Vicarious Humanity

Physician-Triggered PTSD, Grief, and the Joy of Looking to Christ

My body has been through so much in the past few weeks. I've wept and cried in anguish, but I've also sung for joy. I've enjoyed the heights of paddleboarding on mountain lakes and journeyed the depths of a pain which chained me to my couch. 

I've experienced two disease flares, one of which was excruciating to the point of tears, two chemo injections, one chemo infusion, my damn period, a pelvis x-ray, and a daunting rheumatology appointment. And that's just the disease stuff.

Yesterday my rheumatologist quelled some fears regarding my diagnosis and future treatment. To understand the import of said conversation, you have to know I have what one might, only half-facetiously, refer to as "physician-triggered post-traumatic stress disorder." (PTSD)* Anxiety courses through my body as I face doctors appointments. Where I can generally easily access calm, I am instead in fight-or-flight mode. (If you ask my husband, he'll tell you it's mostly fight-mode. I can get real feisty when it comes to protecting my health with medical professionals.) I have been treated horrendously by doctors in the past, and I resultantly wear a cloak of mistrust to every medical appointment. 

Will you harm me? Will you question the veracity of the pain which has so rocked my life? Will you threaten to take away the treatments which are the primary thing standing between me and disability?

My cloak of mistrust feels like a necessary protection after several soul-killing surprise verbal attacks by arrogant doctors. I've been blindsided one too many times and no longer enter medical appointments with any assumed safety.

And yet, not all doctors are asswipes. Some actually listen. Really, many doctors truly listen and care. In my 8.5 years of being sick, I have probably seen over 50 doctors. Less than 10 have been total jerks. Fewer than 5 have damaged my soul. Funny, isn't it, how a semi-small handful of traumatic experiences can affect your life?

I am especially able to take off my cloak of mistrust if I am accompanied to appointments by a supportive person. In most cases, this is my spouse. Sadly, because medical appointments often take up a significant amount of time in any given month, I have grown accustomed to attending them alone. In many ways, my posture toward medical appointments is a emblematic of a larger attitude toward myself, others, and even God in light of long-term illness. Doctor's appointments are one of the hardest places to practice what I preach about community. It's much easier, in a sense, to go by myself than to inconvenience others to come to mid-day, often long, appointments. However, in going alone, I leave myself unnecessarily vulnerable. What seems convenient is actually, in most cases, unwise and unkind toward my sensitive, somewhat-traumatized soul. 

Yesterday, because my husband accompanied me, I was able to take off my garment of mistrust. And, amazingly, my doctor showed himself to be trustworthy.

Today, I am carrying both gratefulness and grief from yesterday's appointment. I'm in awe that my rheumatologist cares about my life and believes my pain. But I'm also grieving the reality that I may have some additional health conditions impacting both my quality of life and future plans. 

I grieve for my body, for the pain, suspicion, and anguish she has had to endure. I grieve for the losses, the difficulties, and the harrowing hazards my body has and does face. I grieve for her and simultaneously marvel at her strength.

Facing my physical fragility and fortitude draws my eyes to Jesus. My body of pain illumines His Body and the inexplicable pain He endured in His life and death. Cosmically, Jesus held my pain in His body. In his pierced hands and side, the offending wrongness of chronic illness as a result of the Fall was forever atoned. 

My body has been through a lot in the past few weeks. But only in Jesus' Body is there enough space to hold the weight of the grief and joy in my life. And there is room for yours, too.

Look to His Body; look to His suffering. Find peace in the mystery that your pain is known, carried, and forever conquered in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 


*No, I do not have a PTSD diagnosis. Yes, I do respect the seriousness of such a label. And yes, I do genuinely believe I experience serious symptoms of trauma when it comes to some of my medical experiences.
If you are concerned about your own experience of trauma, I highly recommend you seek the advice of a medical professional, particularly a counselor. I offer Denver-based counseling services and would love to support you in the hard work of living with illness or suffering of any kind. 

Perseverance?

The unassumed is the unhealed
— Gregory of Nazianzus

Hebrews 12 tells us to lay aside every weight, every sin, and run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. He endured his suffering on the cross because of the joy of the future, knowing his death was creating new life, a new way, a union by which you and I can mysteriously persevere in the continuing, but temporary, darkness of this world. 

PersevereWhat a difficult word. I kind of get tired (...and maybe a tiny bit frustrated) just hearing it! Maybe on my most inspired, holy days I find joy and courage in hearing it. But when I've been battling nausea and fatigue and hard decisions and fear for weeks... It mostly just sounds trite.

Fantastically for our struggling hearts there is more to the reality of perseverance than what we feel on any given day.  Douglas Farrow writes that by his incarnation “God has drawn so near to man and drawn man so near to himself in Jesus that they are perfectly at one." In Jesus' incarnation there is a double movement of grace:

1) Descent--God draws near to man and

2) Ascent--in so doing man is drawn near to God.

This double movement accomplishes a union in which you and I are intimately, inextricably connected to Christ's perfect suffering and victory over sin and death.

What does this mean? The God of the universe took on a human body--he truly experienced life in a broken body like you and I do--and felt the pangs of both a horrifying death and the emotional angst of betrayal and separation from God. In the incarnation Christ penetrated human existence and stands in solidarity with condemned, frail, and broken humankind. Because of this, “Christ’s humanity means that God’s love is now flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, really one of us and with us." (Christian Kettler) So first, take comfort in the fact that your Lord personally knows the pain of human bodily suffering. While it sometimes feels like we're suffering alone, the truth is we suffer in the company of the God who suffered. Dwell on that fact. Sit with it. Let it become as true in your heart as it is in the Word. 

Friends, the secret of our ability to persevere is that we are united to Christ. Christ's perfect response to suffering--his submission to endure the cross for the joy that was set before him, his obediance to the Father, his tears of blood and even agony, his willingness to be despised, publicly shamed, isolated from and misunderstood by those who were closest to him--Christ's perfect response to suffering is in reality ours.

In union with Christ’s humanity, our faith is intimately grounded in and animated by Christ’s faith. Our faith is forever rooted in Christ's faith. Consequently, "the covenant faithfulness of God surrounds and upholds the faltering response of his people.” (T. F. Torrance) Do you get what this means? God himself in Christ enables you and I to persevere in suffering. The Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead will keep raising us to hope, to endure, to believe, and in the end, to be completely made well. 

So, believer, dwell on the fact that your life is a participation in Christ's life. Our feeble efforts, sleepy prayers, and even cries of frustration are lived in connection to Christ’s perfect offering of faithfulness to the Father. He prays with us and for us, standing before the Father in our stead.

So, I'm tired of being sick. I'm tired of having to teach myself to persevere. It's old and frustrating. But even my frustration is a prayer. And I know I can keep standing and running this race because I'm united to Christ. He will enable me to persevere, and he will do the same for you.

So, perseverance? It's happening. God is doing it in you and in me. Keep standing. Look forward and up--Jesus did this before we did, and he will keep lifting us up before the Father until the day he returns and makes all that is broken right. 


References

Douglas Farrow, “T. F. Torrance and the Latin Heresy.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life no. 238 (December 2013), 27. 

Christian D. Kettler, The God Who Rejoices: Joy, Despair, and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 142.

Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 92.