Chronic Illness Teaches Us How to Suffer During COVID-19

This time of waiting and abiding by annoying restrictions is an opportunity for us to be transformed in holiness.

A picture taken by a nurse on May 8 at the Hôtel Dieu de France Hospital in Beirut, Lebanon, shows health workers gathered to attend a Mass offered by a priest in the COVID-19 section of the hospital.
A picture taken by a nurse on May 8 at the Hôtel Dieu de France Hospital in Beirut, Lebanon, shows health workers gathered to attend a Mass offered by a priest in the COVID-19 section of the hospital. (photo: Hôtel Dieu de France Hospital / AFP via Getty Images)

“I think you have Lyme disease,” my practitioner stated sympathetically. I glanced into her serious face and was in denial.

No. It could not be. But as I went over each possible symptom on the evaluation form, the number I experienced began to add up. What I first thought was an ankle sprain was instead a symptom of a horrible chronic illness. My ability to live normally and independently had disappeared as the bacteria wreaked havoc within my body. I could barely have my feet at an elevation below my heart without intense pain and thus could do nothing for myself but what can be done lying in bed. And now the diagnosis meant that I was in it for the long haul. The only way out of the illness caused by a bite from a tiny little deer tick was to follow the careful directions of treatment until the symptoms were gone.

My initial feelings when first diagnosed with Lyme disease and those I had at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic where quite similar. First, Lyme was something other people got; it would never happen to me. COVID was all the way in Asia; there was no way it would spread to us. Then I did contract Lyme disease, and I had to live on with the reality of a long recovery, if any. COVID did make it to the United States, and most states responded with restrictions meant to curb this new, unpredictable and sometimes deadly illness.

Lyme disease and all chronic illnesses with their open-ended diagnosis are similar to the COVID-19 situation we are facing as a world. We hope to get to the end of this irregular experience and return to some sense of normalcy, but we do not know when or how it will eventually happen. But they can also be similar in how we bear with the suffering resulting from the situation.

Even if we do not agree with how governments and businesses are placing restrictions on our daily lives through mask requirements, number of people at gatherings limitations, and social distancing rules this time is an opportunity to dig into the truly Catholic expression, “Offer it up.”

To “offer it up” does not mean to sit by passively and bear our sufferings. It means to actively embrace our cross, to offer it to Jesus and ask him to allow us to share in his suffering.

To have a chronic illness is to be on the Way of the Cross. The sufferer wakes up each morning, or many times through the night, to the realization that the suffering is still there and that it is not going anywhere quickly. Many days one wonders if this suffering will ever pass. The predicted months and years of recovery seem like ages away. But like Jesus, the sufferer has to take it one step at a time, one moment at a time, offering it up and looking into eyes of those offering comfort with one’s own reassurance that this suffering is for the sake of a good.

When we accept the grace to offer up our sufferings we are transformed to be more like Christ and more one with him. St. Paul puts it this way (Galatians 2:20): ”I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Lyme is a complicated illness and many do not recover fully, but I was in the hands of a competent Lyme practitioner. I took several strong antibiotics, herbal tinctures, ate an extremely limited diet, and most of all rested. I slept a lot when I was able, for one of the symptoms of Lyme is insomnia. Every month I would go to my practitioner and we would evaluate my symptoms. I would ask her, “When can I get off antibiotics?” I hated the idea of being on them long term. “Soon, when you are ready,” she would respond.

Then four months into my treatment she suggested I try to wean myself off them. I joyfully began the process, but within days my ankles began to feel worse again, my headaches returned, other symptoms exhibited myself. The disease was still attacking my body. I had to go back to being fully on antibiotics. It was disheartening and discouraging, but it was also more suffering to offer up.

There have been similar episodes with COVID-19. It seems the case load it going down, perhaps the coveted herd immunity is setting in, restrictions are let up, and then all of a sudden, the outbreak worsens. So, we must settle into this waiting for an end to the pandemic again. Sometimes there seems to be no hope of an end.

But during my struggle with Lyme disease, going off antibiotics eventually worked. Even then I had to abide by a strict gluten-free, low carb, dairy-free, sugar-free diet. My symptoms continued to lesson over time, and only fully disappeared when I gave up grains entirely. And once they were gone, I feel most healthy when I am abiding by the “Lyme diet.”

When it was all over, I was not the same person I was before. I was closer to Christ. I knew about the reality of suffering. I experienced greater sympathy for those who suffer. And I was further filled with gratitude for every little beautiful gift from God, especially a pain-free walk on a sunny day.

We have an opportunity to let God transform us in this time of COVID-19. We can choose to accept with God’s grace the small sacrifices asked of us for the sake of others. Even if It does not turn out as badly as experts originally thought, this time of waiting and abiding by annoying restrictions is an opportunity for us to be transformed in holiness. Letting go and embracing this Way of the Cross we are called to as a whole human race can make way for Christ to live in us, the very same Christ who suffered and died for our salvation.

Amy Coney Barrett in 2018

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