Today, I’m excited to share with you an article by one of my favorite writers, Glenna Marshall! Glenna has become a friend of mine through the Hope*Writers community and it has been a joy to get know her. Something we have in common is our experience with chronic pain. While enduring chronic illness can often leave one feeling hurt and discouraged, Glenna’s perspective and trust in Christ has been encouraging to me as I’ve walked in faith during this rough season. Let’s welcome Glenna!
Pain is white and blue, the hottest center of a flame.
Not a gently flickering candle, but an explosion of blistering heat, a fire that blazes without burning out. It starts at the base of my spine and reaches out to my hips, radiating down my right leg with fiery tentacles that entangle themselves around my bones, wrapping tightly around nerve endings and tendons. My ribcage aches while pain slices back and forth across my spine until I’m certain my body will snap in two.
It might feel better if it did.
I have an autoimmune disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis. There’s a long, scientific explanation of how my body attacks itself, but the primary result is an inflammatory arthritis that feels much, much worse than it sounds. I lived with AS for five years of bent-over, crushing pain that wrenched me out of sleep every night and pressed me with fear every morning as I sluggishly worked to stand up straight. I didn’t look sick, but dawn always found me uncomfortably dozing while sitting up, surrounded by ice and heat packs and pain medication. The continual, abrasive nature of my pain sanded down any hope that I would ever feel normal again. Like most autoimmune diseases, mine didn’t come alone. It brought a host of other chronic diseases and disorders, ranging from annoying to excruciating, depending on what day it is.
Aside from living in a continuum of back and joint pain, not knowing what was wrong with me was the worst part. Like a lot of autoimmune sufferers, a correct diagnosis took years. I saw lots of doctors who shook their heads and said, “I can’t fix you.” Multiple series of x-rays, MRIs, and bloodwork always came back picture perfect. I was the epitome of health on paper. Except that I wasn’t. I appeared physically normal in every way. Except that by 2 a.m. every morning, I could expect to be immobilized by a searing pain that threatened my sanity and my ability to function.
It wasn’t until I came down with a strange and painful eye condition (called anterior uveitis) that a systemic disease was mentioned as a possible cause of my chronic pain, and I give a lot of credit to my eye doctor for suggesting AS by name. After genetic testing, dietary changes, and visits to a specialist, I was finally put on a path toward pain management. Over the course of six months, my pain was reduced from a 9-10 at night to a 0-1. It felt miraculous, truly.
It’s been nearly eleven months since my diagnosis, but it took more than four years for me to accept the fact that I had a chronic illness, unnamed though it was. It started benignly, right before my 30th birthday, with a little morning soreness and stiff joints. I thought it was from our ancient mattress or wearing the wrong running shoes. When I told people I had back pain, I always got an eye roll accompanied by “you just wait until you’re my age. Then you’ll know what back pain feels like!” As the months turned to years, I despaired of ever knowing what was actually wrong with me, and it was when I added my own name to the list of sick people that I prayed for that I realized I needed to quit worrying about semantics and grapple with the truth:
I was sick.
I feared I would never sleep for more than 3 or 4 hours at night, I feared burning up my stomach with NSAIDS, I feared becoming old before my time. I wondered if I had cancer or something else that would rob my children of a mother, my husband of his wife. If pain was any indicator, surely I was dying. On the worst nights, when there was no remedy that brought relief, I paced the floors of our darkened home and tried to quell the panic that fluttered in my chest. I could not fathom living to old age like this.
Nightly I wept in both fear and anger.
All I wanted was to be free from pain.
Sometimes I think of those nights, and I see myself shuffling in the dark across the smooth wood floors of our house, hunched over in pain and wringing my hands in fear.
Those were hard nights.
But they were important nights.
When you live with chronic pain, you have windows of time where your only goal is to make it to the next minute. And then the next minute after that. You can’t think long-term. Thinking long-term will destroy your hope. You think of the next minute only. By the time I was diagnosed I slept in a glass house of those pain-crafted windows. Minute-by-minute living in the dead of night became a test of endurance and a battleground for my sanity. I found that I needed to have an arsenal full of mental weaponry to survive my hardest nights. The fear and anxiety would suffocate me if the pain didn’t.
I had to find a way to combat the hopeless monsters in my head.
I went to the Bible.
Nothing else was strong enough—no platitude, no prescription, no Google searches. Only the Word could stand up to my fear. I studied the Psalms closely and adopted some of the most desperate phrases I could find. I penned them in my journals; I memorized them until I owned them.
“I sought the Lord in my day of trouble. My hands were continually lifted up all night long; I refused to be comforted.” (Psalm 77:2)
I studied the character of God in the Psalms, and when the pain rolled down my backbone, I trained my foggy brain to dwell on the strength of the Lord, on His unfailing love for me, on His promise to always be with me, on His history of faithfulness to His people.
“I will remember the LORD’s works; yes, I will remember Your ancient wonders. I will reflect on all You have done and meditate on Your actions. God, Your way is holy. What god is great like God? You are the God who works wonders; You revealed Your strength among the peoples. With power You redeemed Your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.” (Psalm 77:11-15)
Dwelling on the past faithfulness of God helped me to believe He would be faithful to me in my pain-filled present and my unknown future.
Whether intense pain or the panic that was fastened to it, I needed strong words to keep me anchored on my hardest nights. I feared losing myself in resignation and confusion. The Word became an anchor that grounded me. The Scriptures always reminded me that God was with me, and that was a great comfort to me. The pain continued for long after that particular cluster of nights, but here’s where I find grace in them: the Lord showed me my neediness for Him. Up until that point in my life, I’d never depended on Him so literally. I’d never needed to. Pain was a difficult means to learn to trust Him, but I believe that God never wastes a drop of suffering. It wasn’t a way I would have chosen, so dark and full of confusion. But it was the way God chose to teach me to trust Him every minute, and I trust Him now.
“Your way was in the sea and Your paths in the mighty waters, and Your footprints mat not be known. You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” (Psalm 77:19)
Learning to hold fast to the Lord in the midst of physical pain has taught me to call out to Him when the other areas of life go off the rails. God could have prevented any of this from ever happening, but I know I wouldn’t cling to Him the way I do now. We’re all desperate for the Lord’s grace, but knowing you’re desperate propels you to the foot of the cross with an urgency you might miss if not for the suffering that sent you there. I write these words with both confidence and hope—not because I’m pain-free, but because I’m not. I’m writing on a day laced with pain and nausea and a struggle for clear-headedness.
Some days it’s hard to find anything good in pain. It seems counterintuitive to even suggest there could be anything good in it. But I know that God is doing faithful, enduring work in turning my heart to trust Him no matter what. He regularly shows me that He holds me—especially in my pain. Disease may have claimed my body, but He always holds my heart. He proved that in sending His Son to give Himself up for me.
One dark night last year when I was suffocating with fear and burning up with pain, a well-loved song came to my mind. That last line has become a safety net I fall freely into with arms spread wide because disease doesn’t hold my beginning, middle, or ending; Jesus does.
“No fear in life, no guilt in death. This is the power of Christ in me.
From life’s first cry, ‘til final breath: Jesus commands my destiny.”
-Stuart Townend, “In Christ Alone”