I’m a young Christian wife and mom. I’m twenty-five, and on the outside I look perfectly normal: young, fit, happy. But on the inside it’s an entirely different story; underneath the veneer of health and youth, I have been suffering from chronic pain for eight years. I have congenitally lax ligaments and tendons, which predispose me to injury, and the chronic instabilities and constant damage have led to central pain sensitization; the pain itself becomes a disease, responding with heightened pain to even the smallest stimuli. As a collegiate swimmer I tore both of my shoulders and damaged my knees and hips due to the laxity. Now married and five years beyond my short-lived athletic career, the pain continues to pervade every area of my life. After each of my children came home my pain increased dramatically with the extra demands on my body and energy. The pain has never returned, and maybe never will, to the more tolerable pre-child level. I have a biological son who is two-and-a-half and since my pregnancy with him I have been struggling with debilitating sacroiliac, hip, and low back pain. My affected pelvic joints never returned to “normal” after stretching to accommodate the pregnancy and remain in very out-of-whack positions, constantly provoking pain. My husband and I have decided to not have more biological children as a result of the pain and so we happily turned to adoption to build our family. Our adopted baby is now three months old, and caring for him, even though I’m not recovering from a pregnancy, still challenges me physically every day.
There comes a point every few days (or every day during a rough week!) when both of my children will scream or whine inconsolably for no discernible reason. This is an overwhelming experience for any parent, and it inevitably happens to us all. But sometimes I feel like I have three, or four, out-of-control children to deal with - not just the two I can see. My two-year-old is screaming, the baby is screaming, and my back is screaming with burning neurological pain, and my sacroiliac joint is screaming with sharp, biting pain every time I put weight on my right leg, and my knees are screaming ‘mercy!’ every time I get down on the floor to pick up a pacifier. The constant barrage of noise and need makes me feel like I am being crushed under the burden of my home and my children and my pain. Sometimes I just physically can’t console my children and a tremendous weight of guilt is added to the already-heavy load. I can’t pick the baby up because my back pain radiates all over my body. I can’t bend down to hug my toddler because he throws himself on me and makes the SI pain spike and my knees buckle. I can’t get my hip to stop hurting once it starts, and my back pain is just as persistent once triggered. I have no control. At all. Of anything. Even the dishes seem to want to join in my humiliation, screaming “wash me!” from the counter top. And my floor, piling on, yelling “Mop me! Mop me.” And my laundry, “fold me!” Feed me, hold me, change me, fix me, clean me, wash me, fold me, mop me… the rising chorus of needs I can’t fulfill pummels my exhausted brain and beaten body. My mind starts racing as defeated tears well up in my eyes: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do this. This is not okay. I am not okay.
Sometimes I have to walk (limp) away from my children to try to get a grip. I’ll just sit in the bathroom, tears rolling down my face as my child tries to break down the door, pleading “Mommy! Mommmmy!” over the screaming baby. Other times I just tune out the children and stare at the wall in perplexed self-pity, wondering, “When does someone jump out of my coat closet with a camera and say, “Just kidding! This isn’t your life! Game over!” I am overwhelmed, outnumbered, exhausted, in pain, and at the end of my rope. I’m ready to give up. But how does a mother just give up? You can’t. There are no time outs, no recovery periods, no vacations, not even a bathroom break from this job. So you have to make a choice.
I can pull myself up by my bootstraps (slippers) and go back out there to handle it all, physical and mental breakdown or not. I can stay in the bathroom and call my husband to beg him to come home. Or I can fall on my face and plead with God to give me strength and hope and joy through this trial -mostly strength to just not break down. Joy, in these moments, seems too far away to ask for.
That’s not always the choice I make. But that’s always the choice I need to make. I can’t do it anymore on my own. Let’s face it - I couldn’t do it on my own from the very beginning. In these moments when my whole life seems to be screaming at me, I can run away, or run to my Father.
I wish I could say that I have this down after eight years in pain - five of them as a Christian. That the first needles of pain in my back send me to my knees in dependent trust. But I don’t. Not always. Not often enough. I am so prideful. Even through some of the worst pain of the last few months I’ve just battled on by myself, with a forced smile and a pocketful of prescription painkillers for when I really can’t take it anymore. But God has been working on my heart to show me that His plan and purpose for my pain is far, far greater than to just “get me through it.” He has my heart and my soul in focus. Every moment of pain, every second (or hour) of screaming children, every humbling limitation that sends my ego into fits, has a purpose that works out for my good and God’s glory. I don’t feel like this is true in those hard moments. When I’m curled up in a ball on the floor, back and hips and knees and brain and children screaming, beyond exhausted and past my tolerable pain threshold, it feels anything but good.
That’s why I need the Gospel. That’s why I need to hear, read, sing, and meditate on the Gospel every day, through the pain, the uncertainty, the hopelessness, the anger, the bitterness, the helplessness, the guilt, the grief. God sent His beloved Son to bear the entire weight of wrath that I deserve for my sin – “how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). And even more than that, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good!” (Romans 8:28). This is for my good. This is working out for the redemption of my soul and the fine-tuning of my affections. This is training my heart onto God, and away from myself. I am God’s child, and every moment of my life – through pain and weakness more than anything else – is designed to draw me closer to Him and make me more like Him. Through this pain God is doing the most loving thing imaginable: He is conforming me into the image of His obedient, loving, glorified Son (Romans 8:29).
What I have to do in these breakdown moments is believe those truths – and pray for God to anchor my heart in these truths so that nothing can shake them. Through His word, God will bind up my broken spirit and salve my bitter heart with His loving promises. I need to believe them so much that this world and its problems – even eight years of chronic pain - fade away in comparison to the eternal joy set before me in union with Christ.
The screaming doesn’t stop because I’ve remembered that God is sovereign and God is good. The pain doesn’t go away. Nothing out there in the world, or in there in my body, has changed. But I have remembered that God is sovereign and God is good. Instead of suffocating under the weight of anxiety, guilt, and despair, when I trust God my soul can sing out, albeit through tears, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26).
On the days when I come out of the bathroom flooded with a renewed vision of God’s grace and mercy, holding onto these truths for dear life even though I still can’t hold my baby, I’m at peace. God grants me not only strength in Christ, but joy! My hope is not in my abilities, or my children, or the cleanliness of my home; my hope is in my God who has saved me, redeemed me, adopted me, and is using my pain for His glory and my good.