When You Aren’t Getting Better (And It Feels Like It’s Your Fault)

when-you-arent-getting-better

Sometimes an irksome feeling of guilt creeps in. It’s not the kind of guilt that tells me I should be doing more chores around the house or putting in more hours at work. No, this is the guilt that tells me it’s my fault I am not getting better. I must be doing something wrong that is preventing healing.

It’s my fault my muscles have atrophied because I just can’t do my exercises without flaring. It’s my fault the prolotherapy I have been doing is not leading to significant improvement. It’s my fault I did too much last month and haven’t been in quite the same place since. It’s my fault my body isn’t responding like other peoples’ bodies typically respond.

Do you know the voice I’m talking about? The voice that says, I must not be trying hard enough. Other people with my condition improved from physical therapy, so I must be doing it wrong. If I hadn’t gone to the store yesterday, I wouldn’t have flared myself up, and if I always made the right decisions about these things, maybe I would be better by now. What is wrong with me that I can’t figure this out?? 

The answer is that nothing is wrong with me. I know this. Or, do I? Yes and no. I don’t have miraculous powers to heal myself as my thoughts suggest. But there is this part of me that thinks…if I could just get it exactly right, maybe, just maybe, the pain would go away.

But I can’t heal myself. As hard as I work, doing all the things that are supposed to bring about remission, relief, or a control; in the end, I don’t have control over the way my body responds and the ultimate outcome of my efforts to improve.

I know this. But the unpleasant thought lingers. These voices are difficult to get rid of. If you are like me, it’s easy to think we are just not trying hard enough. Quite often, those around us confirm this belief by telling us we simply need to eat better, exercise more, get more sleep, or try this or that to get better. We flare up and people ask us “Well, what did you do?? You must have done something??”

Together, we create this alternate reality in which chronic pain is transformed from a disease that has befallen us to suffering we have brought upon our own selves and could rid of if we worked hard enough and were persistent enough.  

Oh, the delusions we fall into when there aren’t easy answers.

This is the reality. Regardless of what the empirical data says, there is no cure all and no ultimate cause and effect that will work in every situation. There will always be anomalies, physical traits that differ from the norm, and aspects of each of our individual bodies that won’t respond to medicine and treatment strategies as they are “supposed to.”

And more importantly, God is always at work. He is actively and continuously engaged in the process of our lives, including the inner workings of our cells, tissues, organs, and physical bodies. He is actively engaged, working things out for his own glory, whether that goes with or against the expected grain of science and what research shows to be true of God’s created order.

We can do everything we are supposed to do and not be healed. We can do what has healed 99% of other individuals in the same situation and still not get better. Yet still we hold no blame or fault. We hold no moral responsibility and are not culpable for our pain. We are free from guilt because only God can heal and only God can save. Work hard does not save us from our sins, and it also does not save us from our physical pain. God alone is the one who forgives our sin and heals our diseases.

As we live out this life of chronic pain, we need a relentless perseverance. Giving up is not an option, and our freedom from guilt and lack of ultimate control over our health don’t give us a free pass from continuously fighting to get better from our pain. But relentless perseverance cannot be equated with success. Faithfulness to work hard and follow the right treatment plan cannot be equated with a pain-free body. Somewhere along the way we have equated faith with fortune and work with good results. But this just isn’t the case.

When we finally believe that we can’t heal ourselves, and that nothing we do will bring healing apart from God’s intervention, a wonderful thing happens. We can finally move towards peace and freedom from this guilt that plagues us, the guilt that says, “Maybe the pain is my own fault.”

Do you find yourself apologizing for what you can’t do when your body is in a flare? Do you find yourself blaming yourself when you have a relapse? Do you analyze every single thing that you did over the last week, trying to figure out what you did “wrong” to increase your pain? Do you wonder if your pain is your fault?

It’s OK. I’ve been there, too. It just means that we are falling into a false guilt, and we are invited to rest and remember the truth. We are invited to rest when our bodies just can’t exercise. We are invited to be kind to ourselves when treatments don’t work – that wasn’t our fault. We are invited to stop defending ourselves to people who think we are sick of our own doing. We are invited to believe that we didn’t flare because we did something “wrong;” we flare because our physical bodies are not working properly.

Do you ever fall into this kind of thinking? What do you say to help yourself believe the truth?

Check out the first booklet in the Chronic Pain and the Christian Life series, But God Wouldn’t I Be More Useful to You If I Were Healthy, on Amazon.com. 

10 Comments

  1. Thank you Esther for this great post! I continually remind myself of gods promises his character and his attributes. Otherwise, it would be very easy to become depressed during flareups especially since they are very frequent. I was invited to go out for lunch today which under normal circumstances I would have jumped at. But,because I’m in the middle of another flareup I decided it was best to decline and postpone for a future day that I could enjoy my friends company and not be in agony. I also chose to stay up later than usual and watch a feelgood movie that I had taped. Something I never do, that is stay up that late and watch a movie. So perhaps, the late night in combination with doing more that day than I would generally do was the cause. So I’ve decided to go to bed as per usual, take additional rest breaks and hope and pray that like yourself I too will be back at my baseline.

    1. Nancy, I’m sorry to hear you are in another flare up! I hope you can get lots of rest today. Praying for some relief and that you can get back to regular pain levels.

  2. This article touched my heart in so many ways tonight. I was brought to tears. I have been feeling so heavy under all the guilt I hold on to. It’s been getting worse and worse and I’ve been so frustrated. Others notice it too. My mom has really been reminding me that I do NOT need to apologize over every little thing. I feel so inadequate when I can’t even keep up with basic household functions, let alone hold down a job. Illnesses have stripped away who I once thought I was. I was driven and independent from a young age but now some days just taking a shower is an accomplishment. By 20 I had gotten my RN license, was working at the best hospital in the area and lived on my own completely supporting myself. I will admit I was materialistic and loved being able to have nice things. Now at age 29 I can’t keep up with doing dishes and laundry. I have to move back into an apartment off my mom’s house that she is building for me. She pays my bills, then comes and helps me with housework, takes me to doctor appointments, etc. The guilt is constant. I should be taking care of my widowed mom, not the other way around. This article was such a beautiful reminder that I don’t need to take all the blame for things outside my control. For the first time in a while I feel peace about my situation. This article will be re-read frequently and I can’t wait to see what else God wants to show me through the book advertised here. I usually ignore those ads but my heart is desperate for more encouragement from a source that has been there. It’s not often that you find something written from a Christian perspective that isn’t patronizing about struggles like these. Many simply don’t understand.
    Many thanks to the author. You have blessed me in a deep way.

    1. Amanda, thank you so much for sharing your story. It can be hard to believe/remember sometimes, but yes, your pain and illness are not your fault. You don’t need to apologize. You are worthy, loved, and valuable just as you are. It’s so hard to remember when we were the ones who used to serve, and now others are serving us. It can make me feel like “less” of a person. But how much we can do is not what it is about. I have to remind myself of this often 🙂 So glad to have you around! Feel free to connect on Facebook. It can be a great place to find other people who are going through the same things. If you check out my resources page, I list a few Christian Facebook groups that have been a great source of encouragement for me. Finding that support of others going through the same thing can be truly life changing.

  3. Your insight is astute as always! Thank you for your deep reflection on things we tell ouselves, the background worries and second guessing of our everyday decisions. I know I have beem doing this lately! And you go that further step of witnessing greater reliance on God and the restoration of balance and meaning it brings to our lives.

    1. That’s so true that it applies to other areas of life as well. Hope you are doing well and that your writing is coming along 🙂

  4. Great post! I struggle with this too. For me, the problem has been compounded by the voices of so many people– doctors, friends, even family members– who suggested I’m not trying hard enough. It’s taken me a long time to develop a baseline of confidence so that I can find my footing again when others’ remarks, or even my own fears, throw me off kilter. Now, when I start to feel bad about myself, I catch myself and realize there is no good reason for it. I’ve also realized that the way other people see you can say a lot about who they are, and their own fears. Now I’m slowly becoming better at taking things less personally.

    1. Thanks for sharing all of that. I think it’s helpful to think through how we get to that place of confidence so we can not take things personally. It is definitely a process. But I get there more and more over time.

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