Our apple tree exploded in blooms a couple weeks ago. Usually this time of year isn’t so rough on me. I didn’t suffer from seasonal allergies as a child the way I do now. So far it seems as though our kids suffer from them too. Drat that spring wind that stirred up the pollen and bewitched the air into a magic potion that transformed our eyes into spiky balls of wool and our noses into leaky faucets. We walk around woozy, dazed, and itchy. It’s miserable.
The timing is convenient: it’s a perfectly acceptable time of year for people to wipe away tears from allergy afflicted eyes every five seconds. The folks staring at me across the aisle at Target seem to say, “me too,” as they wipe their own constantly running noses. I admit I blame my watery eyes on allergies several times in the past few weeks because if people knew the truth–that I was really wiping away tears of fear or sadness or stress–I might not get the same sort of empathy.
To be clear, I am suffering from allergies, and I finally broke down and bought myself a bottle of allergy medicine because the skin under my eyes was worn raw from all the wiping. But the deeper truth is allergies aren’t the only reason my eyes have been so teary lately. It’s not even the sadness I feel about moving away from our house. There’s more.
It all started in early January, after eating those delicious, fancy tapas that were supposed to be gluten free, and feeling as if I’d eaten poison. I suffered for weeks with the pain that only ever comes from consuming that dastardly gluten. Usually when I “get glutened,” I’m wracked with pain and worry for about a week. After that, the symptoms eventually subside as my body recovers, and I’ve gotten used to this super fun phenomenon.
Except this time, my body didn’t recover and the symptoms intensified to the point that it was hard to go about life as usual. I was extra touchy; things I usually took in stride set off fits of frustration and anger, and I had a hard time thinking about anything but my own pain. The paranoia came back. Certainty that the doctors missed something–and that I was, in fact, dying–disrupted my sleep and hijacked my internal monologue for months. I grew increasingly feeble and needy and angry. I was doing everything right: avoided gluten like my life depended on it, to the point that I’m sure I frustrated several food service workers in the process. I took my probiotics like clockwork, eventually cut out all grains and cooked everything at home. I hopped on the kombucha band wagon and went against my own no-dairy-drinks-in-the-house rule and sneaked sips of blueberry kefir when no one was looking. I defrosted bone broth I’d tucked away in the freezer and made meals and meals and more meals out of the stuff. I even dug out the grass-fed gelatin (that I stashed in the back of the pantry because the smell–oh the smell!–was too much for me to handle) and made homemade gummies and blended it into my morning smoothies. My symptoms eased up a little, but not by much. The pain was my constant companion and torment, and my fears grew. I went on as if life was normal, trying my best to smile in spite of myself, but on the inside, I withered.
Stress made it all worse, of course, because that’s what stress does. It further twists the already tangled mess inside, holds a microphone up to the lips of fear and bids it speak, taunts an already broken spirit and tempts it to let go of hope, and in the process, makes every dark thought look an awful lot like the truth. With the pressure of birthdays and sickness and selling our house and kids who were increasingly stressed out too, things started to spiral. To make it all worse, the prescription I usually leaned on for flare ups like this one never got filled–not even despite our incessant requests.
A good friend reached out to me in the middle of a desperate moment in March, randomly asking how she could pray for me that week. I don’t usually talk candidly about what really happens when gluten finds its way back into my body, but this time I told her everything–like, everything–about the inflammation and bleeding and how this time around the symptoms weren’t going away, and about how the paranoia returned and snatched my good sense away from me and made me feel crazy. And how on top of all that, life kept happening, demanding I get up out of bed and keep going. She understands the spin that happens when stress and fear stake their claim upon our hearts, and she promised to pray against it.
About a month later, in the morning after a particularly painful night, I choked out a tearful prayer for what felt like the hundred thousandth time since the symptoms returned in January and trudged into my morning routine, putting one foot in front of the other and trying to go about my day as if I felt fine, but I didn’t. Later that morning, after you left for work and the girls were both settled in at school and Emery was happily chattering away to his Mr. Potato head, I walked into the kitchen and noticed my jar of vitamins was out of place. It was sitting on the counter in front of the Keurig in a place where I couldn’t miss it. This wasn’t that unusual. You set them there for me sometimes when you get your own bottle of vitamins out in the morning. But on that particular morning you hadn’t set them out. I’m sure of it because I walked past that coffee maker a dozen times before that moment, and they just weren’t there before. I’m telling you.
I shrugged it off as I popped a couple into my mouth, and as soon as I started chewing, my eyes glazed over the back of the bottle and I wondered, What if?
I picked it up and right there on the label, it said Contains wheat.
Stunned and appalled, I shook like a leaf as I spit those half-chewed vitamins out, tears dripping down my chin as I leaned over the sink. My hands trembled and and I shouted for joy and actually laughed, because in that instant I knew I wasn’t crazy. It was in January that I bought that big bottle of vitamins, right around the same time I got glutened by those tapas. And it was also in January when my insides ignited with pain again, barbed and raw and hot, like road rash on the inside. Healing didn’t happen in that instant; my body still hurt like hell, but suddenly–divinely perhaps–hope returned.
After I stopped taking those vitamins, my health improved dramatically. In the two weeks since then, things are improving, and those gut-healing foods I’ve been cramming into my body like a crazy person are finally getting the chance to make a difference in my damaged body. The constant screaming pain is down to a low, occasional whisper, because the healing isn’t finished yet, and I know from experience it takes awhile to get things back to normal. But my outlook, my perspective–my hope–it’s radically changed. I spent months feeling trapped inside of my own pain, afraid to talk about what was really happening inside because in my skewed sense of reality, either I was dying or I was crazy, and neither felt safe to admit. I felt alone.
It was like when Addie got that high fever out of nowhere and it just wouldn’t go away. She was frustrated and fatigued and was just so over being sick, but the fever persisted to the extent that she had to have her blood drawn to check for something worse. She was stricken by the news. I would have given anything to take her place, but I couldn’t, of course. But I made sure she didn’t walk through the ordeal alone. I pulled her up onto my lap and cradled her there as we waited, spoke tenderly to her as the fear taunted her, and held on tight until after the pain pricked her tender little body. She shook and cried and held on to me, trusting that what I said was true: that I was there with her even during the worst of it, and that pain isn’t the end of the story.
Pain isn’t the end of the story for me either. In the middle of it, it feels like it is. The hard part for me is knowing this sort of thing will happen again. Gluten is sneaky and likes to hide, and when it finds its way into my system, it throws my good sense out the window and plays tricks on me. Pain and fear is all I see, so I have to keep my ears and heart open enough to keep hearing God whisper, the pain is not the end of the story.
I don’t know why that prescription never got filled, but I’m pretty sure it’s because the medication wouldn’t have done any good anyway, and in His glorious, all-knowing way, God knew that and kept the stuff out of my hands. The vitamins caused the problems; no pills could offset the damage they did as long as I kept consuming them. I could sit here and ask time and time again why God didn’t help point me in that direction sooner–I could ask why He let me suffer–but I think I already know the answer. Because in this life, we will suffer. How could we not? Pain is part of our humanness, a result of the fallen world in which we live. But God’s mercy extended to me–to all of us–even in the darkest moments, like an anchor thrust deep into the dark and murky waters of tormented souls.
The tumultuous start to this year taught me self-care is imperative, not to ward of physical pain, necessarily, or as a quick fix for deeper, chronic health issues, but for this simple reason: I am not able to care for anyone else when I am unwell. I have heard this for years, of course, but now, clearly, I understand. And so, whereas I used to scoff at the idea of spending any sort of extra money on things that I needed (because I’m a mom, and let’s be honest: moms often put themselves last on the list of priorities), I now shell out a few extra dollars for things that help me feel more … centered, important. Like choosing to stock up on Peet’s coffee at home because let’s be honest: I run on coffee, and I find I’m in a better mood when I sip a really good cup of it with my Bible perched on my lap and reading the stories of God’s love, rescue and redemption in the earliest hours of the day. And diffusing my favorite blend of Young Living essential oils (lavender, frankincense and Stress Away) without reservation, any time of the day just because I feel like it, and breathing them in slowly, deeply. Splurging on kombucha and taking a hot shower and going to bed early with a good book. Listening to songs by people like Ellie Holcomb, songs that make me weep and pray and dance and sing in one sweeping movement.
Today the rain returned and I’m hoping it will renew and replenish the air, give it a good scrub, and help us all to breathe a little easier in the next few days. Breathing easy sounds refreshing, doesn’t it? April Showers bring May flowers, after all, and I for one am looking forward to the life ahead.