When the Going Gets Tough
Important Note: The last few years have been very difficult for me as I have grappled with several chronic physical health conditions on a daily basis. The blog entry below is an attempt to capture some of the depression and fear surrounding this struggle. The excerpted journal entries came out of a period when the sadness was especially consuming. Two were dated from last year, and the last was dated from January 2014. Fortunately, I began to feel better both physically and emotionally several months ago. My present frame of mind is much happier and more resilient than the blog entry below would suggest. Please know that my outlook is decidedly more positive and quick to recover these days, and that I am quite safe and well. I encourage any readers who might themselves be struggling to seek help and have confidence that things will indeed get better.
This is just to admit that there are days when dying seems like an attractive option.
For all the effort I make to appear pleasant and smiling, I’m often just a girl who is barely holding herself together: brimful of anxiety, sick of being sick, confused by prolonged suffering, bored by life, restless, angry with God.
On days like today, I only want to escape, not to accept or endure or summon the courage to be positive. And the easiest and most complete escape I can imagine is simply not existing at all.
Well, perhaps it is not quite accurate to put it this way, since we still exist after death. The soul is eternal, after all, and cannot be erased. What I mean is, rather: I want to be free from the responsibilities of dragging a body through this world, from breathing, walking, waking, and feeding myself every day. Sometimes life feels like nothing but a chore. And when I consider the unfolding of years to come, it begins to look like an unending length of chores, strung together in a cockeyed way, day after day. What is there to break up the tedium and give me rest?
Loneliness contributes part and parcel to these feelings. I desperately desire the depth and permanence of a loving relationship: that much is clear. To quote an earlier journal entry: “I’m tired of skirting the periphery, living in my self-embroiled castle of solitude. I long for connection.” From this place of loneliness, it is easy to make poor decisions, because the need to connect is a powerful emotional motivator. The desire to be relevant and integral in other people’s lives is good and natural; but when the assumption is that you’re irrelevant and not integral, the desire becomes desperate and reasonable thinking is hard to come by.
But mostly, it is chronic sickness (extreme digestive/thyroid/adrenal problems, possible “Lyme disease,” hormonal imbalance, OCD, etc.: a combination that has led to a laundry list of symptoms including, at various points, a hugely distended stomach, fatigue, pins and needles, brain fog, panic attacks, unstable body temperatures, hair loss, yellow skin, skin rashes, trouble breathing, insomnia, constant hunger, and more) that weighs me down. After so many years of trying to find meaning in my pain, I am tired of asking questions. I can’t understand why I am sick now, or why I have been sick for such a long time. I can’t understand why my prayers appear unanswered. And I’m certainly tired of trying to wrap my head around the idea of “redemptive suffering” and the consolation that “God won’t give you more than you can bear.” What kind of God loads you with burdens just shy of breaking point? I can’t help but wonder.
When I try to pick apart the moral and spiritual implications hidden in every moment of suffering, I walk deeper into confusion and I end up entertaining a mess of complicated and contradictory suppositions about the nature of God. Experience tells me that it is dangerous to so doggedly pursue an explanation for why my symptoms persist—to earth out the metaphors behind their appearance, or to predict the ways in which this illness is making me a deeper person—since, when I do, God begins to seem like Someone I wouldn’t want to love at all.
I beg for healing daily and I don’t understand why it doesn’t come. I don’t understand any of this. I only want to be happy and well. It is a simple wish. I sometimes reflect that happiness is a state of mind, attainable in even the most gruesome circumstances. But I am tired of trying to accept my circumstances—because when every day is a rehearsal in the art of trying to get by, and sickness not only makes my body hurt, but disrupts my dreams and addles my mind and undermines my confidence since it changes my appearance and I don’t feel beautiful like I so wish I could—well, it seems rotten to think these things should be accepted as a prerequisite to being happy.
My journal is dotted with entries like this one:
Feeling melancholy tonight. Probably just overwhelmed at a physical level. Everything seems so difficult for me. People don’t realize it—it’s an invisible handicap. Even going into a grocery store can be taxing—overwhelmed by lights and body turns cold. All the smallest things, which most everybody takes for granted—they can demand quite an effort from me. I try to stay positive. But although I have faith, I can’t help but wonder what God’s willing, and how all these years of illness are working for good, and how He’s taking care of me.
Or this one:
GOD, what kind of life is this? The one I’m living makes me crazy. An infinite repetition of claustrophobic events: I feel unwell; I break down and come and cry to You; I feel sedated and go out, maybe slightly renewed; I encounter another health problem; I don’t know what to do about it; all the suggested treatments overstimulate and leave me frayed; every supposed solution makes me feel worse, leaves me sealed up in my predicament; I feel terribly, terribly stuck and trapped, very trapped; I break down, exhausted, and come and cry to You, pleading for strength; and the cycle continues, on and on and on. When will I ever get to feel the love and joy and peace and happiness that I long for? When will my faith shout out freedom, rather than this terrible tragedy of emotional volatility, despair, and weakness? How can I ever inspire people to anything beautiful when I’m caught, perpetually, in this dreadful cycle of sadness, stuckness, sickness? I’m tired of it. I’m tired of my relationship to You being an exercise in falling on my knees in despair, begging for Your help—a gesture of utter, helpless dependence. When can I start rejoicing? When can I start being happy? When can I stop crying and start feeling resilient, radiant, and strong? Help.
Or, sadly, this:
Said I would write. So here I am, writing. Only a few lines.
Had a very hard day. Feeling miserable. Thinking of ending my life all the time, nearly every day. Can’t go on feeling so miserable: bleak horizons, since I’ve been mired in health problems for the longest time, with no substantial improvement or clear path ahead. I can’t keep shuttling myself between one misery and another. I don’t feel like I’m living. It’s a constant haze and half-death already. It’s very hard to persuade myself that this kind of life is worth living.
The thing that pulls me back and stops action is thinking of my family. What terrible grief they would suffer. They would be devastated. I think they’d be so sad that, by killing myself, I’d also be killing them. I can’t fathom it. I don’t want to ever hurt anyone.
I don’t know why I exempt myself. I guess I just don’t want to feel this misery anymore.
I wish I would be free. Free of these myriad health problems. Does God ever hear my plea?
Why do I keep begging Him for help?
And when will it come?
As you can see, I am not enlightened in my sickness. I don’t “suffer well,” whatever that means. I could meditate on gratitude, or number my blessings, or consider how this experience has taught me what is important in life—but, right now, I don’t feel like doing any of that. I simply want to indulge my feelings of being angry and sad and confused and on the point of giving up….
Of course, I must also contend with the responsibility I have to present, in my writing, a view of the world that is optimistic and a belief in God that is hopeful and good. For, in the end, I do circle back to these beliefs, and when my periods of despair have dried up, I settle into a vision of life that is charged with the sense that “all is grace,” and that faith, hope, and love are necessary (and truthful) parts of our experience. After an interim of pain or frustration, I recollect myself, and pray, or cry, or write, or simply dwell with my thoughts for a while… and eventually renew my spirits and carry on with my day. Right now, for instance, my thoughts have cleared and my mood is, in fact, almost light, and I feel ready to laugh. Writing this essay has cleared away most of the detritus of “overwhelm” and reminded me that I have many things (and people) to live for.
But to say that every experience in my life is received gently, and with an abundance of understanding, would be wildly dishonest. I am wary of appearing weak to a few people by writing what I have written here. (Though whether these people will ever read my blog, I cannot say.) To them, I would like to appear bright and happy and whole: the picture of wisdom and strength. Yet why bother trying to please? Sometimes I am strong and collected, but many times I am not. If I am judged for this imperfection, that is not my responsibility. It is more important, I think, to be candid and sincere in moments of difficulty.
The more troubling thought is that I might rattle someone’s faith by writing these things: that my doubt and despair, put on the page, might cause a reader to shake his head with a sad sort of knowingness and say: “You see, this is only more evidence to suggest that God doesn’t exist.” I hope I never provoke such a reaction. If there is one reward I seek most from my writing, it is the thought that it could make someone’s spirit a little clearer and closer to God. Whether admitting to my personal doubts and struggles helps or hinders this goal, I do not know.
All I aim to do is capture a specific state of mind. In this state of mind, life is hard and the will to live flickers, erratically, in and out. These musings should be taken for what they are: the very limited expressions of a hurting human being. They are no more, and no less, than that.