The Gift of Suffering: A story of Trauma and Hope
On 31st January 2020, my life changed. I woke up unable to move, walk or talk. I was crying from excruciating pain on both sides of my body and I could not make sense of the stiffness I felt in my body.
I called the National Health Service (NHS) UK 111 helpline and was referred to an out of hours General Practitioner (GP) who insisted I see a Rheumatologist. I believe this was the breakthrough I needed to make sense of my physical pain which will ultimately shape my faith.
Prior to this day, I had lived with undiagnosed widespread pain for 7 seven years along with Migraines, Depression and Anxiety. I had moved to England to live with my father and attend university the same year the body pains began.
I remember the first time I ever complained about body pain. I was in my final year in Achimota High School and my mother had managed to get me an exeat to send me to a private hospital.
The doctor conducted a blood test and advised me to increase my iron intake. Then I mentioned that I was having back pain to which he responded, “you are just worrying your mother”. We laughed it off and I went back to school.
Fast forward to January, 2020, I have now been in the UK for 7 years, I am completing my masters in Forensic Psychology at a top University in the UK. Bear in mind. I was still having back pain and migraines.
Nonetheless, I had managed to get on a master’s programme and was projected to finish with an overall distinction as I was the only student with distinctions on all modules in the first semester, including Statistics and a 5000 word report to the Ministry of Justice in the UK on supporting victims of sexual abuse.
I was working hard to prove that I was intelligent; something I would later come to understand in therapy was a trauma response to being compared to my brother and cousins on an academic level during my childhood.
I was not prepared for my diagnosis of Fibromyalgia on that fateful day in January 2020. Most importantly, the toll it would have on my academics, part-time job, self- esteem and ultimately my faith.
On that fateful morning in January 2020, when I woke up unable to move or walk, I had no idea what was about to hit me. After speaking to my GP in his office and expressing the pain I was feeling in my body, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and Clinical Depression. I cried right in front of my GP.
For seven years I knew there was something wrong but every doctor I saw dismissed it when blood tests and X rays would come out normal. The diagnosis of Fibromyalgia felt like a breakthrough, an answer to my prayers but the Clinical Depression, not so much.
I was ashamed that I had a mental illness. I was the one supposed to treat mental illness not be diagnosed with one. I could not come to terms with the diagnosis of Clinical Depression so I would tell people that I had Fibromyalgia and leave out the diagnosis of Clinical Depression.
The exact cause of Fibromyalgia is still unknown but it’s thought to be related to abnormal levels of certain chemicals in the brain and changes in the way the central nervous system (the brain, spinal cord and nerves) processes pain messages carried around the body.
It’s also suggested that some people are more likely to develop fibromyalgia because of genes inherited from their parents.
In many cases, the condition appears to be triggered by a physically or emotionally stressful event, such as:
- an injury or infection
- giving birth
- having an operation
- the breakdown of a relationship
- the death of a loved one
Symptoms of Fibromyalgia include Migraines, Fatigue, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Sleep problems, Cognitive problems, Restless Legs Syndrome, Light sensitivity, Painful Periods and over 200 other symptoms.
According to the National Health Service (NHS) UK, anyone can develop fibromyalgia, although it affects around 7 times as many women as men. The condition typically develops between the ages of 30 and 50, but can occur in people of any age, including children and the elderly.
In my case, my doctors and therapists concluded the condition was triggered by psychological trauma in my life. I was subjected to some traumatic experiences while growing up.
On the outside, it appeared I had a fairly good childhood. I never slept on the streets although I lived with so many family members. I never had to beg for food although I was never comfortable eating to my satisfaction in the homes of the people I lived with. I was always clothed although I was not always happy with the clothes that were gifted to me.
I was called a good girl although I was only good when I lived according to other people’s rules. It is easy to look at my childhood and question what was traumatic about it. But you don’t see the unhappiness, feeling criticised during family meetings for being too quiet, shy or withdrawn.
I remember a time when I was asked to dance in front of family members for their entertainment and cried because I did not want to but was still forced to dance. I remember the many times I was laughed at because of my weight by family members, or because of my parents’ turbulent marriage. I knew my parents were married although it was a long distance marriage but I did not understand that my mother was having to play both mother and father during my childhood due to my father’s absence.
Nonetheless, it was tough for her and for me because I would hear disparaging comments from family members about my parents’ marriage which were very hurtful.
All these things affect a child psychologically. In my case, these things were causing psychological trauma which will eventually catch up to me in adulthood. I had my own share of child molestation and sexual abuse.
Due to my upbringing, I knew I could not tell anyone because I was expected to be a good child. The truth is, most Ghanaian families do not safeguard their children against sexual abuse from outside and within the family.
The assumption is that it will never happen or perhaps even if it does, pretend as though it never happened. As such, there are many parents who will never know the abuse their children have endured in the hands of friends, family and society at large.
I am a prime example that trauma cannot be hidden or denied forever. At some point, it will show up and force you to confront it.
So what if you were not sexually abused, beaten violently or starved for days? Can you still be traumatised despite a relatively good childhood? Of course!
Trauma is not determined by the event but by your perception of the events that happen to you. What this means is that, just because someone was abused does not mean they will automatically be traumatised by the abuse.
Conversely, just because you have not experienced abuse does not mean you cannot be traumatised by things you perceive as extremely difficult to process such as grief, heartbreak and disappointment. This is why I am a strong advocate of validating pain instead of comparing suffering. There is no prize for the person with the most suffering and pain. Every pain is valid no matter how severe or seemingly trivial.
So as you read this piece, I invite you to look within your own life and confront your own trauma, bearing in mind that not all suffering must be visible to the human eye in order to be valid. Trauma comes in many forms. Whether you had to go to bed hungry or felt unloved despite having food to eat, your suffering is equally valid and you must make no apologies for the psychological wounds you carry.
After my diagnosis of Fibromyalgia, I was referred to Physiotherapy and Psychological Therapy for 6 weeks. I slowly regained my mobility but had to depend on my walking stick to help with my balance and fatigue. My therapist helped me link my childhood trauma to the onset of Fibromyalgia and it made a lot of sense. I ended up failing multiple exams, having to resist and eventually graduate this year with a merit. I felt like the biggest failure. I had to stay at home after graduating to recover. This meant I was not allowed to work. I was struggling with the overwhelming shame from having a masters in a developed country yet being unemployed. But I have good news which I will come back to later.
Currently, I live on opioids, nerve relaxers and anti-depressants. I am still unable to walk without pain but I no longer depend on my walking stick. This does not mean I am any better. It took me a year to accept that God does not always heal everyone but it does not mean He loves you any less. Even when He chooses not to heal you, He is still able to use you for His glory.
Now, I want to be totally transparent with you. I was angry at God for the trauma and the pain. All I have ever wanted to do is serve God with my life but He allowed me to be abused and traumatised as a child. I ignored that and still chose to serve God but 7 years later, He allowed Fibromyalgia and PTSD to change my life. I did not understand why God would allow all these things to happen to me especially during my masters when I was excelling beyond expectation! I fasted, prayed, did all the things over 5 pastors told me to do but still no healing.
Then I asked myself: “Will you still serve God if He never heals you?” My answer was yes. Since then, I no longer chase after healing. I am hopeful but I no longer chase it. Instead, I am committed to giving my pain purpose. If this pain is going to stay, then it must have some purpose.
My pain is an example of how trauma can manifest physically. I wrote a 7 day- devotional about my mental health which birthed a community of over 200 members from five countries. We offer pro-bono counselling, mental health education and funding for medication, therapy and essential living expenses. Purpose can be birthed in pain but you must be willing to bear the pain. Not pain from ongoing abuse, but pain as a testimony of what you have survived.
Nonetheless, if you can avoid the pain before it manifests, please do. Don’t endure abuse of any kind. Don’t allow family members to make you unhappy in the name of family. Speak up and speak out. Have boundaries, take care of your mental health and those of others.
Parents, love your children appropriately. Do not be so occupied being a provider and demanding respect that you miss out on building a healthy emotional bond with your children. You may not have had a good relationship with your own parents, but you can ensure that your children find a good parent in you. You can decide to do better, to be committed to learning and improving.
As soon as you think you already know it all, that is when you begin to fail. Remember that your child is their own person. They are not your mini- you. They were not created to please society and your friends. They were not created to prove to everyone that they are good kids. Healthy, expressive love has the power to transform more than yelling, insulting and comparing your kids to other kids ever will. Your child may not express their pain to your face but they may build resentment over time which will negatively impact the care they may provide to you in your old age. It is my hope that you raise children who will not need therapy to heal from you.
Finally, if you are like me, struggling with a chronic illness and perhaps are suicidal, depressed, lonely or anxious, I want to encourage you to seek help for your mental health. Your mental health is equally as important as your physical health.
Therefore, if you are seeking treatment for your body, it is only right that you seek treatment for your mind too. There is nothing anti-faith about therapy or medication. I am a firm believer that God can use a therapist to heal you just as much as He could use a doctor or a pastor. Your mental health is deserving of tender loving care just as much as you are deserving of love and affection. You owe it to yourself to equally care for your mind, body and spirit.
I mentioned earlier that I had good news. Well, the good news is that I moved out of my father’s house, started psychological therapy again and got a job as a Clinical Associate Psychologist within the NHS. In addition, I will be starting a second master’s degree at UCL – the 8th best university in the world.
I have come to understand that suffering can be a gift when we give it purpose. Although you are not obliged to immediately make sense of your pain (because in all honesty, certain things are just wrong and should not happen to anyone at all), when you decide to move past the pain, it may be helpful to transform that pain into purpose.
The real transformative power is in your ability to use your pain to nurture and support others through their own pain. You have the ability to experience the gift of suffering. Instead of staying in defeat, partner with God to make the best out of your pain and suffering.
The author can be contacted via email at email@example.com.