What It’s Like to be Chronically Ill and Catholic

What It’s Like to be Chronically Ill and Catholic August 1, 2016

I know I can’t help all of this, but it makes me feel that good old fashioned Catholic guilt anyway. And yes, I admit that’s a fault of mine, scruples that I ought to overcome, but I’m not there yet. It makes me feel like I’m not a real Catholic. I know that, through the mystery of the Cross, all of my suffering is united to Christ and He knows I’m doing the best that I can, but it’s very difficult to remember that. I don’t feel like a Catholic.

Thirdly, chronic illness is stressful on my family. Michael cheerfully calls himself my “house-husband” and does most of the housework and childcare himself when I’m having a flare-up, but this means he can’t work outside the home regularly. He’s been thought of as a lazy deadbeat for this, and I’m thought of as a bad mother, and of course that adds to the general isolation, which adds to the stress. And it makes us poor, which adds to the stress. It’s a very stressful way to live. Whatever idyllic image you have of a pale woman lying peacefully in bed fingering Rosary beads, that’s not what it’s like to live with a chronic illness. It’s stressful, and scary, and angry, and it makes life hard for my whole family.

Fourth, everyone has an opinion. Those few people who do speak to you give advice, and lots of it. They always give advice. There are the people who’ve decided you’re in denial and haven’t seen enough doctors, gotten enough tests or medications yet; and, on the other side of the spectrum, are the people who have decided that doctors are killing you and all you need are an organic medication-free diet and chiropractic adjustment (which I’ve tried, for the record). Both of these groups think it’s all my fault and that I could be well if I wanted to. There was one old church lady who heard me say I’d developed acute gastritis as another symptom of the whole mess; my stomach was full of bile and wasn’t emptying into my intestine properly, and she told me that my stomach would empty if I put my feet up when I sat on the toilet. That one was my favorite piece of advice, for sheer biological impossibility.

And then there are the people who say “maybe you should go to Lourdes!”  Great, I’ll go to Lourdes. I’ll just roll out of bed, stand wobbly-legged in the shower long enough to wash my hair, put on my church dress and hop the next bus from the Ohio Valley to Lourdes, France. How much could that possibly cost? Clearly, my problem is that I’ve never been to Lourdes.

Honorable mention goes to all the people who have decided that government programs like Medicaid are unnecessary, and we should just depend on “family and friends” when, as I’ve already mentioned, the first thing that happens when you’re chronically ill is that you lose the support of family and friends.

Finally, and most important, my chronic illness is a grace. It’s a nightmarish, faith-shaking, life-destroying, marriage-draining descent into Hell and it is a grace. You must never tell a chronically ill person that their suffering is a grace, because there’s no way you can do that without insulting them and making them feel dismissed. But I am telling you, as a chronically ill person, that my suffering is a grace. God did not wish me to suffer this way, He didn’t wreck my body because He doesn’t sin, and hopefully someday He’ll take this illness away whether I ever get to Lourdes or not; but in the meanwhile He uses it for grace. I’ve seen a side of life that many people don’t, so I can begin to understand what many people cannot. I understand that suffering isn’t optional. You’d be surprised how many people are shaken to the core when they find this out. I’ve known it for years. And I understand that suffering isn’t anyone’s fault. I understand that neither advice nor the silent treatment will make other people’s pain go away, so you might as well be compassionate and suffer with them. This is grace.

When you’re chronically ill, you’ll suffer and you’ll more than likely suffer alone. You’ll lose what you thought of as your life and gain something else, something you didn’t want. You’ll feel guilty, and you’ll run into advice-givers who want to encourage your guilt. You won’t feel like a good person, a lot of the time. When you’re chronically ill and Catholic, all of this still applies. You’re spared nothing. But we get to know that everything is grace. The grace of God helps us carry the cross all the way Home.

I hope the whole way Home doesn’t feel like the Ohio Valley in July, but even if it does, everything is grace. If it gets worse, everything will still be grace. If it gets better, grace will feel better, but everything will still be grace.

I wish I had something nicer and more encouraging to say about the whole situation than that. Then again, In all honesty, that’s the nicest thing there could be– not that pain is optional, but that no matter how far you descend, Christ is still there, and everything is still grace. Everything, everywhere, will always be grace. Even this is grace.

What could be better than that?

(image via pixabay)

 

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