Chronic Illness and the Body of Christ

Chronic Illness and the Body of Christ February 6, 2021


The lesson I learned after Monday’s ill-fated blood test, is that you’re not supposed to take a glucose tolerance test on a ketogenic diet.

My doctor said that I should be in ketosis right now, to help manage the symptoms of my new diagnosis of poly-cystic ovary syndrome. I did some research and found there are studies confirming that it might work, so I’ve been on that diet since just after Christmas. I find it actually does help a lot with my fatigue and water retention. I’m learning to genuinely like eating this way. For the first time in the 36 years I’ve been alive, meals aren’t contributing to why I feel sick. But the doctor did not tell me that ketosis could throw off a glucose tolerance test. He didn’t give me any instructions, and the lady at the desk couldn’t remember if the correct time was ten or twelve hours. The scheduling department at the hospital cheerfully told me to fast from midnight for a seven o’clock test, which didn’t sound right, so I googled it and discovered that you’re supposed to fast at least eight hours. I fasted a little longer just in case that was wrong as well. When I showed up at the test,  I asked the phlebotomist if being in ketosis could throw the test off, but she’s never head of ketosis. My fasting blood sugar was normal. My blood sugar one hour after drinking the glucose was astronomically high, so high I was scared to death. My sugar two hours later was much lower.

I went home and took a long nap. Then I googled the blood test again, and finally found the instructions that nobody gave me: you need to eat normal levels of carbohydrates for three days leading up to a glucose tolerance test. Far, far more than the twenty net carbs the doctor wanted me to eat on the keto diet. I confirmed with a nurse friend who asked a doctor more familiar with the diet.  I called my doctor’s office and left a message about the mistake and about taking the test again. I was going to call back to follow up today, but I’m just too tired. I’ll do it Monday, I promise. I know it’s important and I’m not blowing it off. But I’m so, so tired.

I am exhausted. Thanks to the ways I’m learning to manage my health, I’m less physically exhausted than usual, but I am more morally exhausted than ever.

Chronic illness is a full-time job in itself.

I’ve been chronically ill with one condition or another and no explanation since I was a child.

I had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis as a preschooler, which thankfully went into remission before Kindergarten. I had severe irritable bowel syndrome forever afterwards, which was deeply humiliating and painful, but I was told again and again it was just hypochondria and faking sickness for attention. It took until I was in my twenties to learn that eating scrupulously gluten free is the only way to make it go away– I was told I couldn’t have a gluten sensitivity because “people with Celiac’s disease are skinny.” I had migraines that never got any treatment. I’ve struggled with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, insomnia and bad anxiety that don’t seem to respond to medicine for decades. I’ve had many people tell me I was making all that up and was just crazy or lying to get people’s attention. As my cycles and my weight spun further and further out of control over the years, I was told I just needed to go on a diet.  I fought to lose weight but it didn’t come off. Now, I finally have part of an explanation for some of why my body works the way it does: I also have poly-cystic ovary syndrome. I’m on progesterone, inositol, and a diet that’s effective for some of my symptoms. I’ll go on metformin or whatever else the doctor wants if I ever get answers about my blood sugar. But I’m still furious and overwhelmed that it’s taken this long to get answers— and that I had to do so much of the work myself, and doctors have been so little help.

I write about this so often because I know I’m not alone, and I want to speak to the people who suffer like I have but never had anyone to tell them that their frustration was normal. And because I want to make sure that they know that Christ is there with them.

About 133 million Americans suffer from chronic illnesses of one kind or another. We’re sick, and we don’t hope to be cured in our lifetime. We endure gaslighting and ridicule because our bodies don’t work the way they’re supposed to. People mock us for looking a way we’re not supposed to look. We get dismissed as hypochondriacs and just needing to go on a diet. When we finally get a diagnosis, the treatment is a patchwork treating symptoms rather than a cure to make it go away. Doctors with different specializations poke and frown at us, and each come to different conclusions that interfere with what other doctors are doing. We’re tired. We’re annoyed. We’re hopeless. We may even get duped into feeling guilty. And all the while it isn’t our fault. Our bodies were broken in spite of our best efforts and we got treated like we were to blame. This happens to an enormous number of people. You aren’t alone.

I think of the woman with hemorrhages, in the gospel. Suffering from heavy bleeding like that made her unclean according to the Law. She was someone her husband wasn’t supposed to have sex with; someone no one was allowed to touch. They treated her like a sinner, like someone whom God was angry with. They treated her like it was her fault. She suffered much, under many doctors, and lost all she had. And all the while, it wasn’t her fault. She had a chronic illness.

Sounds like you and me, doesn’t it?

The woman crawled through the crowd where she wasn’t supposed to be, because her body was ritually impure, and she could have made everyone who brushed up against her ritually impure as well. Everyone viewed her as worse than a nuisance, but she kept crawling. She reached out and touched the hem of His garment.  Jesus knew full well she was there, because He felt power go out of Him. But He didn’t cringe away like everyone else did. He looked for her. He spoke to her. He praised her, saying her faith had saved her, in front of all the people who thought they were better than she was, and told her to go in peace.

I also think of the man born blind. Christ’s apostles were monumentally stupid and cruel to him, weren’t they? It sounds all too familiar. They asked Jesus in front of His face if this man or His parents were the sinners responsible for his disability, and the blind man apparently just sat there silent. I’m sure he was used to that question.

Jesus set the apostles straight. “Neither this man nor his parents, but so that the glory of God might be revealed.” And then He healed him. And the people who were used to seeing his disability as all his fault were offended. They wanted to believe they were better than he was. Even his parents were afraid to have anything to do with him, for fear of what others would think. They threw him out of the synagogue.

That’s where Jesus was waiting for the man who had been blind: not inside the synagogue with the able-bodied people, but outside where they threw the disabled man.

He is with us, not with them.

He doesn’t belong to them. We all belong to Him. And we who are chronically ill bear His icon in a unique way.

He permitted the people to torture Him until His skin was hanging off in rags, until the blood ran into His eyes so He couldn’t see, until His whole body was racked with our pain, our ugliness and our stigma. He permitted Himself to become an unclean thing, a thing that people would laugh at and mock and treat like the worst of sinners. They nailed Him to the cross and then taunted Him, asking Him to fix Himself by trying harder: “If you are the son of God, come down!” And then He descended into hell with all of our sickness, brought it back from the dead glorified, and carried it to Heaven with Him.

To be chronically ill is as much a thing of God, as anything else in the human condition.

I don’t know if that helps any of you today. But I keep coming back to it myself.

Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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