“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13
Betrayal is always hard! It shakes your foundation of trust; it makes you feel unworthy or insignificant. It also messes with your confidence, causes you to have a negative perception of your future, and often turns you into a cynic. The closer the relationship you have with the object of your betrayal, the harder it is to recover from the offense. We have all felt betrayed before, but one of the most difficult betrayals I have faced is when I felt my own body had betrayed me. I am not talking about weight loss plateaus; I am referring to the chronic illness that I have battled for many years.
Sixteen years ago, I woke up with intense throbbing in my hands and wrists. I went to see my doctor, and he wrote it off as tendonitis, gave me a prescription for the pain, and sent me on my way. The symptoms subsided for about a year and then reappeared with a vengeance! At this point in my life, I had lost some weight (the only other time in my life I have lost a significant amount of weight), and I was exercising regularly. In addition to the intense throbbing pain, my body seemed to stiffen up after a night of sleep. The stiffness and pain increased to the point that, even sitting down in a restaurant, Terry would have to help me up from my chair. I began to think maybe I was exercising too much, or not stretching enough, so I started to incorporate Pilates into my exercise routine. But, even then, I was still experiencing pain and stiffness!
One night, the pain was so intense that I laid awake in tears. Every joint in my body hurt, causing me to sit rocking on the edge of the bed. I finally fell asleep at the crack of dawn, exhausted but still in pain. Over the next few days, I researched my symptoms, and with my limited medical knowledge, I felt like God gave me the insight that I had developed Rheumatoid Arthritis, otherwise known as RA. I mentioned my thoughts to my husband and a few close friends, and made an appointment with my family doctor, insisting on getting the necessary blood work to indicate whether I had RA. My doctor was skeptical but agreed to order the blood work. Within a few days, my blood work indicated that I had the markers for RA, and I had a referral to see a rheumatologist.
Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that causes your body to attack the synovial fluid cushioning your joints, resulting in painful inflammation and eventual thickening of the joint cavities. It affects all your joints and can even, in some cases, cause inflammation in your heart and lungs. Some of the symptoms include general morning stiffness, overall fatigue, and low-grade fevers. It is a progressive disease and, if left untreated, can result in deformed joints in the hands and feet, potentially leaving you disabled! The periods of intense, lasting discomfort are referred to as flares.
I have had three major flares over the course of this disease. The second one lasted about six months, leaving me almost completely disabled for about three months. I did not have the strength to hold a coffee cup, raise my own bed covers, lift my foot to step into the bathtub, or even get dressed. Not only could I not do these basic tasks, I felt completely useless in all areas of my life. I could barely hold my Bible on my lap to read it, I was unable to home-educate my children, or cook meals for my family. My identity as a Christian, as a wife, and as a mother seemed shattered! I became depressed because I looked in the mirror and saw a person I no longer recognized!
At different times, I have stopped taking my medicine due to some of the harsh side effects, or due a to lack of medical insurance. During those lapses in treatment, RA has damaged a few of my fingers, leaving me with a permanent deformity known as “swan’s neck”. In addition to my hands, I also have some deformities with my feet that make it difficult to find shoes.
For seven years, I managed to control my RA symptoms through diet and lifestyle. Throughout that time, I still had pain in various joints, but I took an over-the-counter pain-reliever, got a good night’s sleep, and rested when needed. About three years ago, I felt like my mini flares were increasing and I started developing some secondary symptoms, including “trigger finger”, an increase in nodules, and Reynaud’s syndrome, where a few of your fingers turn white and are icy cold for short periods. I knew it was time to see the doctor again. They immediately started me on some medicine and supplements and began monitoring my blood work.
This past November, despite my weight loss and active lifestyle, my rheumatologist and I agreed that we needed to treat my RA more aggressively due to the now constant inflammation. I immediately started on a chemo drug that I have taken before that, when taken in small doses, has proven effective in treating RA. I now take this as a weekly injection, in addition to my daily medication and supplement routine. Due to the nature of the medication, it was suggested that I quarantine for three months because of my compromised immune system and the current pandemic. Although I still take daily walks, I have avoided crowded places and limited my contact with people.
Upon reflection, the hardest part of this disease is not related to the pain, although that has been terrible, or the deformities, although my hands will never look like they did in my wedding pictures. The hardest part of the disease is feeling betrayed by my own body, forcing me to resign myself to my limitations, and to rely on others. For example, I can’t open most water bottles because my hands are weakened. Some days, I can’t push through the pain to exercise as vigorously as I want to. And some days, I have to just sit down to rest. Even on a good day, I see nodules on my wrist that remind me that RA is still wreaking havoc in my body beneath the surface of my skin.
I have realized that my response to my RA is a good indicator of my spiritual health as well. In the beginning, when my symptoms first appeared, I was aggressive with my treatment, reading books and alternative medicine research, trying everything to control the disease. Then, when the symptoms subsided, I took myself off the medication, confident in my own ability to control the disease. Unfortunately, my confidence resulted in some irreversible damage. Similarly, in a crisis, I spend a lot of time pouring my heart out to God, reading the Bible, listening to messages, and trying to soak up all I can get from Him. Then, when the crisis ends, and life is going well, I neglect my daily devotions and rely on my own ability. This often results in some side effects in my life that lead to bad attitudes, pride, and sin!
Yet, despite those moments of attempted self-sufficiency, God is merciful, both in the physical and the spiritual sides of your life. And at moments like these, God brings you to a place of reckoning. In November, I knew that, despite my best efforts, I needed to go to the next level of medication to control my disease. I had to rely on an outside source, in this case medicine, to provide the relief I needed in my daily life and stop the progression of the disease. In the spiritual sense, sometimes God takes you to a place where you know that all your efforts are in vain. This happened to me a few years ago. I remember laying prostrate on the floor of my living room, completely broken of all my pride, realizing that I had built my life on my own abilities and ideals. I remember telling God to empty me of all my pride and fill me with His spirit. Since then, I have continued to rest in this place of complete vulnerability. This posture of humility has led me on a journey where I have seen the hand of God working, both in me and in my family!
I still have nodules. I still have aches and pain. I still wake up some days with flares that force me to stop my life until the pain subsides. I still take my medicine, and regularly see a rheumatologist to monitor my condition. For the past few months, I have chosen to look at the effects of the disease’s activity in my body as reminders that I need Jesus. They are opportunities for me to rely on His strength, and not on my own. It’s a reminder for me to stay in that posture of humility and let God fill me with His presence and rid me of my pride. These reminders are teaching me to be thankful for all things in my life!