Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Facing My Fears

One of the best learning experiences I ever had was battling my fear of death. Last spring (2008), I asked God to deliver me from my fear, and he gave me an amazing dream that I believe may have been a glimpse of my own death. It wasn't too long after that, though, when my newfound peace was severely tested.

In April of 2008, I was sick with a stomach bug and fever that left me so weak that my lips were blue. The fatigue lingered for nearly a week, and I started to worry a little. I suddenly realized that the shortness of breath that had plagued me during my last pregnancy had never completely resolved. I hadn't noticed it because it was subtle: I'd get out of breath from climbing the stairs or running for the phone--this despite the fact that I was in good shape and very active. Now, though, I was getting breathless from carrying Allyson, from bending over, and even from singing.

I called my ex-husband to ask him about his asthma symptoms; while I was pregnant, my doctor had suggested the possibility of exercise-induced asthma. But my symptoms were completely different than Byron's. He reminded me about my mitral valve prolapse, a typically harmless condition where the mitral valve billows and causes a heart murmur. He urged me to see my doctor.

I was reluctant to tell the doctor about my fears since I was only 38 and was obviously in good health. I figured it would be a battle to get any testing done. But then I did some research on the Internet and scared the crap out of myself. Everywhere I looked, I read that you should call your doctor right away if you developed shortness of breath with your MVP. Based on all my symptoms, I was convinced that the condition had progressed to mitral regurgitation, where the mitral valve allows blood to flow backward from the left ventricle into the atrium.

I saw the doctor on a Tuesday morning. I had been so anxious that I hadn't been able to sleep well for several nights in a row despite being utterly exhausted. On Monday night, I'd taken a Benadryl in the middle of the night, so I could barely get out of bed for my 8:00 appointment, and I was nervous and shaky.

At first, the doctor seemed nonchalant about my concerns, but the moment he put his stethoscope on my chest, he said, "Oh yes. I hear a murmur." This was alarming, because in the past my doctors could either hear nothing at all, or just a very subtle click. And usually they had to listen very carefully to hear anything. He also remarked that my pulse was very rapid, but I knew that was just the anxiety.

He ordered an echocardiogram, which he scheduled for the next day.

His Works Are Wonderful
(Excerpts From My Journal -Wednesday 4/23/08
The echo was actually really interesting. I could clearly see my mitral valve, my ventricle, and my atrium. I also got to hear my heartbeat, and it sounded like Allyson's had during prenatal visits, only much slower. I could hear the telltale third heart sound that indicates a murmur.

I felt awed to see and hear the very essence of my life. I thought of my beloved Psalm 139: "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful; I know that full well."

Tears of wonder trickled from the corner of my eye and ran down into my hair. How amazing that this intricately made pump had been beating continuously, faithfully, for all of my life--indeed, even before I was born! I felt a surge of love for God....

I didn't feel anxious. Overall, I just felt reassured to see and hear the steady beat of my heart.... I'm trying not to be anxious because I can feel how the anxiety worsens my symptoms. I'm trying to let God teach me patience and trust yet again. I just wonder what my future holds?

-Thursday 4/24/08
Today has been extremely emotional. The problem is that I don't know whether I am battling anxiety, or whether my symptoms are just part of my heart problem. What I mean is that my thoughts don't feel anxious; only my body feels it. I've been meditating on all my memory passages and praying, and my mind feels at peace. Yet my heart continues to race intermittently.

Today I emailed out a prayer request to all my friends, asking them to pray for God to guard my mind and heart with his peace, and also that he would teach me the lesson he has for me--and of course that he would heal my heart.

I didn't know Mom's new email address, so I called her. She was amazing. I'd caught her dozing, so she had no time to think up a flowery prayer. She proceeded to pray for me using the words from the memory passages I'd been studying. She prayed for peace that transcends understanding (Philippians 4). She said that God has me in his hand, that he knows me inside and out, knows all about me. She asked him to help me trust his plan, to know that he planned all my days before I was even born (Psalm 139).

With tears rolling down my cheeks, I told her that her words were the same ones that God had been using to comfort me. She said it had to be God speaking through her because she hadn't known these were my memory passages.

She prayed for my physical symptoms to line up with what I'm believing in my mind. That's exactly what I need. I've been having such peaceful, contented thoughts--in total contrast with the anxious feelings. My body needs to come in line. And I believe it is doing that. I can feel the prayers of the people who love me....

My overwhelming emotion is thankfulness. I told Bill last night in bed that I could die right now and still say I've had a very fulfilling and meaningful life. I have a loving husband and two precious children. I have the love of friends and family. I have learned to experience God's love in a new way, and to share it with others. I have been so richly blessed, and at this moment I have no regrets. I never expected to feel this content at age 38. God has done so much in my heart these last few months. The things I had so much insecurity about--financial security, physical beauty, Bill's attention--seem so insignificant now.

I realize that--whatever the outcome (and I know I'm being overly dramatic)--this is a battle I need to fight. I thought insecurity/jealousy was the biggest battle, but I realize now it's anxiety and worry. I know God is going to work all of this for my good (Romans 8:28).

After I'd poured out all this emotion to Bill, I asked him to pray for me, and he said, "I've been praying for you." It still surprises me to know that Bill prays. It's just that he's so private about his faith. It seems his faith has been quietly growing.

I asked what he'd prayed for me, and he said that I'd feel contented. I found that an odd choice of words at the time. I'd expected him to pray for healing or peace. But now, as I write this all out, I realize that God has been answering his prayer. Contentment is the best way to describe the way I'm feeling about my life, and it's just what I need to combat my fears.

Thank you, Father, for the love and support of my husband, friends, and family. Thank you for allowing my faith to grow through this struggle. Thank you for the perfect love that casts out fear.

I never did find out what was causing the shortness of breath. The mitral valve prolapse was evident on the echocardiogram, but there was no significant regurgitation. I had a full workup with a cardiologist, had my thyroid medication adjusted, and even saw a hematologist (because I have a condition called hemochromatosis, which can cause heart trouble), but no one could say definitively what was causing my symptoms. I think they suspect anxiety, but I disagree. The symptoms are definitely worse with anxiety, but I often experience shortness of breath at odd times when I am not at all stressed. Maybe I'm just a hypochondriac.

In any case, I've learned to ignore it. I'm glad to have gone through this experience because I can honestly say now that I feel comfortable with the idea of death, and--even more importantly--I appreciate my life more. I'm learning not to stress over the little things, and to literally stop and smell the flowers. God works in mysterious ways!


Anonymous said...

I appreciate you sharing your faith journey so much Sarah. I identify closely with many of your experiences and struggles with fears and anxieties. And I've realized that they are greatest when I have empowered them with my focus on what is stressing me, rather than on Jesus. That separates me from his power and strength and peace. God is good and he is there for us always. We just need to turn our attention on him. Then the stress and fears and anxieties diminish as we open ourselves to his Spirit which is healing. You have a gift in being able to express and share your experiences in writing. I am happy you share it to the glory of God.

His arms are around us just as a mother cradles her baby, he shelters us as a hen covers her chicks. He is always with us even when we don't feel his presence. This life is a journey, not the destination. The worldly troubles and trials are fleeting. The Heavenly kingdom is ahead. Roy passed from death into life on his heavenly birthday five years ago this March 20th.

Have you read Randy Alcorn's book, "Heaven"? It is a big book, almost 500 pages. My sister Donna told me about it. We both were moved by it and bought a copy for all our children two years ago. I've bought several other copies which I lend and have given others away. I think you would appreciate it.

God bless you and your family in these perilous times.

Love, Aunt Carol

Sarah said...

I love the idea of having a "heavenly birthday"! I never thought of it that way, that the day of our death is actually our birthday. How awesome.


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