How to Thrive in Illness

despair, sadness, mourn, frustration, fear

despair, sadness, mourn, frustration

The first thing I thought, when I awoke from my nap, was that the pain couldn’t possibly be as bad as it felt. It didn’t make sense. My tired brain worked to convince my body that the agony wasn’t real: “Come on, Rachel, you made it through fifteen hours of unmedicated child birth. That was worse, right?”

Right?

I tried to jump out of bed but quickly found myself in a heap on the floor. I rubbed my face, trying to erase the last bits of Novocain, but the pressure and jabs of electric shock only spread.

I was surprised to discover, as I stumbled to the next room, that the shrieks and groans that oppressed my ears were my own. As I crashed into first one wall, then the next, in our narrow hallway, it began to dawn on me that something must have gone horribly wrong.

“Thank you for the cup of suffering from which I shall daily drink. Do not diminish its bitterness, O Lord, but strengthen my lips that, while drinking of this bitterness, they may know how to smile for love of You, my master.” (St. Faustina, Diary, 1449)

When I’d settled into the dentist’s chair earlier in the day, I’d told myself I had no reason to be nervous. My new dentist had come highly recommended, and I was only having a cavity filled. No big deal, right?

Still, my heart raced and my palms turned sweaty as she administered the shot that would numb my face enough to let her clean the decay out of my tooth. I counted imaginary rosary beads on my knuckles: “Our Father, who art in heaven…” I tried not to let my fear show— I mean, what could go wrong?

Her hand slipped as she pushed the needle deep into the space behind my upper left molar. Or perhaps my head slipped under the pressure of her hands. I’ve replayed that moment a thousand times in my thoughts; I’ve never been sure which it was. Either way, a frightened thought interrupted my silent prayers: “That can’t be good. I bet that’s going to hurt later.”

The left side of my face was sore when I left the dentist’s office, and still sorer when I returned home. I decided to try to sleep through the discomfort, assuming it would resolve itself while I napped. Nothing could have prepared me for the level of pain I’d experience in the coming months.

“Suffering is the greatest treasure on earth; it purifies the soul…” (St. Faustina, Diary, 342)

It took two months for doctors to reach a final diagnosis: trigeminal neuralgia (TN), a rare neurological disorder that can be caused by, among other things, some kinds of dental work. TN is sometimes called the “Suicide Disease,” because it is widely thought to be the most painful disease known to medical science. Damage to one of your two trigeminal nerves, whose three branches carry sensation from each half of your face to your brain, can trigger jolts of excruciating pain. These jolts can be triggered by the gentle wafting of a warm breeze across one’s face, by chewing, talking, moving one’s head, kissing, and even by the sounds one hears during a normal day at home.

As best we can tell, my dentist injured my left trigeminal nerve when her hand slipped while she administered the Novocain shot. Or perhaps I was injured while she cleaned out my tooth; my doctors tell me there’s no way to know just what happened. Perhaps the dentist visit was a coincidence; perhaps a vein in my brain has wrapped itself around a nerve, strangling it so that the nerve fires off in the wrong way.

It took six months, but my doctor finally found a marvelous nerve pain medication that works well for me. I still have symptoms, but, for now, they’re under control. For now, I’m one of the lucky ones. Many TN patients must wait years for diagnoses. Some never find relief.

I don’t get to know how long this current respite will last. TN can heal. Any day now I hope to wake up and find that the pain and numbness have disappeared. On the other hand, TN can also worsen over time, and medications can lose effectiveness as the body adjusts to them.

Even the best medication can’t prevent occasional TN flare-ups, during which the pain sometimes becomes bad enough to make me scream for hours on end. A flare-up of that sort may begin at any moment. I try not to think about this too often.

“For all this, I thank You as of today, because, at the moment when You hand me the cup, my heart may not be capable of giving thanks.” (St. Faustina, Diary, 1449)

On a good day, I can begin to feel grateful for this opportunity to understand Jesus’ sacrifice on a more visceral level. Slight though it is, I can’t take credit for this gratitude; it’s a gift from my Lord. It’s a gift I’m still struggling to understand and to accept, but it’s a gift nonetheless.

I wish I could tell you I feel this gratitude during an attack, but mostly I don’t. When I am at the mercy of my trigeminal nerve, it’s as if nothing exists except the pain. I’m slowly learning to take advantages of the times in between the pain—the times like now when my symptoms don’t bother me. Michael Logan, a 28 year TN survivor, advises,

It is at these moments when I can and should try to make sense of this trial… I must learn to bear the suffering and discover some good in it…

I can’t hide behind the cross, or only focus on the resurrection—the good part… In between episodes of trigeminal neuralgia attacks I will focus my mind on His love and how I can thank Him for that. His love makes me stronger, or it’s all for naught. I will try to use the stronger moments for His Glory.

“If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion, and the other is suffering.” (St. Faustina, Diary, 1804)

I won’t soon forget the first time consuming the Eucharist triggered a painful attack. I was angry: “Jesus,” I whined inwardly, “Stop it! You’re not being fair!” After a moment, I realized how ridiculous it was for me to complain that the Eucharist—that great gift His torture and death had provided—caused me pain. I’ve tried not to mind so much since then.

Mostly I’ve failed. I wish I could tell you that my attempts to identify with Jesus’ sufferings have made it easy to feel that the pain is all worthwhile. I am able to feel grateful sometimes, but when I am in the throes of an attack, the pain often drives away even my ability to pray.

“Evidently, God wanted me to give Him glory through suffering.” (St. Faustina, Diary, 68)

In the in-between times, I’ve found a great deal of help in St. Faustina’s Diary, parts of which read like a veritable how-to guide for enduring illnesses like TN, which can come and go at a moment’s notice:

Jesus, You see that I am neither gravely ill nor in good health. You fill my soul with enthusiasm for action, and I have no strength. The fire of Your love burns in me, and for what I cannot accomplish by physical strength, love will compensate. (Diary, 760)

No doubt you’ve already heard of St. Faustina’s calling to teach the world about God’s Divine Mercy. I’m convinced she was also called to show us how to endure through sickness.

The nuns who lived with Faustina didn’t always appreciate this calling. In one passage, she describes how another woman scolded her when she was late for a meal: “Confound you with all this lying in bed!” Faustina goes on to explain,

Today I feel more ill, but Jesus has given me more opportunities this day to practice virtue… In a suffering soul we should see Jesus crucified, and not a loafer or burden on the community… In order to know whether the love of God flourishes in a convent, one must ask how the treat the sick, the disabled, and infirm who are there. (Diary, 1268, 1269)

In another passage, she tells of her inability to keep pace with the other sisters. “Nevertheless, thank You, Jesus,” she says, “for everything, because it is not the greatness of the works, but the greatness of the effort that will be rewarded.” (Diary, 1310) Even this attitude didn’t make her illness easy, however:

I do not know why I feel so terribly unwell in the morning; I have to muster all my strength to get out of bed, sometimes to the point of heroism… the day starts with a struggle and ends with a struggle. When I go to take my rest, I feel like a soldier returning from the battlefield. (Diary, 1310)

God taught St. Faustina to feel grateful for her suffering in ways that are hard for most of us to imagine:

Once, when I was suffering greatly, I left my work and escaped to Jesus and asked Him to give me His strength. After a very short prayer, I returned to my work filled with enthusiasm and joy. Then, one of the sisters said to me,

“You must have had many consolations today, Sister; you look so radiant. Surely, God is giving you no suffering, but only consolations.”

“You are greatly mistaken, Sister,” I answered, “for it is precisely when I suffer much that my joy is greater; and when I suffer less, my joy is also less…” (Diary, 303)

How is this attitude possible? The answer is simple, though not easy:

Great love can change small things into great ones, and it is only love which lends value to our actions. And the purer our love becomes, the less there will be within us for the flames of sufferings to feed upon, the suffering will cease to be a suffering for us; it will become a delight… (Diary, 303)

It’s not an answer you or I could ever discover or implement on our own. Faustina explains,

I now see that Jesus first strengthens my soul and makes it capable of abiding with Him, for otherwise I would not be able to bear what I experience at such a moment. (Diary, 566)

I can’t yet emulate St. Faustina’s enthusiasm to the degree that I’d like. Still, by praying and meditating on the writings she left us, perhaps you and I can, at least, begin the process of habituation that leads to virtue. Perhaps, with God’s help, we’ll learn to love the Good, the True, and the Beautiful well enough to endure whatever teaches us new ways to draw closer to Him. Perhaps we’ll begin to learn to pray, with St. Faustina,

Let all disgrace, humiliation and abasement come down upon me, as long as the glory and praise of Your mercy resounds everywhere—that’s all that matters. (Diary, 1691)

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11 thoughts on “How to Thrive in Illness”

  1. I just recently (month ago)had dental work done and couldn’t understand why the whole right side of my jaw hurt but the x-rays of the tooth worked on was fine. You have given me hope of finding a diagnosis. Having suffered with a number of chronic problems caused by military trauma and an auto-immune disease, I have thanked God for the Catholic Church’s theology of redemptive suffering. So many of my veteran friends have nothing to support them in their pain.

  2. Rachel: This is beautiful. We’re all on this journey, each with our special Cross of our Lord. Your post helps us move further down the path toward him and his mercy. I especially liked the St. Faustina quotes and this from you: “On a good day, I can begin to feel grateful for this opportunity to understand Jesus’ sacrifice on a more visceral level. Slight though it is, I can’t take credit for this gratitude; it’s a gift from my Lord. It’s a gift I’m still struggling to understand and to accept, but it’s a gift nonetheless.” And I remember the many times I was having a good morning–until I received the Eucharist, and then the TN resumed: a reminder of his sacrifice for me and my small part in the eternal? Thanks for sharing this.

  3. On February 2, I had my annual physical, during which my doctor told me I have heart murmur, hypertension, enlarged prostate and high cholesterol. This lead to numerous visits to specialists and prescription medications. All of a sudden, only a few months before my 75th birthday, I can no longer say my health is perfect except for some aches and pains. The prostate biopsy revealed that I have two cells that could be cancerous, and I will be seeing a second urologist to discuss options (medication, radiation or surgery, the last two scary words even to think about). So far, my only difficulty is shortness of breath due to age and hypertension. God led me to your article and to St. Faustina’s prayers. I have read her diary before but did not pay careful attention to her prayers during illness then, but now I am. Right now, I am only 95% scared because I know God is always in charge. Here is another St. Faustina prayer that a friend sent me and I have made into a prayer card.

  4. I needed to read this today. I suffer from intractable migraines complicated by occipital neuralgia and thoracic outlet syndrome. Lately I’ve been having fewer pain free days a month than pain filled days. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. It is so depressing to have so many days trapped in a dark silent room instead of interacting with my husband, children, and family. I’ve tried to offer up my suffering, but during a bad spell it is just so difficult to think of anything but easing the pain or even just living through it. Maybe I need to further read St Faustina’s diary. Although I would never wish anyone else to suffer, sometimes it is nice to know there are others who suffer too. May your pain-filled days be fewer, and your spiritual life fuller. God bless.

  5. Birgit Atherton Jones

    Your words really spoke to me. I have a daughter who, at 34, is suffering terribly from adverse reactions to chemo and breast cancer related surgeries almost seven years ago. I’m sharing your article with her and on social media since I know many people suffering from chronic pain. God bless you in your struggles and efforts toward holiness. Your honest approach, not always being able to pray through the pain, is so refreshing. Yet you’ve found a way to turn your cross toward Christ.

  6. I know that your article is honest. I have been in a battle with pancreatic cancer for the last two years. Just, yesterday I got more good news that I am cancer free. I read your article and felt the need to post. You are SO on the right track!!! Jesus is our King and the fact that you are trying your best to offer up suffering is an incredible gift of grace from Him. Thank You for writing this article. God Bless you!!!! I love you and will pray for you.

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