I can’t seem to find the right words to describe this year. Every syllable I attempt seems trite, cliché. What is amazing, anyway, or joyous, exhausting, and even tragic? There are dictionary definitions, but they are black and white, and life right now is gray. Very gray.
The gray of a mountaintop on a clear day—the accepting of our referral for three daughters and later bringing them home, the salvation and baptism of our eldest, the talks we are currently having in our home with our seven-year-old who seems to not be far behind, good, beautiful, sweet moments that seem to be removed from all constraints of time that we quietly treasure in our hearts.
The gray of the valley, hidden in a deep fog—sending too many of our closest friends to new lives and ministries in other locations and suddenly finding ourselves without the presence of most of the people we had confided deeply in, making the necessary adjustments as an adoptive family (how far we’ve come, though, in four months), the stress of unreasonable responsibilities suddenly placed on us by the outside world, several major unexpected expenditures, and my health struggles.
While I could write about anyone of these, the most ongoing and pertinent of these struggles is my health. We truly believed that God would remove the problems and we would overcome them. I didn’t think my current situation would be long-term, but ten months later, I think I’m beginning to accept that it is. I had a moment of hope recently, when our elders prayed for me, and for two days I felt normal again. But then, the symptoms returned and have not let up since. Friends and family have asked repeatedly for me to post something so that they might know how to pray, so I’m writing about it now. Plus, I hope that it will encourage a little grace toward me when I don’t act as quickly as others sometimes want. Please be patient with me.
Here’s the story: about a week after we accepted the referral for our three daughters, I began having some really strange and scary symptoms. In the night, I had nightmares and would wake up with uncontrollable panic attacks. In the day, the panic attacks continued and I also had other weird symptoms. I finally gave in and went to a doctor when, in late spring, I began experiencing vomiting, blurry vision, mental fog, and when, on one frightening occasion while riding in the car, I did not recognize where I was in my own neighborhood. Only my closest friends were aware that some of these things were happening.
The doctor ran some tests that determined I had a number of food sensitivities, mainly gluten (wheat), dairy, yogurt, eggs, and black pepper, as well as fatigued adrenal glands (it didn’t help that I’d spent the previous year fundraising for our adoption and had probably worn myself out with long work days and a poor diet). It was also determined that the thyroid problem I’d had since childhood was actually an autoimmune disorder—an issue possibly aggravated by eating foods containing gluten. We traveled to our Ethiopian court date a few days after hearing this news. It sounded manageable (and it would easily be, if not for the ongoing reactions to food). Plus, this problem had only begun after we accepted referral. We strongly believed that this was a test or spiritual warfare and that God would give relief from it after we continued to follow him and brought the girls home.
When we arrived home after our first trip in May, the girls were legally ours, but they were still in Ethiopia. The doctor ordered a specific three-week “cleanse” before we could do anything else. I reluctantly did it and it was really difficult, but I was also anxious to get through this and get to the girls on the other side. My hope was to complete everything before we traveled for our second trip to bring them home. The doctor said that it would be a couple of years at the soonest before my adrenal glands would function as they should, so I figured I would buckle down and make it happen in a year, at most.
In many ways, after that I felt better, but since then, when I eat one of my forbidden foods, I end up with an achy body that could be compared to flu symptoms, and additional side-effects like itchiness, blurry vision in my right eye, the inability to use the right side of my body with the same effectiveness as before, anxiety, exhaustion, depression, mental fog (in which I also have trouble communicating and thinking of simple words or mix up words or have an inability to process something that someone else is telling me without standing there like an idiot, thinking really hard before giving my delayed response—all really great for a mother and one in ministry, whose job is mainly to communicate). I’ve lost more than twenty pounds at this point, about six of which were shed in the last couple of weeks, and even though I am eating three meals a day, I can’t seem to control it. (So, please, please, please don’t make a comment about how I “need to eat something” in front of me. I will probably cry . . . again.)
Even though I have followed the rules almost perfectly, the attacks have continued. While some are worse than others, the longest I have gone since summer without having an allergic reaction was two weeks. I usually have at least one a week, sometimes two. That’s up to twice a week feeling like I cannot have an intelligent conversation and experiencing flu-like symptoms. I now have a supplement that helps my non-gluten-related reactions to be confined to only a day or so, but I recently had gluten when I ate injera (an Ethiopian bread) that had wheat added to the mix (authentic—non-Western—injera does not contain wheat), and I suffered effects for over two weeks.
The thing was, in my mind, this was a short-term problem we were going to overcome. I was going to work hard and be faithful, and God was going to do something amazing and heal all or most of the food-related issues. After all, one might go “paleo” or “caveman” for fun (I think those people are weird), but who on earth can find enough desirable food to live on with a diet that does not contain of any wheat, dairy, yogurt, eggs, or black pepper? And when one chooses to live gluten-free because it’s the cool new fad and accidentally slips up and eats something contaminated or wants to take a break for one afternoon so he can simply enjoy a piece of birthday cake or find anything filling to eat in an airport, he has freedom. He will not end up regretting it for days, but when the problem is real, there is no grace. Nothing slips by, not one Oreo, not one lick of the mixing bowl, not one tiny wheat-filled wafer from the tray passed around at your home church on the morning you are visiting, not one small bite of food that your Ethiopian children want to feed you because sharing one’s food is a sign of love and connection in their culture. This is not cool or trendy. In it, there is no grace.
We have lost so much community as a result of this struggle. It is hard to get together for impromptu coffee when you have to pack your own goat milk (which is either at home or can be found at only one grocery store on this side of town and, anyway, you look like a fool carrying your own canteen of milk into a coffee shop). Only a few kind friends have dared to make us dinner (and made me cry at their thoughtfulness). We have lost friends. I often feel sad or angry, and mostly I’m just afraid a lot of the time. Sometimes when I reach for food in a public place that was prepared by a friend or a restaurant employee, I am gripped by fear that I might later have to pay for trying what otherwise looks like an acceptable food. This fear has made food largely unappetizing to me, now, and I typically choose to eat from my short list of five or so “safe” foods that I know how to prepare in my home. I am overwhelmed by recipes that require fifteen ingredients, including three different types of expensive “flours,” and underwhelmed by thought of just eating yet another apple. I am tired of well-intentioned people recommending recipes that consist of cauliflower or sound like they were intended to be appetizers or who excitedly mentioned that Kroger has a gluten-free section (something I’ve already been aware of for the greater part of the year, never-mind the fact that it’s a tenth of an aisle, the prices are insane, and many of the products still contain other foods I can’t eat).
I don’t intend to be overdramatic here. And if you’ve been one of those well-intentioned people, know that I am thankful you care and that I don’t even remember who those people were. I know that this doesn’t compare to major world problems like cancer, or war, or famine. But at the same time, there is the very real struggle for me.
Maybe even more distressing right now is my spiritual struggle. Some days I feel like I am losing faith that anything will change. If the reactions would just stop, maybe I could begin to rebuild, but each one makes me feel farther from God’s oversight (though I know that intellectually not to be true). Though I know that God is sovereign over all things, I feel like there could not have been a worse time for this to occur. Why not two years ago before we began the adoption process? Why not two years from now, once things have settled down a bit? How can anyone handle all of this change at once? I am trying to “power through,” on autopilot with Jesus most days, recalling what I know to be biblically true, but often not “feeling” it. Ultimately, it’s not about feelings, but . . . I really miss the feelings. And I’m not sure how any of this struggle is glorifying to God.
Ten months ago, I had no interest in making this public. I’m strong—or at least I want to appear that I am strong. But I am weary of the fight and I’m beginning to realize this is not going to change. I talked with a friend yesterday and encouraged her to be more transparent—and in my words, I heard my own hypocrisy. So, here is my story. Prayers are appreciated.