Monday, September 13, 2010

Invisible Illness Week Guest Post: Kristen's Journey

I am pleased to have Kristen, from Colors of Qavah, here today to share about her journey with an invisible illness. God has called her to walk a very difficult road, and as I see her faithfulness in the midst of such suffering, I am encouraged and strengthened in my faith.

For many years, I considered myself to be functional with a disability, if that's even possible. At the age of 17, I had become very ill, unable to go to school, sleeping well over 12 hours a day with aching muscles, limbs that felt like lead, and no clue what was causing it. After consultations and air testing, my family was informed that we had toxic mold growing hidden in the walls of our house. The contamination level was so high that our house was deemed unlivable, and we had to vacate right away. I was in a complete fog when this happened. I didn't even realize I was seeing my house for the last time when I left. I also didn't realize the health-effects that I carried with me from such a serious exposure.

As time passed, I began to understand that though I had recovered my ability to function day-to-day, I was also highly sensitive to chemicals that had never bothered me before. Upon coming into a building or area treated with pesticides, I was unable to think straight or multitask, became dizzy and lightheaded, and suffered flu-like symptoms for days afterward, including severe gastrointestinal distress. Surviving with chemical sensitivity in college was like navigating a minefield. I constantly had to avoid places that had poor air quality, whether that was from recent chemical treatments or from mold in old ventilation systems. Whenever I felt dizzy or had an episode of stomach distress, I blamed it on a recent exposure and usually recovered rather quickly.

I limped along functioning like this for many years and eventually earned a degree in biomedical engineering. As I progressed with research for my senior project, I decided to pursue a master's degree as well. This was when the bottom started to drop out from under me bit by bit. I began to have more seemingly unrelated symptoms - frequent and urgent urination, more muscle aches, and chronic, severe sore throats. My energy was always low, but I blamed it on my fast-paced program, my busy life, and my lack of sleep. Twice I had episodes of near-fainting, both times chalked up to "a virus." I was pale and dizzy all through this time, but I pushed through the pain until one day when I couldn't push anymore.

I came down with the flu early in 2005, and months went by, but I was still sick. I was becoming more and more behind at work and pushed myself even harder, trying to fight off the perception among my coworkers that I was lazy. Finally, I collapsed at church one Sunday morning in a full faint. After that, my body was unable to bounce back.

My life began to change drastically after that day. Diagnosed with POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome), this dysfunction of my autonomic nervous system linked together almost all of my previous symptoms. At my worst, I couldn't stand for more than a couple minutes at a time and was chronically dizzy, achy, exhausted, and weak. I had to spend a lot of time in bed because even sitting up for a meal was nearly impossible. I couldn't take hot showers, go for walks, or do any kind of light housework. It was a struggle to make it through each day, regularly feeling on the verge of losing consciousness. I was additionally demoralized by the loss of my position at work. Life suddenly came crashing to a halt, and I was reeling.

It was when I stopped striving that I finally had time to open the Bible and search for some answers. I didn't know why this was happening to me, but I prayed and sought God's purpose in it all. The first thing God taught me was that it was okay to rest. I didn't need earn his love by working. He loved me just as I was, lying there broken, pale, and discouraged. I had always been achievement oriented, but God was showing me that his sacrificial love, not my accomplishments, defined my worth. In fact, though I felt painfully useless, it seemed as if God wanted me right where I was.

As time progressed, I fought battles of deep doubt and despair, evidenced by my choice of books: Where is God When it Hurts?, Disappointment with God, and also Shattered Dreams. I was not only coping with my illness but also family circumstances that were profoundly painful. I didn't understand why God kept letting things get worse. At one point, I sat on the floor, staring out a window, and in total frustration, I asked God, "What do you want from me?!" Before I could finish the question, I knew the answer instantly: "Trust me."

As I continue to struggle with invisible illness and its limitations, I've realized the importance of trusting Jesus in faith, even though I don't understand or have all the answers. This faith doesn't change how hard it is to suffer, but it does give me a sure hope of heaven, the capacity for genuine joy in the midst of trial, compassion for others who are hurting, and most importantly, a much deeper love for God than I ever had before.

This song, written by a vocal artist suffering from an invisible illness, beautifully expresses the struggle and reward of trusting Christ with my sorrows.

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