Chronic Illness and the Missionary Life

by Jim on 3 March 2012

As many of you know, I have chronic migraine.  Migraine is a genetically based neurological disease that usually involves pain (in the head but also in other parts of the body), nausea, and a number of other symptoms.  It impacts you in many ways, such as increasing your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Every once in a while I think about doing a little series on living with chronic illness as a missionary, but I’ve never gotten around to it.  There are just so many missionaries dealing with major health issues.

However, this weekend is a great example of a typical issue that might give you an idea of the challenges involved, if you’re interested.

It was gearing up to be a busy weekend.  Apart from preparing for upcoming studies and sermons, taking care of kids, and so on and so on, there was a meeting in Ciudad Azteca (in Mexico City) today, there’s an event with the church tonight, and I’m (Lord willing) leading the music tomorrow morning.

As you know, Shari, Nathanael and I were sick with some kind of bug this week.  Nathanael is getting a lot better, though he still has a bit of a cough.  Shari is feeling much better.  But on Friday I wasn’t quite there yet – and as is typical when I’m sick in other ways, my migraine symptoms were worse.

On Friday morning I was feeling horrible, but I had a prayer meeting to lead, so I went to that first thing in the morning.  I had planned some music and other things, but I quickly simplified things, did a reading, and basically just let people share their requests.

But what to do for the rest of the weekend?  It wasn’t looking like I would survive all 3 events.  Should I skip one?  Which one?

The Three

I wanted to do all three.  The trip to Ciudad Azteca would be the heaviest.  I would have to get up earlier than normal, which is one of the worst things for my migraine symptoms – it could impact me for a week or two.  But it was also an important meeting with pastors and leaders in the area, and a great chance to see people.  Under normal circumstances it’s worth it.  And I hadn’t been to a meeting like this since before we left for Canada (I don’t think there has been a meeting since we got back).  So I felt it was very important for me to be there.

The event with the church Saturday night was a family event, especially focused on fathers.  If I didn’t go, everyone in the church would notice, and most likely none of them would understand.  Since these people are my primary focus in ministry right now, I felt it important that I go.  But being at night, I may be most tired out for this event.

Not only do I enjoy leading the music Sunday mornings, I feel it’s very important and a great privilege to lead people in worship.  In some ways, though, this would take the most energy of all; not only leading but moving instruments and sound equipment from one building to another and up the stairs.  Also, since I had a sore throat, this might be the one thing I would be least likely to pull off well.  And it’s something I really want to do well.

So what would you do?

What I did (so far)

Late Friday afternoon, I decided to skip the meeting in Ciudad Azteca, and see how it went Saturday.  In theory, I’d miss the one and be more likely to do the other.

But here’s the problem.  Often, a migraine attack will grow throughout the day.  I might miss the meeting in Ciudad Azteca, when I was feeling fine, then not be able to go in the evening because I would be feeling worse then.

Shari helped with the kids, and gave me some peace and quiet in the evening.  I worked all evening in the unusually peaceful house, and started to feel better.  Now what?  Should I change my mind now and try to go in the morning?

I decided not to push it.  I went to bed and got up this morning – well, I never feel well in the morning, but after a while I wasn’t feeling too bad.  Should I have gone? I wondered.

Now I’ve been working throughout the day, getting ready for Sunday and next week.  I wasn’t feeling too bad.  But now I’m starting to feel worse again.  I’ll probably try to rest a bit before I go tonight – if I can go…

But I wouldn’t want to tire myself out tonight (when I have no responsibilities) so that I can’t do a good job tomorrow…

But if I skip everything today and rest up, I could wake up with a terrible migraine attack tomorrow, and be completely unable to go.  Then I would have missed everything Saturday for nothing!

Now, since I’ve decided to miss the meeting, I should just take responsibility for my decision and live with it.  I made the best decision I could, no reason to feel guilty.

But – if I don’t worry about it anymore, should I still express extreme regret to those that went?  Sure I wanted to go, but would it be dishonest when I’m no longer feeling so regretful?  Or would it be offensive if I didn’t seem regretful?

If I miss tonight, do I go around and explain to everyone why I missed?  Do I have the energy to do that?  Will thy understand anyway?

But if I save up all my energy and go tonight, will everyone wonder why a healthy chap like me skipped an important meeting and yet went to a "fun" event in the evening?

Since I was missing the meeting, should I have just rested today (for the most part)?  If I did that, how could I get the work done I need to get done?

If all goes "well"

All right, so none of this is ideal right now, and I’m still not sure what’s going to happen.  I’m writing this in the middle for a reason.

But if all goes well from here on in, I will have gotten a regular night’s sleep, I still worked on ministry stuff last night and all day today, I’ll go tonight, be prepared for tomorrow, and maybe be able to rest a bit tomorrow afternoon.

All’s well that ends well… if it does….

Sure, a bit of a frustrating weekend.  But we’ve all been there, right?  You may not be able to relate to everything I’ve written, but you could probably relate to most of it.

But here’s the clincher.  It doesn’t stop Sunday evening.  It doesn’t stop when my cold bug or whatever it was goes away.

These are the kinds of decisions I make every week – sometimes every day.  It’s the way life is, and the way it has always been.

I try my best to pace myself.  I try my best to be efficient, and do the work I need to do and more.

But I can overwork and no feel too bad – or I can rest up and end up with a severe migraine attack anyway.

There’s no predicting, and always only tentative planning.  When Ismael asked me yesterday if I would be going to the Men’s Retreat next month, I think I said "maybe".  Not because I don’t want to go (I do).  Not because I’m not planning to go (I am).  Not because we never know the future (that’s part of it – I could always say "Lord willing" of course).  But because there’s no way I can really know if I’ll be able to do anything.  Chances are I’ll be able to go.  Chances are I’ll go tonight and lead the music in the morning.  But there’s a very good chance that I’ll miss one of those things.

And that, my friends, is a little glimpse into the life of a missionary with a chronic illness.  And when all is said and done, I’m back where we all must be – learning to rely on the grace and mercy and wisdom of God for every moment of life.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathryn Doorten March 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Wow Jim.. thanks for sharing.. I will continue to pray for you and your family.. I very much understand how chronic illness can effect your daily life.. So sorry that you continue to struggle with this..

Tina Barham March 3, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Like always, praying for you. =)

Grandma C, March 4, 2012 at 10:20 pm

This posting was important. And that was a good way to explain how migraine (and many other chronic illnesses) can effect daily life. Your last paragraph is SO vital. This will help people know better how to pray for you and your family, and to encourage you.

A symptom of a condition I live with is being indecisive. The choices you have had to make this weekend would drive me batty.

I’m so sorry to hear that many missionaries deal with “major health issues”. Not that it was a shock to me.

Love & prayers,
Grandma C.

Gary and Ardys Winger March 5, 2012 at 11:47 am

Thanks for sharing, Jim….it does help us to know how to pray for you and the family. Yes, we all need to rely on the grace and mercy and wisdom of God for every moment of life. May God continue to give you the physical and spiritual strength to continue serving Him there in the midst of these challenges!

Love & prayers,
Mom (& Dad) Winger

Jim Cottrill March 8, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Thanks! 🙂

Shari Cottrill March 11, 2012 at 8:12 pm

My hope is that this post will help others better understand what you really go through with these migraines…I know it has definitely helped me…

Grandma C. March 12, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Shari: I hope so too. It is hard for even close family members to really understand what those with chronic illnesses like Jim’s go through. It’s really “a family illness” just like when Nathanael had his physical challenges.

May the Lord give you all special grace and peace.

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