When I was a girl, I remember feeling frightened when the ending credits would roll at the movie theater. It meant my family would stay in the seats while everyone else cleared out, and we would be alone. Or if we were at an amusement park and no one was in line for the ride, the desolation got to me. I would cry irrationally, calling for the people to come back. Even as a kid, something deep within me knew that we are not meant to be alone. We were made to be known, understood, looked at, shared.
Last month, I found myself sitting in a rheumatologist’s’ office for a second time with an unexplainable weariness that made me bone-tired, spent, pained and out of it. I was in complete denial, refusing to believe the words coming out of my doctor’s mouth: “You have fibromyalgia. Classic. I told you last time. I have a nose for it.”
The first time he told me, it was hard to take him (and the illness) seriously. I looked him squarely in the eye and asked, “Is fibromyalgia even real?”
I could tell by his face that he thought I was ignorant, but he was being patient with me anyway. He told me yes, it was certainly real, and I probably had it. Then he gave me a bunch of literature to read. I took it home, read it and hurt some more.
Afraid of Judgment
Here’s the thing: I’ve been judgmental. I didn’t think fibromyalgia was real until it happened to me. I had heard of it and always thought, Yeah, those poor crazy people who think they have problems, but I never bothered looking into it — I was comfortable with my assumptions. I mean, rheumatism is so Victorian Era. But after I got it, I looked up the condition and actually started reading the stories of these poor people afflicted with it — people worse off than me.
I read about endless pain, soreness, never leaving the house, isolation, disconnectedness, loneliness and being looked at with suspicion. My heart broke for these people. The pit of my stomach burned with fear as I thought, I can never share this. Suddenly I saw myself back in that movie theater, alone with my family, stuck in this little bubble of people, watching the world make a mass exit. I realized I might be on the receiving end of the judgment; I might be left alone to suffer in silence.
It makes you wonder: Is there room for the voices of people who quietly suffer?
Think of Facebook, for example — that beautiful, perfect world we all try to maintain. We have seen one of our Facebook friends put little cracks in that picture-perfect snow globe. It looks something like this: “Worst day ever. Please pray.” Or better yet, the more jaded status: “I thought love was forever. I guess it’s not.” Don’t we all hate this? It’s feels inappropriate for Facebook, like online party crashing.
The only kind of real that Facebook permits is when I celebrate making dinner two nights in a row. But I’ve got to steer clear of illness. Or lost love. Or all hell breaking loose. And the sad thing is that Facebook is a microcosm of the world we all think we want to live in — a world of mostly upbeat people who, if they say real things, only say real things that don’t make us uncomfortable.
So when are we allowed to be real? Hopefully when we’re praying, at least. The most real prayer I’ve prayed in a long time happened the other night when I prayed something like this: “Lord, please help me sleep. Please.” Imagine that as a status update.
Do me a favor. Don’t despise that Facebook friend who is trying to be real. Be real with them. Call them up, meet them for coffee, be a real friend. If they have an illness, believe them, even if they don’t believe it themselves. If their world is falling apart, just listen. Maybe your decision to reach out and make them feel known will be just the thing to tide them over until the day they feel truly known, understood and looked at full in the face.
Rachel Wilhelm is a wife, mother and worship leader in Hopkins, Minnesota.