Pam’s Story: Chronic Pain, Anxiety, and the New Creation

“You mean I have to do all the talking?!” says Pam, eyes wide behind her glasses, “I’m not used to that—I’m usually the one listening.”

I laugh, knowing my counselor-friend’s distaste for the spotlight, “It’s all you. I’m the one taking notes tonight.”

Pam leans back in her desk chair in her home office in Houston, pulling her legs to her chest, relaxing into her thoughts,

“Well . . .  in May of 2008 I was out in our back yard in Minnesota cleaning up for my daughter’s graduation from high school. The next day I felt behind my knee and sure enough, there was a tick embedded in my skin and the red bullseye rash around it. I’d had Lyme’s disease before and was healed, but this time . . .  the headaches, painful, swollen joints, tingling in my extremities, balance issues, neurological pain, gut issues—I’ve been battling them ever since.

Pam pauses, chin tilted, crafting her words,

“Ever since 2008 my life has been a constant walking every day not knowing what the next day is going to be like, which is hard for someone who is pretty organized and scheduled,” she smiles at the irony.

“The medical community, they kept passing me off from one specialist to another–I felt like I was the bucket in the fire brigade, no one wanted to be stuck holding me; they kept passing me off from one person to the next, and the message was ‘Nothing’s wrong with you—it must be in your head,’ but I had very real, very weird afflictions that didn’t fall within the parameters of conventional medical wisdom.

“It’s hard when you fall into that area—you aren’t taken seriously by the medical community and there is a kind of battle fatigue that happens with your close friends, not that they get tired of hearing, because my friends are so compassionate, but there comes a point where all they can do or say is “I will pray for you.’

“I found a measure of healing through an Integrative doctor and comfort in the Psalms, but then last fall, just after we bought a house in Houston to be near our adult children, my brother died of cancer, my 93 year old Dad (living back in Minnesota) broke his hip, then his girlfriend died, and we had to put Dad into assisted living. Meanwhile, I was in the homestretch of my Masters’ degree.

“It was a period of intense stress and then the following Spring, just in time for Covid-19, my body went crazy. I felt like I had bugs running all over my head, my arms and legs, my torso, 24/7! No one could help me, no one took my symptoms seriously, and Covid-19 amplified the stress of trying to find help. Spiritually, emotionally, physically, it was like being lost in the woods without a map—night was falling and I had no food or water, no fire. No way out.

And when you feel like there’s no way out, panic amplifies the pain, and the pain amplifies the panic till you aren’t sure you can survive another night, another moment.

My question became: “Is this my life until I die?

“That was very sobering. I really struggled to hear God’s good voice over the voices of fear and anxiety and depression because it seemed so utterly helpless and that God was not acting in any way whatsoever.  I’ve been a Christian a long time and I had to go back to the basics—where was my hope? Did I really trust God? Is he active when it feels like he’s turned his back? So many friends were praying . . . and nothing.

“I got to the point where I said, ‘I’m not going to make any plans, God, you are going to order my day.’ I got used to the idea of not having any expectations for myself, not living according to the world’s standard of achievements—I got used to the idea that I am weak—I saw how utterly helpless and dependent on God I am.

“That’s also where others find commonality with someone struggling with chronic illness. Even if they are physically healthy, they have other weaknesses that I don’t have. Because we are all weak, anyone of us can enter into another person’s experience through our common creaturely weakness.”  

Pam shifts in her chair, eyeing the floor, remembering, “I also really related to the people in the gospels, particularly the Samaritan woman,”

My head snaps from my notepad, “The Samaritan woman?”

Pam laughs, hearing my struggle to make the connection: “I like her because she’s totally weak and at the mercy of cultural norms and society, and she questions Jesus, yet she’s the first one he reveals his true identity to. Then she goes and tells everyone she knows about Jesus. Through her weakness her whole town meets their Messiah. All she knows is that he is Messiah and it’s enough.

“And knowing Jesus is Messiah is enough for me too–I’m the creature and he’s the Creator and if he chooses not to heal me, if I have to have bugs crawling all over me and not be able to eat any food without a reaction, I just have to trust him because he is trustworthy.

“I did eventually find help from an allergy clinic in Dallas, and my symptoms are better, but this week, being back in Houston where the flare up happened, has brought on some PTSD sensations where I wake up feeling like the bugs are lurking. The nature of Chronic illness is this bodily memory of pain that’s always with you, and when an old symptom pops up, it brings me back to that place of fear—

“In this place of struggling with fear, Revelation 21-22 has taken on a whole new importance to me–the new heavens and earth and our resurrected body! That’s our reality for eternity. It isn’t that I’ll escape this body or this world. “Suffering before glory” was the pattern of Jesus’ life; therefore it’s my path too. (Personally, I’d prefer to skip the suffering and go straight to the glory!:) And it isn’t that I’d done something wrong and was being punished with chronic illness. Suffering is the path of every Christian, and this is my very personalized path of suffering as a sister of Jesus to make me more like him. 

“In my weakness I have hope beyond the dense forest of chronic pain to an open field—the restored Creation—where the sun is shining and I can see where I’m at. But I must broaden my vision beyond the hope of a resurrected body, which is really appealing to those of us with chronic illness. The real reward will be to see my Savior face to face—and like the Samaritan woman at the well, that’s enough.”

Advent Reflection

  1. Do you know someone struggling with on-going physical pain and the anxiety that often comes along with it? How might you enter that person’s experience to listen, empathize, and pray without giving advice or remedies?
  2. If you are struggling with chronic pain, how might the truths of the New Creation found in Revelation 21-22 give you comfort? Can you speak both your fears and God’s promises to him in writing or prayer?

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