I Choose You.
An Odyssey of Physical Illness and Spiritual Transformation
I have heard it said many times that life turns on a dime. A dime is a pretty small space, no more than a breath, a quick, unconscious glance to the left or right, an instinctive clenching for the inevitable. It is never anticipated. We can never be prepared. Yet, it is only in those moments of surprise and stun that we truly begin to see not only what we are made of, but what God Himself is made of…if we are willing to see.
As the clock swung into the new year of 2017, I considered myself blessed. I had a loving husband, a benevolent and steady father, a big, happy circle of friends, a healthy and satisfying work life. I was grateful, deeply so. Not one thing did I take for granted. And I cultivated that gratitude because, naively—and magically—I believed that this gratitude would form a shield of protection over it all. It was a belief in part inspired by the culturally pervasive, so-called law of attraction and it was shattered into itty-bitty pieces by God Almighty two weeks later.
Mountains and Valleys
I had been enjoying life on that mountaintop. The years of waiting and working had produced fruit. I waited to meet the right man and God provided in His magnificent timing. I worked hard to build a faith-based homeopathy practice and He similarly produced a yield I had never imagined. I had struggled most of my life with trust in that which I could not see, but it seemed that my relationship with the Lord was growing stronger every day. I was happy and healthy, oblivious to the fact that mountains have peaks, blind to the most simple and incontrovertible law of physics: In order to continue the earthly journey, you have to descend into another valley. Sometime around the end of January 2017 that is exactly what happened.
I was standing with a patient at a clinic in town. We were about to start session when I experienced what is called a pre-syncope, or a sense that one is about to faint. I flushed, felt a wave of vertigo and nausea, a rush of blood to my arms and legs, and a rising panic in my chest. I felt like I was dying. I fumbled for my coat, excused myself, left the office and somehow drove home. It ended at some point that evening, but I was left with a lingering malaise, a vague queasiness that threatened to burst back through, an anxiety that had no rational cause.
Over the next few days, my sleep became disturbed, anxiety increased to intolerable levels and the nausea became inexpressibly intense. Added to the picture was a sensation of squeezing in my chest, which felt like a heart attack. Over the next several months, I went from bad to catastrophic to incomprehensible. With 5 emergency room visits before June, a cholecystectomy that made everything worse, a trip to the Mayo Clinic where they told me I was just a post-menopausal depressive, and the suspension of my practice, I cried out to God on my hands and knees, weeping as I had never wept before. I despaired. I was terrified. What was wrong with me? It was as if my sympathetic nervous system (the part that takes us into fight or flight when there is a perceived threat to life and limb) was having a seizure and couldn’t stop. I had never seen or heard of anything like it. Ever. I had spent over 30 years practicing psychotherapy and 20 years as a homeopath. I knew what a panic disorder was. I knew what depression looked like. I knew when I was in the presence of crazy. And I knew how to pray, listen, and select a
remedy to help so many of them get better. But what was happening to me was absolutely mysterious and inexplicable.
Down into the Valley. Deep, Deep Down.
My husband and I pray every day together before breakfast. We have for years. We pray in the evening before dinner. We thank our Lord and Savior for everything we have, and for all that we thought that we wanted and didn’t get because He was wiser than we were. Our prayers were always “upbeat,” “scriptural,” and “positive.” After a few months of the hell we were coming to call the Sympathetic Spasm, our prayers changed. Instead of praising, we started pleading. We begged. We bargained. I remember calling on the God of Abraham and reminding Him of His promises, I pointed to His pity for Nineveh, I warned Him of the impact of my illness (whatever it was) on my father, on my husband, on my patients. I was lost. I despaired. I felt unbearably forsaken. How could He do this to me? I was doing everything He wanted me to do!!!
The view I had gotten used to was high and green. As I descended into the valley, I slipped on shale and tumbled headlong into unimaginably empty, desolate spaces. Where I’d had a vital social life, I now shunned company. I had spent 30 years listening and talking for a living and suddenly couldn’t hold the simplest conversation. Where there had been clear thinking, I had brain fog and a sensation of bubbling in the occipital region of my head. I couldn’t sleep more than a couple of hours until I was seized with spasms and panic. Despite numerous doctors and even more emergency room visits, no one knew what to do with me besides offer sedatives, muscle relaxants, and anti-depressants, all of which had more side effects than I could recite. I curled up and waited to die.
I want you to understand: I had been sad before. I had known serious pain before, had surgery, broken bones. But I had never asked God to take me home before. This time, I was done. The pain and fear was unbearable. The suffering so thick my husband wept as I did. “Take me out of here,” I screamed. “I’m done. I've had enough!"
"But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, "It is enough; now, O LORD, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.” (1 Kings 19:4)
But He wasn’t.
It Is Done
Only in America could there be such a thing as the “prosperity gospel.” Only here in the home of Disney could we take the divine mystery that promised both grace and troubles and twist it into a religion of works. If you just pray hard enough, have faith that’s deep enough, live your life right enough and tithe abundantly enough, you will have what you want. Like magic. As if God were a Pez dispenser.
It is the same magical thinking that therapists around the world build their practices on; if only you do it all by the APA rule book, accept all without judgment, pray regularly to your inner child, and above all, be nice, all will be well, you will be healthy, life will work, everyone will love you. Sad to say and even sadder to know, it doesn’t work that way.
Why? Because life is a mess. Worse, it’s a messy mess we can’t fix. And nothing we do can ever be good enough to clean it up.
As I walked up and down the foothills of the Sandia Mountains alone, the shame and anger, the whole miserable, misshapen year of pain rose up in front of me more like an earthquake than the movie that so many talk about. In that pain, I became angry at the preachers who put God in a box and even angrier with the idea they promote…that your perfect life is a reflection of your perfect faith and enlightened stature with the Almighty. So not only was I sick and unhappy, I was disapproved of by God.
But here is what came to me as I walked over the next dusty hill:
Wherefore, I gave them up also to statutes that were not good, and to ordinances by which they should not live; And I polluted them in their own gifts, in that they caused to pass through the fire all their first-born, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the Lord. (Ezekiel 20:25)
Our true relationship to God, our dependence on Him (which is ultimately the only thing that is real and true) in turn depends on earthly desolation. And we cannot, cannot, absolutely cannot understand it. Ever. It is a mystery. And neither my feelings nor my circumstances can or should determine what happens in my spirit. When it gets bad, really, really, really bad, sometimes we need to bend our knee to God by sheer force of will.
So, sometime in September of 2017, my prayers changed. I was still pleaded for healing, but I amended it with: “Despite how I suffer, despite how angry I am, how scared I am, how alone I feel, how I cry out to You and hear nothing back, despite the desolation and despair, I choose You. Despite everything, I choose You. I choose You. I choose You.”
It became my mantra. I walked and walked, mumbling “I choose You.”
One early morning many days later something shifted. I imagined Yeshua walking next to me, His blue and white Talit swaying in the soft light of dawn. He was silent. I reached out like a child and held his garment. “Don’t leave me, Papa. Heal me.”
In my mind, He put His hand on my left shoulder and I felt an incredible heat in that same space and a peace move through me as I heard, “It is done.” And then the moment of peace and hope was gone and I was walking down the road by myself.
Done, But Not Quite Yet…
Shortly after that experience, we went to see a holistic MD in town. He took my case carefully and began a rather unorthodox exam, including what is colloquially called muscle testing. In one of those tests, he said, “Something is going on with your atlas. It’s not clearing.” The atlas is the bone at the top of the spine, right under the brain stem. “You might benefit from seeing Dr. Russo.” He wrote down the name of the only NM chiropractor who specialized in atlas and axis injuries. Both concerned and tentatively hopeful, we called and made the appointment.
Her assessment was comprehensive and reminded me more of a neurologic exam than anything I’d imagined with a chiropractor. She had me walk on my tip toes, tested my proprioception, checked my eyes. She took x-rays. In all the ER visits I'd had, no one had even once checked my eyes or asked me if I'd been injured. Not once.
A week later after reviewing her own findings, she told me that I had a subluxated C1 and C2. I wondered if that could possibly account for all the diffuse and mysterious symptoms I’d been having. She said, “Oh, yeah. You’ve been in fight or flight for a year.”
I looked it up and she was on the money. A subluxation could cause a sympathetic nervous response, including gastrointestinal symptoms, vertigo, panic, even a total nervous breakdown. It mimicked symptoms of a heart attack with spasms in the chest. She asked if I’d been in any accidents. I’d fallen a few times in the last ten years: once from slipping on a wet floor at work which injured my L5-S1 vertebrae and one other time about a year before the symptoms began. My dogs had wrapped their leashes around my ankles as they went to greet friends on the road and I went face down on the pavement. I thought I had just injured my elbows because I had experienced no neck or head pain. But she explained that it was common for neck injuries like whiplash to manifest even years later.
She started treatment immediately and aggressively, having me in twice a week for a month. At the same time, I started homeopathic treatment with a friend. Within two weeks, I started feeling a big difference. By thirty days, I was about 50% improved.
I started walking with neighbors. I started shopping on my own again. I was able to go to bible study, to dinner with friends (from time to time), to an occasional party at someone’s home. I was definitely not out of the woods because there were still some very bad days, and even on good days, some very, very bad hours. But the ice pack was breaking up. We could see the living water underneath.
And I began to see the value, the fruit of the suffering. I began to have what some would call “perspective.”
As I write this, I know I still have quite a bit further to go. The symptoms are not gone. There are still spasms that cause a sympathetic response (at least that’s how it seems to me), but they are more clarified, less intense, and less pervasive. And for the first time in a messy, fallen, awful year, I have hope. And I am beginning to see what God has been teaching me.
Things I Learned—or—How God Makes The Unbearable Good.
I am not who I thought I was. I do not have it “all together.” I do not care about being successful anymore. I do not care (as much) about how my house looks and what I am wearing. I do not know how to talk to the Creator of the universe nor can I anticipate His response. Mostly I babble like a baby. I have more regrets than answers. In fact, I have had a very new experience of repentance.
As I walked down and around the arroyos in our neighborhood, I began to see the totality of my life—not just the fun times but the small, forgotten times when I hurt someone’s feelings, when I disrespected my parents, when I disappointed God and squandered the blessings he gave me by rebelling and behaving like an open-throttled idiot. For the first time since I had said the sinner’s prayer 30-some odd years ago, I felt a deep remorse, a pain in my soul for behaving the way I had and not appreciating the gifts I had been given. I understood in this spiritual mucking that I was God’s creation, not the other way around and I saw that salvation was utterly dependent on this form of repentance because it was the only way we could put ourselves in proper relation to the Creator of the universe. I was beloved precisely because He created me and He loves His handwork. In the course of this illness (or whatever it has been), I have grown small. I have felt my little, chubby hands reach upwards for help, not inwards for inflation. I know Who the boss is. And it’s not me.
I began to see Him even in the pain, even though I hated feeling it, hated what it had done to my life, hated how it had hurt and frightened my husband, hated the isolation and constriction of it. I still do. But He is with me. The strongest support comes in the worst trial. And I need Him. Totally.
And I learned a few other things:
I thought I was nonjudgmental. I was not. I had a set of criteria that was cultivated by worldly “authorities” like the APA or AMA or, even worse, the NASW. I was wrong. What I needed to learn is that I never know what a person’s struggle is. I may discern. But I may not judge.
Everyone is fallen. Everyone. Me, too. I thought I had compassion. But it wasn’t anywhere near what I needed to have. For instance, just the other day I was wheeling my way through our local supermarket and I saw an older fellow pick up a couple of sausages off the rack and toss them into a cart full of candy, white flour products, and soda. I thought I was being humble when I offered up a prayer of thanks to God that He had given me the ability to choose healthier foods. Then—as if Yeshua Himself came down the deli aisle and pointed his finger at me—I heard, “Don’t think for a second that you’re the one who gives you health. All good things—including good health—come from ME.” To say I was humbled is an understatement.
Only God is perfect. I still (and will always) have issues. There is no need for pretense. I am foiled, failed, and fa-cact. (It’s a Yiddish word that means “crapped up.”)
God saves. I don’t.
Ordinary days are extraordinary and I love them with an intensity that is piercing. In fact, I would like to restate that: There are no ordinary days.
I hate suffering. And so does God. And because He does, He turns it to His purpose. I have learned what it means to lay it at His feet, to offer my suffering as a sacrifice, to see it in a wider context. But I still hate it.
Sometimes I feel that this illness/trial has been allowed or even designed to help me be less vested in the world, particularly all the socializing that has been so important to me over the course of my life. I'm very people-driven, which I'm beginning to understand can be a blessing, but can also be a curse. The need for approval and "belonging" has led me to some of the worst decisions I've ever made. And He, in His infinite wisdom, is correcting this in me now. The need to belong has been misplaced, because I already belong to Him.
When the road gets steep and narrow,
When the pain’s too much to bear,
When my heart is broken with sorrow
when nothing else is fair…
When I want more than I can merit
When I’m tempted to not care…
I choose you.
I choose You to hold me upright
I choose You to be my grace
I choose You to give me hope and strength
I choose You and seek your face.
I choose You to work a wonder
I choose You to make me right
I choose You to sound the thunder
I choose You.
When all the doors are closing
When no one’s by my side
When hurt and pain are growing
And I’m searching far and wide
When all I see seems lost
And I can never pay the cost…
I choose You.