Friday, November 22, 2013

The Struggle For Acceptance In The Face of Illness

As I look through my blogs, I can see that writer's block has befallen me for many months now. What once came so easily is now a struggle. The one medium in which I could really express myself has been just out of reach and that has grieved me. I didn't understand why, but lately some things have come to light.

I have been struggling with grieving and acceptance. This past year has been such a test, not only for me, but my family as well. We have been hit so hard in every aspect of our lives. The part I have been struggling with the most has been my own health. 

I have been volunteering in the mental health field for several years now. I have personally experienced the extremes of PTSD, and I have multiple family members who suffer with devastating mental illnesses.  These experiences have motivated me to lend a hand in whatever way I could. 

It is interesting that in the past year, not only did I encounter stigma for my involvement with this set-apart world of people who have chemicals in their brains that have gone awry, but I felt stigma and struggled with self-acceptance involving a rare, invisible set of health conditions that has turned my own life upside-down. Although my health condition is not a mental illness, it has given me a better understanding of being set apart, avoided, turned away from, and the struggles that accompany all "invisible" illnesses.

When I refer to an "invisible" illness, I am talking about illnesses that don't necessarily show on the outside, but devastate on the inside and cause a loss of function in one's life. 

It hurts when people no longer ask how you are, or avoid saying hello and ignore you. It hurts when the people who you thought cared turn out to be fair-weather friends just when you needed them the most. I could go on about the hurt I have experienced, but instead I want to look at what I can do for me and how I can move past the struggle to feel included when I feel like an outsider looking in.

The first thing I think about is the struggle for self-acceptance—how to accept who you are, and what is in your life TODAY. Today, I am not able to work or to do anything for more than maybe an hour without getting exhausted, dizzy, and out of breathe. Even though I take more medications and supplements than I care to name, and I periodically get extremely painful shots in my spine, I still deal with pain most of the day. I always have a degree of pain, but some of it has become "normal." When I say I am in pain, I am talking about the kind of pain that keeps me from being able to take walks, sit up straight, or comfortably assumed any position. I still try to make the best of each day and thankfully I have a great doctor who continues to look for more answers. 

For a person who wants to do so much, but has instead had her passion relegated to the back seat, this is devastating. The hardest part is not being able to be transparent with anyone except others who share the same illness. We seem to be a fairly isolated group of people. People with chronic illnesses lose friends, family members, and even sometimes their spouses. I pray every day that God helps me to handle my illnesses with grace. While I am grieving the loss of old dreams, I am looking for more realistic new ones. There is a false guilt and shame that comes from how others respond to my illness. I dread going to my church because most people I know no longer take the time to say hello, and that is a weird feeling. I have had friends who wrote asking me about my physical condition. When I gave a brief and honest answer I never heard back from them again. How much of their response is because of me? Could they be reacting to my inability to regularly attend church or be an active part of groups or events? I don't have an answer to that question. 

This is where self-acceptance is particularly valuable. It is not my fault that I am sick. I may not be in a wheelchair, or have a terminal illness or missing limb, but that doesn't make my situation any less challenging. I do not want to be on disability and I did not choose to live the life I am living right now. It is a horrible to feel out of control of your own body, and to not have answers on how to get better. Like many I know, I am extremely proactive in seeking answers and trying things to help me get better. It is hard to accept that I don't know how much better I will get. I sometimes feel like I am losing me. 

On the flip side, I clearly know who is in my corner and I value those people more than words can say. I have also learned to depend on God in a whole different way. It is so much easier to go to people first when we are in need emotionally. That is not what the Bible tells us to do. While going to a person can get you physical comfort, the answers you want to hear, and immediate gratification, going to God ultimately brings us the best long-term results. We grow in our faith and our relationship with Him. He uses our trials to develop us into the people He wants us to be. As I do this more, I feel a peace that engulfs me, at least until "I" jump back into the picture. I am starting to see that it isn't really about understanding but more about knowing. 

Someone once asked me how to treat someone who has a mental illness and my answer was to treat him or her just like anybody else. I now realize that also applies to “invisible illnesses” and it is something that we all understandably crave.

James 4:8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
Luke 6:31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
Romans 12:10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Out do one another in showing honor.
Matthew 11:28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Stuck In The Middle With You

I've heard it said so many times- "Bad things come in threes” or “When it rains it pours!” Why is it that when things go wrong, they seem to keep going in that direction? Why does it seem to never be just one thing? Even when something very difficult happens, it seems there’s always something equally troubling that comes right behind it. We hear song lyrics referring to going "deep in the valley;" and I can't count how many times people have said to me that it's darkest before the dawn.

So what does this mean to a Christian who is trying to always do the right thing? Why does God let us go through so much, that at times it feels like we could fall apart? 

I don't have the answers to those questions, nor do I think I ever will. I am however learning a lot from my difficult experiences. Many refer to these times as hitting a bottom or falling down. I see it more like being stuck in the middle. The reason I see it that way is because I think the hardest part is accepting that things will not be the same yet not knowing what lies ahead. When I can't see anything looking back or looking forward, it makes me look upward from the middle that I seem to be stuck in.

So many things in my life are in question right now and there are an equally vast number of ways I can look at my situation. Honestly speaking, I think I have considered almost every perspective already. I've had my share of meltdowns, and I've had times where I haven't felt much at all. Through it all, and it is far from over, I have come to these realizations.

1- No person can understand or go through these trials with me.
2- Nothing I do will change the outcome of things that are outside of my control.
3- I realized that even though I thought I had surrendered everything to God, I never fully surrendered.
4- God is the only one who is with me and who can help me, and he always will be there.
5- No matter how things turn out, God will continue to take care of me.
6- God will use everything for the good.
7- God will use all of these things to place me where he wants me to be.

I find that when I am weak and feel helpless God finds ways of speaking to me. Over and over in so many different settings I have heard the same scripture passage,"but those that hope in the Lord , they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." Isaiah 40:31

So here I am in the middle of an incredible process of change that is not of my choosing and for which I do not know the outcome. This situation reminds me more than ever that everything I have and everything good is from God.  This also means that everything I have is His to give and to take away. Somehow I find peace in that knowledge. I feel connected to Him in a deeper, more intimate way than ever before. When I talk to Him, I find myself telling Him that I trust Him and I really mean it. That is huge for someone who has been betrayed in such horrendous ways in the past. I never thought I could completely trust even God, and now I do. I am experiencing "the peace that surpasses all understanding.” 

Lord, I don't know where you are taking me. I don't have any answers.  I don’t even have a clue. I do know that You have a perfect plan for me. I know that You protect me and take care of me. You show me time and time again how strong You are in my weakness. You have also shown me how you use even the most painful experiences for good. When I am stuck in middle with no one to look to but You, I grow and get stronger. I see how to live without striving; I don't have the strength to do that now. Rest in You Lord is the best kind of rest. So I go on, one day at a time, and I fully experience that day. It is very uncomfortable to feel so out of control, but through this situation my Lord, I know that you are in control, and that gives me comfort. Thank you Lord for being here with me and never leaving my side. Amen.

"My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in  weakness." Corinthians 12:9

"Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,  for I am gentle and humble in heart, rest for your souls." Matthew 11:28, 29

"And we know that all good things work together for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose." Romans 8:28 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Giving From The Heart

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.  
~Acts 4:32-35

This passage in Acts speaks of people who truly "walk" their faith. It's quite timely that our pastor has been preaching out of this book recently, talking about this very subject. This passage and his sermons were all I could think about when I witnessed something I don't think I will forget anytime soon. It brought to life the idea of watching God's grace in action, and also reminded me how many Christians are swimming in shallow waters right now. In other words, they may know the right things to say, and they may look good, but when it comes to living their faith through action, it cannot be seen by others. Let me tell you about my experience.

Many know that my husband and I lead a support group for people who have a mental illness and their families. In many ways the group is pretty isolated.  People familiar with our group seem comfortable supporting the group from a distance, but don’t get involved in a more hands-on manner because of the population it serves and the stigma and controversy that surround that population. Presently, we have two members of the group who are moving into an assisted living apartment together.  This move is a wonderful thing, especially for our group member who has been living in a nursing home for over three years.  Her placement in that home was meant to be temporary until a suitable alternative was found.  She has been struggling ever since with the reality that her living situation did not meet her needs.

Both of these group members are disabled and do not have the financial means to buy needed supplies to furnish their new apartment. I sent out an email to people I thought I "knew" I could count on to help them out and some of them forwarded my email to even more people. Only one of those people responded with assistance. Two fellow members of our support group have also helped out.  I belong to a "swap and shop" group on Facebook where people take almost anything and everything they are not using and sell it. I thought it wouldn't hurt posting what we needed just to see what happened. I didn't really expect any response but what a surprise I got! Within an hour I had two thirds of the list covered, and it looks like we will get almost everything taken care through the generosity of people in this group.

I don't know these people.  I have never met them and neither have the group members they are helping. Most likely the people who frequent this page do not have a lot of money, otherwise they would not be selling their possessions.  But what is wonderful is that they are willing to give from what little they do have out of the goodness of their hearts. It truly amazes me that people who had less and were virtual strangers were so fast to offer help and people who had more and knew us ignored our request. 

The passage above provides a dreamlike vision of how we should lead our lives. It makes me ashamed sometimes to see how self-centered so many people have become. Recognizing this human frailty makes me think hard about who I want to be, and about how that passage in Acts provides a roadmap for the generosity that Christ wants us to show to everyone; not just those we are more comfortable with or favor, but to all. After all didn’t Jesus say that to turn anyone away would be like turning Him away? Maybe we all need a similar lesson in sharing, and a willingness to make "acts" of kindness a regular part of our own walk with Christ.