Lent and my Chronic Illness

Today, I am writing about something specifically from my own Christian worldview, but many of the things I’m writing about, about adding new habits and patterns or giving things up, while still having chronic illness, could be applicable to anyone with chronic illness who wants to make changes in their life.

We are now a few days into Lent, which began, this year, on Valentine’s Day, February 14, with Ash Wednesday. Lent is a season in the Christian calender that begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday: 40 days in total, not including Sundays. It mirrors Christ’s 40 days of fasting and prayer in the desert directly after his baptism, right before his public ministry started.

Many Christians commemorate the Lenten season by choosing to either give something up or add something. The goal of such an act, for a Christian, is to get closer to God. For instance, if one were to give up social media, they would spend the time they were normally on Facebook praying, reading the Bible, or other more fruitful endeavors.

One could also give up something they feel is distracting them from their faith, or keeping them from their God-given purpose. For instance, one year back in high school I gave up energy drinks. I had become quite dependent on them, drinking several a day, and they were detrimental to my physical health. In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, the Bible says our body is a temple, and I realized I could not fully use my body as God intended if I continued doing something I knew was destructive to it. I gave them up and haven’t drunk them since.

I have been praying for a while now about what, if anything, I should do for Lent this year. Giving things up and taking on new commitments, even for noble purposes, can be more difficult when you have chronic illness.

I remember the last time I tried fasting. I was in high school, and participating in a day-long fast in order to raise money to help those in hunger all over the world. About 18 hours into the fast, I became extremely ill. I ended up having to break the fast, which helped some, but fasting also lowered my immune system, as any big change is prone to do in me: I get sick super easily. I was sick, and also likely in a flare (none of my chronic issues were diagnosed yet) for the next few weeks.

And another time, not for Lent but because I was trying to make “healthier” choices in my life that I thought would help my fibro (before I learned that fibro was only a comorbid condition of the hypermobility disorder and Chiari malformation I had not yet been diagnosed with), I gave up coffee and any tea with high caffeine (like black tea) and replaced them with drinking large quantities of water.

A few days in, I was hit with one of the worst flares I’ve ever had. I later learned that caffeine was something that we had successfully used to treat the symptoms of my Chiari when I was first diagnosed in 8th grade (so successfully that I forgot about the diagnosis!). I started drinking caffeine in moderation again, and feel so much better! I also learned that, due to my dysautonomia, large amounts of water actually make me sicker, and I need electrolytes in my water to make me feel better.

But I have also given up and added things that have made a tremendous positive impact on my life. Last August, for health reasons (mainly migraines, including abdominal migraines), I decided to extremely limit my consumption of alcohol. Since August, I have only drank 4 times. This was an extremely positive choice, though I didn’t do it at Lent in that case.

Last year for Lent, I worked on implementing a daily Bible reading practice. I’ve tried to read through the Bible before, or read the Bible everyday, but usually these well meaning practices have gotten abandoned a few weeks (or less!) in. But successfully spending quiet time in the Word everyday during Lent was the ticket for me to learn how to have an everyday practice. At first, after Lent, I missed a few days here and there, but now that it has become such a well ingrained habit, the tracker on my Bible app says I have read 102 days in a row.

If you are chronically ill and debating giving something up or adding something, whether for Lent or otherwise, it is important to consider whether it is sustainable for your own body and its unique needs. Some things that a healthy person would be able to give up may not be plausible for you. For instance, every chronically ill person has unique dietary needs. Giving up red meat may not be a good choice for you if you struggle consistently with low iron. There are many chronically ill people who are limited in diet and would not do well on, say, a vegan diet.

All of my goals this year are adding something rather than giving something up. Adding something can be much easier than giving something up, and I have found that it coincides often better with a life of chronic illness, especially if what you’re already doing habit wise is necessary for your life.

A reason to choose to give something up instead would be if you’re doing something in your life that keeps you from God (from a Christian perspective) and/or that keeps you from flourishing; especially if it’s something that makes your illnesses worse. If you’re eating in a way that makes you sicker and a dietary change is going to even possibly help your symptoms, then it’s a great thing to try.

When choosing a goal, it was helpful for me to think; is there anything I already do in my life that I know is good for me, but I want to do more consistently? If it’s something I’m already doing in my life, I know it’s something that’s good for me and my chronic illnesses. It’s also an easier baby step into life change than adding something totally foreign, like an exercise regimine for someone who is fairly sedentary. Any big changes all at once are also prone to sending me into a flare, so I try to implement change slowly and steadily.

This year, I have three goals that coincide with the season of Lent. Like my last year Bible reading practice, I am hoping that these are things that will continue far longer than Lent. While I am doing three things this Lenten season, I would urge you, if you’re new to a regular goal-setting, habit-keeping process, especially whilst being chronically ill, to start small and just choose one.

Only one of my three goals was originally chosen for Lent; one is something I wanted to start at the beginning of the year but hasn’t happened yet so I figured now is finally a good time for it, and the other is something that my doctor recommended the day before Lent that just happens to fall into this season.

My first goal is to consistently clean my house or do some type of housework at least 10 minutes a day. Doing housework consistently is a challenge for me as a working, chronically ill mom. When I get home, I am exhausted. I tend to do cleaning in big, dramatic bursts of cleaning an entire day for hours, which isn’t usually good because it can send me into a flare. My goal, then, is to build a pattern where I’m doing some concentrated housework every day. Some days it will obviously be more than 10 minutes, but 10 minutes is manageable even on my worst days.

My second, a health-related goal recommended by my doctor, is to focus on gaining weight. I lost a lot of weight in early December because of illness, which was alarming because I am already underweight. I am working on finding healthy foods that work with my body (which can respond badly to a lot of things) that help me gain weight healthily.

My third is to attempt to write at least one blog post a week, consistently. I blog like I clean: I get bursts where I blog a lot, and then disappear for months. I want to work on being more consistent with my blog writing.

As I wrap up this post, one last piece of advice I would give is to not be too hard on yourself if you mess up on your goals, and to continue to evaluate whether or not it is a good goal for your life and your chronic illness(es). If something is clearly not a fit for your life, isn’t helping your relationship with God, and is making you sicker, there is no shame in giving it up. Don’t feel like you’re failing by not sticking to all of Lent: if it’s not productive for your life or faith, you’re causing more harm by sticking to it and doing more good by abandoning it.

And if you find a practice that is good for you, your health, and faith, but you go into a flare and can’t do it one day, don’t feel like you’ve failed and have to give it up. Grace is always sufficient, and there’s always tomorrow to try again.

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