A few years ago I read with more than casual interest a Meridian article by Maurine Proctor called, “Satan’s Subtle Attack on Our Identity.” She was describing my life! She explained so well not only the cause but also the solution for the dilemma I was experiencing in regard to chronic illness.
Those of us suffering from chronic illness often find specific needs to apply the general principles Maurine verbalized so well because we can no longer be consistent in our ability to perform. Because our illness is unpredictable, when we are feeling good we make commitments with every intention of following through. When we find ourselves flat in bed, unable to function, unable to even consider going out the door, our very identity can feel challenged. For example, I received an email from a dearly loved relative saying something like, “We can’t depend on you anymore.” Super conscientious people take such words like a knife in the heart. We want to be absolutely trustworthy, we want to serve, and yes, we want to please and be well thought of, and illness can seem to take all that away.
Limitations Are Part of God’s Plan
Maurine said, “It is interesting that God, our Father, who could have designed another kind of existence for us, designed this one. It is an experience where we constantly act with limited judgment and face the consequences of that. It is a condition, where, having forgotten all, we do not have much clue of our abilities . . . It is a place where the beauty and strength of our youth is steadily diminished, so what we counted on one day as the very essence of ourselves is taken away over time.”
For those of us with chronic illness, our diminished strength often feels like the loss of “the very essence of ourselves.” Within a short time we can go from being fully functioning, capable people to never knowing whether we will be able to do anything at all. We may also feel quite strong one day and completely wiped out the next.
Here’s an interesting fact about those of us who suffer from illnesses such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS, which is often associated with the Epstein Barr virus), Lupus, fibromyalgia, or undiagnosed weakness and deficient immune systems. We are almost always people who have previously enjoyed a positive identity. We have been high achievers, virtual workhorses, the ones referred to when people say, “if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.” We may have been juggling dozens of balls at once without letting one drop-for years on end. We may have had the idea that doing more good makes us more righteous, that the longer hours we can work the more praiseworthy we are. We may have had a great need to prove our worth through accomplishing and an even greater need to receive approval for our noteworthy actions. Our identity may have been all tied up in our ability to perform. Then, crash! Illness has robbed us of that identity.
The crash can actually be a great blessing, leading us to see more clearly that it is only the adversary’s lies that have convinced us to base our sense of worth on “doing” instead of on “being.”
Do We Feel the Need to Earn Our Worth?
At one point I carried on an e-mail dialogue with another writer named Michelle, who I “met” through Meridian. She gave me permission to share her thoughts. Although Michelle’s illness is different from mine, the effects are similar. Michelle said, “It seems to be epidemic in the Church [especially among women] to try to do too much, to think we can somehow earn our worth, to want to be seen as righteous by our visible acts.”
Perhaps chronic illness is sometimes symptomatic of the deeper problem of basing our identity on performance and on pleasing others. Could it be that chronic illness is not the thief of our identity, but instead the culprit is this faulty foundation-listening to and believing Satan’s subtle lies that tell us we must perform in order to have worth?
Chronic illness is a major trial because of the limitations it imposes and because it doesn’t go away. Those of us who suffer often feel in desperate need for compassion and understanding. But anyone who hasn’t experienced long-term illness (either personally or having supported the health trial of a loved one), can’t fathom it. Those of us who are ill usually have to be the ones helping those impacted by our illness to understand and learn to cope with it.
There seem to be solid commonalities, such as a driving desire to serve that has often pushed those of us with chronic illness beyond our strength. “Push till you drop” seems to be my motto, and there is no wisdom in that at all.
Michelle has had some of the same problems. She said, ” I often didn’t make choices that were right for ME. It can still be hard to know where to draw the line. I have wondered if perhaps part of why I am sick is because I have spent so much of my life trying to live up to expectations (mine and others) in an unhealthy way. Even worse, sometimes I cause myself problems trying to live up to my perceptions of others’ expectations.”
We’ve often heard that “type A” personalities have in common the tendency for certain illnesses. As those of us suffering from chronic illnesses look back on our lives, many of us recognize some of those “type A” commonalities. Instead of worldly achievements, the focus of faithful church members is more likely to be gospel checklists and hyper-activity in service opportunities, callings, church activities, and service to family.
Identity and the Perceptions of Others
Michelle said, “Truth be told, I wonder how I am perceived anymore. I wonder if people see and know the person behind this mask of illness. It’s hard not to feel like my identity is this illness, rather than the person I am within, the person I used to be, the person I want to be (whoever she really is). I have to wonder at times: who am I, really? Do people see the potential behind the illness? I hope so, but sometimes I wonder.”
Seeing Ourselves as Separate from Our Illness
Our own perceptions are much more important than the perceptions of others.
My friend Debbie Bake tells about working with patients on the psychiatric unit in the hospital. She said:
“It soon became my quest to help patients understand their true worth. After asking the Lord for His guidance, it occurred to me that those with depression believe that they are their illness with its corresponding symptoms. I pondered what a depressed patient would be without their illness identity, and it gave me an idea. When I taught a group one day, we discussed the factors impacting their self-esteem.
“I then asked each person in the group to take a piece of paper and write as quickly as they could the character traits they ascribed to themselves-either now or in the past, positive and negative alike. I urged them to hurry so they wouldn’t get stuck thinking only of the negative, dominant traits. Then I asked them to cross out those traits that were linked in any way to their illness. I explained that whatever traits were not crossed out gave a more accurate depiction of who they really are. I was thrilled to see so many faces, which previously had no expression, light up. I had several patients tell me it was the first time they ever thought of themselves as separate from their illness, that perhaps there was a chance their true selves still existed.”
Hanging onto Our Spiritual Identity
I am not my illness. I am not my accomplishments; neither do I need to define myself by my ability to keep others happy with me.
Maurine said, “We may run the whole world wide looking for mirrors to reflect back to us who we really are and come up empty, but only a few minutes with God’s spirit awakens our whole soul and reaffirms our identity. I know of no substitute to fill this internal ravine about our own identity except feeling the true love of God.”
Sometimes illness is the only thing that can pull us off the fast track into the still places of the soul where we stop and feel God’s love and listen to His affirmation of us as His children. It is possible to avoid feeling inept, weak, slow, foggy-minded or powerless during illness while methodically trying avenues of escape; we can, instead, choose to honor the real self inside who has the assignment to accept “what is” and simply learn from all that happens. We can quit putting ourselves on trial, quit trying to prove anything.
Accepting “What Is”
My biggest problem has probably been NOT accepting my illness, fighting against reality, wanting things to be different than they are. I have often spent my small stores of energy running hither and yon trying to find help. Some of that driving desire to find solutions is good, but it can become an obsession that takes me away from dependence on the Lord’s help and keeps me from surrendering to “what is.” I have observed that the more I can accept the reality of my situation, the more others can.
I have known people who had illnesses that were chronic and also terminal whose calm acceptance became a source of inspiration to others. I visited with a lady in our ward recently whose third bout with cancer is so pervasive that the doctors have given her no hope. Yet her attitude is inspiring. She obviously feels no shame for being sick, as I often do. She isn’t apologizing for not being able to be up serving and doing. She radiates faith and acceptance and is very much herself in spite of her illness. Can those of us with chronic illness learn from such people?
Holding Fast to the Iron Rod
I want to come to the point where it is really okay whether I improve or not, that it doesn’t matter. What matters is living this moment, being in the now, saying, “Thy will be done” and trusting in the Lord no matter what. Doing the best I can and being present in this moment and feeling gratitude in this moment is all I can shoot for. I can’t control what happens in the future, but I can control how I feel right now by choosing what to focus on and tuning into the Spirit. What happened in the past or what will happen in the future doesn’t matter. What matters is BEING in the present. What matters is being really alive and receptive to the promptings and guidance of the Spirit and letting go of everything else.
These bodies of clay are so vulnerable. Thousands of things can go wrong and every cell has the ability to cry out in pain. The miracle is, I suppose, that we ever feel well. What I keep learning is that illness or injury does not define a person. Beneath layers of limitations, who we were before our illness is still there (our inner self, our true identity) and will be added upon by the sanctifying character of suffering.
The Savior can save us even from spiritual identity theft. The truths of His Atonement, the power of His love can help us ground our identity on the solid rock of faith.
We are His children, and our potential reaches so much further than our ability to perform during this mortal probation. For some of us, perhaps the test is not how much we can get done, but how firmly we can grasp the iron rod when physical limitations keep us from doing much at all!
Author Note: check my website darlaisackson.com for details about my latest book of comfort for those who have lost a loved one to suicide. While my last book (After My Son’s Suicide) was written strictly to the LDS audience, this one, Finding Hope While Grieving Suicide, is written to anyone who believes in God and the Bible. If you know anyone whose life has been impacted by a suicide, now there is something you can give them that may truly help. Here is the cover of the new book: