As many of you know, I struggle with endometriosis. It’s an illness that causes endometrial tissue to grow outside of the uterus. The health issue causes me to occasionally feel extreme pain around my cycle, extra fatigue and stomach discomfort.
I’ve learned how to live in pain and exhaustion. I’ve done what I can to improve my condition including having surgery and changing my diet just so that my pain and discomfort will be minimal.
But so many people have conditions that are painful in very different ways or even completely debilitating. Some of these include fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease – among so many others.
In the past number of months, I’ve connected with many women who have endometriosis and, often, other chronic health issues. Many work but have very limited lives beyond work. Some can’t work at all. There are a number of people in this country who have no health insurance. Those who are able to see doctors are often given excuses that “it’s in your head.” I’ve heard that many women with endometriosis are told that incredible pains are “normal” (but I’ve never experienced this myself). Each month, these women live at a pain level of ten. Eventually, when the pain gets bad enough, they have an exploratory surgery to see what is happening. At that point, they are told they are infertile or need a colon resection surgery because no one listened to them years earlier.
Many chronic illnesses take a while to be diagnosed and treated. Sometimes, there are no treatments for the aches and exhaustion of some of these health issues. How frustrating it is to be told that there’s no solution to exhaustion and pain, except for cognitive therapy and antidepressants!
Frustration does not stop there. They work and parent even though their bodies feel as if they are to fall apart at any moment. If they can’t work because of the extent of their illness, many people with these chronic illnesses are told by society that they are lazy and don’t want to work. Their pain is not believed because it doesn’t show on the outside of their bodies. I’ve heard one person with one chronic illness tell others that their health problem is not a “real” illness.
Because we are all part of the Body of Christ, we all suffer from endometriosis, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis and the entire list of autoimmune and chronic diseases. Because we are one in humanity and one in Christ’s body, we also all suffer from diseases like Parkinson’s, MS, cancer, AIDS. When one part of our body hurts, our whole body hurts.
So when someone with a chronic illness is disregarded, they do not receive the dignity they deserve. They feel even less dignity than they did when they kept their illness to themselves.
Unless we walk in their shoes, we can not understand their pain, their slowness in movement, their foggy minds and their fatigue.
As people of faith, what can we do to give dignity to our sisters and brothers who hurt? Of course we can pray for them and with them. We can offer scriptures, like Psalm 6, Psalm 22, Psalm 23 or Psalm 38.
But people with chronic health issues will need more than a few Bible verses handed to them. They yearn to feel human, desire to reclaim their dignity and want to be heard.
When each and every day you wake up with another symptom or feeling overwhelming pain, you feel like Job. You may feel that God has deserted them. When you can’t get your health problems resolved, you feel like the woman with the hemorrhage.
So as people of faith, how can we be a support to them when their doctors and friends don’t even believe them? Frankly, it starts with listening and praying with them so they know that someone else is cheering for their healing. It starts with helping them sort their feelings, giving them a space to vent and cry. It helps if you can go to their appointments with them or pick up their medicines for them – if they ask. It begins with helping them reclaim their dignity as made in God’s image. Our care for them includes spending time with them in fellowship; many of them can’t leave their homes or have limited energy for fun activities. They find isolation in their illness.
And it begs for us to be advocates for their health in broken health care systems.
I don’t think God gave me the endometriosis pain “for a reason.” God experiences pain when we do, and I don’t think of pain as punishment or a method of teaching. But I believe God is calling all of us – those who have experienced pain and those completely healthy – to use our voices and stand with those who hurt, knowing that we aren’t alone on our journeys.