pain

Christ's coming.

Christ's coming by Erika Spitler

This time of year as a child was characterized by a different world. I practically breathed in Tchaikovsky's famous score while rehearsing hour after hour for my studio's ballet performances of The Nutcracker. Step, arabesque, and pas de bourrée meant everything to the young girls who danced as Clara. When I was 11, I got to dance that very choreography. It was my favourite Sunday in December (or ever, possibly).

Back then, the holiday season began with that frenzy of hairspray and false eyelashes and bouquets. To me, Christmastime was cousins in town, coordinating outfits for family photos, wish-lists curated from AmericanGirl catalogs, presents made by hand, church on the 24th, and Kenny G on the speakers as we giggled over boxes and bows and Barbies the next morning. We sang happy birthday to Jesus and it felt like the most wonderful time. It felt like something merry and bright.

We're four days away from Christmas and I've not sent out cards or seen the lights or sung carols and hymns or put up decorations. In commitment to our yearly tradition, my dad, siblings, and I did pick out a tree together. It's rugged and so tall it's unbalanced. It fits us well.

When December 1st rolled around, I made a list of things I wanted to do this season. It turns out, nostalgia isn't reason enough to carry out plans or activities. I did, however, manage to do one thing off that list, and that was borrow Russ Ramsey's Behold the Lamb of God. Let me tell you, getting to read through this book the last 21 days has entirely reshaped my perspective on Christmas. It has helped me see and appreciate the beauty of Advent in a way I haven't before. I am seeing the grand narrative from Genesis to Revelation, understanding a tad more of this "already, but not yet" tension. Oh, how I feel it.

In today's reading, day 21, Jesus was born at last. This moment—His appearance on earth—was one I'd waited all month to read. I love wondering what it must have been like, all those years ago, when "God pushed into the world the long-expected Prophet, Priest, and King" as Kevin DeYoung writes. As I remember Christ's first coming, I find my heart simultaneously leaning in—expecting, waiting, and longing for His promised return.

This December is not the same kind of wonderful I knew as a girl and gosh! I'm finding that's okay. Heartache certainly doesn't pause so we can be all holly jolly. Some of you are like me, feeling unable to lay aside your grief, confusion, and disappointment. It's exhausting, isn't it? Especially when you feel demanded to evoke feelings of warmth and cheer, because hello, it's Christmas.

I sat across from my counselor on Monday, wanting to deal with the emotional triggers I've had the last month. Her soft eyes welled with tears, giving me the permission to break and cry. This process of moving toward healing is unrehearsed. I stumble and fall, saying things I never wish to say in anger, feeling ashamed for situations beyond my control, confessing where I've gone wrong, and yet oddly holding onto hope all at once.

Before I leave her office, we close in prayer. She thanks God for His son Jesus, and I do, too. We know we wouldn't be there, clinging to an eternal hope this season if it wasn't for our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Like our tree, I'm a bit rugged and off-center this Advent season. But I'll keep leaning, awaiting His glorious return. That's all I know to do.

Invisible in illness?

If you have depression, mental illness, infertility, lupus, lyme disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, arthritis, or any other invisible illness I did not listI am so very sorry. I know what it is like to carry around a weight that most people cannot see. That feeling of being constantly misunderstood, isolated, or angered? I get it. I have been there. And in many weeks like the last, I am still there. But I am fighting for perspective.

It's been about 180 weeks since my health began to decline, and I still don't know what actually is amiss. Chronic, undiagnosed, invisible. I am finding it is not as uncommon as I thought. (well over 100 million in America alone have an invisible illness.) 

Doctors have reviewed my negative test results and leaned forward in their chairs to tell me, "Ma'am, there is nothing we can do for you." Some have alluded to me making up the symptoms because they believed I craved the attention. One doctor told me he would "pound anti-depressants" on me during my next visit to help me cope with the frustration of not finding an answer.

The pattern has remained the same. They see nothing, so they give up. In my case, the illness and its diagnosis are both hidden.

It makes me feel crazy.

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I live with an unwanted illness.

But I also live wanting a pinpointed diagnosis so I could move forward with a treatment plan. So I could feel validated. Oh, to have an answer! A result of some kind!

I've often imagined the relief that would wash over me as I finally learn what the heck has been going on. To me, an answer would somehow prove this is all real. It would legitimatize the symptoms and my constant justifying could then cease. At least that's what I imagine.

This illness crept into my life summer of 2011 and has since bulldozed through my once-neatly-packaged views on God, relationships, purpose, and even myself.

It might be invisible in nature, but its effects have greatly impacted me as well as those close to me. My selfish and prideful ways have never been more highlighted than in these 180 weeks or so. I never knew self-pity could taste so gross or that I could be this headstrong in my distorted game of negativity. For something so invisible, such deep issues have surfaced.

Perhaps it sounds nonsensical, but somewhere along the way, I placed myself under the label of "sick girl."  In my naiveté, I allowed the lies to grow and confirm the preposterous belief that invisible illness meant invisible girl.

I thought I was doing myself and others a favor by isolating my emotions, thoughts, and even physical presence. Then came Christmas break in Virginia two months ago. I visited my best friends whom I had not seen in about a year and a half. During this trip, my cognitive symptoms experienced a flare up, which means conversation, comprehension, and retaining information expended the little mental energy I did have. In addition was the usual fatigue and chronic body pain which made me feel like I had piggybacked an elephant all night long.

I was only beginning to pull out of a long, emotional funk. Just the thought of inviting them into this mess freaked me out. I sat in the passenger seat as my best friend drove us from lunch when a certain thought riveted me. Maybe I should tell her. Maybe I should tell her what it's really like for me to be sick. I beat myself up for a good while, clenched my hands, and finally mustered up the courage to share. I had predetermined that even best friends wouldn't really care to know. If they did, wouldn't they have said something first? It turns out, she did care and has cared. She just needed to be guided into how I felt so she could try her best to understand.

As people, isn't that what we desire? To be recognized and embraced even in our mess? Whether it's illness, a job loss, an addiction, death, heartbreak, or whatever elsedon't we just long to be assured that we have not been forgotten? That what we experience matters? 

Although my best friends haven't experienced this themselves, they've been through plenty of painful situations which stole their joy, masked their identity, created feelings of shame and isolation, and kept them from speaking up.

We have suffered through our silences.

What I was told that afternoon meant volumes to me. She completely validated my illnessI was not crazy after all. Following that, my friend sweetly said, "Erika, I don't love you because of how eloquent or fun or intelligent you are. I love your heart and who you have been all of these years. It doesn't change." 

I don't want people to only know me from a distance. I want them to come close. I crave for them to. It has been a painful process to see the lies regarding my worth uprooted and to plant seeds of truth instead.

Like I mentioned earlier, just this week I felt misunderstood, isolated, and even angered. When I find myself feeling that way, it's usually because I haven't opened myself up to the truth or to the vast graces of God and the way He moves through His people. 

Yes, my sinful ways have never been so highlighted as they are now. But neither has the grace of God. The way He extends His love towards me is something I feel I do not deserve. His grace, His gift. The way He tells me I am enough leaves me in awe. He notices my every need and cherishes me more than even the best of friends could. I've never seen this part of His heart more visibly than now. He is whispering,

your illness may be invisible, but you are seen.

And maybe you need to hear that, too.

Through your angry days, your hard days, your painful days. Through the blood tests, treatments, medical bills, lost relationships and many "but you don't look sick" comments.

Through all of this, you are seen. You have not been forgotten. Your every need is fully known by God, who so desires to empower you with His strength. 

May you be open and allow His whispers of truth to fall afresh over your heart. And most of all, may He, the God who created you and your beautiful body, restore you wholly and completely.