The many faces of Perseverance Blog Series. I thought it would be nice to take the filter out of our daily lives and to be able to relate to many different people about struggles that we each face. I am learning everyday to embrace the struggles we go through, instead of fearing them. I am learning that everything we go through is putting us on our path and helping us grow. I am learning that even when its uncomfortable and hard that we are learning so much about ourselves and that our struggles are shaping us into a better version of ourselves. I hope you gain guidance, inspiration, and support from this series – Alexa
A friend once told me, “your mind is a dangerous neighborhood; don’t go in there alone.” It sounded like such a profound statement but it wouldn’t be until years later I would fully appreciate what that meant. We all have thoughts that consume us. Maybe they are fleeting, for a season, or they last a lifetime. The thoughts I’ve struggled with for the better part of my life have crippled me at times – the kind where I take a “what if” scenario as far as it will go. I know when this started taking ahold (which I’ll get to) but I’m still processing the why. If you can relate to your thoughts getting the best of you, stick with me. You’re not alone.
I grew up in a solid faith-based, Christian home. My parents did a great job in providing a safe and loving environment for a child. I was very outgoing and had friends of all ages, from all walks of life. I was coined the typical “good girl.” Basically, I didn’t do anything that I couldn’t tell my parents about. We had a very clear honesty policy in our household. As long as I told the truth, my parents would always take me at my word so I didn’t want to do anything shameful. There were times, however, where I felt I might be missing out. I never took any risks. I wondered if the good choices I was making were based on fear of consequences (natural or parent-based) or if I was actually a decent person. While I’d like to think I made the right decisions for the right reasons (because of my integrity), I had a nagging suspicion my underlying fear of what might go wrong caused me to play it safe and follow the rules.
I started to recognize this theme of fear in my life and then realized it started when I was really young. I had terrifying thoughts about one of or both of my parents dying in a car accident. When I would hear a stomach virus was going around, I was petrified of catching it as I have a major fear of throwing up. One night I remember hearing a tv evangelist talking about how we were living in the end of days and then I started having nightmares about the rapture. It didn’t help when I heard another evangelist (who was thought to be a loon) on the news claim he knew the day/time the world would end. Even though I knew better than to believe someone knew something only God does, I still couldn’t shake my fear as I counted down the days until his prediction. Then, as I got a little older, I remember having daymares about dying young. Some of these fears I’d mention to my parents and they’d do their best to assure me not to worry. But many of my fears, I kept to myself. I think even as a child, I was ashamed because I knew my thoughts must sound crazy and irrational.
Then, when I was 16, I decided to go to Salamanca, Spain for the summer as an exchange student. As I mentioned before, I was very outgoing – a total people person. I was really excited about meeting peers from around the world and learning more about the Spanish language and culture but I was also really nervous about traveling such a far distance alone. I kept reminding myself that we had several young foreign exchange students stay with us throughout the course of my life and they were always so well adjusted. I figured if they could do it, so could I. My parents and I did all the preliminary work to make sure I’d be staying in a safe home and that I would have access to the exchange program’s office should I need support while in Spain. However, no amount of due diligence could have prepared me for what would happen.
In trying to summarize my experience so you could get a clear picture, I ended up writing and deleting about 6 long paragraphs. So, let me try this again, in shorter form. 1) I became very ill with a stomach virus on the 12 hour flight over to Spain and greeted my host family by running to their bathroom to puke. 2) I watched 3 classmates be brutally beaten with batons by local police for not carrying their passport and trying to get into a club. They were dragged away in police cars, one of them passed out from a blow to the head, and never returned to class. 3) My host family stole large sums of my travel money from me out of a “secured” place in my room. They also treated me very lowly as compared to my roommate exchange student and I learned it was because the exchange program was paying them different amounts per student when it was supposed to be a volunteer room & board situation! After being stolen from, I contacted the exchange program office to switch my living arrangements and left several voice messages. No one ever called me (or my parents) back. 4) A boy from my Spanish class (who learned I had never drank before) bought me a really strong drink and after I became so intoxicated I couldn’t walk, he started making out with me. I told him to leave me alone and he wouldn’t…..until I told him if he didn’t stop I’d throw up in his mouth! This same boy and his friends left me at the bar so I tried to find my way home and in process, walked into traffic because I couldn’t see straight. 5) As I was following my friends into a dance club, I was sexually assaulted (groped from all sides) by a group of 6 men who circled around me. After they taunted me and laughed at me while grabbing at any body part they could, I kneed one of the men who bent down long enough for me to push through and break free. 6) A local bouncer who had been really kind to me and looked out for me during my time in Spain walked me home the night before I was going back to the US. He ended up trying to force himself on me in a park near the apartments I was staying in. When I broke away, he followed after me to the apartment building I was staying in and got to me again before I could get into the elevator. As I was squirming and yelling for him to stop, he had me pinned up against a wall. He got his hand up my skirt and was pulling my underwear to the side when the elevator door opened with a person inside and it scared him off. He ran off yelling, “have a nice flight.” What a great “friend.”
I thought I had fear problems before! When I returned home, it took me about a week to come to terms with all that had happened. I started revealing things to my parents, one by one, and was trying to process it all. They were mortified and I was in shock. Before Spain, I was such a trusting person. After Spain, I grew increasingly jaded without realizing it. I went inward. I became more of a homebody, I saw the glass half empty, and the part of my personality that loved people so much became very leery. My parents noticed a difference in my personality. How could they not? I started thinking most people had an angle. Why would anyone want to be kind to me unless they wanted something in return? This entire experience tapped into my fear on a deeper level. Now, instead of having these silly, irrational fears, I had something to tangibly be scared about. The world was not a safe place and the people in it were not to be trusted. What a sad way to think.
Then, in my 20s, after having been physically healthy all my life, I started having really weird ailments. It started with constant sore throats, swollen glands, body aches, and severe lethargy. I had more sick days than healthy ones. I went to several Doctors over several months and after a myriad of tests, my bloodwork showed a high count of Epstein Barr Virus antibodies, meaning I was infected with it. They explained the virus was a relative of Mono, could linger for several months or more, and could trigger autoimmune issues in the future. Although I at least had an answer, I felt the Doctors were missing something.
After several more months of new symptoms, I was referred to various specialists. By this time, my mind was looping on all the worst possibilities. More tests revealed I had an elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (SED rate) which indicated internal inflammation and I also tested positive for antinuclear antibodies. These results were both indicators that I had an autoimmune disease. At this point, the Doctor told me I had 2 options. I could take steroids to reduce inflammation, which would reduce pain or I could take low doses of chemo which would weaken my overactive immune system. Neither option sounded redeeming. Their side effects far outweighed their benefits. At this point, my symptoms were less severe than the drugs so I declined that route.
All I knew about autoimmune disease was that at any time your own immune system could malfunction and attack your own healthy tissue or organs. I knew several people who were hospitalized or near death from this disease. There was that fear again – crippling me. I thought maybe my childhood fear of dying young might not be so far off. Some days it felt debilitating – I’d feel dizzy and think I was going to pass out, my heart would race for no reason, I began getting asthmatic sporadically, my stomach would spasm/cramp, I’d get muscle aches, headaches, and sometimes very focused dull aches and weakness in different parts of my body. The dull aches in my chest scared me the most. It was too close to my heart to convince myself that it wasn’t emergent. I was too young to live like this.
I found a homeopathic Doctor who diagnosed me with a collagen vascular autoimmune disease, based on my blood tests and various symptoms. He explained that inflammation in my tissue was causing constriction in my blood vessels and arteries throughout my body which was why I’d feel pain in various parts of my body. Basically, my circulation was restricted and my tissue was inflamed, both of which causes pain and keeps body processes from functioning normally.
The Doctor had me on homeopathic remedies, eating completely clean, and doing cardio 5-6 days per week. Exercising when I felt so miserable was beyond challenging. Imagine exercising when you have the full blown flu. That’s often what it felt like. But I was SO desperate to feel different that I knew I had to push through it. Somedays I would literally hold as tightly onto the treadmill handle bars as I could because I kept thinking I was going to pass out. However, the homeopathic plan paid off in just a few months, I was feeling somewhat normal again. I lost weight and built muscle as an added bonus. For many years that followed, my flare-ups were minimal and I sincerely thanked God.
Then, after a rough divorce, I started feeling unwell again. I tried (and usually failed) not to give the pain much attention as I knew it would make me more panicked. I had a son to take care of and love and a life to mend post-divorce. This meant I had very little energy to dedicate to getting passed around different Doctor’s offices. Even though I didn’t have time for health problems, I genuinely worried about it all the time so I finally made an appointment for simple blood tests. From what they could see, not only did my bloodwork appear normal but there was no sign I had an autoimmune disease at all. This was perplexing. How could I feel so bad without bloodwork to indicate why? I had a nagging feeling the Doctors were missing something again.
Shortly after remarrying and becoming a stepmom, I decided to go to law school because I wanted to be in a position to empower people. I knew what it was like to feel powerless and I didn’t want anyone else to be in that position. It was a brutal time. Adjusting to a new home life, kids, exes, working, going to school, commuting, intensely studying, and doing clinicals and internships. Just thinking about all of it makes my head spin. I look back and wonder how I made it through (though I know it was by God’s grace!).
However, I didn’t go through this time unscathed. My health issues acted up during this time worse than they ever had. I had some extremely scary symptoms. Uncontrollable muscle twitching (especially in my hands) that progressively got worse, dizziness, trembling, blood pressure that was through the roof and would shoot back down again within minutes, major heart palpitations, pounding pulse that would keep me up at night, stabbing headaches, trouble breathing. I’d wake up some mornings with part of my face and feet having gone numb. As an added bonus (sarcasm), I also somehow ruptured 2 discs in my lower back and couldn’t walk for over a week. At this point, I started seeing several specialists and getting every test under the sun. Doctors thought I may have some neurological condition like MS. I was terrified. I genuinely would go to bed trembling some nights, afraid I wouldn’t wake up. I have never been more scared.
One night during this time I woke up out of a dead sleep barely able to breathe and my blood pressure was 190/100 (120/80 or lower is normal). My husband rushed me to the emergency room. When the nurses took my vitals, they took me back immediately and hooked me up to several machines. Although something was obviously very wrong, they could not find the source. I can’t explain just how desperate I was for answers or for God himself to come down and tell me it would all be okay. I started to think it might be easier if I did die. I was so tired of fear and pain controlling my life. The emergency Doc walked over and asked, “do you have any stress in your life?” Uh oh – was he about to tell me this was all in my head? It wasn’t the first time someone said that my brain was playing tricks on me. I responded with, “no more stress than the rest of the world raising a family and having other responsibilities outside of the home.” He asked me what I did for a living. As soon as I told him I had a family and was working and going to law school, he said, “You may want to reconsider law school.” “What?” I said. He continued to explain that just because symptoms come from stress doesn’t make them any less real and if I didn’t offload the stress somehow, it may literally kill me. He was the first Doctor that said not everyone was built for the grueling stress law school puts you under and that as honorable as my goal was, it wasn’t worth my life.
I had already given law school my all for 2 years. I couldn’t in good conscience quit, so I had to come up with another solution. I made prayer, meditation, exercise, chiropractors, and acupuncture my new normal. Prayer was the most powerful resource I had. Every other thing wouldn’t have made a big difference on its own but the combination was powerful. Although I didn’t have all the answers about my health, I started learning how to be okay with not being okay. I had to start training my brain to embrace all of it – even my pesky, scary symptoms. Sometimes I felt a complete peace come over me about all of it as I remembered how to surrender each moment to God. Other days I felt completely paralyzed with fear. Releasing the fear was a discipline that I had to continually practice.
After I graduated, I could feel I was gaining strength back and my symptoms were less severe. I had about 2 months where I forgot what it was like to have symptoms all the time. It was heaven. Then, out of nowhere, I got a pain under my ribs on the left side. I couldn’t eat. I was nauseated, had a constant ache in my stomach, had major gurgling, and weird sensations happening in my torso. Again, I was tested from everything all the way from parasites to a bowel obstruction to diverticulitis. You know what was found? NOTHING.
My stomach pain ended up morphing into esophageal issues. Everytime I ate or even drank water, I would have so much pressure between my throat and my sternum, it felt like that area would explode. Sometimes it felt hard to swallow because of the counter pressure. Burping would relieve the pressure a bit but not enough. I began researching what could be causing this and I just kept coming up with leaky gut. It’s as if nothing was digesting. So, I researched the heck out of how to heal my gut naturally. I typically already ate clean so next, I cut out trigger foods (wheat and most dairy). I developed an on and off aversion to meat so I was trying to get my protein from other sources. I found that many of the health food darlings, like coconut, nuts and seeds, I would sometimes have reactions to. I started to feel like it was impossible to fuel my body and give it the nutrition it needed to heal if it kept reacting to everything I ate, healthy or not. Plus, my reactions weren’t consistent. Some days my body could handle certain things and the next day it couldn’t!
I finally got to the point where I surrendered to the fact that my gut issues weren’t going to get better overnight so I might as well develop a routine, stick to it, and pray for the best. So, I started eating mostly cooked veggies, sprouted seeds/grains/nuts, easily digestible fruits (like pears and apples), fish, sometimes chicken and beef, and the occasional bacon. I also found that warm-hot water was much easier on my gut than cold water. I started taking digestive enzymes before every meal. I also researched the heck out of supplements that help the body repair the digestive tract, so I added L-glutamine powder, collagen peptides, probiotics, and slippery elm to my daily routine. By accident I found that tulsi tea helps so much with my digestion. That has been a lifesaver after a meal that just won’t sit well.
So, as I’m sure you now see, my fear journey has been long (and believe me when I say, this was the condensed version!). From irrational fears to actual ones, being scared and feeling alone in my fear is something I am far too familiar with. As I continue to try and heal physically, I still have pesky thoughts often – the kind that try to convince me my symptoms must be much more serious than I know. When I feel myself start looping, I take each thought captive, hand it over to my creator, and remind myself that God is bigger. Without my faith, I surely would be a nervous wreck. Thankfully, God rescues me, over and over again. All I have to do is ask him to.
Also, having a safe person to talk to is key – someone who won’t judge you for your “crazy” fear but will come alongside you, hear you, pray with you, make you laugh and remember not to take yourself so seriously. My husband has been a God send for me in this way. He knows I am as proactive with my health as anyone can realistically be so he reminds me my body is just “short circuiting” again and that it will get with the program eventually. This always makes me breathe easier as he has been a witness to my health struggles and knows the pattern better than anyone.
If you are struggling with fear, I challenge you to try and change your perspective. Ask yourself 1) What is the lesson in this pain/fear? What am I here to learn? 2) How can this struggle help encourage someone else in a similar situation? How can I use this fear to my advantage? Look for those opportunities. 3) In the past when I’ve had similar fears, does the problem resolve itself? More times than not, it has, so it is likely it will resolve again. 4) Does this fear serve a purpose? Is it helping or hurting me? These are good questions to ask to learn how to discipline your thought life and turn a crappy situation into a victory.
Of all the active ways to calm fears, I think helping others is the most effective. It takes the focus off of ourselves and reminds us that our problems, while important, are a grain of sand on a beach full of the entire world’s problems. We are NOT alone and our pain exists to draw us to something greater than ourselves and then to grow us. After all, we can’t be of use to a world that needs soldiers when we haven’t even been trained!
Thank you for reading (if you got this far, you’re a champ!). If you can relate to anything I’ve shared and you need an ear or a word of encouragement, I’d love to hear from you.
All My Best,