Editor: This article has been adapted from the chapter, “Something Changed” by Sara G. Willougby in her book for teenagers, He’s Making Diamonds: A Teen’s Thoughts on Chronic Illness. At 14 years old, Sara experienced Lyme Disease¹, which is an illness caused by bacteria transmitted from an infected tick. Symptoms of this disease can lead to long-term effects such as fatigue, memory challenges, joint and muscle pain, sensitivity to mold mycotoxins, etc.
I Lost Me
I was the girl with the chemical filtering mask on. I wore a mask much of the time to protect me from mold and chemical exposure. And people did come to know me as the mask girl. As the sick girl. When they looked at me, they didn’t look into my eyes first, they looked at my mask. Everyone was polite and kind, but the mask was—to them—a big part of my identity.
It’s easy for sickness to become what we define ourselves by. We’re the sick girl or guy.
Grappling with Sickness
Sickness affects so many parts of life in such invasive ways, it begins to feel like it’s who we are.
Things like severe joint pain, brain fog, chemical sensitivity, and other nasty symptoms make my life much different from many of the people around me. It’s extremely difficult to go out in public. It’s a constant battle to find clothes that don’t burn my skin from chemicals. It’s so hard not being able to think clearly and keep up a normal conversation, do normal day-to-day tasks, or even do school for that matter.
There was a time when I was walking around a middle school track with my mom, physically not doing so badly for once. My mind on the other hand . . . something had changed. It felt like Sara had left.
What was I to do? How did I process everything that had happened—was still happening—and how it all would affect my life for years to come? Walking around that middle school track, I tried to verbalize my feelings to my mom.
Before I’d gotten sick, I loved to run. Before I’d gotten sick, I used to make jewelry. Before I’d gotten sick, I was reliable, consistent, and in control.
Now, I was fragile, confused, and most of all, lost. Lost in what to do, how to react, and where I was going. I felt like I’d lost myself. It felt like everything that was the Sara I had been before was gone. It felt like she had shattered at my feet. Not just chipped, not just broken, but shattered. It felt like I had come crumbling violently down.
Even if I someday managed to stand back up again, I knew that pieces of me would be left behind. You can’t glue a shattered vase back together and not leave some parts still scattered on the ground. Some pieces are too jagged or sharp to pick back up again, too broken to glue back together, or too small for anyone else to see.
That’s a scary feeling—losing yourself. You are the thing that you thought you would always have control over. But then when everything that you thought defined you gets ripped away, what are you left with?
The thing that I learned (and am still learning) is that none of that stuff before actually defined me. Or at least it shoudn’t have
God still loves, and always will love, the shards . . . ugly, broken, and sharp as they may be. He is far greater than any of the things we are facing.
What’s My Identity Now?
There’s one thing I have that can never be taken away, and that is where my identity does rest: God. God’s love for me won’t change, and my identity in Him shouldn’t change. I am a daughter of the King, and nothing can take that away from me.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35–39)
When all of the things that I thought were who I was before—a runner and a jewelry maker; someone who was emotionally strong and a clear thinker; a good sister, friend, and daughter, etc.—when all that gets torn away, what is left is just me and God.
Part of why this is so scary is because I don’t really like the “me” I see in that. That Sara isn’t the goody-two-shoes she seemed like before. I, and everyone else, get to see just how sinful Sara really is. Just how broken. Just how weak.
The thing is, I’ve come to realize that this is one of God’s biggest gifts to me in this process: learning my weakness. Learning how to rely not on myself, but rather on God. And learning just how amazing God’s grace is in light of my exposed sin, motives, and tendencies.
So . . . maybe losing ourselves isn’t such a horrible thing. Yes, it hurts. Yes, it’s hard. But it’s okay if we lose ourselves because we won’t lose God.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
God may use illness to shape us. But it should not define us.
The good news is that even when we lose track of ourselves, God doesn’t. We may feel like we’ve lost ourselves. But in God, we are found, and we are finding Him.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:26)
You can read more of Sara’s story from her book, He’s Making Diamonds: A Teen’s Thoughts on Chronic Illness.
¹Healthline. (2019, November 13). Everything You Need to Know About Lyme Disease. Retrieved December 31, 2020, from https://www.healthline.com/health/lyme-disease#lyme-disease
S. G. Willoughby
S. G. Willoughby is the author of He’s Making Diamonds: A Teen’s Thoughts on Faith Through Chronic Illness and the host of the Diamonds conference. She loves to write and have adventures. Sara is a TCK, a Lymie, and a Young Life leader. You can find her at sgwilloughby.com.