One woman’s journey through chronic illness.
by Mary J. Yerkes
“I’m afraid there is no cure. We can only treat the symptoms,” Dr. Price explained, almost apologetically.
Speechless, I lingered over her words, struggling to grasp the implications of the diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis. It’s a systemic disease causing inflammation in the joints. The inflammatory cells slowly digest bone and cartilage. The result is pain, loss of movement, and deformity. My body was attacking itself!
I had been living with pain and swelling for several months, yet the diagnosis blindsided me.
“Maybe the test results aren’t mine,” I finally said. “They could have gotten confused with someone else’s, right?”
Pleading, I searched the doctor’s eyes, hoping to find some acknowledgement that this might be true. She only shook her head.
As I drove home, hot tears spilled down my cheeks. Still, I determined not to let my dreams slip away.
Sharing the news
My husband, Paul, took the news surprisingly well. He seemed to accept the diagnosis and did what he could to comfort me. When he was only 18, he lost his mother to cancer. He knew from past experience how quickly life could change.
Busy with high school, work, and church, my teenage son, Ricky, took the news in stride.
I, on the other hand, had a more difficult time.
Morning was the hardest. I dreaded taking that first step out of bed each morning. Gingerly, I would dangle one foot over the edge of the bed, testing the intensity of the pain by slowly putting weight on one foot, then on the other. Stiffly, I would shuffle to the bathroom, looking decades older than my 38 years.
Losing a job
Work grew increasingly tough. Though it was demanding, I loved my job as a conference planner. The frequent travel, tight deadlines, and long days, however, were taking their toll on my body. My knees swelled until they were barely recognizable, wearing me out to walk even a few yards. My fingers, puffy and red, looked like fat sausages. When I shook hands with others, I winced. Even lifting a glass of water at dinner presented a challenge. Because my hands were so swollen, I was often clumsy, spilling water all over the table or myself.
It soon became clear that I could no longer carry out the responsibilities of my position. Emotionally, I fought to come to terms with reality: I would have to quit my job.
My employer offered me a part-time position with fewer responsibilities, which I accepted. But I grieved over giving up a job I loved.
Silence from God
Where is God in all of this? I wondered, feeling angry and abandoned.
For many years I had battled physical problems. Back pain, depression, and intestinal abnormalities sent me to the hospital for days at a time. The last few years had been good, though — until my diagnosis.
In prayer, I railed against God. “Haven’t I had enough pain in my life, Lord? What do You want from me? I’ve given You my entire life!”
But there was no word from heaven and no peace in my heart.
Instead, the losses continued to mount.
One of the greatest pleasures in my life was working with teens at my church. Meetings, retreats, and hosting girls in my home provided many wonderful opportunities to share God’s love.
But one evening while talking with a teen, I realized in mid-conversation that I had no idea what she was talking about. Distracted by the pain, I had not heard most of what she’d said!
Tears and prayer
Lying in bed that night, I let the tears flow freely while I prayed.
“God, I don’t understand. I’m making a difference in their lives. Working with teens brings me such joy. Please don’t take this from me, too.”
Confused and discouraged, I gave up my role as a youth leader.
I never anticipated I would be asked to relinquish my friends as well. One afternoon I was planning to go to a van Gogh exhibit with a friend I had not seen for a while. As instructed by my doctor, I told her that my symptoms might make it necessary for me to rest periodically throughout the day.
My friend’s response stunned me. “I’m afraid that will really slow us down. Maybe you should go on your own another time.”
Her words inflicted more pain than the disease ever could.
I soon found myself canceling plans with other friends, often at the last minute. The unpredictable nature of the disease made it impossible for me to know how I would feel day to day or even hour to hour. Eventually, my friends stopped calling.
My world was slowly shrinking.
The medications prescribed presented their own unique challenge. I was given methotrexate, a drug commonly used in chemotherapy. Though the dosage was much less for treating rheumatoid arthritis, my hair began to fall out in handfuls. The fatigue was debilitating, sending me to bed for days at a time.
Paul was wonderful, doing all the grocery shopping, wash, and much of the cleaning. However, I could see he missed the wife he once knew.
As the reality of my disease began to sink in, Ricky wrestled with his own emotions. One afternoon I was lying in bed when he gently knocked on the door. He poked his head into the room, paused, and quietly said, “I don’t feel like I have a mom anymore.”
I could see the tears in his eyes. Embarrassed, he closed the door. I could hear his feet padding down the hall to his room.
My heart broke.
While feeling particularly low one morning and needing comfort, I reached for my Bible and began reading. I came across a familiar verse: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV).
Then it hit me: God still has plans for me — even with a chronic illness! Encouraged, I began to pray and ask God to reveal His plans for this season in my life.
God’s peace slowly filled my aching heart.
Beauty for ashes
Over the next few days, I came to realize that though I might be limited by chronic illness, God is not. He is able to bring beauty out of the ashes of chronic illness. New opportunities for friendship and ministry began to appear.
As a mentor for a Christian ministry, I respond to requests for prayer and biblical counsel – online. While sitting at my computer, I have traveled all over the world, sharing God’s hope and comfort.
Now that I no longer work full-time, I have joined a women’s Bible study. Deep bonds of friendship have been forged as we study the Bible together and share our lives week after week.
My son is now preparing to graduate from a Christian college with a major in psychology and counseling. He plans to go on to graduate school and become a professional counselor to help others who are hurting. His own hurt gave him a sensitivity for others in pain.
My husband and I have recognized the importance of spending time together away from the daily routine of the illness. Not long ago, he surprised me with two weeks in the Bahamas!
God also had a special surprise in store for me. For as long as I can remember, I have loved to write. In the days after I prayed, I felt God speak to me that in this season He will use my gift of writing.
My doctor has now found the right combination of medications to slow the progression of my disease. At this stage in the journey, the pain and inflammation are well controlled. Though still subject to flares, I am able to function well. I now have almost full use of my hands.
I have learned to take each day as it comes and to trust God with my future.
Jar of clay
Chronic illness and pain made me feel that my life had little value or beauty. Yet as I read the Bible, I was reminded that God delights in placing His precious treasures in clay jars.
“We have this treasure in jars of clay to show this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7, NIV).
In biblical times, it was customary to conceal treasure in clay jars, which had little value or beauty to attract attention. Though I may feel as though my illness leaves me with little value or beauty, God looks at me and sees the treasure inside!
Chronic illness brings with it many losses and changes, but it also brings opportunities for new beginnings. Through it all, God has not changed. He still has good things planned for me — even with chronic illness.
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