I don’t often use my health history purely for shock value. But sitting in the X-ray waiting area this past Tuesday, on the 13th floor of Northwestern Hospital’s newest medical building, I let it fly. I couldn’t help myself.
I was there for my two year follow up with my Neurosurgeon, Dr. Koski. He’s the incredible physician that cut me in half and then put me back together again in March of 2012. He also shortened me by an inch, but I’ll let that one slide. In addition to “checking in”, I was there to discuss my Chiari symptoms with him and how to move forward with all of that.
The X-ray tech (who I might add was wearing jingle bell earrings…very festive) had just finished up my head to tailbone scan and released me back to the changing area to discard my scratchy blue hospital gowns and don my regular street clothes. I’m a Fashion Design graduate and “professor” so it’s literally been my job to figure out how to use my clothing to disguise my disfigurements.
Apparently this specific Tuesday, I was doing a pretty good job with this, because as I sat in the waiting area to go back to my clinic room, a conversation between three other patrons began in which it was apparent that they had no clue to the extent of my physical history.
The first gentleman, probably in his late 60’s, was pacing the confined waiting area with a subtle limp. To my left sat another gentleman, in a soft collar, literally making sounds like he was dying. To my right, another gentleman in his 60’s (61 to be exact, as I was about to find out), in paper hospital shorts and happy as a clam. The man to my right initiated the conversation….”I’m 61 and have had 16 surgeries. Yes sir, I’ve really been put through the ringer. I have so many scars on me, I look like a railroad track! (at this point he stuck his legs straight out for added effect). And boy oh boy, do I have some metal in me! But I’m pain free and thankful for that now”. The man to the left of me slit his eyes open enough for us to tell he was alive and muttered something about having had 3 spine surgeries, and currently an infection, and was extremely upset about no longer being able to eat his steak and French fries. The gentleman pacing around the waiting area paused momentarily to briskly say, ‘I’ve just had one and that’s enough for me.” Then they all looked at me.
I should mention that the Neurospine unit had just joined offices with the orthopedic unit, so it was pretty clear to me that they all were assuming that I was there for (what everyone thinks)… a sports injury. (I WISH) I savored the silent moment before letting the hammer fall. The man to the left of me had closed his eyes again, clearly not expecting me to say much. Quite casually I said, “I was born with spina bifida, have had 7 major spine surgeries, 13 leg and foot surgeries, I’m 29 and 4 weeks ago had my 21st surgery….an ileostomy bag placed in my abdomen. (at which point I lifted up my shirt slightly to show them (for added effect ;)). I also wear leg braces, have self catheterized since I was nine and no longer have feeling in half my body. Oh, and all those surgeries? That’s not counting my C-section 6 years ago.”
The man to the left of me about jumped out of his soft collar, eyes suddenly bulging, double chin somewhat slightly receding. The gentleman pacing the room stopped and stared at me, and I don’t even remember what the fellow to the right of me said.
All I know is in that moment, I had gained some respect. And some leverage. And some attention.
I told the man to the right of me that I was thrilled that he was currently pain free. What a GIFT. I told him that someday….maybe not on this earth…but someday, I’d experience that, too. I told the man pacing the room that Dr. Koski was THE BEST and I would pray that he only ever needed to experience one surgery. And to the man to the left of me, who was in visible pain; I told him that his suffering was great, because it was HIS suffering. There is no comparing suffering. Each person’s pain is the greatest to that person experiencing it.
Shortly after that, we were all called back to our designated clinic rooms. I told the man with one surgery to “make it snappy” as we had both been waiting to see Dr. Koski for over two hours and he was ahead of me. He gave me a wink, a smile, and a pat on the shoulder and limped his way down the hallway.
In that moment I was thankful that hospitals don’t have very good cell phone reception. It forced me into conversation with the lives around me. I was also reminded of how pain can bring attention.
Remember this. It’s important.
I’m going to shift gears for one moment, though.
These past few weeks have been pretty crummy for me. These past few days have been downright miserable. Out of every physical pain I’ve experienced, depression, hands-down beats them all, in how much it sucks. It’s just plain awful. After four weeks of noticing some tell-tale signs (for me) of depression creeping in, I scheduled an appointment with my Christian Counselor and my Psychiatric NP, thankful that this time I knew who to turn to for help.
I have had a sneaking suspicion since having the surgery, that I was no longer receiving the full dose of my anti-depressant. It was an extended release capsule, so now, rather than sitting in my colon and digesting for 5+ days, it was coming out overnight. We also decided that my nervous system has taken another big hit with this most recent surgery, and might need a little help firing all its little neurons properly.
These past few weeks have had me feeling like I’m in a pit, surrounded with walls made of sand. I have been trying my hardest to climb out, but the further I get, the farther I fall back. We decided it’s time to bring in a ladder (side note: I completely made up this analogy so if it’s medically off….blame me, not the professionalsJ).
So for these past two days now, we have been adjusting my medications to an immediate release formula, in addition to boosting one slightly. It’s been really hard. It’s not easy to make these adjustments, but I am confident in these professionals who are helping me, in their love for the Lord, and even more in the Lord’s love for me. God’s felt FAR away these last few days. I’ve had to lean on what I KNOW is true. I have felt so tired and defeated by thoughts like, “is this who I really am…this beaten down, depressed version of myself”? I’ve thought about causing myself pain, because that used to be my vice….my stronghold to reality…because PAIN GETS ATTENTION AND PAIN WAS MY IDENTITY when my life was spinning out of control. And I’m really good at handling pain.
But I learned through my last rough patch with depression that the attention will not satisfy me. I had the honor, and I don’t say that lightly, to speak at a Celebrate Recovery Group that meets at Elmbrook church, back in August. The story of HOW I came to speak there is a wonderful story, but I will save it for a different blog post. When I was first asked to speak there, I panicked a little, because I thought I had nothing in common with “those people”. The drug addicts. The alcoholics. The emotionally dependent. (I was being pathetically self-righteous).
Then the Holy Spirit lovingly but firmly nudged my heart (because that’s HIS way), the night before I was to speak, and said, “Adri….you are addicted to pain and the attention that it brings. You are no different than those people.”
He took my fingers to the words in John 5, where Jesus asks the man at the pool of Bethesda if he wanted to get well. I had always secretly loathed this verse. I mean, how silly of God to ask that. This man had been lame for 38 years…of COURSE he wanted to get well.
But as God peeled back the layers of my heart to reveal this new realization about my addiction to pain, I suddenly knew why this was such a profound question that Jesus was asking. This man at the pool needed to get to a point where he was willing to give up the identity that he had in PAIN (and all that went along with that) and trade it in for an identity in CHRIST. That is a life-altering decision.
In that waiting room at Northwestern hospital, as I basked in the short-lived satisfaction of shocking my older male counterparts, I was reminded that I need Christ more than I need the attention from pain.
As I’ve been so very tempted to give into despair over these last few days, I’ve been reminded that my identity is in Christ, not in pain.
As I sat in Dr. Koski’s office that day and had him tell me that he was noticing new abnormalities in my upper mobility reflexes, I clung to the truth that I need CHRIST more than I need PAIN.
I can tell you that I can face the changes in my medication tomorrow, the brain and cervical scans in a few weeks, and a life of continued pain because, and only because my identity is not in it and the attention it brings, but in Christ alone.
“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.  5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” – John 5: 1-6