“Lord, you brought me up from the grave, brought me back to life from among those going down to the pit.” Psalm 30:3
I have not been well. Since the middle of December, with the exception of a few days around Christmas, I have been struggling with my illness. I am nineteen months into the battle for my life and the past month has been the most difficult time of struggle thus far. I have had every symptom imaginable it seems. I’ve had night sweats, fevers, nausea, headaches, joint pain, tumor pain so bad I had to go to the hospital, dehydration, and the list goes on. I have had entire days where it was exhausting just to get out of bed and try to keep food down. What nobody warned me about was that one of the issues with having a long-term, terminal illness is that it is a battle on three fronts. It is a fight for body, mind, and soul. Your body is not your own. Your mind begins believing the worst.
When you deal with a long-term illness it seems like your own body has betrayed you. The ironic thing about my illness is that prior to falling ill I was in the best shape of my adult life. I was eating right, exercising faithfully, and striving to manage stress. I was sleeping well and I had more energy and felt more in control than I had in decades. I was determined to enter my fifties fit and strong. Then my body betrayed me. Some cells went rogue, cancer started to grow, and by the time it was detected I had multiple lesions in multiple places and my best hope is to slow the growth of the tumors and treat the symptoms. On January 1, 2015 I had my second, serious carcinoid attack. My tumors woke me up from a dead sleep with pain like I had not felt since my initial diagnosis. I literally could not stand up straight. If that wasn’t bad enough, I was 500 miles from home and I knew the community hospital close by would not know what to do. After some serious pain medication and IV fluids they discharged me. For the next two weeks my body heaved and wretched and seized in ways I never imagined. I felt like I was becoming a mere shadow of myself. That is when the body began to affect the battle of the mind.
During dark days of physical struggle even the most positive of us (and I am NOT the most positive of us) can begin to believe the worst. I remember sitting in my chair shaking from chills while my face flushed hot from the hormones being released by my tumors thinking, “What if it never gets better than this? I don’t know if I’m strong enough to handle this kind of pain indefinitely.” Your thoughts tend toward catastrophizing the situation. The pain and fight within your body causes you to begin to think very small. You can only focus on whether you can eat something and actually keep it down. Or whether you can drink enough not to become dehydrated again. Taking a shower seems like an aerobic workout. You feel small, useless and helpless. Then around the edges guilt creeps in. You feel guilty for all the things you have to ask others to do for you. You feel guilty for missing work and knowing you are letting people down who expect you to perform. You feel guilty that you can’t power through this and force yourself to do more. You try to stay positive, but the pain impacts the brain. Before long, the battle on the third front is also ragin; the battle in your soul.
People tell me I’m strong. I am not. I am stubborn, but I am not strong. During some of those darkest days it felt as if my soul shriveled within me. One night as I lay in bed with Danelle I told her that I was pretty sure I was strong enough to handle a fast, terminal disease, but I’m not sure I have the strength to endure this marathon to the end of my life. This slow plodding march to decline. It is hard, and it is hard every day. I’ve never been a big fan of the Psalms. Sometimes they seem a little whiney, but during the past month I understand the depths of sorrow at feeling abandoned by God. (I know that God did not abandon me, don’t flood me with Christian hyperbole and “footprints” poems.) When you are in the “depths of despair” you feel abandoned. Your body is in pain, your mind is thinking the worst (and the worst is not death, it is thinking that the struggle will never end), and your soul can hardly continue to believe. You are down to your last shred of faith. The tattered remnants of hope that you cling to in the dark of night are all that you have left. Now the battle on three fronts is raging within you.
In the midst of the battle on three fronts what got me through was remembering. Remembering that God was with me, had suffered for me. Remembering that God experienced real suffering through God’s self-sacrifice upon the cross. Remembering that the community of faith that I am part of was believing for me. When it seemed my soul had shriveled to nothing, I remembered that others were praying and believing for me, standing in the gap between my doubt and God’s presence. Remembering that I do not have to be strong. In the midst of my doubt, pain, guilt, and struggle it was okay that my strength was not enough. Death has already been conquered; it is not up to me to win. My task is to remain faithful with whatever I have left.
The battle on three fronts is not over. The struggle will continue. There will be other difficult, dark days. Thank God for those of you who will continue to hold the candle for me when my hand shakes and my strength fails. Thank God for those of you who will believe for me when doubt overwhelms my soul. I, like the writer of Hebrews, can say that I am surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.” I am not strong, but you are strong for me, so I continue to fight on three fronts. I remain:
Consumed by the Call,Marty