I found myself crying the whole time I wrote this. My intention was to make this post concise, but as I began to reminisce, it didn’t feel right to leave anything out…especially since so many of these memories are the most powerful and life-changing ones I have. I have done my fair share of venting about the chaos at work these last couple of months, including how bummed I was to have to travel on Super Bowl Sunday instead of being with my family and I have grown weary of listening to myself blather about not feeling well the last few weeks. With that being said, I’ve spent the last few days reflecting on where I was this time last year, and I’m shocked and disappointed at how easily I lost my perspective when life got busy! Today, I am choosing to reset how I respond to the stressors in my life, and to jumpstart that reset, all I have to do is take a few minutes to recall what life looked like for me this time last year. One year ago, I was completely debilitated and had been for over 4 months. I wasn’t just weak or weary…I was profoundly incapacitated. I was on approximately 10 different medications whose side effects made me so ill I lost 40lb in less than 2 months. I had seen multiple chiropractors, acupuncturists, reflexologists, massage therapists, dentists, endodontists, 6 different neurologists, visited the ER 3 times and was finally hospitalized for infusion therapy for 3 days with zero progress. I was unable to work, unable to drive, unable to run a simple errand or clean my house. I was unable to do most of the things we take for granted every day. The loss I experienced from no longer being able to participate in everyday tasks didn’t hold a candle to the grief I felt when I couldn’t care for my one and only newborn baby boy, Isaac. I had wanted to be a mother since I was able to push my dolls in a toy stroller and when I finally had the blessed opportunity, I couldn’t provide the basic things a mother gives her child. I couldn’t feed my son, I couldn’t bathe him or play with him or even laugh with him. I couldn’t comfort my son when he cried. My heart breaks as I recall a time I was holding Isaac and accidentally scratched his forehead with my fingernail. He cried so hard and so loud that my dad came running in from another room to hold him, soothe him, and quiet him because the pain I was living with had seized my ability to be my son’s comforter.
One year ago I sent this email to my Primary Care Physician: I’m happy to tell you that I have a 4 week old beautiful and healthy son. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to enjoy him or take care of him on my own because of chronic migraines that I’ve been having since the beginning of my 3rd trimester. I’m sure that between the loss of my brother during my first trimester and the hormone changes in my body, I presented the perfect breeding ground for migraines. My MRI was normal and although we’ve tried lidocaine shots to my head, acupuncture, reflexology, chiropractic treatments, Imitrex, and a steroid, I’ve had no relief. At this point my neurologist has prescribed me Topomax (so I can no longer nurse my son), and he says it may or may not help, but even if it does help it would be at least 4 weeks before I get any relief. I can’t live in this pain and without the ability to care for my newborn son for another 4 weeks, but the neurologist (Dr. Marzulo) tells me that there are no other options. Even after I’ve researched things like Magnesium, B-12, all the triptans, Amitriptyline…he offers me nothing. Every night I fight the urge to go to the hospital for treatment as I deal with a level 10 migraine. I’ve contacted 3 other recommended neurologists (Dr. Win Toe, Dr. Fechtel, and Barrows Neurology) but it’s weeks before they have openings, and again I just can’t go on like this. I’m truly at my wit’s end and do not know what to do at this point. I was considering going to St Joe’s ER just so that I could get some relief and establish a relationship with a neurologist at Barrows. I’m reaching out to you because I don’t know what else to do and I know that you care about your patients. Do you have any insight or advice? I’m trying my best to advocate for myself and make wise decisions for my new family but I’m at a loss. Any help is greatly appreciated. Thank you Dr. Smith. I followed my doctor’s advice and went to St. Joe’s emergency room and several weeks after my ER visit, I was admitted to Barrow’s Neurological for infusion therapy. On January 5th, I was discharged from a 3-day stay at Barrows with no improvement. My husband and I decided to move in with my parents so they could help care for our son and their daughter. From the hospital, we stopped by the pharmacy to pick up $1200 worth of meds that, “could help me feel better in 4 weeks,” but in the meantime would make me feel like I was being poisoned. It was in the drive thru pharmacy where I lost all emotional control. I had never been so terrified in my entire life. I was watching my life, and the life of a son I couldn’t bond with, pass me by. It was by far the darkest, scariest, most hopeless time in my life. We arrived at my parent’s house and I was in so much pain emotionally and physically it’s all I could do to get inside and sit down in a chair without collapsing in the driveway first. My mother-in-law shared with me later that she was struck by the fact that I didn’t ask to see or hold Isaac as soon as I came inside (since I had been away from him for 3 days). When I look back on that day, the only thing I can remember is that I felt absent. I was already gone. I was no longer significant. My life was slowly slipping away and I was just watching from the sidelines. I don’t know that I even thought I could be or ever would be Isaac’s mommy. I didn’t think of myself as a source of life he needed or a source of life at all. I no longer mattered and soon would no longer exist. One year ago, I would wake up morning after morning, and with my eyes still closed I would pray, “let this be the day I feel better…let this be the day I get my life back…let this be the day I turn the corner…let this be the day I start living life again…please Lord, please God Damn-it, PLEASE!!!!!” I would slowly open my eyes, gently turn my head and feel that same pain that showed up day after day month after month, stealing my body’s ability to operate. I would instantly be reminded that I had to face another day of ice packs and heating pads, medications and dizziness, nausea and diarrhea, stabbing pain, throbbing pain, aching pain, and rubbing my face and head with so much intensity that my face would swell and become hot to the touch. Another day of trying to eat, another day of telling my family I was not feeling better, and another day of watching my son through a veil of fog that viciously divided me from him. Another day added to my list of convincing reasons that this would never end. I would spend each day participating in Isaac’s care in whatever way I could manage. Sometimes this meant laying on the floor next to him forcing a smile through the tears…stroking his beautiful face while telling him how very sorry I was that he didn’t have a mommy who could give him what he needed. Other times it meant feeding him half a bottle until the pain was so intense my mom would lift him from my arms and my dad would help me get back to the room to lie down where I would cry from the pain and from the shame that accompanied the sad reality that I couldn’t be a proper mom. While Isaac took his naps, my parents and I would read every devotional in their house out loud, and I would use this time to search for the tiniest seed of strength, peace, hope, joy, wisdom, or solace to get me through the remainder of the day. Looking back now, I can see what precious moments these were with my parents and The Lord. As I felt myself falling apart, The Lord was using this time of struggle to build an even stronger bond with my family and with Him. The rest of my days were mostly spent lying on the couch or trying to eat something to keep up what little strength I had left. I would begrudgingly survive the day until I could take my cocktail of tranquilizers at 8pm and go to bed. The only thing I looked forward to were the hours I got to sleep under heavy sedation and be rescued from the pain that had tortured me for 12 waking hours. Most evenings my husband, dad, or brother would massage my head and shoulders long enough for a bath to be run. I would take my handful of pills, and then I would lie in the tub until the water was cold silently crying out with all my being, “PLEASE heal me or take me! I can’t endure any longer!” Writing this brings tears to my eyes as I remember sinking under the water to scream in anguish at the top of my lungs knowing that I would never be the mother I had always dreamed of being. Those baths, alone at night, I could so clearly see my future…laying in bed and slowly rotting till there was nothing left of me but breath. I would lay in the bath while the water drained, imagining all of the hurt and pain and disappointment going with it. By this time, the medications would begin to kick in, someone would help me get back to my bedroom and then my mom, or dad, or husband would sit on the side of the bed and stroke my head or lightly tickle my arm while I cried myself to sleep. I’ve often wondered if they ever intentionally took turns tending to me, as I can only imagine how draining it must have been to take care of someone so hopeless and scared. One year ago when I was left home alone, I would lie prostrate on the floor with my face in the ground and scream at God to take me, begging him to relieve me of my suffering and the suffering I was causing others, whether it was healing or death. IT DID NOT MATTER! I don’t write these things to be dramatic. This is how it was for me one year ago. It still frightens me to think back on those days and just how hopeless and alone and desperate I was. My stomach hurts when I think of the things I prayed for and when I remember that spirit of darkness that surrounded me with thoughts of letting go. With no light left, I would ask my parents and my husband dozens of times a day, “Am I ever going to get better?” I’ll never forget the terror I felt the day my husband asked me, “is this how our life is going to be from now on?” In a reaction of pure fear I screamed, “You can’t ask me that! I need you to believe that it won’t be like this forever and I need you to tell me over and over and over that it won’t be forever!!!” I required others to be confident that this was not the end, because I was no longer capable of believing in or even hoping for better days. It was during this time that countless friends and family held that hope in their hearts for me (for us) and there will never be words to adequately thank them for holding on when I no longer could. One year ago it was almost impossible for me to socialize, and if I did, there were painful consequences for days afterwards. I attempted to participate when I could, even though I knew there would be a price to pay. On Superbowl Sunday I took one of my dad’s Percocet’s just so I could be around family and friends for a few hours, and the next day was spent in bed recovering. I had missed all of my nephew’s basketball games, so I made up my mind I was going to go to the last game of the season no matter the cost! I attended the game and left during every time-out to avoid the music and loud announcements, but afterwards my pain escalated to an 8 for 3 straight days. Prior to my hospitalization, I attended my little brother’s 30th birthday and wasn’t able to move or converse at length due to the pain. I sunk into the couch attempting to protect others from the misery that surrounded me. I will never forget the sincerity in my nephew’s voice when he asked, “do you want me to sit with you so you’re not alone?” He sat with me and he made me a plate for dinner when the food was ready. Later in the evening, my oldest brother joined us and he held my hand while I rested my head on his shoulder. I don’t know if either of them will ever know the comfort they provided me that night while I tried to participate in a life that was always an arm’s length away. They were holding me together with love and I felt overwhelmed by their selflessness. Life was all around me and I was an outsider begging to get back in. Each gathering I attempted to be a part of only solidified that I wasn’t really living…I was painfully fading into the background. One year ago I told my husband that everyone would be better off without me. Isaac needed a mommy who could take care of him, take him to the playground, get him ready for school, help him with his homework, FEED HIM FOR GOD’S SAKE! I no longer saw value in my life. I said, “If this is living then I don’t want to live!!” This was the day my husband told me that I had to stop proclaiming that there was no hope. He made it clear that he would not accept my resignation as a mother or a wife and that one day we would reach the end of this terrible road together. This was the day he made me go outside and walk 1 short block while I cried in pain. He made me walk so that I would be reminded that the sun was still rising and I was still breathing. He made me walk to remind me that there’s beauty outside of what I was feeling…that there was beauty even amidst the ashes. He made me walk so that I would know that HE trusted there was light at the end of this dark journey and that I needed to hold on for him and for Isaac. He made me walk because I could! One year ago, many lovely friends visited to assure me that they had faith I would one day be well again. They brought me food I couldn’t eat and gave me love I desperately needed. Family and friends came by to hold me, cry with me, rock me in their arms, pray for me, and embrace and love on Isaac. So many people brought their light into my room of shadows and they will never know to what extent they gave me the comfort and hope I needed in the very moment they were present with me. I remember the dear friend who did my family’s grocery shopping each week and the friend who brought us a hot meal every Wednesday so that for one evening my incredibly benevolent parents wouldn’t have to worry about cooking or doing dishes. The love that was so graciously poured out on me and my family carried us through the bleakest of days and I cannot think of a way to appropriately express my gratitude to each and every person who gave of themselves with such compassion and generosity. One year ago, I knew that my maternity leave was coming to an end and I would be expected to return to work. Prior to having Isaac I had landed the job of my dreams and had been scheduled to start the first day I returned from FMLA. After my hospitalization in January, I sent my new boss (who I hadn’t worked a day for) this email:
I absolutely hate to be sending you this email and I pray that the next time you hear from me it will be nothing but good news. I have had debilitating migraines since having my son. My husband and I have had to move in with my parents and I was just recently hospitalized for 3 days with no relief from infusion therapy at Barrows Neurological. Most of the neurologists believe this is hormonal and will pass with time so I am hanging onto that hope. I am going to have to extend my leave to 16 weeks. I cannot begin to tell you how sorry I am. I did not intend to start my new job by letting everyone down. I’ve always been a healthy person and this has just been the most horrible time of my life. I am so looking forward to the day that I can take care of my own son and step back into life and give 110%. I am so sorry.”
By February, my pain had retreated to a constant 5, but I was still unable to fully care for Isaac or myself, and the idea of trying to work seemed an impossible feat. I constantly worried that even if there was a day I was well enough to return, I would already have a reputation of someone who avoids work if she has the right excuse. I imagined the conversations my soon to be co-workers were having about me, and they went something like this: “She probably had her first kid and has decided she doesn’t want to work anymore.” or “How long can a person possibly have a migraine?” or “We shouldn’t have offered a position to someone right before she had her first baby.” or “Why doesn’t she just resign so that we can hire someone else versus dragging it out while we’re drowning in work?” What I desperately wanted them to know was that I couldn’t care for my firstborn let alone fathom the possibility of learning and working a brand new job. I couldn’t tell them that there was nothing I wouldn’t give to be able to do just one of those things. I couldn’t tell them that for me, it was just a pipe dream that I would one day be a functional mother to my son AND work a full-time job. I had begun to bitterly digest the idea that I would most likely lose my job, but even worse, that I would let down a group of women that I greatly respected and admired and who would never know how desperately I wanted to work alongside them. The following is a voicemail I left for my brother right around this time:
In mid-February, I did finally receive that dreaded call from my employer letting me know that if I didn’t return to work by 2/28, my job would no longer be protected. As I heard those words from HR, I had 2 thoughts: “This is it, the life I’ve known is over” and then, “Renee’, this is it, God has a plan for your life and you are not in control.” I don’t memorize Bible verses, but my massage therapist later quoted Jeremiah 29:11, “for I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but that verse burst to life for me and was branded on my soul the split second I heard that I would probably lose my job. I finally embraced the realization that if I could will myself well it would’ve happened months ago. I acknowledged that I was not in control of what life doled out, but that I could choose how I reacted to the hand I was dealt. I had a choice…I could continue to crumble, lose all hope, and accept that the life I dreamed of was over, or I could let it all go, step away from the helm and TRUST that God had a plan for my life and that His plan is always good. This is when I finally felt that supernatural peace and strength I had been pleading for all those months. I realized during that phone call that I truly had no authority over how my life would proceed, but I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was surrounded by love, and that no matter what happened to my health or my job, The Lord had a plan and he would give me the strength and grace to see that plan through. I felt this truth (Jeremiah 29:11) in my inner core…a truth that gave me a peace so real that I can only describe it as being from God. I spent the rest of the day struggling with how I would tell my husband that I would most likely be unemployed soon, but when I finally gained the courage to say the words out lout, he also sensed that same inexplicable, “crazy” peace. We just KNEW that we KNEW that we would be okay. As Bob Marley so wisely sang, “everything’s gonna be alright.” My husband and I decided that I would attempt to go back to work on 2/28 and we remained prepared to accept that this may not be a successful endeavor. The day before my return was like every other day had been. I had the same level 5 pain and found it difficult to imagine that the next day of waking up early, getting ready, driving myself into work and starting a brand new job would be any degree of manageable. The night before, I took my regular handful of sedating drugs and my nightly bath, but then something different happened. I went to bed with more peace than I had felt in 5 months. As I fell asleep I remember saying a prayer of gratitude. I was thankful that I no longer felt the urge to control what happened to me and that I could unreservedly rest in The Lord and His plans for my life. I could see that He had used my brokenness for something good. He had used this chapter in my life to deliver me from the prison of worry. Releasing worry and anxiety from my daily routine was a freedom I had never had in my life. Roman 5:3-4 says, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” I was nowhere near rejoicing, but I could finally see how He was using this time in my life to transform me, and I could finally lean into my faith with confidence, because He had made himself so real to me through this trial. The weight of worry had been lifted and I felt lighter. When I woke up the next morning I was pain free for the first time in 159 days! One year ago today, I arrived at my new job and although the familiar pain visited me throughout the day, it never came close to what I had endured day in and day out for the last 5 months. February 28th, 2014 was the day I was finally convinced that I would be well again and that God wasn’t just going to give me the strength to live through the pain…He was going to see me through to the other side, and all the while I would be made stronger through the journey. On my way home that day I called a precious friend (who had prayed with me all of those months) and I cried as soon as I heard her voice. I was so overwhelmed with disbelief that I could barely get the words out, “it’s a miracle! There’s no other way to explain it. It’s a miracle! My pain level is manageable! I’m going to be ok! I worked….I can’t believe it…I worked! God is so faithful!” It had been so long since I had been capable of functioning at this level, that I couldn’t stop repeating, “I can’t believe this!” When I walked through my parent’s front door I saw them standing in the foyer anxiously waiting for me to return. I don’t think I was able to get a word out before we were tightly holding onto each other. I realize now that they were there because they knew I would either be ready to celebrate or in desperate need of comforting and they are always there when their kids need them. I was finally able to tell my parents that I had turned a corner and that one day I would be myself again. The gratefulness, relief and joy we all felt stunned us into silence. The following 7-8 months, I continued to have significant daily pain, but NEVER resembling those previous hopeless months. I continued with medications that made me feel terrible and injections in my head to help control the pain, but none of that weighed me down because I was ecstatic to be living again. We moved back home and began to see our little family develop the way we had always envisioned. I felt nothing but gratitude on the days I would work long hours and then arrive home to take care of my son, because this was far more life that I thought I would ever be capable of living. Even with chronic pain, I was finally in a place where I could be a mother, I could spend time with my family and friends, I could work again! I never felt more blessed and as I reminisce how far I’ve come in 1 year I’m reminded that every day is a blessing and can never be taken for granted. One year ago my husband held me in his arms and promised me that, “a year from now, you will not be in this much pain. A year from now, life will not look like this or feel like this. Renee’, so much will change in a year!” I could not see the future he imagined, but today, right now, 1 year later, we have a life that is blessed beyond measure. Revisiting the past year has done exactly what I imagined it would. Writing out my story has helped reset my outlook on life. Before I begin to complain about anything I face, I must remember what I’ve survived. It is my desire to use these lessons in life to shift my perspective to what really matters and avoid complaining about the things that don’t. I also want to use these lessons to help me remain mindful of the many priceless yet mundane experiences that make up this crazy life. I want to BE PRESENT. When we take our son to the playground, I must remember to stop and be aware that walking outside used to be an impossibility. When I throw my son in the air and hear his adorable giggle, I must remember that there were days I wasn’t capable of holding him in my arms. When I feel the pressures of work, I must remember the day I realized I might never work again. When I don’t feel 100%, I must remember there was a time I wasn’t healthy enough to even become sick. I must always remember that right here, right now is precious and beautiful and should never be taken for granted. And, when dark times visit again (which they most certainly will in this damaged world), I must remember that no matter how torn I feel or how dark the clouds around me, The Lord has a plan for my life and it is always good. No matter the trials I am sure to face in the future, I will remember that a year from this trial I can once again say, “One year ago….”