On Chronic Pain, Healing and Hope

Monday, April 2, 2018

We humans, we like to label each other. Maybe it makes us feel safe, slapping a label on others, or maybe, much as I hate to admit it, maybe it makes us feel better about ourselves. At least I'm not _________(fill in the blank with so-called negative label). We label friends and strangers alike, based on both things we know and things we don't. The older I get, the more I consciously try not to label people. At the age of thirty five, I'm still learning the complexities of myself,  aware that I will never fully understand all those complexities, and therefore, I can't slap a label on another fellow human being who is as complex as myself. Many labels come with unfavorable stigmas attached, and so, I hide from most people some of the very most real and raw parts of myself, afraid of being labeled with something as unglamorous as depressed or chronic pain sufferer.

Yes, I deal with bouts of clinical depression and I have suffered from chronic pain and unresolved health issues for the better part of a decade. And I've suffered mostly in silence for all those years. Those closest to me know something of my back and health issues (it's hard to hide from the people you live with and the people you share life with, e.g. my husband and kids, my parents, and my closest friends), but few of them--if any--know, much less understand what a typical day is for me. Just because I'm smiling and laughing doesn't mean I'm okay. Out of those few people I just mentioned, even fewer of them know I struggle with depression. In fact, my own husband has only known in the last month. I have dealt--or not dealt, depending on how you look at it--silently. I'm afraid of being labeled. I am so much more than my depression; than my chronic pain, and I'm afraid that if people know, they'll fail to see the rest of me, the better parts, the "more together" parts.

Fears laid out on the table, knowing full well that posting this may in fact earn me labels in the eyes of some readers, I'm going to move forward and talk about chronic pain, the theology of healing, and of hope, ah, glorious hope, the thing that gets me through the worst days. I'm tired of hiding, and while this doesn't define me, it is part of who I am, at least right now and for the past several years.

First, I want to say that most days, I try to remember to thank the Lord for legs that walk, a back that can hold itself upright (mostly), for eyesight and hearing and other working senses. I thank him for overall health, that I don't have a terminal illness, or a condition that has me bound to a wheelchair for the rest of my life. For these things, I am truly grateful, and I fully acknowledge that there are literally millions out there suffering from pain and handicap more than I've ever known or imagined. Keeping that in mind, I also fully--and without guilt that I'm being weak or whiny--acknowledge that I, though on a lesser level, deal with very real and sometimes debilitating pain every single day of my life. Now listen up, this is huge, and I cannot reiterate this point enough:
Acknowledging our struggles, whether mental, physical, spiritual, relational, or otherwise, is the first step toward managing the struggle and moving toward a place of healing and hope.
The day I first said that dirty word depression out loud, healing began in my mind. In marital conflict, the day I admit that there's a problem, relational healing can begin. And the day I decided to call my back and neck pain and headaches and relentless stomach dysfunction what it is--chronic pain--was the day healing and hope began. Sweeping it under the rug of  "other people have it worse than me" is not helpful. It's denial. And when you're in denial, you're not proactive in taking care of the problem. Even worse, you live in guilt every single day. For me, I spent years feeling guilt over so many things! For example, not getting more housework done, not taking my kids sledding unless my husband could go too, eating out because I physically couldn't make dinner some nights. The list goes on: things other moms could do that I just couldn't. Finally admitting that I am dealing with serious chronic pain and that I am literally doing the very best I can do took a tremendous weight off my shoulders. I have good days and bad days. Sometimes, the pain is low and manageable and I take all three kids hiking while Brad is at work. Other days, I wait till he is off, knowing that if the little one needs carried part way, I won't be able to do it. Some days, I tackle piles of laundry, clean the bathrooms, run errands with kids in tow, and cook three from-scratch meals for my family. The pain is manageable and a back massage before bed helps me sleep. But then, there are days where I homeschool my kids from the couch with a heating pad, take a nap, throw together PBJ for lunch, and resign myself to getting takeout for dinner--without feeling guilty for days afterward. I do what I can when I can, and when I can't, I have learned to have grace with myself and thank God for what I was able to do that day.

As a Christian, theology abounds in regards to physical healing. Some believe in anointing with oil and the laying on of hands. Some believe that physical ailments are a direct result of sin, and conversely, a prosperity type theology implying that if you're really walking with God, he will surely bless you with health and wealth. Others believe that if one has enough faith, they will be healed (and thus, that a lesser faith will leave one suffering). I could go on and on about the things I've read, heard, been told. But at the end of the day, I have my own theology, if you care to read on. Here goes:

The Bible never promises health to the believer: It promises comfort, peace and hope. It never promises that we won't be given more than we can bear: It does tell us to lay our burdens at the feet of Jesus, that his yoke is easy and his burden light, that we can cast our cares on him because he cares for us. It doesn't promise that the Christian will be strong: It promises that His power is made perfect in our weakness; that when I am weak, He is strong. The Bible promises that for the believer, there will be pain and suffering, just as Jesus experienced pain and suffering. "In this world, you will have trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world." It also tells us to count it pure joy when we face trials, for this 'testing' makes us mature and complete in the faith. Trials and tribulations give a certain wisdom that, quite honestly, someone who has faced very little hardship will never possess. (I am humbled when I think of those in desperate and agonizing situations of all sorts all around this broken, fragile world, and realize my lack of wisdom compared to theirs...)

I've been prayed for and anointed with oil by an elder of the church. My husband prays fervently for me daily. I've done physical therapy, chiropractic care, therapeutic massage, acupuncture, essential oil therapy, and tried the gamut of supplements. I eat healthy, I take vitamins and geek out over all things health and nutrition. I exercise, do yoga and stretching, foam rolling, deep breathing, and everything in between. I pray, I don't know of any unconfessed deliberate sin in my life. AND I STILL HAVE CHRONIC PAIN. I don't for a minute believe God is punishing me, or that there is some unconfessed sin that I've forgotten about, that God is just waiting for me to remember and then He'll heal me.

So what do I believe? I believe that we live in a fallen world. That until we die and leave these broken imperfect bodies behind in exchange for our new glorified bodies (I cannot wait for my new body!!!!!!), we will experience pain and hardship. I believe that old verse (you know, the one that people always say at completely inappropriate times and beat people over the head with instead of 'mourning with those who mourn'?), that God works everything for good for those who love him. I believe with all my heart that God is working my physical ailments for good. I do hope I get to see the fruit of what he's doing in this lifetime, but even I don't, I have faith that there is good being manifested even now, as I tap out these words with an unrelenting grape sized knot in my neck, it's tentacles of nerve endings wrapping up around the back of my head and around my eyes. I believe he is teaching me to lean in to him every hour of every day. He's teaching me humility. He's teaching me true empathy for others. He's teaching me to rejoice even when I don't feel like it, that feelings often follow actions. Give thanks over, and over, and over even when I'm miserable...the joy will come eventually. He's teaching me the joy in being broken, a subject I can't even begin to tackle. (I highly recommend reading Ann Voskamp's book, The Broken Way. Oh my, such wisdom in that book!)

Here's the ugly truth. Every minute of every day, I don't live the super-spiritual way I want, reciting those truths I just listed above. I forget everything I believe. I grumble sometimes. I feel sorry for myself occasionally. I get focused on what other people are able to do so easily, things that my back/neck simply won't allow me to do. I give up momentarily sometimes. I want life to be easy and question "Why me?" I doubt my faith and wonder about that whole sin thing, if maybe I'm being punished for my past mistakes. I DON'T HAVE IT ALL TOGETHER. But as I've learned from author/blogger Ruth Chow Simmons: Just keep preaching truth to myself! This is the life of the believer: We fall down, we get back up. We fall again, but we keep getting up. We don't stay down. We come back to the Word over and over and over and over. I start every day in the Word and in prayer. It sustains me, even if I don't realize it. Some days are good, other days, I forget God as soon as I close my Bible and try to get through on my own...those days aren't so good. But then at the end of the day, whether it felt like He was with me or not, I try to end every night meditating on a verse as I drift off to sleep. He sustains me, he carries me, he strengthens me, and I just keep running the race as best I can.

Maybe I'll be healed in this life. I hope so...I really, really hope so. But until then, I will let his power rest upon my weakness. I will do my best. I will be gentle with myself and not feel less-than on my bad days. And I will not be labeled, but will allow my trials to be part of who I am and who I'm becoming: just like everyone, His masterpiece.



The Secret

Monday, March 19, 2018

I have a deep, dark secret that only three people know about. It doesn’t define me as a person, so I don’t go around broadcasting it. There’s a stigma attached to it and it’s not positive. Even my closest friends, except for the one who now watches my kids while I go to counseling, have no idea.

You see, to most people, I’m your typical stay at home mom: I keep a clean house, make three healthy meals for my family, drive kids to their activities or to playdates, throw birthday parties, go to church and volunteer in the nursery…the list goes on, but you get the picture.

If watched my life from afar, you’d see me up early reading the Word and praying before the sun comes up, making breakfast for my three girls, doing morning devotions, prayer and gratitude journal with them, cleaning house, reading stories aloud, taking them for walks, going to Target for odds and ends, folding laundry while listening to my favorite podcast, trying to get out for a walk or hike alone when my husband gets home. You’d see me laugh with friends at church, dancing with the music way to loud at home, chit chatting with the cashier at the grocery store, and walking hand in hand with my husband.

And even if you knew me well, you wouldn’t know I was dying on the inside, deep in the thoroughs of depression.  I’ve known it for a while now, but I was so ashamed that I instinctively kept it tucked so deep down that I couldn’t even admit it to myself, much less to my husband or to someone that could help me. Only in the last two months have I begun toying with saying the word aloud…trying it out on my husband to see what his reaction would be: Would he judge me? Would he take it seriously, or blow me off as moody? Recently it got so bad, I finally mustered up the courage to research some counselors, pick up the phone, and make myself an appointment. I told my husband I was going to get outside help, to which he looked at me oddly and asked, “Can’t you just talk to someone at church?” Clearly, he didn’t actually get it, despite being a health teacher and teaching depression. He’s not ignorant to the facts about depression, but when it came to his wife? No! Surely not! This lead us to a tear filled (me), painfully honest conversation, in which I think he finally came to a greater understanding of how I feel. Between simply making an appointment and having it on the calendar and being incredibly vulnerable with my husband and feeling heard and semi-understood by him, I felt an enormous weight lifted off my shoulders immediately! It was amazing how keeping such a thing to myself for so long only perpetuated the problem.

I had my first counseling session last week. I have homework I’m trying to be vigilant about. I declined the anti-depressant that he strongly recommended, at least for now, but I’m trying a potent supplement that has less side effects than anti-depressants and is safe to take during pregnancy. And life is still mostly the same. I’m still sad inside. Lethargic. Irritable. Tired. Sometimes even despairing! Results will not be immediate…rarely in life are results immediate. That’s okay. God is at work in my life, and more that anything else, that is what comforts me on my darkest days. That he is working all of this for something good, something beautiful. I need only to trust him, to daily cast my burdens upon him and let him help me carry this heavy load. Sometimes I can’t feel him during the day, and that’s frustrating. Yet, he comforts me every night as the day ends and I fall into bed, discouraged with myself and my brain that seems to have been transplanted from a sad person to me without my consent. I fall asleep feeling loved and held by my Father, and I wake up knowing that once again, even if I feel alone, He will carry me through yet another day. “For his mercies are new every morning; great is his faithfulness.”