Being a visually-oriented person, I always seem to handle intangible concepts better if I’m able to associate them with an analogy. I realized recently that I was struggling to understand my illness for this very reason (well, partly for this reason)–I had no analogy to help me understand it.
I’ve heard many people refer to their chronic illnesses as a journey, or as a path, but neither of these analogies seemed to fit for me. They both implied regular forward motion, and conjured up images of a somewhat peaceful stroll through the countryside, neither of which has been my experience of being ill. As I prayed through my desire for an analogy, I began to see my illness more as a series of ups and downs, and it came to me–my experience of chronic illness is like diving.
You see, it’s like this: I’m out in the middle of the ocean treading water. It’s deep. There’s no rescue ship in sight. The shore is restoration. It’s my goal. It’s somewhat pleasant on the surface; I can feel the sunshine, breathe the air, hear the birds. But I’m getting nowhere by treading water. In order to move towards the shore, I must dive. I prepare myself with several slow, deep breaths, filling my lungs to capacity. Then finally, the deepest breath I can manage. And I dive.
The deeper I go, the darker and colder it gets. It’s quiet. It’s lonely. I have eyes for only one thing, to go as deep as possible before I run out of breath. I keep diving into the dark. Eventually my lungs begin to ache, and my eyes long for the bright warmth of the sun; I turn my face away from the deep and head for the surface. And when I emerge, I realize that while going down, I have also gone forward, and I am just a little bit closer to the shore. The next dive will be just a little bit shallower, a little less dark, and a little less cold. On the surface, I rest in the warmth and prepare for the next dive.
This is what chronic illness feels like. The times of diving are the times when I am actively seeking healing through a treatment. There have been many dives and, when considered individually, they don’t get me much closer to the shore. But collectively each one has moved me a little bit closer. And I am grateful. But these times of active treatment are intense and lonely, and I can’t sustain them for long periods of time. I have to resurface.
There are also dives that move me in the opposite direction. Times when illness flares and I find myself being dragged under and backwards. These are not voluntary dives, but times that I am overwhelmed by the waves and pulled farther out to sea.
For a long time I wrestled with guilt over my inability to sustain a dive. If only I could stay under long enough, I’d eventually hit the shore. But the diving analogy has helped me tremendously to see that there is no shame in going back and forth between the depths and the surface. The depths tend to my physical health, and the surface tends to my emotional health. They are both necessary.
For a while, I enjoyed an extended period on the surface. It was restful and lovely. I drank in all the joys of being there. But then the sea got stormy and the waves began to roll over me again. I began to drift out to sea again. It was time to dive, but I had nothing to dive towards. My GI doctor and I were considering two very different treatments, but she was still jumping through hoops and red tape trying to figure out which one we should choose. And I was stuck on the stormy surface until we decided.
Finally, we reached a decision–a new drug therapy. And last week I started to dive again.
This dive is particularly dark and cold. Having tried all of the “lighter” drug therapies, to no avail, we are now embarking on a course of heavy drugs that require regular lab work to monitor white blood cells and bone marrow. Reading the potential side-effects is like reading a list of every health-related nightmare that has ever awoken me in cold sweat. I received my first lab orders last week and under “diagnosis” it listed the expected, “left sided ulcerative colitis (chronic)” and the unexpected, “Monitor-high risk med.” It was like a glass of cold water in my face. I am putting a high risk substance into my body. Friends, it is very dark down here. And I am Disappointed to find myself in such a dark place.
As I worked through the emotions of that Disappointment, I realized there was something else lurking in the darkness. Disappointment was there, and it was a true emotion to wrestle with, but there was something false hiding in the shadows of the deep. Failure. I felt like I had Failed. Like if I’d only tried harder, or stuck to a restricted diet longer, or been to yoga class more often, or eaten more of this or less of that, I wouldn’t need to be making this dark, cold dive into drug therapy. Of course I knew (here, I point to my head) that this was not true, but still I knew (here, I point to my heart) it to be true. Emotions are powerful things. Have you ever tried to reason your way out of a broken heart? And how did that go? Yeah, I thought so.
I’m going to be plumbing the depths of this perceived-failure for a long time to come. And once I’m through with this one, I have a long trail of others behind me longing for a tender glance. I have only begun this dive.
In the midst of all this diving and surfacing, there is something else that I know (pointing to my head) but am struggling to Know (pointing to my heart). I know the Holy Spirit is with me in the depths. I know He is strength and courage down in the deep. He calls the false things out from the darkness. He sustains me in this place without light and air. And I know He is the sun on my face when I surface. He is the gentle breeze that plays across my forehead. He is the sweet, pure air that I breathe.
I have watched for God in many forms throughout my illness. I have scanned the horizon for Him in the form of a rescue ship that will deliver me quickly and safely to the nearest harbor. I have watched for Him in the form of a message in a bottle to bring me understanding and wisdom; information from a far-off, mysterious land. Yet it begins to dawn on me that I need not look so hard. He isn’t disguising Himself. He is right beside me the entire time. He treads water alongside me on the surface, and He dives with me into the deep. When the waves begin to roll over me and pull me backwards, He wraps gentle arms around me and holds me above water so I do not drown.
I know that where I go, He goes with me. I know I am not alone. But I do not Know these things. Not yet. Right now the knowledge is a slow drip, trickling down from my head into the core of my being. Like the struggle to Know the truth of false emotions, it will be a slow process. But I’m committed to the process, committed to the dive. He will not leave His work unfinished. Until I am able to Know, I will Trust.