Note: This was actually written almost two years ago, but I never posted it. So you can do some basic math and add two years to whatever you read for an accurate timeline. I was recently inspired to post after speaking with an acquaintance I knew in Los Angeles, and it helped me remember that although very few of us know what it’s like to experience what I’ve written below, there are a few people out there who know exactly what I mean. And so…this one’s for him and everyone else who can relate to our stories.
Five years ago today, I lay on the floor of a stranger’s house in Austin, unable to speak or move. What was supposed to be a fun weekend, unbeknownst to be, became a hinge upon which my entire life would swing. After being rushed to the first ER, and subsequently released because they couldn’t find anything wrong (despite the fact I had to be carried out of the ER because I couldn’t even walk), I was driven back to Dallas and promptly re-admitted to my second ER.
Some illnesses are merely a mild blip on the radar for some people, so it’s sometimes hard for others to imagine what a horrible case of mono can do to a person. It’s difficult to even know what to say in this post, because volumes could be written. I could talk about all of the horrifying symptoms I experienced for months, which eventually led to other health issues that have completely derailed normal adult life for the past 5 years. But I won’t, at least not today. What I will say is that I had no idea, before this happened, how sick it was possible to feel, or how utterly helpless one feels when the medical establishment has no insight whatsoever regarding how you can get better. You’re all alone, because doctors can’t help you, you are too weak and unknowledgeable to help yourself, and you’re not wealthy enough to find someone who might actually be able to help.
But believe it or not, being sick really hasn’t been the worst part of the last five years by a longshot—it’s everything else that I’ve lost (partly due to the sickness, partly due to other factors). I struggle for the perfect metaphor, and I’m not sure I have one, but the best I can do is the image of an earthquake—a big one. Imagine being in your home when “the big one” strikes (Californians will understand me here). Imagine seeing, one by one, in violently rapid procession, all of your most treasured possessions falling to the floor and shattering, one after the other, as you stand there helpless, watching your world literally crashing before your very eyes. You are helpless to stop it. When the earth stops shaking, you survey the damage and realize that nothing of the life you knew is left intact. You are surrounded by brokenness that cannot be restored or put back together, and something inside your own soul breaks in response.
Though still not yet the worst part, many other things have been worse than sickness: leaving a career and ministry that I loved, that in many ways was my life, in a complicated mess of miscommunication and hurt that has taken years to recover from. Jumping from that into another ministry position that turned out to be one of the worst experiences of my life, only to be ended abruptly with no advance notice, and leaving me without any recourse or resources with which to continue life in California. A new job didn’t come fast enough, and my body and soul were so worn out by that point, I spent weeks having to sell the majority of my belongings—furniture, clothing, housewares, and everything I had accumulated over 10 years of adult life—and reluctantly returned to Texas empty, literally and figuratively, where things have only been exponentially worse. Within a week of returning, when I finally stopped running on stress and adrenaline from the previous two excruciating years, my body went all-out crazy on me and completely broke down on every level. But again, that was not even the worst part.
The few belongings I could take with me have been sitting in a storage unit for almost three years now—three years. And to be honest, I relate more to my things in storage than I can relate to any friend or acquaintance. We both sit in a cramped, small, and dark holding cell, having the ability to be used and to be useful, yet being trapped in a state of impotence and isolation. Partly due to physical limitations, and partly due to who knows what, I’ve almost reached three years of unemployment. Not that I don’t have part-time jobs here or there, but I am utterly incapable of providing for myself. I don’t understand how it’s possible to be unemployed for three years. I am a hustler, not known for laziness, and no matter how many higher degrees I have or how much experience I have, I have been trapped, careerless, with no way to simply even provide for my own needs, despite desperately wanting to do so. Literally hundreds of resumes have gone out with no calls coming back. It simply makes no sense.
As a writer, my mind has thought of various books and articles that could be written, that should be written, by somebody, and one of them would be titled When God Wastes Your Life. We’re all familiar with the popular concept of not wasting your life, which is actually a pretty exciting thought, as we imagine challenging mission trips or ministries or risks we might take. But to tell the truth, that’s a whole lot easier than desperately wanting to live and not waste your life, yet it seems that God is content to let you languish for years in a storage unit, while time goes on and the world spins on without you, and even if you ever do get out, maybe it will just all be too late to start over and live again. And of course I speak from the human perspective. Somehow in a way that makes no sense to me, if the Bible is true and God is true, it can’t be a waste, despite a mountain of circumstantial evidence to the contrary.
Though in some ways the book of Job does not comfort me, since it seemed that his ordeal was over in a matter of months, and it’s hard to relate when your own story goes from months to years (are people right when they keep calling this a “season” of my life? What if it’s just the rest of my life?), he does say some things that I’m glad he said, because I’ve said them, too. It’s nice to know that someone else has felt that way, and communicated it in the exact words and mental pictures that I would have used. These are words that make the Pollyanna-esque squirm, but words that I am utterly grateful for:
“I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow.” Ps. 88
“He has walled up my way, so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths. He has stripped me from my glory and taken the crown from my head. He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, and my hope has he pulled up like a tree.” Job 19
So no, having had life-changing illness has not been the worst part at all. It’s also not the worst part to have had your life as you know it—your career, your friends, your ministry, your home—completely uprooted and destroyed, and to literally go back to square one at the beginning of your thirties.
The worst part by far is wanting desperately to start over, to accept the losses of the past and courageously press on to create a new life, yet to be forced to live in the essence of a prison from which you can’t escape, a refugee camp from which you can’t progress, or a hallway in which every single door remains locked, no matter how hard you knock or how much you push. This inability to financially provide for myself has forced me to live in a very difficult and isolated location, far removed from the city, culture, diversity, or opportunity, stuck in a remote suburb where the unmarried are viewed as an odd cultural artifact, and life revolves around family and children and lots of money. Before there was a whole big exciting world to explore; now my world has shrunk to existing in a 10’x10′ room in another’s home. Not having a job means not being able to pay rent and live on my own, which means having to live as a strange hybrid of a child and an 85 year old and not like an independent adult. Living the life of an 85 year old must be bad enough when you’re 85, but when you’re 35, that’s a whole different story. It’s dehumanizing in a way that’s hard for others to understand.
This is what is unbearable and completely inscrutable—why is God seeming to waste what are supposedly the best and strongest years of my life? The years I’m supposed to be getting married, having a family, advancing in my career, or serving in ministry? And even if this does turn out to be a “season,” though a long one, will it be too late to live again once it’s over? Will it be too late for marriage, family, career, or ministry? The rest of the world hasn’t stopped, and time hasn’t stopped, while I’ve been stuck. In our twenties, life feels like a rising firework…shooting up and up and up….we’re not sure where we’re going, but we expect that something will blossom and we’ll explode into a beautiful display of light and color as we accomplish our goals, whether it’s marriage, having a family, developing a successful career, or involvement in ministry. But what happens when you shoot up and up and up, and then you just disappear with no explosion, just like the dud firework, as all that seeming rising potential just vanishes into nothing?
I haven’t blogged in a very long time. For the past year and a half, it’s just been too dark to say anything. Despite my ability to use words, sometimes there just aren’t words, or at least any that should be spoken, so I’ve said nothing. I don’t know why I’m saying them now, except maybe for two reasons: one, to remind myself and others that I still exist, that I’m still alive, that I’m still a person, and in some small way, connect to living people even if only through technology; second, to encourage anyone out there who resonates with any of this in any small way. Because everything I’ve experienced and am experiencing is just too bad to not have some small good come from it, and if that small good is encouraging someone else, then so be it.
I don’t have a conclusion here—I’m still trapped in the middle. To me, there’s nothing worse than treating the harsh realities of life like a T.V. sitcom that has the inciting incident, rising action, climax, denouement, and conclusion shoved into a convenient 30 minute package. Life doesn’t work that way, at least most of the time, and this blog post reflects that reality. There’s not an ending, just a hanging and suspended pause, because I don’t know what comes next. I’m just metaphorically sweeping up all the pieces from the earthquake into a pile before your reading eyes—examining them, reflecting upon them, mourning over them, pained by them, but not in a place to make any conclusions or wrap them up with a tidy bow. I suppose the best that any of us can do is simply to look at all those broken pieces, which make our hearts feel so broken and our lives feel so broken, and with the tiniest speck of trust that we can muster, believe that God knows how to make a mosaic out of them if He wants to.