Thursday, August 13, 2009

courage, critters, and clusters

I was asked to write about courage: what it is, what it means to have it; how brave I am.

I’m not brave. The huge, six-legged critter on the wall this morning nearly gave me a heart attack. And huge is relative: in this case, to an ant (or an amoeba). However, it took me ten minutes to grab the Windex and spray that sucker until he swirled in a drowning dance of death. It took another five minutes to stop screaming that the demonic mini-monster was water-resistant and to find another means to remove him. He wasn’t actually water-resistant, but it turns out “non-toxic” cleaners don’t kill unwanted pests no matter how many times you squirt and yell “Die!” He did eventually sizzle out (thank you, eye make-up remover), but back to my point, I’m not brave.

Last night, I paced the linoleum floors of a local hospital, sobbing and shaking and scared to death. I’m not brave.

I have cluster headaches. They’re rare. Less than 1% of the population suffers from the stubborn things. And the majority of that 1% is composed of middle aged men. I’m an eighteen year old girl, and I most likely inherited the headaches from three great uncles. What do I have in common with them physically? Hopefully not much. (I’m not saying…. I’m just saying….)

A cluster headache (migrainous neuralgia) is the most intense of any headache with its extremely rapid, severe onset. I may be walking along with no pain whatsoever, and in five minutes, be experiencing the most excruciating agony of my life. It’s how they operate. On its own, an attack can last anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours. The pain for the remainder of an episode pierces as though an ice-pick were constantly being stabbed through one eye. Others have compared the pain to an amputation without anesthesia, natural childbirth, or my favorite: "Keebler Elves making cookies in your head, becoming claustrophobic, & trying to drill their way out through your eye." Ouch.

I’ve been battling the attacks for ten months now. On average, I have episodes every one to three hours from five in the afternoon until noon the next day. This generally lasts every day for forty days, and then I have a few weeks without them. I can remember the day when I became chronic. I can picture the way the doctor’s hands flipped casually through the chart, smell the antiseptic spray, and feel the paper when I realized I’d subconsciously ripped it.

I can remember the day because I was terrified. I dreaded the cluster attacks because of how they made me feel, but the word “chronic” indicated that this would become my future. For so long, being sick had been my identity, and I hated it. It was a part of me, but I didn’t want it to represent all that I am. The label “chronic” represented the fact that I had no control over what was to come, what I was to be. It wasn’t a death sentence, but it meant giving up dreams, surrendering what I thought was supposed to happen. I didn’t feel brave that day.

Last night, a cluster headache episode came on, and I couldn’t stop it. Normally, ten minutes inhaling pure oxygen shuts it off. It didn’t. I wasn’t afraid until I saw the look on my mom’s face when I told her it wasn’t going away. It wasn’t until my brother gave me a hug and started crying that I realized I wasn'the only one who was afraid.

When we arrived at the emergency room, I walked and walked, a restlessness fed by the consistent pain. I think I kept moving because, on some level, I was worried that if I stopped, the hurt would somehow overtake me.

In that moment, random verses started running through my mind:
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:8-10)

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (1 Pet. 4:12-13)

And I begin to understand a different side of courage. It’s not about having the ability to fight off your struggles. Christ’s power works best is weakness. And as I’m discovering, He’s working in the trembling, hurting, and confused.

The Savior we seek didn’t promise that life on earth would be easy. I mean, really? Jesus was murdered and homeless. But unlike any religion, believing in our Christ guarantees a secure afterlife. This life hurts in a billion different ways, but “…I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18) This is as close to Hell as I’m ever going to get. Heaven awaits! After nights like last night, there’s absolutely an ache for it to come soon. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4) In my Bible, I’ve jotted in “cluster headaches.” THIS is why we celebrate and rejoice even when it seems unbearable. It’s not about being brave. I’ve spent so much time in doctors’ offices hearing others’ stories: horrific stories. But I’ve seen these people, and I truly think they’ve figured out true courage. True courage is when you trust God even when the darkness is so thick around you, you don't know where you're standing.

You see, a lot is out of my control, but God remains my “constant source of stability.” (Isaiah 33:6) Not because of anything I do, but because of who He is. Pain would be worthless if we served an unstable God who had no way of controlling what happens. However, He remains sovereign even in the worst of conditions; He's still there in the chronic headaches and the E.R. visits and the bug attacks. I may not be brave, but I'm learning to trust an immutable Savior. “…I will hope in Him…” (Job 13:15) “…and hope does not disappoint us.” (Rom. 5:5)


Abby Fields said...

I love you, Katie Laitkep! You are such an encouragement to me and always bring me back to our savior. Thanks for being a constant friend and encourager for me even when you are going through all of this. I love you and will continue to pray.

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