Thursday, February 3, 2011
Dem Bones (Part 2): Falling Off the Truck
The bench in the parking lot of Chili’s became a familiar meeting spot for my friend Viki and me—a beacon of comfort and commiseration during a challenging season of life. It was there, in the fall of 2006, that we would meet weekly and chat for hours. We were trying to convince each other that we would feel better someday. The truth, though, was that both of us feared that our children may soon be visiting us in a nursing home wiping drool off of our chins. I’m not exaggerating. We were both physically sick, seeking a solution to our health woes. We were like sleuths putting together a 1500-piece puzzle and trying to solve the mystery. What had happened to us? We were scared. We were both barely 30, and we felt 80. It was a season that today we affectionately call, “falling off the truck”. It was as if some unknown force just dumped us off of a moving vehicle. The fall was a hard one.
Maybe as you are reading this today, you can identify. You feel as if you’ve “fallen off the truck”. You once were a healthy person, but now your body is in open rebellion. You feel older than you are, and you aren’t sure if you will ever feel good again. Maybe you have just been through a season of life where taking care of yourself was not the primary focus. Someone else’s needs came first. As women, we can hardly avoid going through at least one season of life just like this. It’s not just women, though. I know my husband temporarily abandoned caring for himself. He was just as knee-deep in kiddos as I was. We were in survival mode. Many, I think, can sympathize in one way or another. If, however, you haven’t yet fallen off the truck, you probably know someone who has. That person probably really needs a friend about now. Maybe you can be that friend.
When Viki and I held our meetings in 2006, both of us acknowledged that getting out of the house was a “narrow escape”. We often left crying babies, tired husbands, and a heck-of-a mess in our wake. But, we both really needed a friend! We each had three small children at the time. I had birthed three little girls in three years. Viki had a two-year-old son when she added fraternal twins to her family. We had spent the better part of five years completely given over to the needs of producing, nursing, and caring for the round-the-clock needs of helpless human beings. We had not slept much. We had not taken much time for our own needs. We were totally in love with our babies. But, we were totally wiped out. It seemed like no matter how hard we tried to get on top of things, we just couldn’t.
I wondered, “What am I doing wrong?” I kept trying to come at the problem from a practical standpoint. What if I just adjusted our schedule? What if I did things a different way? Still, I felt overwhelmed. Over time, that feeling of being overwhelmed morphed into strange physical symptoms. I had numbness and tingling in my limbs, migraine headaches, tremors in my hands, flu-like achiness, stomach ailments, and terrible fatigue. Alarmed doctors sent me for a battery of tests including brain MRI’s and blood tests. I saw a neurologist, a gastroenterologist, and a rheumatologist. None of them could find anything. I was relieved and frustrated all at the same time. Thank God, I did not have some of the problems the doctors were looking for…but I still felt very sick. This went on for 6 months. During that time, I began to experience panic attacks. Once, I was at the grocery store and suddenly my heart began to race. I felt like I could not breathe. The world seemed to swirl around me, and I had to have a friend pick me up and drive me home. Another time, I had the same experience in a bouncy place while watching all three of my kids. I was terrified and wondered if I was still competent to care for my own children.
This trend finally landed me in the emergency room twice in two days. I literally woke up one night from a dead sleep with my heart beating out of my chest. There was no logical precursor. I had not been worrying or thinking about anything specific. It was physiological. I felt like I was having a heart attack. I thought I was going to die. What was up?! This time, my mother happened to be in town to help me. When they finally called my name in the ER, they informed me that I could only take one person back with me. I looked at my husband and my mother. I was torn. I wanted my husband, but I needed my mommy! My mother followed me back, and I prayed Bryan would forgive me later. My mom practically yelled at the doctors (which was what I felt I needed), “There is something wrong with my daughter, and we are not leaving until you find out what it is!” The ER doctor looked at me and said, “Have you consulted with a psychiatrist?” I wanted to punch him in the face. “I am NOT CRAZY!” I shouted at him.
Despite our best efforts to assert ourselves, my mother and I, escorted by my sweet, patient husband, walked out of the ER still without a diagnosis. As we sat on the couch at home, my mother fed me canned peaches. I was too weak to feed myself. At the end of my rope, I decided to try the psychiatrist. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
To my surprise, the psychiatrist had the answers I needed. She kept helping me pursue other diagnostic tests to make sure there was not another organic cause for my symptoms while she addressed what she could. I will admit her methods seemed a bit experimental, but in hind sight, I wouldn’t change a thing. What I discovered during that time was very valuable: brain chemistry messes with your whole body. Here I was, a trained social worker who was supposed to offer every individual dignity, and I still thought going to a psychiatrist meant you were “crazy”. I had a good “book knowledge” of mental health issues, but I clearly did not understand the impact of brain chemistry on overall well-being. What I experienced had little to do with what I thought about things. I didn’t think myself into this place. And, I couldn’t pray myself out. In fact, I couldn’t even access my coping skills. I was physically sick. Sure, my emotional health was affected. My spiritual health was affected. It was all haywire because my body was sick.
For me, medicine was a big part of the cure. I know that is not the case for everyone. I was skeptical as they come. I didn’t want to become dependent on medicine for the rest of my life. And, by the grace of God, I do not need the medicine today. That is not everyone’s story, but it is mine. As I was beginning my medicine, a rheumatologist I saw gave me this advice that still rings in my ears: “You don’t have an autoimmune disorder. Don’t ever let a doctor tell you that you do. Your symptoms are similar, though. Make sure you are breathing deeply. Get lots of sleep. Drink more water. Eat right. And, exercise. Most of my patients don’t feel like exercising, but they will feel better if they do.” Though I thought he must be over-simplifying things, I followed his advice. And, he was dead on. I had forgotten how to breathe (silly as it sounds). And, even when I felt achy, I got moving. It was counter-intuitive. I was tired. Wouldn’t exercise make me more tired? Nope. Instead, it gave me energy. In combination with medicine, these few things “the doctor ordered” steadily improved my health.
When Audrey died a year later, I was devastated. But, I was equipped to handle things mentally, emotionally, and spiritually because I was no longer physically sick. My friends were worried it would send me over the edge. But, by then I knew better. It was clear to me then, and only then, how much of my problem in 2006 was physiological. And, I was keenly aware of how it all tied together—body, mind, and spirit.
Viki’s story is similar, but not the same. After having her twins, she did not recover the way she thought she would. She kept trying to blame her health issues on the mounting responsibilities of motherhood and her workload. And, so did many around her. In fact, some key people in her life even blamed her for her declining health. She began sleeping 14 hours a day. She gained a lot of weight, which was uncharacteristic of her. She felt horrible. And, she was very discouraged. As she got sicker, she missed more and more of what was going on with her children. Her loving husband stepped in to help. What neither of them knew was that her thyroid had quit on her. Kaput. By the time she figured it out, she was near death’s door, really. You need your thyroid to live.
Like me, Viki visited a barrage of doctors. She finally ended up in the excellent care of a skilled endocrinologist. It was a long, hard road, though. She had to fire a few docs along the way. She had to advocate for herself (even defend herself)—in the medical arena and in her own circle of family and friends. She lost a lot of time with her children along the way. She still grieves what “might have been” during those years. It wasn’t what she bargained for during their baby and toddler years. But, by God’s grace, good medical intervention, and support from her husband and a few loyal friends, she has emerged on the other side of this crisis a much happier, healthier person.
In January of last year, Viki and I switched our meeting place from the bench at Chili’s to the treadmill at the gym. We have been meeting each other on weekdays at 8 a.m. sharp ever since. I lost 20 pounds and got stronger as I cried out, punched out, and ran out my troubles. Once Viki’s thyroid worked again, she was able to drop about 40 pounds in a few short months, too. And, we didn’t have to starve ourselves. We helped each other find healthy recipes. Sometimes we fed our families together. And, we kept moving, even when we didn’t feel like it. Viki got so healthy again that she unexpectedly got pregnant with number four! We are confident that it was God’s plan, after healing her body, to use this tiny one (due in May) to heal her heart as well. God’s just good like that.
You see, sometimes we “fall off of the truck” through no fault of our own. Maybe we are doing our best to take care of ourselves, and we still get sick. Sometimes, we neglect our own care because we are focusing on other people or other pursuits. Those pursuits might be noble ones. Yet, our bodies suffer—and thus our spirits. And, sometimes, if we are honest with ourselves, we get a little bit sedentary and overindulge in foods that aren’t good for us. Bad habits form over time without our even noticing. We wake up one day and feel really sluggish and discouraged about life, and we didn’t even see it coming. I think that, for most of us, we can attribute our waning health to a combination of these things.
No matter the cause, those of us who find ourselves dumped off on the side of the road need some triage! We need some support. And, we need some hope that someday we might feel stronger again. I shared my story and my friend Viki’s story because I think some of you need to know you are not alone. I believe that having a health crisis in your child-bearing years is common because I have countless other friends who have been through something very similar. No one warned us!! It’s not just the child-bearing years, though. There are many other stages of life when a health crisis is likely to rear its ugly head. As I watch other people around me tumbling over like dominoes, I can’t help but want to offer some cheerleading to get them to the other side.
Some of you need to be encouraged to keep pursuing a solution to your personal health crisis. Some of you who have devoted all of your energy toward the care of others need to be inspired to turn some of your energy toward yourself again and begin healing what has been neglected. And, some of you need to know you don’t have to feel this way forever. You are, in fact, 30 (40, 50, or 60), for example, and not 100!
In short, if you are still breathing, God is not done with you yet! Your health matters to Him. It was part of His perfect plan that your body be in working order. He made your body and spirit to work in harmony with one another. We live, of course, in a world that is fallen. And, until we get to Heaven, we will contend with health issues. We might fall off the truck every once and a while. But, we can understand how God made us, know that He wants us to do our best to take care of ourselves, and work toward restoration of our health as long as He gives us breath. There is hope for YOU today if you have fallen off of the truck.
Read along next week as we shift our focus from ourselves to God’s Word as we learn how God made our bodies and our spirits to work together. I think you will be challenged and encouraged--for yourself and for the friends you support.