Monday, July 26, 2010

Jessie's House Special Guest: Susan Ingebretson

Faith Lessons for Chronic Illness

Our Christian faith shapes all that we are and do. That’s a good thing, right? But what if you’re in pain from an unknown condition? How do you seek medical attention, gain support from family and friends, and learn to cope with the stress caused by chronic illness? Where does faith fit in?
Fibromyalgia is the chronic condition that sidelined me many years ago. I spent years trying to define what didn’t “feel right” and why it happened to me. Because I’m a word person -- a writer -- I felt I should be able to articulate my feelings. With an unknown diagnosis, however, my future seemed an ambiguous muddle of pain and suffering.
That’s where the good and bad of my faith kicked in. The good is easy to describe. Knowing that my Heavenly Father lights my path (even when it seems there’s only darkness) brings immeasurable comfort. I knew He had a plan for me, but I had yet to figure it out.
The “bad” part of my faith came from my own interpretations of Bible lessons. If you’re anything like me, your religious background has provided you with many character-shaping lessons. For example, Sunday School teachers taught me to sit quietly and to not interrupt. Pastors taught me to respect my elders, care for my neighbors, and turn the other cheek. Church organists taught me that they do indeed have eyes in the backs of their heads and can see fidgety children in the front pew (wait … that only proved true when the organist was my mom and the kid was me).
Standing up for our faith, and the lessons we’ve learned, comes easy, but what about standing up for our health? Think about the body language you exhibit as you sit on a doctor’s exam table in a paper dress. That dejected “posture” often predicts the success of your visit.
Many people – women in particular – live with illness and pain in silence. If the chronic pain stems from an accident, it’s considered an after-effect from the physical trauma. Therefore, if the pain is expected, it’s nothing to complain about, right? If pain comes on slowly, it’s tolerated to accommodate a busy woman’s life. The pain is relegated to the back burner.
Christians know how to suffer in silence!
It took a very long time for me to grasp the fact that chronic pain is never “normal.” Pain is the body’s way of getting attention, and that’s where I was at an impasse. How could I seek treatment for an unidentified condition?
I had to go back to my Bible and learn that assertiveness, inquisitiveness, and tenacity are all Biblically-sound principles. I was harboring a “meek will inherit the earth” attitude while trying to garner attention from overworked and distracted medical professionals.
Meekness does not always translate to wellness.
 Here are a few other examples of this fact. Matthew 9:20-22 details the healing of a woman who’d been ill for a dozen years. Her chronic affliction was cured by simply touching the hem of Jesus’ garment. “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus said to her.
We’ve all heard this story and know it to be a great depiction of abiding faith. But, I’d like to point out something. Where was the woman? Was she home in bed? (She was sick, after all.) Propelled by her faith, she sought a solution for her condition. She took action.
In Mark 10:46 we hear the blind man, Bartimaeus, cry out for Jesus to restore his sight. Crying out doesn’t sound meek to me.
If you are in pain, then something is wrong. Please know that it’s good to do some self-detective work to find out why. Think about specifics of your pain such as, when did it begin? Does it ebb and flow? Does it ever go away? Can you relate activities or foods with increased pain? Document the answers to these questions in a “wellness notebook” and begin the search for your answers.
Remember the picture I painted earlier of a dejected patient in a doctor’s office? Imagine her instead, this way. She’s still wearing a paper dress, but has also put on the armor of confidence and self-education. She brings her wellness notebook filled with details about her symptoms, specific facts that will guide them to a mutually agreeable treatment plan. She’s open to new ideas, new treatments, and, best of all, a future of hope and promise.
Asking for help, seeking out new ideas, putting faith in others outside your social circle is risky, but it’s also quite Biblical. When I speak to groups about healing from chronic illness, I’m always quick to point out how thankful I am for the lessons that fibromyalgia has taught me. I’m thankful that I learned how to depend on His guidance rather than my own limited understanding.
Looking back at the faith lessons I learned as a child, I can now see that tenacity was right there, hand-in-hand with meekness. It’s just a matter of balancing them in ways that keep me moving forward. Faith provides that balance for me, and for you, too.
Susan Ingebretson is a writer, speaker and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia Research and Education Center at California State University , Fullerton . Her book,FibroWHYalgia, (Spring, 2010) details her own journey from illness to wellness. Ingebretson’s writing has appeared in the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) online and print magazine, FibromyalgiaAWARE. Susan is also featured in the NFA’s Public Service Announcement, The Science Behind Fibromyalgia. Her book can be found at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or for more information about FibroWHYalgia, and about living well with chronic illness, check out her website and blog: