Sunday, June 20, 2010

On the Mend

© 2010 David’s Harp and Pen

Mood: Grateful


This blog is based, in part, upon actual events and people. Certain actions and characters have been dramatized and fictionalized, but are inspired by true events and real people. Certain other characters, events, and names used herein are entirely fictitious. Any similarity of those fictional characters or events to the name, attributes, or background of any real person, living or dead, or to any actual events is coincidental and unintentional, so I don’t want any complaints from any multi-level marketers and I especially don’t want to get any grief from Charismatics, Pentecostals, Word of Faithers, or Name-It-and-Claim-Its who want to accuse me of not walking in faith. I most certainly am walking in faith. That’s why the majority of you are still alive.

I woke up one morning in the summer of 2002 to find my wrists in terrible pain. I was a waitress at the time, so I chalked it up to a very busy evening the night before. After two weeks, the pain grew progressively worse. One evening, while in my car, I reached below the front passenger’s seat to pick up the keys I had just dropped. As soon as I closed my fingers around them, a pain akin to 1000 Cutco knives being driven into me shot through my wrist, causing me to drop the keys again. I determined this wasn’t normal and made an appointment to see the doctor. The doctor prescribed painkillers but was initially baffled about the cause of the pain. I prayed it was a short-term condition. Besides my restaurant job, I had just opened my own detective agency and pulled in $4000 my first month in business, so I didn’t want any sort of physical problems to slow me down.

By the time Christmas rolled around, I had to quit my serving job because I couldn’t lift the trays. Around the spring of 2003, a new host of symptoms had reared their ugly heads: hot flashes, dizzy spells, mood swings, panic attacks, insomnia, and unexplainable, and rapid weight gain, along with other symptoms that, for a woman, are very bad, and let’s just leave it at that. Multiple trips to various doctors ensued, but no one seemed to have any answers for me. I had to wear hard braces on my hands and wrists all the time. There were days I couldn’t get out of bed, and other days when my hands and wrists hurt so much, I couldn’t even do simple things like work a fork and knife or move the gearshift on my car.

During that season, I learned an unspoken rule among Christians: it is a sin to be sick for longer than a week. What started with well-meaning concern and promises to stand in faith with me quickly morphed into accusations of secret sin and/or lack of faith on my part. Questions like, “Why aren’t you healed yet?” and “Where’s your faith?” used to drive me up a wall. Comments to imply I wasn’t trying hard enough or was making my physical condition out to be worse than it was made me feel condemned and alone.

My condition, both physical and emotional, continued to decline quickly. I eventually had to give up my business because I didn’t have the presence of mind any more to do it. I tried every diet in the world to lose the unwanted weight, but had no success with any of them, and attempts at regular exercise also proved futile. The doctor diagnosed me with a hormonal disorder which, because it had gone undiagnosed for such a long time, had become debilitating. The doctor prescribed a lot of medication, but all of it was to treat symptoms, not to really cure anything. The research I did said there was no cure, nor was there any explanation as to the cause of the disease. Doctors and women I knew told me point blank, “Sharon, if your hormones are screwed up, then all of you is screwed up.” For the first time in my life, I faced a crisis that I had no idea how to fix.

I quickly became non-functional. I felt as if I was walking around in a fog most of the time. The simplest things, like doing laundry or dishes, took all my emotional energy, and even the smallest inconveniences caused major crying fits. One of the hardest parts of dealing with the illness was what it did to how I viewed my value as a woman. I used to be a dish! I had a cute figure, cute clothes, and loved to dress up as often as I could. When I started to have hot flashes all the time, any make-up or hair styling products I used would lose their hold and streak down my face. I had to wear baggy everything, and there were days when the hot flashes were so bad, I had to carry rolls of paper towels with me everywhere to soak up the sweat.

Hope seemed fleeting. I got to where I was on 17 different medications. I was exhausted and grumpy all the time. No matter how cold it might be outside, I always felt like I was trapped inside the earth’s core. I was having dizzy spells constantly and so was put on driving restrictions. I dieted as hard as I could and exercised even when I didn’t feel like it, but none of it made a dent in my weight. The doctor even told me near the end of 2007 that almost all the women with my condition experience the rapid weight gain like I did and that I would probably be hefty for the rest of my life. As a single woman, that was the last thing I wanted to hear, but it hit so hard that I simply gave up hope, abandoned all the unsuccessful diets. If no amount of dieting was going to help me, I was just going to eat what I wanted.

I’ve faced many challenges and had to walk through a lot of adversity in my life, and honestly, I’ve never had a problem with it if I thought it was something ordained by God to produce character in me. The hardest times of my life were those things I faced which I thought were punishment from God for things I thought I had done wrong, because the condemnation I would feel was crippling. After that first year of being sick, and especially when I applied for disability, a lot of well-meaning but misinformed people, both Christian and non-Christian, pointed their fingers solely at me to blame for my physical and emotional state. “It’s a sin to be depressed.” “It’s never God’s will for His children to be sick.” “You better make sure you’ve examined yourself thoroughly to make sure there’s no unconfessed sin in your life.” Every time I would hear any of these comments, I would beat myself up internally, blaming myself for not trying hard enough. It was a vicious cycle that lasted for five years.

In fact, I’ve heard so many excuses for my sickness, I’m beginning to think I’ve heard them all. Here are some examples (and, of course, my response to them):

“You’re sick because you have sin in your life.” That’s always been my favorite. “Sin in my life” has also been the reason I’m not married, I’ve had financial problems, relationship conflicts, etc. I loved something a former pastor of mine said. His wife and he had struggled with fertility problems for years. One day, someone said to them, “Do you think maybe the reason you don’t have kids yet is because you’ve got sin in your life?” My pastor replied, “There’s a whole world out there full of people, evil people. Murderers, traitors, thieves, etc.. and they are having babies left and right with no problems at all. So, if having kids is dependent on how much sin I have in my life, I should have a whole slew of children by now!” Jesus said in John 16:33, “In this world, you will have trouble.” That’s as much a bankable promise of God as, “By His Stripes, we are healed.” However, when sickness strikes, we’re always surprised, and we want to place blame on the sick person.

“You’re sick because of the medication.” That one always confused me the most. After the second year of being diagnosed, friends started to say they were sure, they had even heard from God, that my illness was because of the medication I was taking. They said with great urgency that all these medications were polluting my body with toxic chemicals and making me depressed. Some of them would even make trite comments such as, “You don’t need all these pills because Jesus is your medicine.” I explained to all of them, and to some of them multiple times, that I had dealt with all of the symptoms for at least a year or so before I had started on any medication, and since being on the medication, I had experienced no side effects from anything I was taking. That didn’t matter, because they all knew without a doubt that it was the medication that was screwing me up. I worked for a Christian ministry for a while, and I remember testimony after testimony from co-workers that would go something like this: “I didn’t feel well, so I went to the doctor. He said I have Crazy Man Disease and prescribed 500 mg of Cur-i-tol every day, but I don’t need no pills because Jesus is going to heal me!” I would listen to that and think, “Well, if Jesus is going to heal you, why’d you bother going to see a doctor in the first place?” For someone to say they don’t need medication, in my mind, is like someone saying they never need food because Jesus is the Bread of Life. Yeah, I could last 40 days tops with no food, but not much longer.

I was a Name-It-and-Claim-It person for a long time, and I cringe at the thought of things I said, did, and believed because I thought, number one, since I was a Christian I was entitled to the whole world and a bag of chips and, number two, if I ever uttered anything “negative,” such as “I’m sick” or “I’m tired,” I was giving Satan absolute power to make my life a living hell.

“You’re sick because you don’t want your healing badly enough.” This was the most hurtful to me, in light of all the different things I’d tried, the multitude of different doctors I’d seen, and the tens of thousands of dollars I spent on various treatments. I lived with a Christian couple for a few months a few years back. The wife was in a wheelchair and was on scads of medications herself, yet she was so hard on me about the medications I took and the physical struggles I had. She would say things like I relied on the medication too much, that I didn’t need to sleep as much as I did, and part of my problem was I didn’t want to deal with the spiritual issues that were affecting my health. She even went so far as to say that people who take too many medications are opening themselves up to demonic influence, and that demons actually get high from those medications. So, again, it was all put back on me. Not only did I have to have enough faith, live completely sin-free, and eat a diet of nothing but tree bark and mineral water, I had to make sure I had the right amounts of “want” to be healed.

“You’re sick because you haven’t tried the amazing (fill in the blank) which, if you’re one of the first 100 callers, you can have for the amazingly low price of $999.99 plus shipping and handling.” The tenure of my illness has seen countless fad miracle cures come and go. The vast majority of these quick fixes are only available through some multi-level pyramid-marketing scheme. Now, I’ve been in church long enough to know that churches are breeding grounds for these direct sales companies, just like churches are breeding grounds for gluttony, gossip, and male-pattern baldness. In my years as a believer, I have been hit up for just about everything from direct marketing people in church: Amway, Excel Long Distance, Avon, Mary Kay, Pampered Chef, Pre-paid Legal, you name it. In recent days, the latest direct marketing trend in churches is health and wellness products. It’s always something really exotic, something only that company sells, and something very expensive, although the sellers will always ask, “Can you really put a price on your health?” I usually reply, “Well, you can; and you have. $999.99, to be exact!” Of course, none of the expensive things I tried, like the berry cream, or the powdered pomegranates, or the yam juice, or the super-duper industrial grade vitamins, did me one bit of good, and when I would say, “This isn’t helping me,” I would be told the fault laid not in the product but in my attitude! I still remember the last time I bought one of these products. It also seems nowadays that I’m not even allowed to purchase one of these products without attending one of the company’s sales recruiter meetings. Everyone there was a Christian, of course, and the speaker spoke of the values and virtues of these finely ground mushrooms that only grew in a remote part of the Congo, and when the distributors pitched the product, they should tell their customers that these ‘shrooms were everything that was good and wholesome, just like Jesus! My blood pressure spiked at that moment, not only because of the sacrilege, but because I had also heard that same sales pitch for every other direct marketed product any church person had ever tried to sell me. Jesus is not just like Amway, and for God’s sakes, Jesus is NOT just like Mary Kay! I turned to the person who brought me to the meeting and asked, “Did your director just compare the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Savior of the Universe to a South African fungus?” I’ll be honest. When I hear Christians pitching these products with more evangelistic fervor than the Gospel and putting Jesus on the same plane as their vitamin pills, I often daydream of grabbing them by the throat, putting them in a rear naked choke, and whispering in their ears, “Don’t you EVER cheapen my Jesus like that again!”

And yet, in spite of the list of causes given to me by others, my sickness continued. In fact, things got about as bad as they were going to get last year. I had been diagnosed with sleep apnea, but even with aid of a CPAP machine, my sleep was erratic at best, and I missed an inordinate amount of work because I kept having dizzy spells. In the beginning of the year, the woman I’d lived with, the one who’d been in a wheelchair, passed away. When I went to her memorial service, I heard testimony after testimony from her friends and family, praising her as a pillar of faith and perseverance. Everyone loved her and looked up to her, and unlike me, it didn’t seem like anyone pinned her health issues or seemingly early death on unconfessed sin or a lack of faith on her part. She had all the faith in the world, right up to the very end, that God was going to heal her in this life and raise her out of that chair. I, on the other hand, didn’t have much faith for anything. It was at that moment that Satan first whispered in my ear concerning my health, “It should’ve been you, Sharon. Not her.”

In May, I had my annual physical. Some test results came back abnormal, so I had further tests, which also produced abnormal results. For reasons I still don’t understand, there was a fight between my doctor and the diagnostic center about getting me the necessary follow-up to find out what was wrong, and if something was wrong, it could’ve meant cancer. I had gotten to the point where I was tired of the questions and looks of disapproval from some friends and family members who insisted my health issues were all my fault; so, in the beginning, I didn’t tell anyone. I told God, if I did have cancer, not only was I ready to go, but I wanted to go. It turned out I was fine, but the condemnation I felt over the never-ending health issues only grew. I couldn’t turn off the voices in my head that told me I was sick because I had no faith, I was sinful, I looked to medicine instead of God, blah, blah, blah. I then made a very dangerous decision. I went off all medication at once, and stayed off it all summer. Because of that foolish decision, I then drifted into almost complete non-functionality.

In June, I started taking college classes online. It was all I could to keep up with them, but I was determined to show God and everyone else that I was serious about being normal and healthy. In July, I went to Chicago for a church conference. I missed a lot of the sessions because I felt miserable, but I didn’t want to let on about it. The week I spent there, I met some of the most deliciously godly and gorgeous single men ever to grace the face of planet Earth, some with whom I still correspond. Despite how bad I felt physically and mentally, I had the time of my life with those guys. Up until 10 years ago, boys were completely off my radar, but when I met some of those guys in Chicago, that changed. When I went home from the conference, though, and got back to dealing with the daily challenges of my health issues, I got discouraged again. What guy in his right mind would want to be with a woman with chronic fatigue, over the top mood swings, and hot flashes that keep her in a perpetual pool of sweat?

I started school again in September, but my sleep and fatigue issues got much worse. I had to quit my job and drop out of school because I couldn’t keep up. I had been awarded disability, so at least I had something to live on. I gave up regular exercise because it completely drained me. My short-term memory really began to suffer as well. Around that time, I began my two blogs. I remember one Sunday going for a hike with my editor, Peter. As much fun as I had, I was exhausted for the next two days, sleeping away one of them completely. I would have discussions with him on the phone, and then have to call back later to ask him if the conversations really happened or if I just imagined them. That’s how tired and confused I was at the time.

Around October, I went for another sleep test. During that time, one of my girlfriends said she heard from God that my problem was my diet and that fact that I often ate after 9 PM, and if I just ate right and before 9 at night, I’d be fine. A gentleman friend emailed me to say his cousin had sleep apnea but found diet and exercise kept it from getting too bad. He then asked me if I ever tried eating right and exercising regularly. And really, I know people mean well when they say such things, but making common sense suggestions to someone who’s been chronically ill for a long time comes off as patronizing and only makes the person feel worse. When my good-intentioned friends said these things, I thought, “Okay, how many people do I know who eat like pigs all the time and at all hours of the night and get no exercise besides lifting and putting down the remote control who don’t even deal with a fraction of the health concerns I deal with?” The last straw was when I met with a mentor who I’d not seen in almost a year. She said she was concerned because I always had my hair in pigtails. She said it didn’t look feminine or lady-like. I told her I’d given up on doing my hair because of the sweating problem. She said, “Oh, well, you just need to go to a hairdresser to find an easy cut or style that works for you.” I thought to myself, “Do you know how many hairdressers I’ve been to, how many different styles I’ve tried, and it all ends up the same? I do my hair, I put any number of styling products in it, and when the hot flashes and sweating spells come, my hair-do is reduced to ruin.”

I had had enough. I didn’t want to try anymore. All my dreams of becoming something I abandoned because I thought I’d never be or feel well again. About the only goal in life I had left at that point was to possibly get a disease named after me. I couldn’t handle the blame from my friends that all that wrong with me physically and psychologically was all my fault. I was tired of doing everything I was told by every friend, relative, medical doctor, natural medicine doctor, chiropractor, faith healer, and whack job and still not getting any results. One night, I started crying, after having spent the whole day in bed. I didn’t want to talk to God, because I was sure that out of everyone, no one could’ve been more displeased with me than He was. However, I had the feeling that if I didn’t talk to Him then with complete honesty, things weren’t going to get any better.

I prayed, “God, for the last five years, I have prayed for You to heal me and given various reasons as to why You should heal me, because I’ve lived my life right, because I’m completely doubt free, because I never ate or drank anything I shouldn’t have, because I exercised like I was supposed to, because my confessions were always right on the money, because I wanted my healing badly enough. None of that has made a difference. Here I am, five years of my life wasted, and I still feel completely miserable. Maybe I’ve been wrong. Maybe I don’t have to prove to You that through my words, actions, and attitudes, I’ve met all Your requirements and deserve to be healed. Maybe it’s not all up to me. I mean, my salvation wasn’t about me proving how worthy I was for You to grant it to me. You did it because You loved me. It was all about You. Maybe my physical healing isn’t about me wanting it badly enough but all about the finished work of Christ on the Cross. I couldn’t make my way up to You to save me, and I’m not going to try to make my way up to You to heal me physically. I really need You to come down here and meet me on my level, God. And I’m not going to plead and argue with You any more like a lawyer, trying to show You all this proof that I’ve done my due diligence, dotted all my ‘i’s and crossed all my ‘t’s and so that’s why You should heal me. The only thing I have, God, the only plea I can come to You with is this: please heal me, God, because I’m Your baby, and Your baby’s in trouble!” I cried myself to sleep and slept restlessly, but something significant happened during that prayer.

In the weeks following that night, relief finally came in short order. It was indeed a miracle cure, but it wasn’t something obvious, and when I told people about it, most people didn’t believe me. There was a new treatment on the horizon, and through God’s grace, I finally found a local doctor who was both willing to treat me and took my insurance. I had tried a lot of different treatments through the years, but for some reason, this time I thought it would be different. The doctor said she wasn’t sure how long it would take before I noticed any results, but she was confident that, if I stuck with it, I could be totally well, off all the other medication, and completely well within six months to a year.

The heat was really on. Before I could start the new treatment, I had a set of horrible symptoms for 15 straight days. By day 13, I was exhausted, badly anemic, and thought I’d gone completely insane. I went hiking that day with Peter and some other friends, but because of my weakened condition, I couldn’t climb the hill. I told God that day that if He healed me, I would return to that hill and climb the whole thing.

The day finally came when I could start the treatment. I didn’t see any results the first two days, and I began to struggle with the possibility that I was going to be disappointed again. It turned out I wouldn’t have to wait long, though. On the third day, the hot flashes and sweating stopped. By day 5, the horrible fog I’d been in for five years began to lift. In the first week, the depression and mood swings stopped. After two months, I had lost 31 pounds and was able to return to work. Each day, I noticed I had a little more energy. More importantly, I also noticed I had a little more hope.

I have wondered in recent days why I had to wait five years to find the cure. I think one reason may be so that God could grow compassion in me. People shouldn’t be afraid to admit they struggle with anything, least of all their health. We in Charismatic circles tend to jump all over those who admit they have problems of any kind, and we talk as if it’s all up to our faith. I know several times Jesus said to sick people, “Your faith has made you well.” But it’s not all about our faith. People have lots of faith for things that never materialize. It’s all about Jesus’ finished work on the Cross that we have anything good in this life at all.

Now that I am on the mend, I have been reflecting a lot on Luke 17 and story of the 10 Lepers. Jesus healed 10 men of leprosy. Of the ten, only one came back to thank Him, and that man was a Samaritan. Back in that day, Samaritans were considered the lowest of the low, half-breeds, unloved by man and by God. I’m sure Jews who learned of what Jesus did probably thought that Samaritan man wasn’t worthy of healing. I feel so much like that Samaritan leper. I’ve always been the oddball in the circles in which I’ve run, and over the years, I’ve been told all I’ve done to NOT deserve to be healed. Jesus healed me anyway, though, even though my faith at times was so weak, and I was so angry, and I would regularly eat twice my body weight in T.G.I. Friday’s brownie obsessions. Jesus still had mercy on me, and because of that, I want my response to be that of the Samaritan: extravagant praise, wholehearted worship, and the drive to follow God and proclaim His goodness to everyone I can. Too many people put faith not in God, but in their own faith, and when they do receive their healing (or whatever it is they’re looking for), they go back to living their lives for themselves, under the false impression that God is no more than a genie to keep them well and wealthy. That line of thinking is too small for me. God is not my genie. He is my very life, and my health and welfare are only for building His kingdom, not my own. I am finally on the mend, and for all my pleading and demanding of God in the past, now that I’m getting well, I know the only proper response is humble gratitude.

A few weeks ago, I returned to that hill and climbed it. It wasn’t a quick process. As I did, I thought of how much more I enjoyed the climb because I took my time. I also thought about all the people in my life who had helped and encouraged me over the last five years: the friends who let me call them in the middle of the night when I was having a panic attack or feeling suicidal, the leaders at my church who poured all sorts of time and money into me, the doctors who worked hard and studied extensively trying to find answers for me. The view from the top of the hill is incredible, and I’m all the better for having climbed it, instead of it being moved for me.