Dealing with Guilt and Chronic Illness

by | Jan 24, 2019

Today, I slept in till 8:45, made some oatmeal, shared breakfast with my mom, did some yoga, prayed with my mom, enjoyed coffee, and made dinner for my family. It was truly a relaxing, much needed day, but I can’t help but wake up every Wednesday with a worm of guilt wriggling its way into my thoughts.

“You don’t deserve this.”

“Everyone else is at school while you enjoy some yoga?”

“You’re making a sub deal with your kids every Wednesday so that you can have the day off?”

I struggled to tell my coworkers that I would be taking Wednesdays off, but I didn’t anticipate the shame and guilt that would follow every week. I’ve heard of people dealing with shame and guilt as they battle a chronic illness, but I never understood it. You’re sick. That’s a big deal. Your life is changing. You need to do things to get better. People would love to do what they can to help you in this.

Why would it be so different in my case?

There are a lot of reasons I could talk myself out of guilt, and they’re not wrong – just insufficient.

There were a few days the beginning of the year where I cried all morning before work, sobbing in the parking lot, trying to pull it together to make it inside the building. It was too overwhelming to feel the way I did and deal with this new illness in such a high-stress and high-energy job. I didn’t think I could make it anymore.

I was ready to quit. I couldn’t continue feeling the way I did and survive until May. If I didn’t have a job that had a strict timeline, I would have.

When I finally decided to ask my nurse practitioner about FMLA options he was incredibly understanding and realistic. He even told me later that he doesn’t give FMLA to most of his patients but he thought I would honestly use it well.

These are all valid truths that seem like they have the power to squash guilt and shame. But lo–guilt and shame are still breathing. So while it’s not wrong to remind myself of the reality and the necessity of my situation, it is insufficient to just remind myself of these facts and think it will be enough.

Guilt stems from “I should” and shame falls right behind it with, “I am.”

“I should be able to work five days a week.”

“I am abusing the fact that I have an illness. I’m cheating. I’m overdramatic.”

Guilt comes from actions or lack of action – guilt for what I did or what I feel like I should have done. Shame comes with an “I am” statement about our identity.

Here’s the truth that is sufficient: my guilt and shame are dead and no lies can be strong enough to tell me otherwise.

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he richly poured out on us with all wisdom and understanding.” (Ephesians 1:7-8)

When Jesus came to earth, he lived without fear or guilt or shame. He never had thoughts like: “I should do more,” “I should be more…” He knew he was one with the Father and he knew how to live in perfect obedience to Him.

But when he died on the cross, fear and guilt and shame were heaped on him–all that every human who has and will ever live could experience. That guilt died with Jesus as he took his last breath on earth.

And when Jesus raised to life, guilt and shame and fear stayed dead.

So, when I feel them now it is a lie that works its way into my thoughts so that I would doubt what Jesus has done and forget his gift of freedom. I’ve done nothing wrong to have POTS and I have nothing to be guilty for in my learning to live with it. Even if I have fallen in some way, it wouldn’t matter because all of my failures–the big and small–died when Jesus died. I rest in his life.

God has richly poured out his grace on me and that love is what decides who I am. Guilt is dead. Shame is silenced. Fear is defeated.

That’s the truth that is sufficient to fight guilt when I wake up on a Wednesday or when I feel like I can’t do something or when I have to make a major life change to accommodate my illness.

God’s grace is immeasurable.

If you’ve experienced the paralysis of guilt or the silence of shame in the midst of dealing with a chronic illness (or at all in life), you’re not alone. The good news is that Jesus wasn’t just a cool guy with nice things to say about how to live or a police officer that is trying to make sure you follow all of the rules. He isn’t sitting around waiting for you to mess up. He isn’t heaping condemnation on you or wondering when you will figure out how to get yourself through this mess of life.

Freedom is yours right now if you will reach out and take it. I’ve grabbed ahold of it and it’s completely changed the way I live.

And when the lies come in that try to convince me that guilt is still holding on to me, I can fight it with this truth: guilt is dead. Jesus is not. His grace reigns forever.

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