suffering

On 2017 : Unexpected Littering

Erika Spitler - On 2017

I started making my way through a set of year-end questions on January 1st like many of you introspective folk did, but never finished. Sitting with my Pilot G2 pens and thinking through 2017's life lessons sounds less appealing than it did that first, fresh day of the year. It's mid-month now and I'm wondering, how are we already here? 

The new year always has a charm of its own. I do like getting to jot a different digit in the corner of journals and imagining the possibilities of what I might record in them. Sometimes, though, I forget pain is no respecter of new calendars. We still feel remnants of the year prior and it'll be there for us to work through come January 1st, when "yesterday" and "last year" are synonymous. For me, this is helpful to remember.

2017 was littered with unexpected change. To recap, it went a little like this: gained employment after 15 months without, dad left the family, grandmother died, clinical depression hit, returned to formal studies, Lyme flared up, parents' pending divorce, best friend got married, moved out of state, changed jobs, began learning a new city, found a church, started dating again. To separate significant transitions with mere commas seems detached and almost wrong—like they're items on a grocery or honey-do list. Maybe that's revealing of where I'm at in this grief process?

In the fall, I was told it was good and admirable to hear me talking so level-headed about my family's recent dysfunction. Especially since it hadn't even been nine months. There it is. It's not that I was far enough along in my healing to talk openly or calmly about it. No, I was still up close. Too shocked. Afraid to examine the emotional carnage around me. Then life sped by, and God plucked me out of Florida with almost no planning on my part. For nine weeks I've been zipping on more layers, going on more walks, and spending more time in solitude than ever before. (God is so funny. I thought I was moving near Atlanta for the rush of a city and I end up on the outskirts, in a smaller town than where I came from.)

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years here were all wonderful but it hardly feels like real life when you're blazing through the holidays and the house rotates with guests. The celebrations were a sweet reprieve from reality, but they have since settled and so have I. I can't stuff myself busy for long before my INFJ kicks in and reminds me to slow waaaaaay down. Starting a 21 day fast with my church has helped create space to seek, gaze upon, and hear from God. There's clarity that didn't exist before the holidays, and guess what I see? I kind of hate it. I see pain. Like gum to the sole of a shoe, it clings to anything. I could probably ignore it awhile longer, but it'll keep sticking and eventually harden into a black, nasty blob. No one likes nasty gum blobs.

Dating at the tail-end of 2017 falls under the "Totally Unexpected" and "What Just Happened" categories. God so, so graciously allowed me to meet someone whose friendship changed me and whose compassion and grace I won't forget. It was sweet, joyful, and a whirlwind of a gift. Although laying aside the hopes of romance and handing over a good thing hurts, (and not what I wanted), I think the decision was right. There is a healthier version of Erika out there and while I understand I'll always be in process, I desperately want to stay focused on the path to healing God has placed me on. My love will be truer, deeper, and freer because of it.

Jesus has been delivering me out of darkness and I know he will continue that work in 2018. It has taken time to familiarize myself with my current surroundings, but his nearness I know anywhere. If only I'd open my eyes! The walking trails across my street have become like a refuge—a place where I regularly retreat to. While I walk and pray, I imagine all my pain and adoration being hurled heavenward. It sounds violent, but it's a "I have nowhere else to turn but you" kind of way. He meets me in the woods and in the early mornings stuffed under three blankets and as I drive my rattling Camry through potholes and one-way streets and on Sundays as I stand among a transcultural group of believers where we, like King Jehoshaphat pray, "We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you." He is the way to my healing and yours. I'm sure of it.

Grief is some, but not all.

Grief is some, but not all. | erikaspitler.com

If you've stopped by since I last wrote, you know my family received jarring news this spring. It pains me to say it, but my dad chose to leave us and his marriage for something new. And as he did, a decade's worth of carefully stowed brokenness was made visible. On March 1st, our family crossed into some formidable land—a land where many others live but few of us feel free to mention. (Especially us church folks, darnit.) The consequences of sin and its many ugly sidekicks have been emotionally flattening.

In 7 months, this burden has multiplied in weight and complexity, which I know isn't what you want to hear when you ask, are things getting better yet? I wish, friend. I wish I could say I'm leaping over hills of forgiveness, free from anger and trauma and the HOWCOULDYOU?! Would you be horrified to know some days, I've thought about huddling with bitterness on my doorstep forever? Thankfully, God snaps me out of it. I'm committed to forgiveness because it's right and I won't back away. You can be sure I'll need the Holy Spirit to give me courage on every inch of that gravel-filled road, but perhaps that's the point. It's too much on my own. 

Also, this spring, my grandmother unexpectedly died. I couldn't make the trip north for her funeral, so all I had to hold onto was an online obituary, the Hallmark cards I'd saved in her blue, swirly writing, and the distant memory of her voice. Emotions for me were at a standstill. Just this weekend, my cousin texted photos of our grandmother's things, asking what I might want to keep. I requested three juice glasses to remember her by, kitchenware I've likely never seen but will now have to myself.

My dad's and grandmother's absence both happened suddenly. The family framework I'd always known snapped in two months and while I successfully functioned on autopilot at first, my physiological response was eventually clinical depression. I call it the summer of darkness—the one where I lost all interests, struggled to converse or socially engage, spent my off-hours sleeping or taking 6 hours to pull off the covers, couldn't make meals or carry through with obligations, and only whispered (or screamed) a prayer with microscopic faith once in awhile. Life was two-dimensional.

After the diagnosis, my therapist and I started an important conversation on medication and what that could look like. Upfront, neither of us wanted to rush me to the pharmacy counter but as the weeks plodded along, the help of a pill seemed more necessary. I couldn't recognize the girl I'd become in this low-functioning state and condemned myself for the nothingness lingering inside. Being a follower of Jesus and dealing with mental illness are not mutually exclusive and I knew that full well. But the remains of old, faulty theology showed itself and let's just say it: shame is a beast.

All these months, I'd been working at a school for students with severe physical disabilities. My interview was the morning of March 1st, mere hours before I sat weeping with my mom and sister. This was no accident. Later I would thank God over and over for his timing—even the timing of very, very bad news. He gave me the peace to accept my dream position after 15 months of unemployment. He knew the joy of being with those kids would be the only motivation to get out of bed. 

On my second morning of work, I'll never forget driving under a rainbow. That image has stayed with me—a moment I realized beauty and sorrow can occupy space together. It's been a gritty (rhyme with an offensive word if it's your style) year so far and we're still recovering. Yet grief is not the whole of it. When my boss took a chance on me, God showed me the kind of work which livens up my soul right in the middle of death, loss, and depression. This August, with no medication, color miraculously returned to my world. My therapist and I were astonished, knowing God didn't have to lift it. He did, though. I could begin giving real feet to my grief, consciously walking through the effects of trauma. The fall came, and I started to study again after 7 years. One of the course modules is focused on a theology of suffering. Timely, right? I hear stories from around the world of people gripping onto hope through illness and disability and societal wounds... and I get to join in. There's one more I'd add, but it requires a post of its own. God's kindness is all over my family's messiest year. Beauty, sorrow.

These prolonged periods of pain are awfully uncomfortable. I might pay to find a fast forward button on suffering one day. But till then, I'm taking today's moment, which is all I have, and believing in a God who wastes not one thing.

My faith is a tiny, tiny sprout.
However, it's there, and I think he can work with that.

- - -

* This post was updated 10/19 to provide further clarity.

I'm living on a question mark.

I'm living on a question mark. 

I don't think I'll ever forget that day, that dreadful first of March. I'd just returned home from a job interview when I received the news that struck down my family. There's hardly (if any) preparation for such things, is there? A longstanding nightmare turns reality, then what? You try to make sense of it but you can't. In words taken from Hamilton, this has been a "suffering too terrible to name."

A bold line distinguishes life before crisis and after. I'm living in the eleventh week following and each week since has been sad, intense, and exhausting. My heart still bleeds out. I've heard life after trauma shapes into a new kind of normal, or something like that. The alterations are significant.

So now, I'm living on a question mark. The surety has faded. I'm less willing to face the pain straight on. Each step on the bridge to healing is a timid one. These feet are dragging and the days are too. Who talks about this?

It's hard to find someone who won't try to fix and direct your pain with hopeful platitudes. And it's even harder to find someone who won't avoid you or your suffering. Lately, I'm uninterested in any of the Christian clichés. Do we toss them around to convince each other we still love and trust Jesus? Is it okay to confess: I'm broken, I'm grieved, I'm struggling? And to say back: I'm broken for you, I'm without words, I'm sorry?

Oddly, I want to push everyone away and hold everyone close. I want to keep myself shielded from further misunderstanding, betrayal, disappointment, so I isolate. I want to be remembered, looked after, supported, so I overshare. I'm not at all graceful in this process.

Trauma changes people on both ends of relationships. It's hard, I know—for both the griever and the griever's friend. Pain is a complex, giant web and we're never the only ones caught in it. How do we choose to stay when leaving looks so easy? 

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I'm afraid to write publicly because I'm afraid of accumulating more hurt. This suffering is shared, a pain not just my own. Several hearts have been twisted and turned, deceived and diced. To honor them, I can't use details. When is it better to stay off the screen and keep words only for yourself? And when is sharing worth the possible gossip, rejection, or silence?

Along with that, I fear people can sniff out self-pity. I certainly have no use for collecting pity from anyone, including myself. But it's obvious, I do hurt a whole lot. I'm still shocked, not ready to forgive, and only beginning to grieve. What if it's too early to write and I regret it?

-

Just now, I read this paragraph by Rainer Maria Rilke, the poet and novelist:

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Maybe I'll stop trying so hard to understand. Maybe we don't need reasons for a March first kind of news. Maybe those things will come, but maybe instead there will be God's peace and a certainty of His presence. Could that be enough for all our bleeding hearts? 

Answers are few in fragile times.

Answers are few in fragile times.

I walk up to the register with four sympathy cards in hand, each meant for a different person and loss. The cashier asks me what all good cashiers ask—did you find everything you were looking for? I tell him yes (does anyone answer otherwise?) as he totals the purchase. He hands me the receipt and plastic bag, finishing his routine with a warm "come again." I know I will because bookstores are my oxygen, but I hope for a return under other circumstances. Not one involving death.

But pain is pummeling into those I love. All at once? I don't get it. I speak with a friend this morning who has experienced another tragedy. These are fragile times. Treading in pools of sorrow suddenly turns familiar, and it hurts.

-

There's another problem with my health, so before bed, I scour Google's results for answers. The quest for healing resembles an addiction and before you know it, it's 5 am and I'm exhausted from riding on fear through the night. I close both the laptop and my eyes at last, unable to find what I was searching for.

Counselors say there are multiple stages of grief, with denial being one of the first. Each addition to my list of symptoms is a loss. I make good movement emotionally, then I'll notice another ailment and end up in denial all over again. I have a disease (several, actually), and sometimes loss will come quicker than progress. Strength and hair and memory are not promises. Can I not accept this reality in bulk? Will I have to unravel with every change? 

-

I've been asking God lots of questions. Partly because I'm curious, mainly because I'm disappointed. The last 14 months in my life have appeared small and inconsequential. I used to be useful—what happened? Why is He keeping this disease in my body? Doesn't He know what I would do if I was healthy and whole?

There are families hurting, and I want to help. I hope to serve children who have special needs. I hope to work hard, giving money and resources away. I hope to move to Japan and help plant churches. I hope to do this and that for a greater good, but I fear I can't unless I'm well.

So if I'm never healed, then what? 

The splinters in my theology and identity are being exposed. I'm in this new place, a low place, where I see sprawled before me my failed attempts and crumbled relationships and unbiblical perspectives and storage of pride, and, and—I'm not at all who I thought I was. It's terrifying to be made aware of my shortcomings like this. I made myself the savior of the narrative and now I'm here, pressed to the ground and empty-handed.

I'm shocked by how little I've trusted Jesus, the God-man who knows suffering best. How does He respond to the tragedies we face? 

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I have an afternoon to myself, and I'm tempted to numb with Netflix but I cry out to God instead. I wonder why He would still want to love me and love others through me. I've lost sight so many times and I know so little. In my foolishness, doubt, brokenness, and disease, why does God remain? I don't know what He's shaping through the losses in my life or those around me, but this is my prayer:

God, may You be all we ever go searching for.
And let us weep with those who weep today, just as You do for us. 
Amen.

On 2016 : Never Removed

I spent the afternoon reflecting on all that did and didn't happen in 2016, writing out my thoughts and answering probing questions. It was a painful year, no doubt.

From 2016's start to finish, I was undergoing treatment, unemployed, and living under my parents' roof. Any precious energy I had was on sleep mode, saved for necessary things like: showering, driving 45 minutes to see my counselor, and maybe going to church. I learned that chronic pain doesn't take a vacation—not even if you get away to Hawaii. (which happened.) I went to the Big Island to gain closure from my time in YWAM and move my belongings back home. My treatment leaked on the flights there, emptying not only the bottles but my finances and hopes for better health. The doctor said not to worry. He didn't know worry and I were close friends. After that trip, I didn't step outside for 7 days. I later learned "I haven't seen the sun" is a cause for concern.

On 2016 : Never Removed | erikaspitler.com

A friend encouraged me to fill my days with creativity, so I made a few attempts. First, I conversed with artists and entrepreneurs and podcasters on Anchor, learning from strangers. I then tried sending weekly newsletters which I fondly called Offstage Notes. It was a short-lived but fun endeavor. Moving on, I taught myself embroidery and hoped (for two weeks) to start a business named ThreadRest. I quickly learned these projects were either not for me or were pursued at the wrong time. In the end, I kept up with one creative attempt: my reading challenge. This proved to be life-giving, educational, and a way to pass the time. Some weeks, my only visit outside the house was to pick up my books on hold. Our librarians brought me smile after smile as they commented on my latest read. Literacy is a gift I hold dear.

On 2016 : Never Removed | erikaspitler.com

My parents continued to house me rent-free, helping me in ways that are immeasurable. I prematurely took a job delivering groceries and resigned before my first day. I was weak not only physically but spiritually. Our family visited churches. My mom and I talked theology late into the night. I stopped going to church regularly due to severe disappointments, forgetting humans are imperfect and I, too, am one of them. I grappled with my faith, clinging to hopes of healing or marriage or ministry more than my hope in Christ. It's shocking to see how I'd plastered my heart in selfishness and pride for much of the year. I cannot believe how merciful, forgiving, and loving the Father is to His children. 

On 2016 : Never Removed | erikaspitler.com

If you know me well, you're aware counseling was the best present of 2016. In every session with my counselor, I experienced God's grace and truth. She gave me the permission to grieve losses, and I did. I grieved all things big and small in categories of relationships, ministry, health, and opportunities. Shame would lessen and anxiety would disappear. Asking for help was never so beautiful. Together, we created goals for myself. The largest goal written on her whiteboard was learn to live with Lyme Disease. The daily goals? Look presentable, step outside, get in the Word.

On 2016 : Never Removed | erikaspitler.com

Some reprieve came in the fall. I spent almost a month away in California and Georgia thanks to kind friends and the kindest God. These three weeks were like a soul retreat—nourishing, affirming, and comforting. I began to dream again. I was ready for anything. The anything which followed in those weeks was a whole lot of no's from jobs I'd applied to, people I cared deeply for, and a body which acted up whenever it so pleased. It was a wild election season, several of my friends were in the midst of intense suffering, the online world was clogged with negativity, and devastation in countries and neighborhoods and homes would not cease.

I wondered why I wasn't given a heart of steel—wouldn't that have protected it from breaking over and over? What about those hurting in my home, city, the world? But if heartache and rejection brought me anything these final months, it was clarity.

On 2016 : Never Removed | erikaspitler.com

The epilogue for year 2016 reads: 

Darkness could not win me over, for I belong and will always belong to God. All 366 days, He carried me. He has been strengthening me for the journey, beginning with the restoration of my mind and emotions. He gave me the space to cry out, to ask questions, to stay put. He helped establish healthier routines. He confirmed my call to missions. He held me and my tears day by day by day.

Calvinism or Arminianism? Japan or California? Homeopathic or antibiotic? I sought and fought hard for my solutions this year. I don't have all my answers, but I have the Lord, and He is what I need. The failures and sins of my past, present, and future cannot remove me from His love.

It's a time of new beginnings—to allow God's Spirit to soften me, revive me, and empower me to not just live with something like illness but to love Him and others well in the midst of it.

Although this was a very hard year, it would be ignorant to look only at mine. I cannot pretend to know where you're at, just a few days out from 2016. I don't know what big regrets or big hurts you hold inside. I've told you my answers are few, so I will not try and give you something I don't fully believe.

But this I am sure of: God will weep with you and heal you and answer you.

Come on home.

On 2016 : Never Removed | erikaspitler.com

If you had not come along.

I traveled north before Thanksgiving and had an appointment with my doctor. He ran tests and administered treatment, confidently reporting improvement in my health. This was comforting to hear at the time, but now that I'm home with more fatigue and inflammation in my brain / body than usual, I'm confused. Lately, I've felt like the Tin Woodman from The Wizard of Oz—neck immovable, joints rusted over, heart elsewhere. 

I think mornings can be unforgiving to many, including the chronically ill. With half an eye open today, I went over roll call, assessing which body parts came to attendance. These first moments of the day are so fragile. I'm aware of it, and want to choose rightly. I want to set my full mind on things above. But to be honest, before I open the dusty blinds, fold the mustard yellow quilt into quarters, or crawl to the bookshelf with twelve bottles of treatment lined up, I feel defeated. 

Here I am, stuck in a body fighting an unyielding disease in a place I do not thrive. I tell people I'm applying to jobs! trying to move out! praying about ministry locations! and that is all true, but then on mornings like this one, I wonder how any of that could unfold. I mean, I didn't even want to make breakfast this morning. Too exhausting. Feeling sorry for myself never brings good, so to stand against such pity, I peeled a banana, buttered some toast, and scrolled through job postings anyway. 

After the brief search for work, I searched for deals on Christmas gifts and pinned a few wish-list items for myself, totally immersed in my own world. Then, I see news of the devastation in Aleppo and the thousands of refugees who are in need—and how can I ignore it? How can I click away? To do what? Return to coupon codes and uploading résumés?

There is so little I feel I can offer to a world that is hurting, but there are people near and far who are desperate for help, for hope. A friend who knows I've been struggling this month called me, listening to my every word. I told her I wanted to be noticed in my need—and isn't this true of us all? Aware of my tendencies to isolate or check out, my friend challenged me to do just the opposite. To keep showing up instead. The truth made me cringe a little, but she is right. 

This is the same message I'm reading from organizations responding to the Aleppo crisis. They need people to step in, to help Syrian families by giving meals and sleeping bags and more. They need us to show up. It feels small, too easy, even, to push a button and give from the safety of home—but the outpouring of help and prayers and funds will not be wasted. It never is.

Several hours later and feeling somber, I picked up our beautifully illustrated copy of The Wizard of Oz. Since I'd told my family I felt like one of the main characters, I figured I should refresh my memory of his story. I flipped to pages 38-39, straight to the rescue of the Tin Woodman.

Dorothy, upon finding the tin man, responded to his groans for help. His joints badly needed oil. All he desired was to be free to move—away from isolation and rust and pain.

So they oiled his legs until he could move them freely; and he thanked them again and again for his release, for he seemed a very polite creature, and very grateful. "I might have stood there always if you had not come along," he said; "so you have certainly saved my life. How did you happen to be here?" 

This story, it turns out, was more than a passing metaphor for my physical condition. It was one I needed to read today, a day I wanted to only look inward and sit on a pile of my own pity. I read the words another time and another time, drawing biblical parallels and continuing to think on things like our need for a Savior, what it looks like to assume solidarity with the suffering, how to respond well to others and do life together, and what it means to have eternity set in our hearts.

I play four newly-learned chords on the piano, with friends and strangers on my mind. Mornings are definitely not just hard or painful for me. I play the simple line from a simple chorus—don't lose hope—and think about those in my neighborhood and those on the other side of the world who are facing mornings and days and nights more heartrending than I could ever know.

Oh Father, don't let those who are hurting, defeated, or overlooked stand there always, with no one to come along.

I don't know where to go from here, I don't. But I cannot look or click away.

if you had not come along

There's no cure. I see hope.

A few days ago, my dad and I discussed treatment plans and the decisions surrounding it. These conversations are unpleasant for me. I'm weary of reevaluating my health status so often. I don't want to be reminded of how painful these last few months (or years, even) have been. Yet to ignore this topic would be foolish.

Can we still afford treatment?
How much longer will you give it a try?
Is this even working?


When I resigned from my job and began this particular protocol in December, I imagined by mid-2016, I would see progress. I marked out a timeline for myself—fairly certain by the end of June I would be healthier. Just in time for my birthday.

Early this morning, I began to look at this situation rather plainly. It's necessary to grab views detached from my emotions. I can't deny the facts about this disease. It is what it is. Regardless of what my body or a medical report reveals, I pray I will cling to God's truth.

The facts say there is no cure for chronic Lyme Disease. And once treated, over 63% of people could still face debilitating symptoms. No one can promise me I will feel better on this side of heaven. Not by June 2016, and not in 20 years.

I've heard this before, but I guess I was hoping for a different story.

This road could be a lot longer than I ever expected. I could still be asked, "are you feeling better yet?" in five years. Or maybe by then, the question will be stale and hardly a topic for discussion.

In my efforts to rush ahead, I put terms and conditions before God. 

Lord, if this treatment works, I could focus on You more.
Lord, once I feel better, I will serve You in many ways. 
Lord, it would be amazing to be miraculously healed.
Then wouldn't others wonder at Your goodness?


Do your prayers ever sound like mine? As humans, we love to have the ideals portioned out like they're baking ingredients. We've got recipes in mind and measurements memorized. Our prayers often uncover whether we've put God to a timer, expecting Him to whip up a treat for us when we see fit.

June is approaching. My self-made timer wants to count down the days.

But this is what I know. The abundance of life (John 10:10) is not going to be found in regaining my health. Or the community I once had. Or money in my bank account. Or living on my own again. Or traveling overseas. If true life could be found in any of those ideals, I would be left out of something God has promised, making Him a liar. And He cannot lie.

David says in Psalm 25:15,

"My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net."

Turning my vision away from myself and off the calendar, God helps me see differently. He reminds me of the eternal life I have now (John 17:3) and of the future glory to come (Romans 8:18). He leads me into truth—guiding me through life's interruptions with no fear in His step.

I don't have to count down the days until a desired date, because I can start counting up right now. I count up God's goodness. I marvel at how He can accomplish much in this frail body of mine. His Spirit does the work, renewing me (2 Corinthians 4:16) and giving me the doses of daily strength I need. Unlike my bottles of treatment, He will never run out.

There doesn't need to be a healing visible to the eyes for me to prove or believe He is good. Hope is alive inside me despite the pain and the losses—how incredible is that? How incredible is HE?

The facts about Lyme Disease are real. I have studied them, and I know them. But I also know a truth which sets me free from those fearful facts.

When I look to the the cross of Christ, I see that my dream life doesn't begin once circumstances align to my liking. He is eternal life, and I know Him now.

Lord, help me keep focused on You today.
I will seek after You. I will serve You. I will see that You are good.

Seeing differently