Friday, October 7, 2016

Chickenpox (part 3, the aftermath)

 * * * This story started here and continues here * * *

After the chickenpox, none of us had any immunities.  Clearly.  Throughout the ensuing months, we experienced frequent and relentless episodes of the stomach flu.

It's just a blur.  I remember that long winter as a dark but sleepless stretch of vomiting and scrubbing up vomit, the mingled odors of sickness and Lysol surrounding us as the washing machine churned out load after load and we bought gingerale and saltines every time we went to Wegman's.

I remember feeling extremely cross while getting ready for bed, angry about the futility of bothering to put on pajamas when I knew I wasn't going to get to sleep.  I remember Shannon, poor little Shannon who slept alone on the first floor.  On multiple occasions she vomited up the stairs into the berber carpet as she came trying to tell me that she wasn't feeling well.  I remember little David, barely more than a baby himself, vomiting down the hall on the first floor, and me sopping it up with an armful of clean towels I'd just folded, then desperately pouring out half a bottle of full strength Lysol directly onto the wood floor where the vomit had been.  I ended by pouring the same full strength Lysol over my hands and forearms in a Hail Mary attempt to eradicate the germs, but got sick a day later anyway.

It seemed as though we had the flu bi-weekly.  When I got it, I usually threw up about twenty times over the course of about five hours before it settled into slightly less violent manifestations.

Of course, I understood that Shawn had to go to work to make a living for us.  I understood that nobody could come and help us when we were all contagious with pernicious viruses.   However, understanding the truth of the situation didn't help me soldier up under my distress.  I cried a lot, probably every day.

Later, I read a book by Jean Fleming called A Mother's Heart (it's a fantastic book; everyone should read it).  She wrote about their family being sick with a stomach virus.  They had been missionaries to China, but this sickness struck when they were in the USA.  She wrote of gathering her children into bed with her and leading them in a prayer of thanks for plentiful ice, and clean drinking water, and beautiful, modern bathrooms with flush toilets. I confess, even at the time I first read it (long after we'd been through our trying winter), I struggled to admit that I'd had anything to be thankful for when we were sick.  Sometimes conviction dawns slowly.

Eventually, the bouts of flu began to hit less frequently.  We went a month, and then six weeks.  In April, around Easter, I got sick again.  I think I was the only one that time.  I remember because my back went into spasm before I started throwing up, and the only position that brought relief from the back pain was to lie flat on my back, but that was not an option with the upset stomach and nausea I was experiencing.  It was an uncharacteristic 80 degrees, and must have either been Saturday or a holiday, because Shawn put baby Laura into the backpack carrier and went out to do spring clean-up on the yard.  I writhed in bed, alone, inconsolably miserable, dehydrated from loss of bodily fluids and the unseasonable heat, my fingertips wrinkled up like raisins.

The sickness would have been easier to deal with had it not been for the depression.  I didn't know I was depressed, and I don't think Shawn had any idea what was going on or what to do.  Anyone who has been depressed would resonate to my description of feeling utterly hopeless, hurting so badly in my spirit that, literally, breathing was painful.  Each day, I awoke to three little people already overflowing with their childhood needs, and their demands shattered against my skull, the things I had to do, no matter how I felt, and I felt completely drained and unable.  I felt alone, unworthy, forgotten, abandoned, unloved, rejected and ugly.

Yet here again was the Lord's silent, unappreciated presence.  I had no gratitude to Him for the way He enabled me--unable as I was--to rise from bed and make oatmeal, spoon it into small mouths, wipe off sticky faces, change soggy diapers and wash dirty clothes.  I sat on the sofa, nursed the baby, read story books, picked up blocks, put socks back on little feet, cut skin off apples and crusts off peanut butter sandwiches.  It was the grace of God, but I had no idea.

Their cries hit me like an alarm clock.  I responded the way one responds to an alarm clock: a surge of adrenaline, a surge of despair, the labored heaving of a tired body in a necessary direction.  I had little compassion, stunted affection.  I only knew what I had to do, and by the mysterious grace of God, I did it.  In my conscious mind, I thought, "I have made a terrible mistake.  I thought I wanted to be a mother, but I am a terrible mother.  I am no good at this at all.  I need to sleep.  I need some rest.  I need a break.  I'm going to die if I don't get some rest."  But I didn't get rest, and I didn't die, I just got the flu again.  And again.

My children were gut-wrenchingly beautiful.  I knew that.  They were beautiful and funny and smart and amazing.  I was aware, aware enough to be frustrated that I couldn't properly appreciate it.  "I am the only one who even sees how amazing they are," I thought.  "It's just them and me.  Nobody else knows.  And I can't appreciate them because I am sick.  Oh the waste, waste, waste. Who will appreciate them?  I have made a terrible mistake.  I shouldn't be their mother.  I shouldn't be trusted with them.  I can't do this.  Who will love my children?"  I wanted to die, but not really.  I didn't want to go to hell, but even heaven sounded far too exhausting.  I wanted to die like a dog, and just be buried in the loamy earth where I could finally be at rest, feel nothing, hear nothing, know nothing.  I wanted nothingness, forever.

"I want to die," I told God.  "I can't do this anymore.  I can't do it, do you hear me?  I want to die, but I don't want to go to heaven.  I want to sleep, in the earth, and decompose and be nothing."

The Lord who (unbeknownst) had been holding me together all this time, patiently empowering me to care for my family, finally had enough.  In the moment when I expressed those thoughts consciously to Him, I was aware of a sensation not unlike what you would imagine a toddler might feel if you picked him up by the back straps of his Osh-Kosh overalls and then rotated him around to look you in the face.  The Lord got in my face, and He said (not audibly, but with words), "That is not death.  When you die, you will come face-to-face with Me, and I will require you to answer for yourself."  After an initial blow-to-the-gut speechless moment, I was tempted to whine back at Him, to say that wasn't the way I wanted it to be.  However, something about His palpable presence gave me an extra measure of self-control.  I'd been given a healthy, divine check, and it did me some good.

Over the summer, things leveled a bit, for which I am truly grateful.   However, when autumn arrived again, with maple leaves turning the same saturated oranges and golds which had surrounded Laura's birth, with the days shortening into dark evenings long before Shawn returned home from work, I had a relapse of the depression.  This is one of the ways I know now that it was depression.  I began to feel a dread that deepened into a panic and spilled over in tears and angry words and clenching anxiety.

Undiagnosed, untreated depression is a terrible thing.  The Lord brought me through mine, but it was a very lengthy process, difficult, and it left scars.  I have so many regrets.  Depression leads to sin, which leads to deeper depression.  It is a terrible cycle.  Thanks be to God for His infinite grace and constant abiding presence and patient healing over time.

At the risk of sounding like I am whining, or blame shifting, I would just like to say that it would be helpful if people could understand that a truly depressed person is not capable of fixing herself.  In fact, she is not even capable of figuring out what is wrong and what might be done about it, let alone implementing a solution.  It seems to me that obstetricians hand out leaflets about postpartum depression to new mothers.  Maybe it's different now, but that is a completely useless thing to do.  The depressed person, if she is truly depressed enough to need help, is almost never going to be able to ask for help, herself.  Somebody else needs to step up and help, advocate, support, seek treatment for the one in need.

I think it would be helpful if families and churches could be educated about how to watch for people who are undergoing difficult times of stress, and how to intervene to help before utter despair and depression set in.  Sometimes we actually should be responsible for others.  Sometimes it is right to get involved, take action, demonstrate sacrificial love.

Instead, I've noticed a trend among church people who seem to feel that it is a virtue to say no.  "I'm teaching myself to say no," they piously proclaim, as though they were actually guilty of always doing everything they were ever asked to do.  While it is certainly of value to weigh one's commitments and, with God's guidance, choose the highest priorities when setting one's schedule, I don't think telling a desperate person, "No, I can't help you," is very often a virtuous move.

The Lord worked in my life through physical illness, exhaustion and depression.  I learned that He could hold me together.  I first-hand experienced that He did not leave me nor forsake me.  He used His voice to speak truth into my mind when my mind was bending in wrong directions.  This was ultimately good for me.  However, I would be wrong to extrapolate from my experience that when another isolated young mother is having a difficult time, I ought to leave her to drown and thus discover God's grace as I did.  When Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, God used it for good to prepare provision for Israel many years later when famine came.  However, that does not justify the cruel acts of hatred perpetrated by Joseph's brothers.  Just because God works good out of sin, it doesn't make sin acceptable.  And just because God brings growth out of pain, it doesn't mean we should stand back and let pain run its course in the lives of people around us.

Joseph was the victim of sins committed knowingly and maliciously against him.  Sins of commission.  If I was the victim of any sin, it would have been sin of omission: people who maybe had an inkling that they could have stepped up to better support me, but found that their schedules and priorities prohibited it.  If such is the case, I have no choice but to forgive freely and eagerly, for I myself have committed more sins of omission than I could ever count.  I have failed to reach out, failed to support, failed to love.  I must not be bitter against those who have only neglected to do for me what I also have neglected to do for others.  Besides, whatever I may have suffered as a result of anyone's inaction, God ultimately used it to drive me deeper into Him, and there is no better place for me to be.

Yet, I must also use my experiences to teach me how to support others. I must allow my heart to be tender toward the hurting young mother, and others who are weak and in pain or despair.  I must guard against thinking, "She needs to toughen up.  She needs to pull herself up by her bootstraps.  She is being a big baby and she needs to gut it out and learn what she is made of."  Those are unrighteous thoughts, not humble, not compassionate, not loving, and certainly not Christ-like.

Trials are hard.  Loneliness can be brutal.  Depression is real, and comes in the aftermath of difficulties, when a person's confidence and security have been shattered.

God is real, powerful and present.  He works in mysterious ways.  He carries us through our most overwhelming floods.  He cares for us and comforts us so that we also can care for and comfort others.

Time moves slowly sometimes, and the hand of God is not always visible, although it is always here.  We, as God's people, can be His visible hands to those who are hurting, when they could not otherwise see His work in their situations.

May we embrace the grace of God as He pours it out on us, and may we recognize His good work in our lives.  May we share His grace with those around us, according to their need.  May we trust the Lord to give us all that we need to give to those in need, because His mercies are infinite.

May our hearts be filled with gratitude and love.


Priscilla said...

Thanks for sharing your story. It really resonated with me. I've been in the deep throes of depression. I wish I could have been the person who served you. I have so much compassion for people suffering from depression. It's on my heart quite a bit.

The Lord carried me through it too. It was a pivotal time in my life. It's hard to put into words how it ended up changing me...actually for the better, but I would never want to relive it. Please pray for my son who is currently in the valley.

Ruthie said...

Thank you Priscilla. The sad thing about depression is that often only those who have suffered it can understand what others go through who have it. The normal response to depression is, "Buck up and deal with this. Be an adult. Stop stewing over your difficulties. Be thankful. Lots of people have worse situations than yours." Of course, these words crush a depressed person. What the depressed person hears is, "You are disgusting, weak and selfish. You are immature and a failure. You are ungrateful and egocentric, and your feelings are invalid." Now, some of these statements might even be true, or at least partially true, but even if they are, this is not a way to help someone overcome the problems he needs to overcome. A partially self-aware depressed person cannot withstand this judgment and will thus seek to hide his feelings rather than ask for help . . . because when asking for help, he is condemned for his feelings. Thus the world becomes an increasingly unsafe place, and the incognito depressed person embarks on a road to more and more hidden pain.

It's hard, because there are people who manipulate and demand. Somehow, they seem to be the ones who get all the comfort and attention. The ones who are in the deepest and most confusing pain are ashamed and shrink away when they are criticized for speaking about their feelings.

I think it is imperative that we validate people's feelings, but we can draw our hard lines in how we encourage them to respond to their feelings.

Don't say, "Why are you so ungrateful? You have tons of things that you ought to be thankful for. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and focus on the positive!"

Instead say, "I'm sorry that you are hurting so much. I can see how these things bother you, and how they have brought you emotional pain. I wouldn't like it either, if I had to go through what you are going through. But, you know, you have some good things going on in your life, too. Let's take a minute and make a list together of the good things that you can think about when you are hurting. When you think about these things, you will be thankful, and thankfulness can help you heal from depression."

Don't ever say, "Why are you complaining? Many people are experiencing much worse things than what you are going through. On the grand scale of suffering, yours is nothing."

Instead, say, "I can see that this is hard for you, and I'm sorry that you are hurting. I believe that you are stronger than you realize, though. You are much stronger than you feel right now. You will get through this time, and things will get better. And, I will be here for you. I may not be able to do exactly what you feel that you need, but I love you and I will do what I can to help you, and I will be here for you."

Ruthie said...

I truly believe that there are times when people are afraid to help because they think the needy person will just be a black hole of selfish demands. They don't want to say, "I'll be here for you," because they fear actually being called upon to leave something that they deem important so that they can, in fact, "be there." Possibly for longer than would be convenient.

There are times when a selfish person makes audacious and inappropriate demands, but there are also times when a hurting person would be deeply blessed to learn that he was, in fact, worth someone's sacrifice, that someone cared enough to make a significant sacrifice to help him. That he was not the last priority on everyone's list.

We need to take it to the Lord and ask for His help in discerning what we should do. But I do not think our knee jerk reaction ought ever to be, "No. You have no right. I do not have time for you." (Sometimes, very sadly, this happens to Christians because they are expected to be able to self-care while "the church" reaches out exclusively to those not yet saved. This is a serious misunderstanding of God's purpose for the church.)

Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for us. He loves us and poured out His perfect, priceless life for us. This is what ultimately healed me, knowing and internalizing this truth. We are called to share in His sufferings, and this can mean by sacrificing our wants, dreams, goals or comforts to help another soul who needs help.

I'll pray that God raises the right people to minister to your son.

Priscilla said...

You hit the nail on the head in describing depression and how one suffering from it works so hard to hide it. That is exactly what I did. Every single one of those things that you said not to say are things that were said to me. I remember someone telling me to just "pray about it." As if I wasn't already pouring my heart out to God night and day.

Years later when I apologized to someone I had mistreated during my illness, they told me that there was no such thing as depression or bipolar. They said it was a lie of Satan to deceive people into making excuses for sin.

Ruthie said...

I am sorry that this happened to you.

We have to look at these experiences as learning experiences. Sometimes we learn best from negative examples. We also have to forgive, and love even people who have been unloving to us. They do not understand, and they feel threatened and frightened when they come across a depressed person. There are a few naturally compassionate people in the world, but most people protect themselves from compassion. However, the Bible tells us to weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). Jesus said, "By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35). Matthew 12:20 (quoting Isaiah 42:3) tells us of Jesus, "A bruised reed He will not break, and a smouldering wick He will not snuff out."

Jesus exemplified compassion. He did not tell hurting people, "Stop your whining." He told them, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:29-30).

Jesus exemplified compassionate love, healing a bleeding woman who broke ceremonial law (Luke 8:43-48), raising the son of a grieving widow from the dead (Luke 7:11-16), and weeping with and for a group of bereaved people who were distressed by the death of their friend (John 11).

Jesus exemplified compassionate love by dying for us when we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). While we were sinners, He died for us. When someone is struggling with depression, it very well may be a form of struggling with sin (I wrote in my post that depression leads to sin, which leads to deeper depression). BUT sinners are never helped by condemnation. Sinners are helped by love. John 3:17--"For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him." Condemnation crushes, but love and grace give life. This is what Jesus did for us, and this is what we are called to do for one another.

We need to learn to replace condemnation with compassion. We need to replace words of judgment with words of hope and encouragement.

We can also be brave when we are sinned against, and we can name those sins, not so that we can condemn them, but so we can forgive them. Just as Jesus said, so we must say: "Father forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing."

Ruthie said...

Also, an explanation is not the same as an excuse. Explaining why you fell short is not the same as justifying yourself and maintaining that you had a right to do it. If you were apologizing, APOLOGIZING, then clearly you were not justifying what you had done. So don't beat yourself up about what they said. Just pray to Jesus to help you forgive them, and be at peace whether they ever understand or not. They are struggling with hurt that you caused when you yourself were hurting. Hurt people hurt people, and then hurt people hurt people back. It's a bad cycle but it stops when Jesus' grace comes in and enables compassion and forgiveness. What a gift, if we get to be the one who brings His grace to the table.