When the “wings of eagles” aren’t yours: Dealing with mental and physical illness

I write this while flat on my back on the couch.

The World Cup buzzes in the background and I catch myself just staring at it every now and then, almost too weak to type. I’ve been laid up in bed sick for three (maybe four?) days now and it’s close to the sickest I’ve ever been…aside from getting salmonella that one time. *Not fun, by the way.*

It’s been downright depressing. Being held hostage by your body–being completely vulnerable to a stomach that won’t hold anything down, crippling headaches, and a fever that keeps you huddled under a Mt. Everest of blankets is just enough to make the average person’s heart completely weak.

And I’ve wondered–what about the wings of eagles that the scriptures talk about? Aside from my battle with hypothyroidism I’m relatively healthy with little complaints. This illness in particular is temporary. Within a few days probably I’ll be able to continue a normal routine, picking up work right where I left off, writing that book review I’ve had to hold off, and mingling with family and friends who I’ve been quarantined away from this week.

For me, it’s a temporary state of “disability”. But what about the others? The others who write to me about their struggles with mental illness, their battle with autism, their fights with cancer, or Crohn’s disease, or their lives strapped down to wheelchairs or crutches? What about those who have weekly dialysis treatments or have to watch the world go on past them outside hospital windows?

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It’s been a question that’s been hard to shake. I’ve always heard this scripture repeated:

“But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint.”

But from a young age it was hard to swallow.

At the age of 7 I watched my mom deal with clinical depression–watching as she heaved into paper bags, wrestled demons, contemplated suicide, and spent nights crying out loud for it to stop. Later in life I watched my Dad–a healthy man with a healthy lifestyle–dwindle away little by little every day by cancer. I’ve watched friends drag heavy chains of manic depression or bipolar disease, whispering over the phone that it NEEDS to stop. And I’ve always wondered why these people–people I love–aren’t granted those wings of eagles. Now as I lie here sick in bed, I repeated these questions to myself.

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But the truth of it is clear. None of us, upon coming to earth, were promised to be untouched. On the contrary, actually. We were aware that we were coming to a fallen world with sickness, sadness, brains that could malfunction and chemicals that could go out of whack. We knew we signed up for limbs that could fail us, hearts that would stop beating, and eyes that would grow blurry over the years. We willingly said “Yes, Lord” before coming to a world that promised we would need to “wait” upon our strength and trust and hope in the Almighty before every gaining the strength to get through it and eventually get home.

I’ve begun to unravel–bit by bit–why we would do that. The world often preaches that when you have your health you have everything, but this makes more sense to me: “None of us will escape tragedy and suffering. Each of us will probably react differently. However, if we can recall the Lord’s promise, ‘For I the Lord am with you,’ we will be able to face our problems with dignity and courage. We will find the strength to be of good cheer instead of becoming resentful, critical, or defeated.” That was said by a leader in my church, Elder Marvin J. Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelve in 1986.

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It’s comforting to me that although we don’t have a choice what we face physically–or even mentally–in this life, we do have a choice in who we place our trust in and who we choose to help heal us or hold our hand through the often grueling and painful journey. It’s comforting to me that we don’t ever stand comfortless– and that there is always someone there who has taken it all upon himself, hundreds and thousands of years before we ever took a breath.

Your strength will be renewed within the grand scheme of eternity promised to you.

It might be in this life. It might be in the next. But the promise is clear.

We’ll all mount up with wings as eagles–simply because He is our wings.

And for now, that is enough.

Bald Eagle in mid-air flight over Homer Spit Kenai Peninsula Alaska Winter

“Blessed is he that keepeth my commandments, whether in life or in death; and he that is faithful in tribulation, the reward of the same is greater in the kingdom of heaven. …For this cause I have sent you—that you might be obedient, and that your hearts might be prepared to bear testimony of the things which are to come.” (D&C 58:2, 6.)

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Endings are the saddest part: But they often don’t exist

I bet everyone can agree that there’s always beauty in beginnings.

Driving to the hospital to meet my newborn nephew the other day, getting the keys to that first apartment or the brand new cherry-red car on my 16th birthday. Putting a veil on and carefully tying the back of a brand new wedding dress, accepting that much-prayed-for job offer, the first day on a brand new campus that’d be home to my lifelong memories. Beginnings always carry a sweet smelling perfume of a memory to me. But endings? No. Normally, *unless it’s a boring movie or a canker sore* endings are the stuff that tragedy is made up of.

At least it seems like it.

Recently I got the news that my sister-in-law’s best friend Logann was diagnosed with cancer for a second time. But this time, it’s in its final stages. My sister-in-law had cancer too and died just two years ago. Logann’s sister, Lauren, reached out to me with pictures and memories, and before long I was scrolling through her facebook page, blinking back tears and reading statuses that hint at worsening symptoms. I don’t know Logann much, but I know how it feels to face an ending.

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I carefully clicked through the photos of the young faces of the kids she’ll soon leave behind. The ending for their family is coming, just as it had for Natalie, who didn’t even make it to that last trip to DisneyLand with her kids. Just as it had for my Dad who hadn’t even had the time to acquire wrinkles. Just as it had for countless faces and names from my readers who share pictures and stories throughout my inbox–people who share the general ache of having been through an ending of some sort.

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For some, it’s the ending that comes with seeing a child move across the country with a new husband and a U-Haul. For some, it’s the loss of a career or a divorce that leaves empty drawers, empty halls, and an empty heart. For some, it’s the ending that comes with a severed friendship or a miscarriage that leaves you with empty arms and a few loose ultrasound pictures to prove that a child ever even existed.

Time can seem like a relentless, cruel train that moves fast and uninterrupted. Time stops for no one and quickly reminds us that every day we’re dying or nearing an end of something. Some of us just know when that time will be, others of us have no idea.

It all just ends in an ending, we think.. And the only beauty we can possibly hope for is that there will be a beginning soon after.

But what if we decided to find the beauty before that eventual beginning? Is it possible? Well, today–I learned it is.

Today was General Conference in my church. General Conference is a time when leaders of my church come together to talk about a wide variety of things that they’ve prayed about or felt inspiration to teach. No matter where you are in the world you can listen in by internet or television or broadcasts in meetinghouses. One talk in particular today reached me in a way that made me wonder if Heaven itself wrote that message just for Kayla. But of course not–we all needed to hear it.

The talk was by President Dieter F. Uchtdorf. He spoke about gratitude throughout the pains of life, understanding in all things, and before ending his talk he simply stated,”There seems to be something inside of us that resists endings. Why is this? Because we’re made out of the stuff of eternity. Endings are not our destiny.”

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Endings don’t sit well with us because there’s often no such thing. We feel the need to keep existing–to keep connected with those we love and to always have another sunrise. We often forget, I learned today, that we’re not dying every day. We’re just continuing.

And if we believe in eternity, then that means we believe that nothing–not even death–can be considered an end.

As children of the creator of a universe dotted with galaxies and stars and life still undiscovered that goes on and on and never hits a wall, we also follow the pattern of creation. We don’t end either.

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Sometimes it’s hard to see simply because we don’t comprehend the magnitude of it, just as we can’t wrap our minds around the nonexistent walls of universe that stretch on forever. But every now and then, like those words that hit me today, the spirit will whisper a reminder.

Lauren sent me a note recently tagged along with the photos of her and her sweet sister that states she’s grateful for time that she has left with Logann–the gift that reminds her this isn’t where it ends. It’s simply a pause. She said Logann spends her days talking about eternity with the kids–a concept that is almost impossible to understand now, but something that will be the only comfort someday and the only truth.

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There’s a beauty in knowing that we’re more constant than the sun–that our eternal value is more dependable than the tides. There’s a beauty in being reminded that what we call endings are nothing more than a flicker of pause in a seamless fabric of eternity–the same fabric that makes up an ever-stretching universe. The same fabric made from our Father’s hands.

When we look at it that way–at least for me–it’s not just the beginnings that seem beautiful. It’s the continuing.

Click here to donate to Logann and her sweet family.