Thursday, August 20, 2015

Hang Onto the Raft!

In my last entry, I told you that I've been longing to be free of my need to control everything. If only I could just make a list of necessary actions and check off each step! But the list is the problem. I keep trying harder and harder to let go, but of course it doesn't work that way. All attempts at perfecting myself only leave me hopelessly frustrated, utterly worn out.

I've been praying about this for months, and God has given me an assurance that He is working on me. In the good moments, I've felt not only peace, but exhilaration at the idea of being free. First, I pictured myself clinging to the edge of a cliff, knuckles white, clawing in desperation as I lost my grip. Deliberately, I imagined peeling my fingers loose and letting myself fall, fall... only to be borne up by a gentle wind current. I imagined myself floating peacefully on the breeze like a flying squirrel, or even soaring like an eagle.

Well, that's not exactly what God had in mind. On a walk in the park a few weeks back, He gave me a different analogy. In my favorite part of the park, I recalled something I'd read in a devotional about being caught in the current of God's Spirit. At the time, I'd found great comfort in the idea of leaving my plans behind and floating down God's river to some beautiful destination.

I paused next to the dry stream bed which only a few weeks earlier had been swollen with rain. "God, I trust you," I prayed. "I want to relax and let your current take me wherever you want me to go." I thought about the agonizing anxiety that I'd been battling for weeks. A couple of tears trickled down my cheeks. "Even here, God. Even here."

You may recall that I've been struggling with fatigue and joint pain for many months and that I have been seeing a few doctors looking for answers. Along the way, I was diagnosed with arthritis and tendonitis in both shoulders and small tears in both rotator cuffs, with adhesive encapsulitis (frozen shoulder) on the left side. The pain in my shoulders has made it difficult to sleep, and I've been prone to stress and mood swings.

An expensive workup from a functional medicine doctor revealed a plausible explanation for my systemic inflammation. And I do not like it.

The last test was a food allergy and sensitivity test. I had to wait over a month for the results, which gave me time to prepare for what I thought would be the worst. I figured I might be allergic to dairy; during my year on a vegan diet, I discovered that I felt much better off of it, and for the most part, I've continued to avoid cow's milk and cheese, though I do indulge in ridiculous amounts of homemade ice cream once or twice a year.

After watching a close friend struggle with adapting to a gluten-free diet, I passionately hoped that gluten would not be on the list. But I was prepared to deal with it if I had to.

When I sat down in the exam room about a month ago, I felt a tightness in my stomach as I awaited the verdict. Dr. R was smiling, so it couldn't be that bad--or so I thought. Imagine my shock when she handed me a list of about 200 foods that I eat on a regular basis. It appears I have varying degrees of sensitivity to all of them, based on the IgG antibodies in my blood. A good chunk of these foods were highlighted in red and had 1, 2, or 3 stars next to them.

Dr. R explained that when a person has this many food sensitivities, the most likely diagnosis is leaky gut syndrome. This means that the mucosal lining of the small intestine is damaged at the microscopic level. Normally, the entire digestive system (or gut) is tightly sealed. This protects the body from any toxins passing through and gives more time for nutrients to be absorbed and passed to the bloodstream. With leaky gut syndrome, also called intestinal hyperpermeability, the mucosal cells are inflamed and can no longer maintain a tight seal. Therefore, bits of partially digested foods pass through the intestinal wall and into the blood, where the immune system attacks them as foreign invaders. After antibodies have formed against a food, continuing to consume that food creates more inflammation in the digestive tract, exacerbating the leaks and causing malabsorption. The immune system continues to attack the foods that are floating in the blood, resulting in chronic inflammation that settles in joints or tissues. In my case, the inflammation is mostly concentrated in my shoulders, though I also have occasional pain and stiffness in my elbows, wrists, hips, and knees.

Both a digestive problem and an immune system disorder. leaky gut syndrome is associated with all types of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and Hashimoto's thyroiditis.

Dr. R positively beamed. "Now we know where the arthritis comes from, and probably also why you have Hashimoto's thyroiditis and eczema. The good news is, you can remove the allergens so that your gut can heal."

Handing me the test results, she calmly explained the treatment plan. For at least the next 90 days, I would take supplements to help rebuild the digestive mucosa. I must completely eliminate all of the red starred items from my diet and add a large variety of new foods. But there was a catch. If I ate the new foods over and over, my immune system would form antibodies against them as well. So I would have to rotate my food in cycles of four days. (Usually, waiting a few days before reintroducing a food can help prevent an allergic response.)

My shoulders drooped as I glanced down at the list, arranged in alphabetical order. There it was: gluten. Also bananas, peanuts, chicken, olives (and olive oil), eggs, cow's milk, goat's milk, and every kind of cheese. And bizarre things like black pepper, cinnamon, and vanilla. I think I didn't start crying until I spotted chocolate.

"What's wrong?" asked Dr. R.

Sniffling, I explained that I am a single mom who is already overwhelmed with all the demands on my time and energy. "I'm barely managing to cook healthy food for my family as it is," I said. "How can I possibly eliminate all of these foods? It's everything I eat."

"If it's not convenient to start the diet now, you can wait until you're ready," she said, handing me a tissue.

I blew my nose. "If I wait until I'm ready, that will be when both kids have graduated and moved out. I can't wait that long."

"No, you can't. Your autoimmune conditions are only going to get worse. Keep in mind that after the 90 days, once your gut has healed, you should be able to reintroduce one food per week into your diet, starting with the one-star items. If you don't react to them, you can then add them into your four-day rotation."

I drove home in such shock that I could hardly find my way back. How could I be allergic to so many things? Like lettuce. How can you even be allergic to lettuce? Maybe she was wrong, I thought. Maybe there was some other reason for the inflammation. I'd been eating this way for decades, and hadn't I been really healthy? Maybe I should just ignore the whole thing.

When I got home, I pored over the blood test results. Here was a comprehensive list of every single thing I ate. If my gut wasn't leaking, how did all that food get in my blood? Why was I so tired all the time? Why did I feel like an old person most days? Why did my stomach hurt so often? Most importantly, why had I dropped 13 pounds even though I was ravenously hungry and seemed to be eating constantly?

I have to do this, I thought. But how?

As I thought back over all the stressors that have assailed me over the last couple of months, I felt a panic attack coming on. "God, it's too much," I said aloud. "I'm going to snap. I can't take one more thing."

God must have planned it that Mom would come for her biweekly cleaning visit that day. Between sobs, I told her the whole story while she scrubbed the shower. When she'd finished, she held my hands and prayed for me, that God would lead me and give me peace, and that He would heal my body.

I clutched her tightly. "I can't do it," I said against her shoulder.

"No, you can't," she agreed. "It's too much right now with the pain in your shoulders and the physical therapy appointments."

"I guess I've had this for a long time," I said. "I've been hypothyroid since my twenties. One more month probably won't make much difference. I need time to research, maybe get a second opinion. And then I have to plan my menus."

I felt much better after our talk, but nothing could have prepared me for the anxiety that knocked me down over and over during the succeeding weeks. First off, there was never time to plan. Busy as I was, when could I possibly sit down and find recipes for bizarre foods like jicama and seaweed?

Two more weeks slipped by, and I was no closer to being ready. Meanwhile, my anxiety mounted each time I had to eat food that I might be allergic to. I was terribly hungry, yet I had a hard time getting my food down. To make matters worse, I wasn't sleeping well most nights, likely a side effect of the 16-day course of oral steroids I was taking for an allergic reaction I'd had to the sun on my recent vacation in Destin. When I finished the pills, my sleep gradually improved, but then the itchy rash returned, and it seemed to be spreading. I had itchy bumps on my arms, shoulders, upper back, and neck. Any creams I applied only made the rash worse. From the little research I'd done on leaky gut syndrome, I concluded that my immune system must be on hyper alert.

That's why I decided on a Saturday morning that I'd waited long enough, and I was going to start the rotation diet the next day.

Dumb idea.

I spent the next 12 days continually scrambling to figure out my next meal, running to different stores in search of exotic foods and spending hundreds of dollars. I ate a lot of very unpalatable foods because on most days, my list included combinations of meats, vegetables, and spices that couldn't really be combined into workable meals.

For example, one Friday night, I made a delicious pepperoni pizza on a homemade crust from freshly ground wheat, with sauce I'd simmered myself and a blanket of melty mozzarella. Allyson and our new friends Rebecca and Annabelle enjoyed that while I choked down this:

Yes, I ate a third of a pound of ground kangaroo meat, browned with a bit of red bell pepper, some paprika, and a sprinkle of salt. It might have been tolerable cooked in a vegetable stew or some chili, but on its own? Not so much. It was pretty gamey.

And then there were the fresh figs, which I'd only tasted once before in my life, many years ago. They were absolutely delectable! I ate six, with the peels. Within five minutes, my tongue was burning, and it had about six or eight small holes in the top layer. Turns out, fig peels have a protective enzyme that dissolves protein on contact. Luckily, the pain dissipated after a couple of hours, but I still have a holey tongue.

During the first several days on the diet, I lost about a pound a day, bringing the total to 18 pounds, which I could hardly spare. Every time I passed a mirror and glimpsed my shorts sagging like a soggy diaper, my chest tightened. I began to wonder whether I would starve to death, yet I feared deviating from the diet, lest I should become allergic to everything I ate.

All of this surely would have been too much to bear, except for one thing. God has never left my side, and indeed I have pressed closer to Him, perhaps closer than ever before. Late one night, on the floor of my prayer closet, I shed happy tears as I thanked God for being so, so good to me. I opened the Bible then and my eyes were drawn to these verses: "Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you. For you, O LORD, have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the LORD in the land of the living." (Psalm 116:7-9)

Yes, He has been so good to me.

  1. First, there's sweet Allyson, who had prayed that she and Ethan could be a support to me. She helped me cook a delicious shrimp stir fry from approved Day 2 ingredients, downloaded a menu tracking app, and just gave me lots of hugs. One night while we waited for sleep, after we'd prayed fervently together, she wrapped her arms around me. "I love you so much," she whispered in the dark.

    I sniffled. "Allyson, I never knew having a daughter would be so wonderful. You are such a gift."

    "Mmm," she murmured, nuzzling my neck.
  2. I had a heart-to-heart talk with Ethan one Monday evening. I told him about my terrifying anxiety, and how I was combating it with scripture. I told him I needed even more help than usual from him and Allyson. He listened and offered some input, and he didn't seem bothered when I cried. And after our talk, he helped me clean the kitchen thoroughly and also went to the store for me.
  3. During one Friday evening walk in the park, I told God how much I missed a friend whom I lost a few months back due to a miscommunication on my part. I told him I wanted a Christian friend to share my trials and my victories, a woman to play chess with, and someone to walk with. And I told him I'd love it if she could be a single mom so she'd have time to get together with me and would understand my struggles.

    Right after that prayer, I said, "Never mind. Not my will, but yours. You've given me so many wonderful friends, and there are so many people who love me. I know if I need anyone else in my life, you will bring her. Thank you for being my Gatekeeper.

    The very next morning, Mike the plumber came out because my pipes had backed up again the day before. We got to chatting, and somehow the topic of chess came up. I told him I wanted a woman to play with because all of my neighbors who play (and who taught me to play) are men. He raised one finger. "I know a woman who recently learned to play chess and wants someone to play with."


    "Yes, my stepsister." He told me she's a single mom who likes to hike, and that I reminded him of her (because she's nerdy!).

    He called her right then and told her about me, and she said I should call. We hit it off immediately and agreed to meet for pizza and chess that same Friday. Turns out, she is a Christian. And she has a seven-year-old daughter who gets along wonderfully with Allyson. That first night, we accidentally talked until 2 in the morning!

    How could God do that? How could he answer every one of my requests, the very next morning... all because my pipes had backed up again?
  4. Next, God surprised me with a new memory passage. One morning, after I'd finished my daily quiet time, I felt drawn to a book I hadn't read in months, called God's Promises for Women. But I got distracted by a few chores and forgot about it. When I returned to the kitchen for breakfast, my eyes fell on the book again. I opened it to the next page and saw the very verse I had prayed passionately in the park just that morning: "...earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you; my body longs for you in a dry and weary land where there is no water." (Psalm 64) The entire chapter was... mine.

    Two days later, I encountered the same passage during my Bible study. The message was clear: Seek God with all my heart. Long for him. Stop focusing on my problems!

    I am always amazed at how God directs me to just the passage I need for whatever season I'm in. And I'm always delighted at the many ways He uses to confirm the passages.
  5. On the day of my niece Michelle's baby shower, the family gathered afterward at my sister Emily's house. It was one of my bad days, with anxiety near the panic attack level, so I asked them to pray for me. They all gathered around, even the teenagers, and laid hands on me. As they prayed, I could literally feel the warmth of their love radiating into me, wrapping around me.

    The next day, I went to a monthly worship service called Habitation. Every song seemed to be chosen especially for me, with recurring themes of God moving the mountains and calming the storm. Emily had prayed over the storm I'm in, which moved me deeply, because that is exactly how I felt--that there was a storm all around me and also within me.

    One of the songs, I Surrender by Hillsong, gave me great joy as I sang these lines:

    Like a rushing wind/Jesus breathe within....
    Like a mighty storm/Stir within my soul/Lord have Your way/Lord have Your way in me.

    I realized then that, though I'd been buffeted by a fearsome storm without, the greater storm was happening within--through God's Spirit. "Let it rain!" I thought.
  6. On one of my morning walks last week, God sent me a beautiful gray fox. It stepped out of the woods and onto the path, just ten feet ahead of me. At first I continued walking, very slowly, and it walked on ahead of me, always maintaining the same distance. We both stopped then and stood perfectly still for several seconds, studying each other. I held my breath, awed. In 11 years of walking in this park, I had never seen a fox nor even heard that there were foxes in these woods.

    When I fumbled for my phone to take a picture, the fox walked away. I tried to get closer, but then it ran. Here's what I managed to capture:


When I was about 13, I went on a two-day rafting trip with my Girl Scout troop. We rafted the Rio Grande River, through the Taos Box rapids in New Mexico. About 75 percent of the time, it was fairly boring, but each time we came up on some whitewater, I was terrified. Walls of water crashed into us, stealing our breath and threatening to capsize the raft.

Here's another group rafting the Taos Box. (These are random strangers.)

This is the only picture I have from that Girl Scout trip. 

Those may have been my rafting shoes. 

As we approached the worst rapids on the second day, our cute Australian guide warned us that we must follow his instructions exactly, and that the most important thing was to never let go of the rope. He said we might be thrown from the raft, but we'd be fine if we kept holding the rope. Otherwise, we'd have to float through the rapids on our own and meet them downstream. 

The raft ahead of us made it through in one piece. We could hear our friends' shrieks of terror and exhilaration, and then shouts of victory. 

As our raft approached the narrow entrance between the boulders, my heart pounded out of my chest. Our guide paddled furiously, steering against the current, and I was so thankful to have a strong, experienced expert in charge. All I had to to was clutch that rope with both white knuckles and pray that we would make it out alive.

Just when I thought we might have evaded any mishaps, the rear of the raft swung abruptly to the left, twisting my side of the raft to face the rapids. This is how our raft must have looked when we plunged over the ten-foot drop between the boulders.

Some other hapless group - same rapids.
We didn't have any helmets!
I felt the raft go vertical as I flipped backward, tumbling headfirst into the swirling water. My right arm was ripped away, but I held tight to that rope with my left hand even as I felt the water sucking at my tightly laced shoes. In that moment, I was sure that I would die. I would be sucked under, or my head would bash against one of those rocks and I would drown.

Luckily, the raft had righted itself, and only two of us on the front side had fallen out. After he'd muscled the front of the raft back around, the guide shouted at us to hold on. "You're okay!"

And I was okay. I managed to get my other hand back on the rope, and I rode those rapids in the water, bobbing next to the raft and swallowing lots of muddy water. When we got to a calm stretch, my friends hauled me over the side of the boat by my life jacket, and then I lay trembling and dripping on the floor until the danger was long past.

For the rest of that trip, I was blind to the beauty of the canyon. I just wanted my feet on dry, steady ground.

I realize now that God has been taking me down a river, and I haven't been lounging in a warm tube, trailing my fingers in the water. No, it's been a wild ride down the rapids in between menacing rocks, with walls of water taking my breath away. I'm sure the scenery has been breath-taking, too, but I've been so intent on surviving the trip that I've missed all that.

Even now, I'm longing for solid ground under my feet. But I'm also along for the ride. I know my Guide is strong enough and wise enough to get me through these rapids not only in one piece, but stronger than before. All I need to do is hang onto the raft and trust that His plans for me are good.

When I asked Him several months ago to help me learn to let go of control, I should have realized that I couldn't learn that when the going was smooth, and everything was going my way. No, the only way to give up control is to realize that you have none. And that is where I am now.

At the same time, I'm looking for the things I can control--and that's mainly my perspective. Each day, I'm trying to look up and take in the beauty around me, to focus on the joys and not on the struggles. I'm glad this season has come upon me because it's made me realize how detrimental all my stress has been for my mind and my body. I need to change my lifestyle if I want to be well.

I'm working on taking much better care of myself:

  • I took a week and a half off work to rest up and take care of some of the things that were stressing me. But after five days off without really doing any relaxing, I decided to go off my rotation diet for now and wait to start that until next Friday, when I'll be meeting with a registered dietician who specializes in food allergies. She will help me plan menus, find recipes, and work on stress reduction. 
  • I'm getting more sleep. That's going to mean going to bed earlier when school starts next week, and that's probably going to mean leaving dishes in the sink, laundry unwashed, etc. 
  • I stopped taking the anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) that my orthopedist prescribed about three months ago. That's the most likely reason that my digestive problems have flared up so markedly of late. (The physical therapy has worked so well that I don't really need them anyway.)
  • I went to another doctor to get a "mainstream" perspective on my digestive problems. She ordered tests for bacteria and parasites and referred me to a gastroenterologist for further testing. She thought addressing my food sensitivities with diet made a lot of sense. 
  • I'm taking more time to enjoy my food, whatever it happens to be. I'm noticing the flavors and textures. I'm focusing on receiving my food with joy and thanksgiving. I'm also eating a lot more, trying to gain back some weight before I start back on a more restricted diet. 
  • I'm getting outside and walking nearly every day, letting the creation remind me of the Creator. 
  • I'm resisting the urge to worry about other people's choices. I'm letting them be responsible for their own problems. I keep reminding myself, "Not my circus, not my monkeys." 
  • I'm getting together with friends and family. I'm laughing more.
  • I'm starting to love myself just as I am, insecurities and all. I'm asking God to help me extend the same grace to myself that I give freely to others. I'm embracing the fact that I need Jesus, every single day. 
  • I've plastered my kitchen with scripture, and I meditate on the Word whenever I feel fear, stress, or anxiety. Each time God brings a promise to my attention, I write it on a sticky note. Here's my favorite:

I love it that God would use laughter as my medicine. I know I'm far too serious, and always way too busy trying to reason out the answers to my own problems (and other people's!). Why waste all that energy? It's such a relief to let go of all of that.

Who will I become? That's a beautiful mystery.

P.S. What got me thinking of my rafting trip was a hilarious video that a friend shared last week. The rafting experience this comedian describes could have been my own trip--except that hers lasted 8 days! If you have time, take a look: Don't Go Rafting Without a Baptist in the Boat

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