“Living with Chronic Illness,” Ensign, Mar. 1991, 51
Living with Chronic Illness
I have come to realize that one of the purposes of trials is to prepare a heart to bear testimony that “waiting on the Lord” does make a difference.
Life seemed full of exciting possibilities when I graduated from college. I was expecting our first child, and my husband was about to enter the air force as a weather officer. I was young and full of energy, and I felt that nothing could hold me back from accomplishing my dreams. But a change was coming that would affect my physical abilities and my outlook on life forever. An insidious and progressive disease had begun to attack my body.
Now, nine years later, I have forgotten what it feels like to be well. What was once an inconvenience has become a mysterious, debilitating condition.
As my health began to deteriorate, I felt as though I were being slowly enclosed by a fence. My limitations increased, and the area within the fence seemed to become smaller and smaller. At first I used a lot of energy trying to knock down my barrier—but my efforts were unsuccessful and often made me suffer even more. Then I began to envy those on the other side of the fence.
But slowly I realized that a fence is actually a framework—a means to help me develop and strengthen qualities I needed to become more like the Savior. As I have suffered physically, emotionally, and spiritually, I have learned to lean on the Lord instead of on myself or on the understanding of men. I have discovered ways to build a framework that will help me turn my illness into an instrument for growth.
Counseling with the Lord
The first beam of this framework is prayer. Sharing my feelings—not just what I am thankful for or what I need—with the Lord has given me a stronger testimony that I am heard and understood. Prayer has become my counseling session. And as revelation comes, I try to trust in his answers, record them in a journal, and regularly review them so that doubts will not defeat me.
Years ago I began to have spiritual promptings that my health condition was real and life-threatening, though at the time most physicians considered my symptoms to be merely a stress-induced reaction. A mental battle ensued. One side of me said, “The doctors are right. It’s all in your head,” while the other pleaded: “There is something physically wrong, and you must seek the answer.”
One morning, when the confusion became unbearable, I knelt and asked the Lord for guidance. A strong confirmation followed that testified of the serious, physical nature of the illness. Instead of fear, I felt an overwhelming peace and was able to return to my daily activities. However, within an hour the gnawing doubts returned. I again went to the Lord, pleading for help to overcome Satan’s buffetings—and once again, the peace returned.
It took three more years to find the medical tests that showed how sick I really was. In that time, there were doctors who believed that I was ill and did everything they could to diagnose the problem. There were also those who would not listen. They labeled me neurotic or depressed. I would leave their offices feeling frustrated and humiliated, not knowing how much longer I could continue. As discouragement set in, the old doubts about my sanity would return.
On one such day, I went to my Father in Heaven and poured out all my heartache. As I listened for guidance, the words of Doctrine and Covenants 6:22–23 came to my mind:
“If you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things.
“Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?” [D&C 6:22–23]
I opened my journal and reviewed the answer to my prayer. A great peace filled my heart. For many years, those pages were my only support. I read the passage often, and the words gave me the courage to continue searching.
Turning to the Scriptures
The second part of the framework is scripture study. Three years into my search, a new physician suggested an explanation for my condition that no one else had considered. I researched this illness and was amazed at the similarities between my symptoms and those listed in the corresponding section of the medical manual. Best of all, the disease was treatable. I was elated, for it seemed that the unknown was finally assuming a face.
My doctor ran the test for this disease, but to my despair, the results came back negative. Adding to my frustration was the suggestion that I try psychiatric counseling. I was devastated. Seeking comfort, I turned to the scriptures and read of a time when Alma wanted to give up:
“Now when our hearts were depressed, and we were about to turn back, behold, the Lord comforted us, and said: Go amongst thy brethren, the Lamanites, and bear with patience thine afflictions, and I will give you success.” (Alma 26:27.)
In reading Alma’s words, I found renewed hope that an answer would come if I did not abandon the quest.
Finding Ways to Serve
Service is also an integral part of the framework—both giving and receiving. As my physical strength decreased, it was difficult for me to find ways to serve. Preparing meals and tending children were not realistic undertakings for me, and I began to wonder if it was possible to make a difference in the lives of others.
While wrestling with this issue, I was assigned to visit an elderly woman in our ward. Kathleen was bedridden, and she was barely able to communicate. Though she seldom acknowledged my presence, there was a calm strength about her.
It was difficult to carry on a conversation with her, so I would read aloud short articles from the Ensign. More than once I found an answer to one of my own prayers among those pages. I do not know if Kathleen understood the words I was speaking, but the peaceful smile on her face seemed to indicate that she recognized the Spirit present. This woman, who could no longer do the things the world considered important, was having a profound influence on my life. Joy F. Evans, former counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, describes this phenomenon in her 1989 April conference address:
“Even when we can no longer do something for our fellowmen, we can still be something for them; … no man or woman of the humblest sort can really be strong, gentle, and good without the world’s being better for that goodness.” (Ensign, May 1989, p. 75.)
As a result of visiting Kathleen, I gained strength and knowledge to carry my own burdens. She gave me the opportunity to experience the Savior’s power. I left her home with peace in my heart.
The time I spent with this sister also helped me to better understand the principle of service. Basically, I had believed that service was wonderful as long as I could always be the giver. Many times I had refused needed help because I didn’t want to burden anyone else. It finally occurred to me that by withholding from others the opportunity to assist me, I was actually denying them blessings. Allowing others to serve can be service.
When we build a framework of prayer, scripture study, and service, the Lord fulfills his promise: “Behold, I will go before you and be your rearward; and I will be in your midst, and you shall not be confounded.” (D&C 49:27.)
There is another benefit to following this building code: I’ve realized that I am acceptable and lovable just because of who I am—a daughter of God—and not because of what I do. Still, the adversary works with all his might to convince me that losing some abilities lessens my individual worth. Why, even the phrase “What’s wrong with me?” has negative implications.
Maintaining a Hopeful Attitude
Regardless of how closely one adheres to the code, undergoing the grieving process is a natural step in dealing with long-term illness. Denial, anger, apathy, and depression are all normal reactions to losing one’s health. I still have periods when I mourn the loss of my abilities—and I probably always will. It does not mean I am less valiant because I have these feelings. But it is a mistake to turn from the Lord, for he can offer comfort and sustenance.
The Lord repeatedly counsels his followers to visit the sick because he understands the doubt, resentment, despair, frustration, sadness, and loneliness that sickness promotes. Sharing his knowledge of the Savior’s empathy, Alma testifies:
“And he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:12.)
Leaning on the Lord enables me to find joy now, despite the world’s insistence that “when you have your health, you have just about everything.” In contrast, consider the Savior’s words: “Wherefore, be of good cheer, and do not fear, for I the Lord am with you, and will stand by you.” (D&C 68:6.)
Because of the close connection between the body and the spirit, it sometimes requires divine help to “be of good cheer.” Just hanging on can take all of one’s physical and spiritual strength. Elder Marvin J. Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelve has commented, “None of us will escape tragedy and suffering. Each of us will probably react differently. However, if we can recall the Lord’s promise, ‘For I the Lord am with you,’ we will be able to face our problems with dignity and courage. We will find the strength to be of good cheer instead of becoming resentful, critical, or defeated.” (Ensign, May 1986, p. 66.)
When every day is filled with pain and fatigue, it is impossible not to think about sickness, but filling life with pleasant distractions such as watching beautiful sunsets, taking time to notice God’s handiwork, spending time with a good friend, and listening to uplifting music brings joy.
During one of the worst bouts of my illness, I was in such pain that losing consciousness was a relief. As I was being carried to the car so I could go to the hospital, joy flooded my heart as a soft rain fell gently on my face and a cool breeze blew across my weakened body. In spite of my illness, it was glorious to experience the simple wonders of this world.
I do not know how much longer I must endure my condition nor all the reasons the mystery has remained unsolved for so long. However, I have come to realize that one of the purposes of trials, even those that seem unfair and undeserved, is to prepare a heart to bear testimony that “waiting on the Lord” does make a difference.
“Blessed is he that keepeth my commandments, whether in life or in death; and he that is faithful in tribulation, the reward of the same is greater in the kingdom of heaven. …
“For this cause I have sent you—that you might be obedient, and that your hearts might be prepared to bear testimony of the things which are to come.” (D&C 58:2, 6.)