joy and sorrow

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. 

When All is Well, and It Hurts.

I feel better than I have felt in eight years.

Please don't miss the gravity of this simple statement.

I am at the closest place to remission I have ever been in the eight years I have lived with autoimmune disease, and it is a simultaneously sacred and scary place.

Since graduating from my master's program in May I have been thoroughly soaking up the wonder of being well. My husband and in-laws generously gave me an inflatable standup paddleboard as my graduation gift, something I have lusted after for years, and I've since spent most of my free days paddling on open waters, dwelling in the sun and fresh air and capacity of an unencumbered body.

I have been experiencing a season of nearly unparalleled freedom, and I have embraced it with my entire heart.

Embracing the joy of today comes with a willingness to accept the grief of tomorrow. Because of some life decisions my husband and I are making, I know this season of wellness could end in a couple months. This season of wellness is quite possibly limited. For several weeks I have chosen to dwell in the joy of what is rather than the impending anguish of what is to come. There is wisdom there, and I am proud I have allowed myself the space to dwell in the present. And yet, as I drove across town last night, I remembered the soft tap of my soul and the Lord: "you need space for sadness, too." Praying, the question I knew I needed to sit with was, "What do you need to grieve?"

What do you need to grieve?

I can't say I completely know the answer to my question. Through attending to my story through the tool of the Enneagram, I know I need to grieve several places where I historically felt unseen and misunderstood, and where my emotional world was invalidated from childhood through the present. I also know I need to grieve some painful experiences from graduate school.

But, today as I stepped on the bathroom scale for the first time in a month and realized I had lost ten pounds, I stopped. The ten pounds in many senses does not matter, but what it symbolizes does. Ten pounds symbolizes activity, life, movement, and change--an effortless physical freedom I have not known since I was a 21 year old.

For a moment I danced my naked body, rejoicing at what I saw in the mirror: stronger legs and arms, tone where tone has been lacking, the curve and shape of my former self. I danced to the thrilling reward of days in sunshine with a moving body and an uninhibited heart. 

But plans. Planning means choosing the substance of our days. And in the late summer and early fall, that means choosing the probability of a smaller, more holistically-arduous existence. This is a hard concept to relate with or without details (some of which I, frankly, am just not ready to share). Outside of being me, it is easy for others to simply think that since I cannot know what the future holds, I should only hold out hope for it being better than I imagine. But I do know my body, and I do know how, like a well-oiled machine, my body needs particular ingredients in order to thrive. Take one of those ingredients away for even a week, and it screams in pain and refuses to move without great struggle. Thus, I hold out hope for the potentiality of a better future than I can imagine, and I live in the reality of knowing impending pain is both possible and probable. 

I will not borrow trouble, but I also will listen to the voice of the Lord telling me to attend to the grief in my heart. I will hope. I will thrive. I will glide across the lakes of Colorado with joy illuminating my very presence. And I will bring stillness to my heart, strengthening my soul for whatever lies ahead. 

When all is well, and it hurts, I simply have to be present to it all. The joy of my season in life right now is so expansive it almost physically hurts at times. And the sorrow of now in relation to where I have been and where I might be headed hurts as well. But if there is anything the past eight years of dwelling with God in sickness has taught me, it is that joy and sorrow are necessary friends. One cannot survive without the other, and I will accommodate them both.