicious pickles and jams, and she baked tons of holiday treats, including killer birthday cakes and Christmas cookies that frequently cause me to be sadly disappointed at state of bakery/restaurant desserts.  I have this experience with soup and pasta sauces in restaurants as well. In so many ways, my mom ruined me for restaurant food—it never measures up to mom’s cooking.

Lest you are sitting there struggling with your own chronic illnesses thinking that my mom couldn’t have been in that much pain if she could do all these things, you are wrong. My mom had times when her pain was so great that she couldn’t do any of the things she loved to do for our family, and this is why our family was so grateful for all the things she was willing to do.  We understood that standing up for hours to chop and ice pack the veggies that she would later pickle caused her tons of back pain…and we understood that she chose to do it anyway because she refused to let her disease define who she would get to be as a mom and as a wife. Somedays all she could do was take her medicine and rest; somedays it was canning blueberry peach jam and baking four loaves of homemade bread before dad came home for dinner. As a kid, I came to understand that chronic illness ends up playing out as a tug-of-war between your will and your illness, and every day it’s a toss-up to see who wins.

Because of my mom, I learned compassion for the challenges that face the chronically ill. I’ve learned to respect for the ways that chronically ill people sometimes defy their illnesses by choosing activities and lifestyles that increase their pain and suffering just so that they can enjoy some quality of life.  I’ve learned not to discount the experiences of those people whose disability and/or suffering isn’t immediately visible (like chronic fatigue) and not to judge them when their disease overwhelms their ability to participate in life the way they want to. I’ve learned not to take it personal when a person with chronic illness cancels on me, saying that they are just too tired/unable to deal with another thing to do.  I’ve learned that most people who have chronic illnesses suffer in silence from our prejudice and ignorance of what it is to deal with chronic illness; I’ve also had to acknowledge that sometimes I am just as prejudiced and ignorant as everyone else when it comes to understanding an illness I don’t have and cannot imagine experiencing.

My mom opened my eyes to see what it’s like to live with chronic illness and chronic pain and because of that, I am a better counselor.  I am also really thankful that she was honest with me about her experiences when I was just a child, because it helped me be a better adult.

And that’s where Bartimaeus comes in.

Bartimaeus came to Jesus seeking healing for physical blindness, just like my family went to God seeking physical healing for my mom.  Bartimaeus got his healing; my mom didn’t.

Or did she?

My mom spent her entire life fighting to enjoy the simple pleasures in life: being able to sit long enough to take a drive in the country; being able to stand long enough to can the vegetables my father grew in the garden; being able to bend down to pick up her toddler son; being able to sit in bleachers to cheer at my first track meet.  How many people blow through those moments and fail to realize what a gift they are?  How many people will never understand what a blessing mobility is? How many people will never understand that every moment they are alive and aware is a blessing beyond words?  My mom praised God for moments like these, frequently out loud in front of our family, and after a while I learned to join her in thanking God for the simple pleasures of life.

Most of us will not come to understand these blessings until we are faced with a life-threatening illness, which if we are lucky, will not happen until we are well into our senior years.  We will live the majority of our lives blind—blind to the simple blessings of breathing and moving and doing whatever we will to do every single day.

Bartimaeus begged Jesus “Let me see again!”  My mother’s suffering blessed me because I began to see and understand the challenges of chronic illness when I was still a young girl and that sight is crucial for many of my clients whose chronic illnesses steal away their strength, vitality, and joy.  Because my mother suffered, I am not entirely blind to the blessings I have been granted that my mother had to fight dearly to hang onto.  While I may not have perfect sight by any means, I can see.

I guess this is a story of miraculous healing after all.