A Struggle with Chronic Illness
By Casey Petterson, as told by Liz Grant
The Beginnings of Chronic Illness
I started to have stomach issues five years ago. I thought, “Oh, I’ll just stop eating dairy,” like maybe it was an allergy. That seemed to help for a while. Then, a year later, I moved to Colorado and many life factors were difficult, and I noticed that my stomach stuff became an issue again. I would always feel a pressure in my lower abdomen. I wondered if my pain was caused by anxiety, and I even took anxiety meds, but that didn’t help. I started to realize, this is every week that I feel bad.
That’s when I tried everything: diets, colonoscopies, I went the endometriosis route—had surgery for that a couple times. All the supplements, all the heavy metal detoxes. I even thought, maybe it’s bees wax in my Burt’s bees, so I stopped using that. But then you go that far and literally anything could be the cause—like something in my house—and that will drive you insane, which makes you more anxious, which causes more stomach aches. At this point, I’ve tried everything that I, my doctors, or anyone else can think of, and still I have no answers.
What It’s Like to Live with Chronic Pain
Now I’m always in pain; I haven’t seen any real change in symptoms in five years. I can feel fatigue, drowsiness, stomach pain, digestive pain…How I feel just depends on the day. I plan when I eat, how I eat, when I’ll sleep, when I’ll rest, when I’ll work out, and even if I do plan everything out, I’m still going to struggle. Even resting doesn’t solve it—though I wish my body would take a rest day every once in a while.
What gets me through my days is lots of prayer. Of course, I’m definitely in a better headspace when I feel better, and then it’s easier for me to talk to God; I might pray, “Give me strength.” But when I’m not feeling well, my prayers are just, “I can’t handle this anymore. Can you do something?”
The last thing I want to do when I don’t feel good is to be with other people—like thinking of going to Gospel Community group on a Thursday night when I just don’t feel good, and I’m in a bad mood and being a jerk to my husband John, and I need time to myself—that’s when I need to get out of myself. Once I’m around other people I can focus on their lives, and it can sometimes bring me out of the emotional pit. (Though sometimes being around people can be worse.)
Asking God for Healing
Once when I was at this conference, a girl I’d just met was standing next to me, and during worship, she looked over and asked, “Do you need prayer for healing?” I said, “Yeah, I do,” and so she prayed for me. God didn’t heal me then, but to have a stranger turn to me, having no idea what I was going through, and ask to pray for me—that made me feel like God was saying, “I see you.”
A few times since then, people have prayed over me and I’ve felt hopeful. And then it’s the next day and I’m still not healed. That’s when you ask yourself, okay, what was that about? That can be really hard. But I also know that every prayer will be answered, even if it’s not this side of heaven. My physical body is wasting away—everybody’s is. It’s never going to be perfect, not even if I am healed.
For the Person Walking through Chronic Illness
Pick running buddies: people you’re close to that you can be honest with, with whom you can share the depth of what you’re experiencing. These are the people who go to war with you, for your heart, who you can text and say, “Hey, I’m really struggling today—yes, I don’t feel good, but also I’m really struggling emotionally.” Some of those people might be folks who are also suffering.
Listening to or reading stories of struggle also really helps me to remember that there are so many other people going through the same thing as me. I even have a “when it hurts” playlist—it can be powerful to listen to truth in music for me.
For the Supporters of the Person with Chronic Illness
I have learned how I want to be approached as a suffering person, so that’s made me more aware of how to approach people who are suffering. It just drives me crazy sometimes… I’ll have a dentist appointment scheduled, and someone will say to me, “Well, maybe that dentist will have all the answers for why you’re feeling bad.” And I want to say, “No, it’s only a dentist appointment. It has nothing to do with how my stomach feels.” Or maybe they’ll say, “Well, at least you have your husband.” Or they’ll come with a list of all the ways to fix what I’m going through, asking me, “Have you tried…?”
That can feel like people are dismissing my pain—like they feel uncomfortable that there are no answers for me, and they want to fix their own discomfort somehow. It can even be hard for me to stay in the discomfort sometimes if someone asks, “How are you feeling?” Even if the true answer is “Still not good,” I might want to add a “but…” Of course, fostering a heart of gratitude will help me, but I don’t need other people to find the bright side for me. Instead, I need a friend that can rest in the “this sucks” with me.
A Theology of Suffering
I believe God wants to heal me, but if He really wanted to heal me now, He would have—but He hasn’t. I don’t want this to be my story, but it is. And it’s important to rest in the “grey,” because that’s what most of life is. Everybody you come across is going to be suffering in some capacity, and we all have to learn to live fully in our suffering, even when we don’t understand why it’s happening to us.
Our life isn’t supposed to be comfortable; you weren’t called to live a comfortable life. Everyone knows that, but I think we all want that happy, healthy life. God has promised to be with us, but He didn’t promise to give us all the answers, or to heal us always, or to make us comfortable; He just promised that He would never leave or forsake us. So as people who are called to live like Jesus, that’s what we’re called to do, too, for each other—to be with people. I guess that’s something that I’m still learning about God. God is not outside of the pain, He’s bearing it with me.