Monday, November 09, 2009

Random thoughts on how I am learning to be ill

So my exploration in illness continues. Having thought I was over the worst of it, the last few months have turned out to be more difficult than the previous ones. From intense nausea, to uncomfortable (but necessary and helpful) tests, to unconnected problems (abscess and subsequent root canal in a significant tooth).

Humanity is wonderfully made and therefore wonderfully complex. It is very easy to think that we now understand the human body and that with the right medication we can cure much of the ills that it can face. And there is much truth in this (the root canal combined with antibiotics was the right treatment for my bad tooth), but simply from a bodily perspective we are a complex mix of mental, physical and chemical processes. And these are wonderful and understandable but also mysterious and confusing.

I have been provisionally diagnosed with functional bowel disease (FDB). Something that is common enough to have a name and diagnosable symptoms but little is known as to what causes it or how to fix it.

As I write this I am struck by how even the desire or thought of 'fixing' reflects something of our culture, we inadvertently (or consciously?) see ourselves as machines to be fixed rather than human beings, so some Doctors become like mechanics rather than care givers; illness is seen as physical damage to be repaired so we overlook how this can effect us psychological, emotionally or spiritually. We overlook the wider impact of illness and a fixation on getting back up and running can keep us from making necessary change to our lives that will serve us better longer term.

In a book on Benedictine spirituality (which I am reading out of choice, how my taste in reading has changed huh?) the author states that "Somethings must simply be borne. Somethings must simply be accepted. Community and relationships enable us to do that." I have not been very good at communicating about how unwell I have been; I have not been able to understand what is wrong with me so therefore I did not expect others to either and as a result I have largely kept to myself how much the ongoing illness has been affecting me. Having my tooth go bad last week tipped me over the edge a little and forced me to be honest with people about the toll that ongoing illness has taken on me. The acceptance and support I have received as I have shared both what has been happening and how it has been affecting me has indeed enabled me to bare it, because others are helping me bare it. I have experienced God's grace and mercy both from Him and through others.

It has also helped me realize that confidence must not rest in our ability to control our circumstances, but in God's grace. I've always been a bit of a control freak, but as more and more things went wrong I took more and more steps to control my life (from an almost obsessive avoiding of sick people, to sitting near doors so that I could make a quick exit if I started feeling nauseous) because when I was in control it felt manageable. But when something that I had not planned for and could not control kept happening (like say a tooth getting infected), it caused panic because it showed that my efforts and control had not worked, and if I was not in control how could I know it was going to work out okay? Which at points led to a perverse sort of guilt (things were going wrong because I was not controlling them properly: it was my fault that I was not getting better).

The problem was that my perception of control was/is a facade because complete (God-like?) control of circumstances is beyond any of us. That is not to say that there is not a place for wisdom and planning (not kissing girlfriend when she has the flu=good choice, sitting near exits if feeling nauseous = good choice), but that if our confidence rests in our ability to control things it will come unstuck because we cannot completely control everything.

However, if we make realistic plans or take action but trust in God rather than our plans/control, what then?

It means that when things go well we are able to celebrate with God (and others) because we realize that though God is in control we had a part to play in the success too. But if it is just down to me then I will take all of the credit and will likely become prideful.

It means that we are more likely to turn to Him and His people for help when things go wrong, because we know that He is in control and He has given us each other to help bare each others burdens. But if it is just down to me then it is my responsibility so I must fix it on my own, which may work for a time but will wear us out in the end.

It certainly doesn't mean that things will always go well, but it does mean that we are more likely to be a little more adventurous as we know that ultimate control (and therefore responsibility) is in His hands and that he will provide a way through (though the way through may not be the way we have in mind or would even chose) if things go wrong.

Anyway, my FBD problems are finally beginning to lessen, and over-all I am paradoxically happy and sad at the same time; happy because I feel loved and supported by people all around the world, sad because the number of bad FBD days have worn me down and my body feels generally fragile. So my heartfelt thanks for your ongoing support and prayers (and feel free to ask me if I really mean it when I say I feel fine).

Epilogue: Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that illness is okay because in God's grace it can bring change; I'd really really love to be free of illness and back to normal, illness sucks and is very much a part of the fall. But I've realized it is important to take the time to reflect on the good that is being worked even while my body is not so good. I've gotten a little more of a handle on how God can turn situations to good and how in times of weakness we become more aware of grace. Also, what I am saying here is not meant to be a catch-all for every illness or injury; context matters in everything. What I am writing is simply a reflection on my experience.