Sunday, December 31, 2017

Awaken, Heal, Mend, Focus, Renew, and Believe in 2018

"The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
~Philippians 4:7 NRSV

One of the reasons Advent is one of my favorite parts of the Liturgical calendar isn't just because it's a time of preparation for the birth of the Prince of Peace. It's also a time for reflection on the nearly finished year and what to hope for in the future. 

This has been a tremendously hard year for me. I've dealt with a car accident, struggles in school, shaken faith, damaged mental health, and worsening physical health. I've lost friends, I've had my heart shattered and re-shattered. However, in these difficult times, I've also been incredibly blessed with good friends, supportive mentors, and little reminders here and there that God has put people and situations in my life to help me through the trials in my path. 

2017 has been hard for so many and many are praying for a better year in 2018 as am I. We living in a divided country where brother has turned on brother over politics, social awareness, worldviews, and other important issues. We live in a broken world that has been tested with natural disasters, wars and the rumors of wars, and human suffering in so many ways. We live in uncertain times and sometimes the future feels bleak. There are so much anger and hatred that fills our streets, Facebook, conversation in the classroom, and over our dinner tables. There are times where I look up to the dark sky and ask God why the world is the way it is and why we act the way we do. During that prayer, I felt His impression on my heart that said: "What do you think needs to happen for those things to change?"

This took in late November and Advent was just around the corner. My church released an image of a list of words for Advent with every day being assigned one word to reflect on all day. The more I looked at the list and read each word, the more I noticed that certain words were jumping out at me. Words that I needed to spend more time reflecting and seeing that those words were lacking in myself and that I think is lacking in the world today. My hope for 2018 is that believers and non-believers alike may reflect on, embrace and apply such words as we work to improve not only our own circumstances and the global circumstances. All of the words on the list are wonderful but the words that convicted and edified me: Awaken, Heal, Mend, Focus, Renew, and Believe. This is my hope for 2018...

My hope is that we will awaken. We will awaken to our purposes, we will awaken to the plight of others beyond this time when we think of each other as "fellow travelers to the grave and not creatures bound for other journeys (A Christmas Carol)". My hope is that our love for each other will awaken even during these troubling times. If we awaken for others and a desire to serve others regardless of sectarian differences, the world may be all the better for it. To quote the Psalmist David, "Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn  (Psalm 108:2)". 

In a time of pain, fear, and heartbreak, my hope is that we will find a way to heal. So many of us have been wounded physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally by our lives' circumstances and by others, often people we thought we could trust. Even though some of the wounds become scars or callouses, we often haven't healed from them but have become numbed. This is one of my weaknesses. I've allowed callouses to develop but I never took the time to face my traumas, to deal with the pain. I only ever tried to take it on the chin and soldier on. One of the hardest lessons I learned this year is that I can't keep burying the pain, one day I must have the courage to face it and trust God to heal me. My hope is that I will trust God's promise to His children: "I am going to bring it recovery and healing; I will heal them and reveal to them an abundance of prosperity and security (Jeremiah 33:6)".

 As we heal from all the wounds we have gained from a variety of circumstances, my hope is that we will reach out to those who we have hurt and help mend their broken hearts. I know I have a few people that I have hurt and need to make amends. In the past two years we as a nation have ripped each other apart over differences in political platforms: Trump Supporters vs Hillary Supporters, Conservatives vs Liberals, Religious vs Atheists, Pro-Life vs Pro-Choice, etc. Facebook has become a war zone where we tap a few keys and submit hateful and hurtful comments towards people we disagree with, often using words that we wouldn't dream of saying to the individual in person. I've had it happen to me and to my deep shame, I have done it to others. Friendships have ended over such disagreements and words have been used that can never be taken back. My hope is that we may remember even during heated moments that we are brothers and sisters that love each other and would do anything for each other. At the end of the day, all we have is each other and I for one will do my best to never let a difference of opinion or belief make me forget that. After all, we were created by a God who has forgiven us for a multitude of sins: "He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:13-14)". 

Whether it is relationships, friendships, self, health, academic goals, faith, or New Year resolutions, my hope is that we focus. Focus on ourselves to stay healthy, self-aware so we can grow, feel the glow of achieving a goal. Focus on our friends and family so that we can support them, love them, help them through life's sorrows and celebrate their joys. I hope that instead of dwelling on the past, I might find the energy to focus on the future. In May, I'll be achieving a goal I've been working towards for nearly 10 years- a Bachelor of Arts in History and Christian Ministry. I hope that I'll make an extra effort to focus on keeping myself healthy instead of constantly pushing and punishing myself. I hope to focus on God so that I might have a better relationship with my Master and loving Creator. Paul advised us in Philippians: "Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but I focus on this one thing: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14)". 

Many of us are familiar with the metaphor of the phoenix rising from the ashes. Transcendence, resurrection, and complete recovery from the ashes of adversity. To rise from the ashes is to renew after a blow whether it is physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. As we heal from any of our wounds, make amends, focus on what is important, my hope is that we will renew ourselves in the achievement. My hope is that we will renew ourselves, our relationship with each other and with God. As the ashes of 2017 fall around us, may 2018 see us rising from those ashes for a renewal of life. As I enter 2018 I pray: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me (Psalm 51:10)". 

In a world full of anger, doubt, and despair it is so easy to lose faith to lose hope. My hope is that we will overcome the darkness and simply believe. Believe that even in these dark times, there is a power that knows what will happen and is in control. I hope that we can learn to believe in ourselves, our neighbors, even those whom we don't agree with. By believing that things can and will get better, we aren't sticking our heads in the sand and living in denial. One thing that the history of our species proves time and time again is even during dark and dangerous times, there is a new dawn full of hope and light. We are a species of endurance and sometimes I think we let life and world events deprive us of our "grit". If so, we can regain our courage and our ability to endure but we must first believe that it can be done and that those who support us have our backs. I believe in God. I believe in His only begotten son Jesus Christ and that Christ has saved me from eternal death by dying on the cross for all of us and taking our sins upon Him when he had no sin. I honestly don't know if I'd even be alive today without that knowledge. In times of trouble, I take solace from Paul's words to the Romans: "For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame (Romans 10:10-11)”. 

I've never been one for resolutions, but one thing Advent taught me was that there are worthwhile resolutions that have nothing to do with my weight, my income, or my worldly goods. As I hope for all of us to awaken, heal, mend, focus, renew, and believe... I also want to make these words my resolution for 2018 so that a year from now not only will I be able to reflect and say that I have not only improved my lot and perspective but that I was able to help others in their journey. To all of my friends and family-please take with you my love and prayers for a blessed year. To all of my fellow travelers to the grave, please take my good wishes and hopes as you enter this new year. Happy New Year 2018 and as my favorite Irish song concludes:

 "Good night and joy be to you all!"



Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Dark Night of the Soul

"Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord."
~Psalm 130:1 NRSV

Ash Wednesday 2017

 When St. John of the Cross spoke of the dark night of the soul, I wonder if he had any idea of just how true the concept would ring for believers of future generations. A Christian's spiritual desolation full of melancholia, doubt, and a feeling of separation from God. It is a soul-rending time, a dark time, and a moment where one's faith is put to the ultimate test. I know this because I've experienced it and have so the past few months.

In all honesty, I had never planned to talk about this. I'm a very private person and as an aspirant in the Episcopal Church (meaning, someone who plans to be a deacon or in my case- a priest); the idea of putting a voice to it seemed like a risk that could cost me in the taking. When I started getting the inkling that I should do so, I thought I had lost my mind. However, the more I resisted, the more the hints grew stronger and constant until I'm sitting here with a cup of tea to fortify my nerves and my fingers on the keyboard. If I really want to be honest: I'm terrified.

I would like to apologize in advance for the rawness that will show up in this post. I'll be talking about some hard things and while my language may be a bit harsher, I won't be completely offensive in my word choice.

I'm not going to lie: 2017 has been a very bad year for me. It has been a never-ending, relentless shit storm that has delivered one punishing blow after the other. In fact, during my last week of the semester, my Trauma professor referenced such occasions by what the French refer to as coup sur coup or blow-by-blow. On the second day of the new year, I was in a minor car accident that had me in severe pain for several days. I suppose I should have taken that as an omen, but I have never been very superstitious.

Between that and a lost battle with the Winter Queen, I ended missing the first week of classes which could be disastrous as I was taking all upper-division courses. And it did indeed have consequences. I was terribly behind in my work plus with the additional pain, my concentration was virtually nil. Eventually, things got so bad that I had to entertain the notion of a medical withdrawal or even just dropping out. I started missing a ton of class and when I could go to class or work, I often had to leave early or step out because my body was in too much pain. It got to the point where even a couple of professors wondered if they were being negligent and unethical in letting me try to continue. Unfortunately, I didn't have a choice but to continue because if I don't graduate in May 2018, I will be without financial aid and have no way of paying 40k+ for another year. Translation: I'll be several thousand in debt with no degrees. I had to take Incompletes in all of my classes, withdraw from one which put a second 'W' on my transcript and had to request at least one extension on all of my Incompletes thus far.

This was compounded by the fact that I was getting even sicker and under constant stress from my classes and a series of untreated trauma that chose the worst time to raise its ugly head. Combining all of that, plus some issues in my private life and I was brought first to my knees and then to my face.

One thing I've been praised for many times has been my ability to pick myself off the floor, dust off my knees and continue down my path. A portrait of strength and courage, I suppose. I have survived the continual loss of my health- three devastating diagnoses, constant pain, and my continual reliance on mobility aids. I have endured humiliation, the occasional depression, and personal failures. All of these things I survived by taking the Stoic approach to taking things on the chin and moving forward. But this time was different, it was so different. I had been thrown prostrate to the ground and no longer had the strength to get on my feet again. I began to withdraw from people and sequestering myself. I stopped interacting beyond what was necessary for classes and work. My sleep patterns became worse and my appetite was gone. Some of those cheery Facebook posts? Yeah, that was to keep people from being concerned and to leave me alone. I fell into deep despair and it finally came to a head in April.

On the night of April 8th around 10 o'clock, I was a wreck. I paced around my apartment in tears. I was unable to think straight, in high amounts of pain, and I couldn't endure another minute. At the moment, I knew what I wanted more than anything was for the suffering to end and to me, there was only one avenue for it and it involved my death. I didn't know at the time but there are two stages of suicide: Ideation (the imagining or planning) and Crisis (the attempt or successful death). I can't remember everything I was thinking that night- only that my head was foggy and that I felt a relative calm as I reached for my planned method. 5 tablets of Vicodin, 5 tablets of Flexiril, 3 tablets of Amitriptyline, and 3 tablets of Valium. Essentially, enough medication, at least in my mind, to put me to sleep and with any luck stop my heart. Now, I am aware that planned overdoses are far from foolproof and could lead to worse consequences including a slow and painful death. As I held the pills in my hand, I looked out my window and considered how I wanted to do it. Because of my isolating myself for several weeks, I knew it could be days before my absence would be noticed and probably not before the smell hit. I considered taking the pills in my apartment and walking the short distance to the river so no one from NCU would find my body. And then for some reason, I can't explain, I had the sensation like I had been jerked out of sleep. My mind instantly cleared and I stared at my pill filled hand in horror. I threw them onto my desk and sobbed uncontrollably as I realized fully what I had nearly done. I sent a message to a trusted mentor to let her know that I was in crisis and would be turning myself into the hospital. Because my energy was instantly drained, I decided to rest and go in the morning if I still felt it necessary. Throughout the night I could hear a voice in my head repeating the same words over and over; "ugly...pathetic...weak...unloved...forgotten... abandoned...forsaken...damned." The next morning, instead of going to my church's Palm Sunday Mass, I checked myself into the suicide ward at the E.R. where they nearly institutionalized me but chose not to because they were worried it would make things worse. I went home and rested.

While, I took steps to put safety precautions in place (handed over my medications to a trusted friend, created a safety plan and such), I had to deal with the aftermath of my choice. Growing up, I was taught that suicide is a stupid, selfish, chicken-shit long-term solution to a usually short-term problem. Not to mention, that it is an unforgivable sin in eyes of God.  I felt deep shame for my weakness along with anger and self-loathing. This intensified a couple of days after my hospitalization when I opened the local newspaper and read a heart-rending article. That very same night, there had been another woman in my situation who was 18-a full ten years my junior who was attending her Freshman year at the University of Oregon with her sister. Both of us had stood at the edge of the abyss. I woke up and she didn't. I felt sick when I read about her suicide and seeing how young she was. This was a girl whose life had barely started, she had her life ahead of her and who knows what potential she could have had. A few weeks ago, I was discussing this with a friend and he asked me how it had made me feel. In all honesty, I felt guilty because I survived and she didn't. I also felt anger towards God because I can't understand why He pulled me back instead of her.

Maundy Thursday 2017
After everything that happened, I reached out to my rector at St. Mary's and told him everything. After briefly discussing the theology surrounding suicide and my being spiritually dead, he asked to meet with me after Holy Week but encouraged me to participate in the events of the week including the meditation of the Stations of the Cross that took place later that day and taking an hour prayer shift at the Vigil at the Altar of Repose on Maundy Thursday. I took the 1-2 A.M. shift and sat on the floor in front of the first pew in the chapel. One thing that stood out to me was that to my left was the sanctuary which was pitch black. It was so dark that I couldn't see the main altar. But directly in front of me was the chapel altar bright in white and candlelight. I had a slight epiphany that while spiritually I was as dark as the sanctuary the hope was I would eventually find myself back in the light. I went home and had my own personal practice for Good Friday, Holy Saturday and went to Easter Mass on Sunday. While I had a good day with a friend after Mass, I felt dismayed by the fact that while I threw myself into Holy Week like I've always done, perhaps even with a bit more fervor, I felt spiritually hollow and numb.

I went to my first meeting with my rector, we discussed Holy Week and my feelings on the matter. He helped me see two important things: a) by trying to be selfless and not burden people with my problems, I was actually being selfish and b) I was afraid of being angry at God. I felt convicted on both counts because he was right. I chose to harm myself by isolating myself and suppressing some very raw feelings I had for my Creator. I did feel angry and dare say I have for quite some time because for the past few years especially, I have experienced setback after setback, crisis after crisis, and all of this with little or no let up. I might as well have stood by an open door saying "Next disaster, this way please."

But I chose to swallow my anger because it felt self-important and selfish because there are people out there that have it worse than I ever will. That anger finally came out about four weeks ago. One of the things I struggled with the most was the fact that I had all of these chronic illnesses but couldn't get access to proper medications, therapies, and treatments. I finally changed Primary Care Physicians and got a list of Pain Specialists that were listed by my insurance. I made call after call only to find out that only one accepted my insurance and he had filled his quota. I begged to be put on a waiting list at the very least only to find out that he was actually planning to remove himself from the list and let go his OHP patients. This meant that because of the nature of my insurance, I had no hope of getting any sort of treatment for my illnesses when a couple of them have the potential of being fatal. I felt my phone slip out of my hand and softly land on my desk. The book I held in other my hand wasn't so lucky. In a burst of rage I threw that book across the room so hard it made a loud noise as it bounced off the wall and hit the floor. I spun to the wall behind and slammed my hand against it bruising my hand before I sank to my knees. Then I started to scream at God. While I didn't follow the advice Job's wife gave him, I screamed and shook my fist nonetheless. I told him I was tired of living, tired of suffering with no reprieve and no mercy and enduring under His indifference. I told Him if all He was going to do is torture me that He should just kill me and be done with it. I then sobbed uncontrollably for the better part of three hours.

Fr. Bingham lit a votive candle for me.
A few months ago, a good friend told me that he found that emotional pain is infinitely far worse than physical pain. This incredibly difficult and dark season of my life has proven just that. It has been said that it's when we've been broken that we're closer to God and it just didn't feel so for me. If anything it gave me a glimpse of Jesus hanging on the cross and feeling the absence of God which made him cry out in Hebrew "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46 NRSV)". It made me feel like I was in Hell, after all that is the literal definition of Hell- the separation between God and His creation. I feel like there is a thick wall of glass between Him and myself. I try to break through but only hurt myself further. I have spent countless hours on my knees in supplication for forgiveness, mercy, and relief... only to feel bereavement. There have been times in my life especially this year where I have wondered if I have been damned-both in this life and the next. I have and do feel like I've been forsaken and it's not an easy feeling to dislodge.

This summer, I've really tried to focus on allowing myself the option of having these feelings. It got to the point where I could no longer pray, read scripture, and going to church to take the Eucharist was hard because between my feelings and my being suicidal I felt wholly unclean. My rector lent me a prayer book and some prayer beads which I use every day. I've been reading the Psalms, Lamentations, and Job to remind myself that it is actually okay to be angry and to ask why. While, I've been mostly focusing on finishing those previously mentioned Incompletes, I've also been trying to take time for self-care by doing things I used to enjoy and trying to not spend as much time in isolation. Still working on both but I really do make an effort.

I'm very sorry for such a dark post. As I've said, I have no idea why I'm putting all of this out there for public scrutiny. Perhaps as Anne Lammot said; the lesson of Easter is that "even if you bury the truth it will always come up again". I have buried the truth in the past and donned a mask but the time has come for the mask to fall and the truth to come up. I wish I could say this has a happy ending that I'm feeling much better and that my walk with God is even closer. Alas, I'm still in the thick of it. I still struggle to get through one more day and sometimes even one more minute. While I'm not feeling particularly suicidal and haven't for quite some time, I'm still in darkness. I'm still heavily depressed and occasionally I still shake my little fist at God. Despite the pain and anguish, I still hold onto my faith. I haven't lost my faith but it has been through the ringer for sure. I try to find a few happy moments every day, little ways that I'm blessed on that day which has helped. I believe in time that I will find relief from my anguish and that I'll find myself back in the pure light, but until then all I can do is try to endure my suffering and wait. It truly has been a long and dark night.



Thursday, March 23, 2017

Enough With the Alternative Healing Articles!

I need to be honest, very few things drive me crazier than receiving yet another article, link, ad, or dissertation claiming that if I do this activity or drink this tonic, my ailments will be healed. Rarely does a week go by when I don't have some well meaning friend trying to make suggestions on how to improve my living conditions. Now, I do want to make it clear to my friends and family members that have sent me suggestions that this post isn't going after you. That being said, there are a few reasons why many of those who deal with chronic conditions, myself included, have a really hard time with articles such as I have mentioned.

1) Any drug, tea, food, or supplement that claims to heal or cure any chronic ailment whether it's Fibro, Colitis, MS, Autism or other such conditions are scams. While such tools can treat the symptoms of these conditions, that is a far cry from healing the patient. There is a reason the Mayo Clinic defines chronic pain as "Chronic pain is persistent, lasting for months or even longer. Chronic pain is considered a health condition in itself." The other side of the coin is frankly the really sucky part of dealing with chronic pain: it is permanent. We're going to be dealing with it for the rest of our earthly lives.

Now, as a devout Christian, I do believe in miracles. The Gospels are full of stories of Jesus and the apostles healing chronic conditions such as the woman with a mysterious blood illness, the ten lepers, the man at the pool of Bethesda, and the blind man at the temple gate. These stories tell us that miracles are possible, it is possible that tomorrow God in His omnipotence will heal me of all my pain and suffering. However, the likelihood is that I'll wake up tomorrow morning and that first stabbing pain will still be there as it was yesterday and yesteryear. I and people like me will most likely be dealing with our pain until our Master calls us home.

You might be wondering what the harm is. I mean, there are plenty of things out there that can be tried and some things that should be tried, I give you that. But, when chronic pain patients receive those well-meaning healing claiming suggestions, it can give many a sense of false hope. It can also really hit home at a deep and damaging level just how hopeless our situation is when those suggestions don't work.

2) These kinds of articles take personal Hells (and make no mistake that chronic pain is the patient's personal living Hell) and make them look completely trivial. Believe me when I say that if chronic pain could be cured with something as facile as a tea, many of us would have been back on our feet last week. It can be just as humiliating as someone telling us that our pain wouldn't be as bad if we were to do x,y, and z. Trust me, if we could, we would.

While I can't speak for every disabled or chronically ill person reading this blog, I can say that we can get pretty creative and proactive when it comes to dealing with our ailments. We also tend to talk to each other about what works for us. I have a very good friend that I discuss these things with. We compare notes on what works for him and what works for me. Not only is it helpful for ideas, it is wonderfully therapeutic. I tend to drink a lot of herbal teas and limit the amount of coffee I consume. I try to start and end my days with Tai Chi and Qigong to keep myself limber and lessen the stiffness of my tired muscles. I also do yoga via Youtube videos with sessions geared towards Fibromyalgia patients. Each of us has our different needs and different levels of discomfort to deal with so there is no blanket solution.

There is something I do want to make clear because I have just typed a lot of hard things. I understand that you care about your friend or loved one who suffers these ailments every day, You want them to feel better and have an improved quality of life. I have a lot of wonderful friends and family that want those things for me. Because I know this and understand this, I can see why these articles seem so wonderful and helpful. The heartbreaking problem is the fact that they rarely are helpful. They can even cause tremendous pain for those of us who struggle with coping with the burden of such pain. Worse of all, they trivialize that pain.

So that being said... PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD STOP WITH THE ARTICLES! They're not helpful to me and other patients. The writers of such articles are snake oil salesmen in my estimation for the reason I have previously stated.

Please, by all means, continue to care about us, love us, support us and make yourself available. We love you for those gifts and we will let you know (as far as we are comfortable) what we need if we need something. All I ask for myself is that you leave treatment options and therapies in the hands of my physicians. That being said, if I find something that works for my pain management, I will share it in case it would work for someone else. But I add the disclaimer that the treatment will be different for each person.

I believe in the tender mercies of my God and Creator. I believe in the healing powers of my Savior, Jesus Christ. I believe through them anything is possible. But I've also learned that my pain has been a powerful tool that has made me more empathetic, loving and has brought me closer to my God. Even if I am never healed, I am reminded that this is for my good. I don't want it to be trivialized or seen as a simple issue. The complexities of chronic pain will never be simple therefore the cure will never be simple.