Asking for Help

Pros and Cons of Summer 2017

Pros: I think I’m overall doing really well! The effectiveness of the shoulder surgery I had is heavily dependent on physical therapy. Although it was torture all last semester, I’m finally at a place where I can use my left arm to function like a[n almost] normal human being! But then I’ve also adjusted my normal routine; why blow-dry or straighten your hair when surgery made it curlier anyways? Why use arms to open doors when you can discreetly kick open doors and fake that you opened them like a normal person? (Okay I only do that occasionally.)

And now that it’s been two months since I was discharged from PT, I’ve established a regular weekly workout routine to maintain strength. Good news- I can successfully lift a 1-pound dumbbell! You may think it’s pathetic, but honestly I’m thrilled! I have no doubt that my shoulder is in place, and if it dislocates in the next decade, I will be very surprised.

I’m happy to be where I am. I didn’t think that would be the case. The peace of mind I now have, from knowing that my shoulder is securely in place, makes the past seven months worth it.

But the fun never stops!

Con: I have another surgery to decide on. LOL.

This time it’s my hand. If you’ve kept up with me for the past year and a half: Remember that dislocation I had last spring? I’m definitely remembering it now.

Well that dislocation may have been the cause of some pretty serious damage. I now have a cyst in one of my hand bones, which is probably off-setting the placement of my other hand bones. The cyst would have to be surgically removed from the bone, and it doesn’t sound easy. Since my bones are rubbing together, I now have arthritis.

L.O.L.

Not exactly what I was expecting to hear. (I found this out the SAME DAY that I got released from my shoulder surgeon. Kind of an emotional day.) But at this point, I’m not surprised that something else went wrong requiring another major surgery.

Part of me is asking, “How long, O Lord?”

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”

Psalm 13:1-2 (ESV)

I love the Psalms for including such honest questions like “How long do I have to put up with this, God?” But until recently, I thought this question was only located in the Psalms.

It turns out that Jesus asked the same question:

17 And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18 And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” 19 And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”

Mark 9:17-19 (ESV)

I love my sarcastic Savior. I love that He expressed His frustration over the faithlessness of people around Him. Our God is Holy and yet relatable. I love that.

20 And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

Mark 9:20-22

I love my caring Savior. He took the time to understand a hurting family’s story. He didn’t just see a need; He saw His wonderfully-made creation, for whom He had planned out all of their days before they came to be (Psalm 139). I love that too.

23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Mark 9:23-24

I love my powerful Savior. I love that, in the remainder of this passage in Mark, Jesus is able to heal the boy like only He could. But these two verses have dominated my focus for a while now: the honest prayer of a hurting father–“Help my unbelief!”

This plea for help immediately follows declaration of God’s abilities. I feel like this father claimed he believed in Jesus’ ability for his own sake; it seems like he needed help actually believing it. And he admitted it to Jesus!

I love that I can admit my failures to the One whom I fail.

For several months now, I’ve been learning to ask people for help. (It doesn’t come naturally.) I finally realized the significance of asking God for help, since He is the source of my only hope.

On the day I found out about inevitable tough times ahead with my hand, the Holy Spirit reminded me of this passage in Mark, specifically the father’s prayer, “Help my unbelief!” I began to think about characteristics of God that I did not, at that moment, believe to be true. I had trouble admitting that God is good, faithful, caring, sovereign, etc.

So I decided to ask for help.

God, You are in control of this situation. Help my unbelief.

God, You are working this out for my good. Help my unbelief.

God, You are always good. Help my unbelief.

God, You are faithful to strengthen me. Help my unbelief.

God, You will not abandon me. Help my unbelief.

I so desperately needed to remind myself of God’s reliable character, and it was so freeing to admit my struggle in believing.

I don’t know what tomorrow holds for me or for you. But I know that God is with us to walk with us even through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). God, help our unbelief.

New Song in my Mouth

What a year. Somehow I completed my junior year of college, on top of a debilitating surgery/recovery process. I don’t think I’ve gotten over the fact that I actually survived.

So surgery…yeah…not something I can talk about easily. It’s been the most humbling experience of my life. I’m pretty sure middle school was the last time I had to ask for rides as often as I did this semester. I thought I had mastered the art of doing laundry during my freshman year; I didn’t think I’d have to ask for help with laundry anymore. Most notably, I didn’t think I would have to go to class on the same days that I needed [prescribed] pain medication, in order to get me through the torture of range-of-motion exercises at PT. But that became the norm–twice a week, every week of the semester. So that was fun.

In addition to the physical changes of this year, the academic/social changes of this year were [almost] equally challenging. I went from spending most of my time practicing or thinking about practicing or complaining about practicing in the music building basically all my waking hours, to…I don’t even know. I love being a religion major, but I still don’t have an answer when people ask what I do. Not to say it’s easier; it’s not. Both a pro and con of being a religion major–not having a specific curriculum required of every religion major. Pro: I get to graduate on time. Con: I don’t see the same people in the same building during all my waking hours. Huge change from the last two years.

Confession: I cried more this semester over my inability to play flute than I did over my pain levels. Grief over my loss of performing ability really kicked in this semester, now that I’m not constantly anxious about joints potentially going out of place. This grief manifested itself when my schedule allowed me more free time than I had as a music major, when I listened to music that I was once able to play, and when I heard my friends successfully perform to the best of their ability.

The grief on top of the constant excruciating pain felt like a “pit of destruction.” But as an answered prayer, “He put a new song in my mouth.”

I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
    out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
    making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord.

Psalm 40:1-3

Part of this new song is declaring God’s goodness in challenging circumstances. Here’s how He revealed His goodness to me this semester:

  • Community

During one very talented friend’s senior recital, I thought about the “what-ifs” of my music career. The nostalgia over positive performing experiences became overwhelming. I missed the days when conductors would tell the entire ensemble to play at a softer volume so that my solo could be heard. I missed being heard.

During that same recital, I also thought about the opportunities I’ve had over the past year to hear–to hear what is going on in other people’s lives, to hear from God’s Word–more so than I had as a music major.

In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted,
    but you have given me an open ear.

Psalm 40:6a

One of the greatest gifts God bestowed upon me this semester was an open ear. I can’t take credit for the drastic increase in desire to listen to others this semester. I believe God gave me this increased desire to be a coping mechanism for everything I went through this semester. It’s comforting to know that others don’t completely have their lives together, which creates common ground for us to collectively recognize our need for a Savior. To quote a friend who teaches me what community looks like long-distance: “It’s depending on those in a gospel-centered community that points us to our utmost need for a relationship with Christ.”

God has been good to me by providing people to love with His love and providing people who reciprocated His love.

  • The ability to finish the semester strong–literally

Like I already said, it seems so surreal that I actually finished the semester at all. In my own power, I would not have been able to finish. Although I’m not prepared to begin bench-pressing 250 (or even 2.5 lbs), I’ve gained a lot of strength back over the past five months–considering the fact that I had 0 strength when I began this semester.

I’ve come a long way physically, and I’ve improved academically as well. Within my first four weeks into the semester, I had three papers due. (Shorter papers, but still. I had one hand with which to type and one brain trying to process both words and pain medication.) The goodness of God was present in my schedule for this semester; I had many assignments due at the beginning of the semester, so I was able to focus more on recovery for the remainder of the semester.

  • Affirmation that I’m where I need to be

Following the academic transition to a religion major, I had no idea what the rest of my college career would look like. People who knew the extent of the difficulties surrounding surgery and recovery occasionally asked me if I ever considered transferring and moving back home. I honestly didn’t want to. But the suggestion did make practical sense. However, one of the greatest aspects of my small, Christian school is the ability to be known and cared for by the faculty. Two weeks ago, I was awarded a scholarship based on the verse Luke 2:52 (“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man”). This award recognized the hard work that the Lord enabled me to apply to find balance in my life, on top of overwhelming health concerns. This experience gave me the peace that surpasses understanding, knowing that I’m exactly where God has placed me: When I’ve felt like many do not understand the difficulty of finding balance with chronic health problems, the faculty of my school demonstrated to me that they understand and care. Wow, God is good to provide financial support and emotional support, resulting from the abilities He also gave me.

May the act of singing this new song lead me to honestly confess,

I have told the glad news of deliverance
    in the great congregation;
behold, I have not restrained my lips,
    as you know, O Lord.
10 I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart;
    I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
    from the great congregation.

Psalm 40:9-10

But may all who seek you
    rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
    say continually, “Great is the Lord!”
17 As for me, I am poor and needy,
    but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
    do not delay, O my God!

Psalm 40:16-17

This new song in my mouth is the antithesis of my previous self-absorbed song. By singing this new song, I can expose my human limitations and give praise to my limitless God.

Why I Welcome Jokes About My Pain

The “chronic” part of chronic pain means that things get old pretty quickly. “Things” meaning thought processes, daily routines, joints, etc. And over time, you’ll need to experience a variety of emotional responses.

Yes, chronic pain can be daily frustrating and exhausting and disappointing. But it can be other things too. Even in seasons of chronic pain flareups, joy can and should be found. One way I try to look for joy in my situation is through humor, whether that’s my own jokes about my pain or laughing at others’ jokes about my pain or their own. Here’s why.

  1. Humor cuts the tension of not knowing what to say. When multiple of my extremities have on noticeable braces, and when I can see your look of confusion about what to say, I feel more sorry for you than you do for me. Cue the jokes. Pain-related humor opens the door to talking about the obvious. You may be afraid of phrasing questions about my situation the wrong way. Jokes are sometimes my way of helping you out.
  2. My situation actually is humorous. Maybe in the moment, it can be difficult to see the humor. But sometimes my life is so ironic that I have to laugh in the moment. Like that one time I was trying to finish a paper two hours before it was due, and my shoulder dislocated–while wearing a sling that was supposed to keep that from happening. In that moment, it was kinda hard to breathe from the pain, but I was still able to send out a PSA that school is dangerous. The fact that I can injure myself doing the most mundane tasks makes my life so much more interesting. Sometimes I imagine my life being livestreamed in Heaven with God as the “heavenly host” [not the punchline], complete with questions for the audience such as “Will she be able to take out the trash without further injuring her arms? Let’s find out!” My life is never boring anymore, so I try to take advantage of it through humor.
  3. When chronic pain limits my abilities, I know that I still have the ability to make myself (and hopefully other people too) laugh. My use of the phrase “I can’t” seems to outweigh my use of the phrase “I can,” as of late. Especially since I’ve lost my ability to perform music, I’ve been trying to remind myself that my life isn’t over, even if my performing career is. Sometimes my self-pep talk consists of a mere “I can do things!” My goal in making jokes about my pain is not always to get other people to laugh. If I make a joke, I think it’s funny. And that’s good enough for me.
  4. I can either laugh or cry. Confession: I do need to cry over my situation every once in a while. It can relieve tension and make me tired enough to get some sleep. But the benefits of crying don’t outweigh the benefits of laughter. Laughter takes away the sting of the moment and replaces worry with peace. Proverbs 17:22 says, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” I choose the medicine of a joyful heart over dried-up bones. I’m having enough problems with my skeletal system as it is.
  5. Making light of my situation reminds me not to take this life too seriously. If this present life is all that I am guaranteed, then I would definitely take my health (or lack thereof) seriously all the time. Thank the Lord that this is not the only life I will live or the only body I will possess! Philippians 3:20-21 says, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” Paul is reminding the Philippians that, although this present life matters, the next is what we’re living for. Hope for tomorrow makes today not only bearable, but also enjoyable, in that it provides a greater end goal than immediate health.
  6. Jesus is better. Paul understands me. I relate on a spiritual level. When God told Paul that His grace was enough to sustain him, despite his thorn in the flesh, Paul responds in a way that can’t make sense to non-believers: “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 Corinthians 12:9b-10). I looked up some definitions for verse 9. The Greek word for “boast” means “to glory on account of.” To “glory” means to “take great pride or pleasure in.” Paul found pleasure in his weaknesses as opportunities to magnify the power of Christ. Chronic pain as an opportunity–what a thought! I can be content with my pain. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Tunnel Vision (An Open Letter to God)

Dear God,

Remember me? We met a long time ago. We got really close a few years ago. I haven’t heard from You in a while, so I thought I’d check in.

I’ve been doing okay, sometimes. Less-than-okay at other times. Actually quite often. I’m usually kept busy with that thing I’ve had going on for a while now. You know, chronic pain. I’ve been in pain since before You and I had the DTR, when I decided to trust You completely. So really You should know by now how much it’s affected my life. You should know about the daily struggle to simply function, the setbacks in my goals, and the complete career change that resulted from the pain.

Not that I’m trying to only complain. It’s true that You’ve gotten me through many hard times. And I’d like to think that I’ve given You the credit.

But there’s something that’s been bothering me, and I think You ought to know. I often feel pain more than I feel Your presence. God. where are You on the hardest days? The I-can’t-get-out-of-bed days, the every-body-part-hurts days, especially the how-long-Oh-Lord days?

My own body taunts me, saying, “Where is your God?” (Psalm 42:10).

You say that when two or more or gathered in Your name, there You are (Matt. 18:20). But what about the times when I’m all alone? Where are you then?

Where are you when I am either yelling from pain or silenced by pain, having to remind myself to breathe?

I feel like no one understands, or is attempting to understand, what I’m going through.  My life feels surrounded by darkness, like I’m traveling down a never-ending tunnel.

I’m trying to go back to the times when I felt You near me, when I felt that You knew how much pain I was in. I guess You did leave me Your Word to remember You by. Maybe I can remember what You would say if You were with me and could feel my pain. I turn to Your Word and see that You, God, are not exempt from suffering.

I see You, Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane. The sweat from Your brow reveals that even Your body–fully man and fully God–was wondering where Your Father was.

I see You with me in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4). I’m never alone.

Not only that–I see that You’re with me in the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37). When I have to remind myself to breathe, You breathe life back into me. I could have a perfectly functioning body but would be nothing without Your breath of life.

The person I read about in Your Word is not who I’ve recently imagined You to be. Each  time I assign to You a label of unfaithfulness, apathy, or malevolence, I commit the greatest act of misunderstanding. I’m sorry, Lord.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.

Psalm 139:7-12

You must have seen the tears rolling down my face as I walked down the halls of the hospital. You must have heard my gasping for air when the pain was overwhelming. You must have. Because You were there.

You see. You hear. You’re here.

God, remind me that You are beside me, holding my right hand as You offer Your help and tell me not to fear (Isaiah 41:13).

Remind me that You are behind me, telling me which way to go (Isaiah 30:21).

Remind me that You are beneath me, as my foundation more solid than a rock, helping me withstand the storm (Matthew 7:24-25).

Remind me that You are above me, residing over both the powerful and the humble, as You observe everything I’m going through (Isaiah 40:22-23).

Remind me that You are in front of me, as the end goal for the race set before me (Hebrews 12:1-2). You’re the light at the end of this tunnel. Although I may still feel the darkness around me, You, the lamp to my feet, provide enough light for me to take one step at a time (Psalm 119:105).

Remind me that You are in me, giving my weak and dysfunctional body intrinsic worth (1 Corinthians 6:19).

Time and Timelessness

Time flies when you’re having fun!

Or also when you have shoulder surgery, and your life is less fun.

Still, I can’t believe it’s been 10 weeks since surgery! And that I’ve been back at school for almost five weeks! I thank God that this extremely difficult season–as a whole–is flying by.

Not to say that every day is easy. In fact, no day has been easy in the recovery process, and I don’t expect to have an “easy” day for several months. Each day in itself can be so discouraging. Yet at the end of the day, I’m one step closer to reaching functional level. And for that, I must thank God for His daily dose of new mercies.

Where am I now? Well my victories for this week include driving off campus, attending church without wearing my sling (which was actually a mistake, considering how enthusiastic my church is about supporting international missionaries–that was a little risky on my part), and…wait for it…actually pulling my hair back BY MYSELF! You can tell where my priorities are. But in my defense, my doctor said in my last appointment that the goal for right now is to be able to do my hair on my own. So.

On my own. That’s a phrase I haven’t used in the past 10 weeks, at least regarding my current abilities. I have to say that this recovery process has been the most humbling experience of my life. I can’t really compare my recovery period to the months between the first dislocations and surgery. That timeframe was filled with fear of the unknown that wasn’t settled by any of my own efforts. But I can compare this recovery road to my life before dislocations.

It’s hard to believe what I was doing a year ago. In my first and final semester as a piano major, I spent hours practicing an instrument that I (now) can’t even hold my arm at the appropriate level to play. I rehearsed and performed with the orchestra a 45-minute long, and very difficult, work on the flute, which has been sitting at the bottom of my closet for seven months. I spent my free time, in addition to study time and rehearsal time, in the music building, remaining on the other side of campus from my ice packs that are now a necessity every two to four hours.

Time is funny like that. It just takes a little to turn the direction of your life 180 degrees.

What’s even more fascinating is the artistry God demonstrates in our perception of time.

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11

I’m currently listening to the song “Brokenness Aside” by All Sons & Daughters. The chorus resounds with the truth that He, as our Savior, takes “brokenness aside and [makes] it beautiful.”

The great thing about God’s artistic ability is that He isn’t restricted to our frame of reference we call time. He doesn’t need my body to be healed before He can work beauty out of the situation.

Also, he has put eternity into our hearts.

Eternity is defined as “the timeless state into which the soul passes at a person’s death.” In her book Whispers of Hope, Beth Moore claims that “eternal ‘life’ doesn’t begin when we die. It began the moment we were reborn.” What a beautiful notion–eternity isn’t restricted to my timeframe. It begins when I surrender control of my life to the only one worthy. This is when true life begins.

Even so, we cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

C.S. Lewis notes the importance of meditating on the God who exists outside of time: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.”

My church just completed a sermon series on “the hereafter,” including most recently a sermon on the New Heaven and New Earth. Beyond the promise of a resurrected body and an end to the cause for tears, the passages we explored in the book of Revelation promise me endless direct access to the God who created time, as both Alpha and Omega. These passages directed my eyes upward. I’m realizing that this is exactly where my gaze needs to be fixed, especially right now.

Christ’s death and resurrection affect my life daily by context for today. Today is not where  I first encountered Christ; I’ve progressed in my faith since then. Today is also not the end. I have a future. I have a hope. And this hope is located beyond today. Beyond the pain I feel today. Beyond the disappointments and isolation and dread of inevitable pain tomorrow. This hope is accompanied by a peace that surpasses understanding, which allows me to get through this today, followed by the next and the next. One day I’ll look back on this season of life and praise God not only for the beauty He’s making of the situation, but also the sustaining hope of spending “timelessness” in His presence.

Hope for the future makes today’s suffering bearable.

 

12 Strategies to Balance College and Chronic Pain

Dear Hurting College Student,

Good for you!

Good for you for realizing that you are more than your pain and daring to enter the world of academia to become more than your pain.

What a daunting task. Not only are trying to get a degree and form relationships like everyone else, but you’re also trying to function. It’s a difficult place to be: You’re on survival mode, while the normal students are on party mode.

But to you, the work you put in day in and day out is a big deal. Endeavoring to better yourself through education is a challenging task for anyone brave enough to try. Chronic pain makes it all the more difficult.

If you’re not already doing these things, here are some ways to attend to both yourself and your GPA.

  1. Register with your school’s disability services. I went two years without accommodations from my school. It was miserable. The attendance policies for my classes were the biggest burden; just about every semester, I was one absence away from getting an FA (Failure due to Absence) in many of my classes. Once I registered with Disability Resources, my professors were held responsible to work with me regarding absences. I don’t know how I managed without accommodations for so long. I recommend doing this before your first semester in college.
  2. Get to know your professors. Whether or not you have accommodations, meeting with your professors one-on-one allows them to identify who you are, and they can know what symptoms to look for while you’re in their class. Meeting face-to-face can also show your professors your genuineness in reaching out for help. Over email, it’s easier to assume that someone doesn’t really need extra help. I remember the look on my professors faces when they realized that I am actually dealing with difficult circumstances both inside and outside the classroom. It’s extremely beneficial to reach a level of understanding between you and your professor early on in the semester.
  3. Look over your syllabus ASAP. If a class seems to much to handle from Day 1 (or whenever you see the syllabus), it won’t get any easier. Drop it if you feel the need.
  4. Fill out your planner ASAP. As soon as you get your syllabus, fill all dates in your planner. Every date your professor gives you: test dates, quiz dates, project due dates, paper due dates. Write it all down. After you’ve done this for each class, highlight the days you really can’t afford to miss. By planning it out now, you can do whatever is necessary to make that class. If that means skipping the class before so you can be fully prepared to stand for your speech, skip. Strategically skip so that you can attend more classes long-term.
  5. Find multiple study locations where you can be comfortable. Your pain is probably your biggest enemy while you study. Having more than one location that will minimize the pain can optimize your study time. If that means mostly studying in your room, do it. It’s better for you to be comfortable than sociable while studying.
  6. Realize that you will have to take more study breaks. And that is okay. I’ve found that, for this reason, it’s more difficult to study in groups than individually. I face enough distractions studying on my own. If you’re the same way, it might help to keep a tally of what causes your distractions. Categorizing by specific areas of pain or various emotional or spiritual needs can indicate how best to care yourself. For example, if you take tallies for an hour and are most distracted by neck pain, find a better way to support your neck before continuing to study. If you can’t concentrate because you’re stressed about life in general, take a coloring break.
  7. Exercise during study breaks. Not only is this something you’ve probably heard from multiple doctors. (Probably so often that you roll your eyes at the thought.) But it also gives you energy to continue studying. I know it’s difficult to find ways to exercise without pain. For me, one thing that actually helps raise my heart rate without raising my pain rate is a pedal bike. I have it on the floor beside my desk, so I sit in my desk chair while I pedal. That way I can avoid back pain/shoulder pain from riding a normal bike. Find what does the trick, and do that exercise in small increments between studying.
  8. Make food/sleep a priority. School stress is fun because it can make you forget to do what you need the most. Have a regular eating/sleeping schedule that you work studying around. I definitely get less productive when I’m hungry and need protein. So if I’m not planning to eat dinner at 5:00, then I stop trying to work until after I eat. And my quality of work drastically declines after 9:30. So at 10:00, I stop what I’m doing and go to bed.
  9. Schedule times to meet up with people a weekend in advance. Chronic pain doesn’t have to debilitate your social life. It helps to plan in advance, so you don’t get caught in the unknowns of “Hey let’s hang out!” By making the plans yourself, you can make sure you’re only doing things that you’re physically capable of. Of course, all of this can get thrown out the window with a bad pain day. But as with classes, you can try to skip the less important activities to rest up for the more important ones.
  10. Be content with genuinely doing your best. Fellow perfectionists: It’s really okay to stop at “good enough.” There will always be ways to improve your paper. There will always be more information that you can try to master before the test. Sometimes you have to draw the line so that you don’t exhaust yourself unnecessarily. This doesn’t mean that not trying is an option. This means that you know what you are capable of accomplishing, and you shouldn’t punish yourself for not accomplishing more.
  11. Don’t compare your successes to others’. Contentment with doing your best will keep you from holding yourself to the same standard as other people. Your abilities are not the same as everyone else’s; you have different abilities, different ways to express your uniqueness. You can’t (or at least shouldn’t) pull all-nighters to study, but that probably helps your grades overall. Other people may not experience brain fog like you do. Give yourself some grace. You know how much you’re having to manage on a daily basis. You should create standards for your academic success accordingly.
  12. Focus on the big picture goal. Balancing chronic pain and college will seem pointless if you do not remind yourself why you’re in school. I want to become a counselor so that I can help others process the struggles of their lives and move forward. Therefore, I have a reason to go to class every day that I am able. The little things of today give meaning to the big things of tomorrow. “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10). Be honest with yourself and with other people about why you do what you do. Keep fighting through the pain because one day someone will benefit from your efforts.

But God

What a semester. How do I describe it–living life on the edge, while my shoulder muscles hang on for dear life? Falling apart at the seams–literally? Trying to subdue the wanderlust of my shoulder?

I don’t know. What I know is that I have now completed the most circumstantially challenging semester of my entire life. Even though it feels like I’ve said that every semester for the past two years, this time it’s true. Thanks to all my prayer warriors who kept me going.

But there’s someone else who got me through the semester. (Hint: See title.) I wasn’t sure how to recount the events of this semester, for those of you who are interested. (Which I appreciate.) I finally decided on telling the actual story, hitting the highlights that stand out in my mind while also reflecting on how God got me through the difficult chunks of the semester. So here’s the story, chunk by chunk.

Beginning this semester was strange on so many levels. This was my first semester in my final major. (No but really this time. I’m technically a senior now, so this is the major I’m going with.) It was difficult not being in all the same classes as the people I had gotten to know over the last two years in the music building. I was a freshman all over again; this was my first semester of four non-music classes, and like normal freshman, I had to relearn how to study, manage time, etc. Apart from the academic/social changes, my tendons and ligaments were becoming so unpredictable. I had just had six dislocations in the past five months, when I had never experienced any before. I had no idea what to expect, injury-wise. After twelve years of performing music for other people, I never once showed physical signs of anxiety like I did before coming back to school this semester. This semester seemed impossible.

“But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible'” (Matthew 19:26).

And clearly I lived to tell the tale, so with the strength God provided, I survived.

Third day of class. It turns out I had been a worry-wart for good reason. I don’t know exactly what happened. One second I was walking to get food. The next second, I wasn’t. I don’t know how I did it, but somehow my lateral meniscus in my left knee got displaced. Don’t worry–my kneecap hasn’t dislocated yet. *knocking on wood* I had never experienced that type of pain in my knee before, but I had with my shoulder. Which I had just discovered the likelihood of my torn labrum in my shoulder. So I thought I might have torn something in my knee. Great. Third day of class, and I hadn’t even been to all my classes that day. I still had one right after lunchtime, so I emailed my professor to say that I wouldn’t be in class because I couldn’t walk. I spent the first thirty minutes of class time icing my knee, all the while mad at myself for not being able to go to class on the first week of school. I was even debating just going back home for the semester and avoiding future instances like this.

But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer” (Psalm 66:19).

Plot twist: I never had any more problems with my knee for the rest of the semester. Granted, I have to hold my kneecap in place as I stand up after sitting for long periods and while I walk up stairs. But I’ll take that any day over having it displaced again. God answered my prayer and took away the pain in my knee.

From then, I was doing just fine, until I got sick. Sick as in I was actually scared. I spent the day after my birthday in the hospital for testing, the next day trying (and failing) to recover, the next day dealing with the throbbing headache of a sinus infection, the next day {insert event that inspired my previous post on forgiveness}, and the next day having my shoulder dislocate not once but twice. I’ve never been so overwhelmed with constant frustration and disappointment. I rarely ever use this term, but I’m convinced that that week was spiritual warfare.

“And he said, “Listen, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the Lord to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s.” 2 Chronicles 20:15

More good news: We found the cause for what made me so sick, and it hasn’t happened to that extent again. Also, even better news: I don’t have to win my own battles, because they’re not my battles to begin with.

This next story is my favorite. Probably the one story that sticks out in my mind from all the chaos of this semester. So after the week mentioned above, I went to visit a sweet friend and her family in Nashville. It was a great escape from all the frustration of the previous week. When I got back, I had a paper due. I should also mention that with the fatigue associated with connective tissue disorders, planning is everything. I can’t pull all-nighters because my body WILL NOT function. I had planned to space out my paper by finishing it the morning it was due.

“Not today.” -Satan

I woke up that morning with my shoulder feeling as unstable as it had the week before. For safe measures, I decided to wear a sling all day. So about two and a half hours before the paper is due, I’m sitting in my room trying to write the last page and a half. Totally doable. Until the wifi starts to flicker in and out. In which case I rush to the library to finish my paper in the computer lab. Still wearing the sling. I pull the keyboard to a position where my arm in the sling can both rest in the sling and still allow my hand to type. As I take a break from typing and pull my arm back to a more neutral position, my shoulder dislocates. While I’m wearing a sling, people! Are you kidding me?! Am I just not supposed to finish this paper?!

I sat in the computer lab trying not to scream (because it’s the library) and also trying to breathe. That kinda stopped for a little while. Meanwhile, I still have a paper to finish. A few minutes later, a music major I hadn’t seen all semester asked how I was doing. Somehow I was able to put on a fake smile and lie and say that I was fine. I get back to my paper. I slap some words on the page. I stare at them, hoping they make grammatical sense. When I can’t handle the pain anymore, I decide to print it out and turn it in. Yes–I went to class with a dislocated shoulder so I could turn in a paper. {Dear Future Employers, I’m a very dedicated worker.} I had no idea what the last page and a half of my paper said, but I showed up to turn it in. Looking at my paper later on made me realize just how much dislocations affect the brain…

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” Ephesians 2:4-5

Not only do I thank God for His mercy in saving me. I also thank Him for giving everyone in my class the opportunity to revise their papers. Insert “Doxology.”

My next event has a much happier ending. Thankfully this semester has provided the opportunity to lead two Bible studies–one with five 7th grade girls, and one that I co-lead with a group of college students. Both of these Bible studies have been great experiences this semester and have been so encouraging. In addition to getting my nails done for the first time with my 7th graders, I also had the joy of seeing a friend come to know Christ! This friend and I have struggled in similar areas in the past, and it was so incredible to witness first-hand the difference that hope in Jesus makes.

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8

Even when we don’t deserve God’s love, even when we don’t give Him the love He deserves, He has already proven His love for us by loving us at our worst. This was such a pertinent truth to be reminded of in the middle of this semester.

Over the next few weeks, I experienced a few situations in which college students revealed that they really did not understand the physical challenges I face on a daily basis, or the emotional side effects of these challenges. This resulted in feelings of loneliness. But through this loneliness, God renewed in me a desire to relieve the emotional hurting of others.

“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).

I’m not comparing my situation to the situation of Joseph. I haven’t been betrayed by my non-existing brothers or been accused of cheating or been thrown in prison. I do admire, however, his response to these situations: Although the enemy was fighting against me, God was fighting for me, to turn this situation into something good.

Today on my last day of my first semester as a Religion major, I thought about how my experience as a musician has helped me. And I think it relates to Joseph’s response: God intended difficult situations to result in good. God makes something out of what seems bad to make it something good. Growing up, I always heard my piano teacher/band directors tell me, “Don’t just play what’s on the page.” Music is made when your mind isn’t glued to what notes need to be played and when. The same goes for this semester: Good came from moments when I wasn’t so task-oriented that I forgot to look around at the people and situations around me.

So what now? Now that I’ve made it through this semester, it’s time to make sure some of these stories aren’t recurring. To lessen the chance of my shoulder dislocating while I’m writing papers (because I have a few more to write before I graduate), I’m having shoulder surgery tomorrow. Yeah not much time to recover from the chaos of this semester that you’ve bothered to read about this far. Also, not everyone thinks this surgery is a good idea. With a connective tissue disorder, there is a 20% chance (according to my doctor) that this surgery won’t be a permanent fix, and my shoulder will dislocate again. After much prayer, my incredible parents and I are going through with this surgery together. Yes, I’m nervous. (I’ve heard that recovery is rough.) But God.

But God.

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Psalm 73:26

I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

 

 

7 Reasons Why I’m Thankful for a Rolling Backpack

College is difficult. College is difficult when you have to carry a heavy backpack. College is difficult when you have to carry a heavy backpack, and your shoulders don’t cooperate. But there is a solution to this challenge–one that I dreaded at first but now enjoy.

Here are seven reasons why I’m enjoying my use of a rolling backpack on a college campus:

  1. It reminds me of a simpler time–2004. Back in the day when Hilary Duff was everyone’s role model, rolling backpacks were on everyone’s Christmas list. They were a mark of cool-kid status. Using my rolling backpack helps me imagine college as Lizzie McGuire would.
  2. It reminds me of 2004, when my joints were for me, not against me. The glory days of the early 2000s were filled with gymnastics, tumbling, strength training. My rolling backpack carries along with it nostalgia of the ability to use my shoulders to do flips. But in addition to nostalgia, it brings back good memories of the days when I was actually an athlete. LOL.
  3. It allows one of the most soft-spoken students on campus to become the loudest. God’s sense of humor is evident in this situation. The sidewalk outside my dorm and the bridge to the rest of campus give me more volume than I ever could muster while performing flute or piano. My rolling backpack is now a megaphone that shouts “GOOOOOOOD MORNING, BEESON WOODS!” I’m probably someone’s alarm to wake up for class.
  4. It allows me to relate to the hipsters. The great thing about going to school that embraces hipster culture is that I’ve actually gotten compliments on my backpack–something I was not expecting at all. I’ve even had people tell me that they wished they had one. Guess I’m just a trendsetter. (In terms of joint pain, I’m also way ahead of the curve for people my age.)
  5. It helps me understand that I overanalyze the possibility of criticism. Before I got to the point of needing a rolling backpack, I imagined people I pass on the way to class pointing and laughing at it. In reality, no one cares. I thought that everyone would make a huge deal about it. Literally no one cares. I’ve realized that people don’t care as much about the things I do as I thought, which is a huge relief for overthinkers like me. Since no one is pointing and laughing at my use of a rolling backpack (at least within my line of vision), I can rest in the fact that my pain, along with its implications, is not my identity.
  6. It keeps me focused on why I’m in college. When people walking ahead of me turn back to see what could possibly be so loud behind them, I remind myself, “I’m here for my education. I’m not here for people to like me.” Not that they don’t like me. But my overanalyzing brain thinks that when people are curious about the noise my backpack causes, they are looking back in judgment. Most likely not true. Like I said, no one cares (in the best sense). Even still, the reminder of why I continue to push through the daily pain serves as great motivation.
  7. It takes the weight of the world off my shoulders. You’d be surprised how heavy a 3-pound backpack feels when your muscles are already overworked, trying to pick up the slack of loose tendons and ligaments. Since I’ve started using the rolling backpack, my life is 25% easier. (To me, that’s a lot.) I can now begin class without major fatigue, which only gets worse as my class goes on. The significant relief I’ve experienced as a result of my rolling backpack makes me think of the light load that Jesus calls us to bear:

    “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

Ultimately, my rolling backpack is a reminder that I don’t have to carry everything myself. It’s God’s way of telling me, “I’ve got this. Relax.”

Counting the Cost

I’m currently watching the Olympics as I try to recover from my most recent injury–an injury that is now becoming normal. In the past four weeks, I have dislocated my left shoulder three times. The causes of these dislocations include leaning over to pull a cord, lifting sheets of paper, and waking up. So in other words, rugby is not a hobby I should take up.

Speaking of hobbies, playing flute and piano is pretty difficult when your shoulder is out of socket. Or even after it’s back in. Because my tendons are overstretched, my muscles are also affected, making it pretty much impossible to hold a flute. Piano will not be impossible to play, but there is no way, realistically speaking, that I can play at the same level I did last semester.

Which brings me to the title of this post: “Counting the Cost.” I don’t typically use this phrase to refer to decisions I make for my well-being, but it’s certainly a concept I’m familiar with. Every potential activity requires an assessment when I “count the cost;” either I can do this activity and spend more time with people, or I can do what I need to do to take care of myself so I can spend less time with people at optimal functioning.

With my latest phenomenon of shoulder dislocations, it’s time to count the cost of continuing my music degree.

As I’ve thought about how big of an adjustment that a change of major would be, I’ve reflected on the wonderful experiences I’ve had as a music major.

One of the biggest contributors to my improvement was a masterclass in which I demonstrated that I had no idea what I was doing. But afterwards, I knew what I wanted to sound like, and I was driven by a specific goal.

One of the biggest confidence-boosters I experienced was the repetition of the direction, “Play louder, Emily,” during my solos in ensemble rehearsals. Although I was frustrated at myself for not being where my professors wanted me to be, I was, and still am, grateful that they saw more potential in me than I did.

One of my favorite performance memories was having to wait on the Secret Service dogs to search our instruments on stage before a prelude performance to Laura Bush. I felt like a pretty big deal.

One of my favorite comments I received from both my flute and piano teachers is that I made the flute sound masculine, and I played piano like a man. It made me feel like I’m more than a twig.

One of my easiest classes was a class based on ear training. Thanks to the Lord’s gift of perfect pitch, I made a 100 in the class without any extra credit. Let’s just all take a moment to acknowledge that this will never happen again in my educational experience.

One of my hardest classes was a class based on piano improvisation. The assignments that were the easiest to everyone else were actually the hardest to me. I realized how much I rely on having an explicit plan for everything. But I think that the uncomfortable situations in the class helped eliminate the fear of unprepared performances for the rest of my life.

One of the best lessons I learned was how to manage time. I became an expert on determining what I can accomplish in my 23.5 minutes between classes. I learned how to plan ahead like never before.

One of the most rewarding experiences to my hard work was walking by a practice room and hearing other music majors practicing their parts for pieces I had written. It was incredibly satisfying to hear others try to understand what had gone on in my head during the composition process.

One of my favorite ways to interact with other music majors was simply by going to the tech lab. A lot of things happen in that lab: doing homework, talking about doing homework, watching YouTube videos to procrastinate doing homework, crying about the culmination of assignments because we were busy watching YouTube videos. But no matter we did or didn’t do, there was always a sense of community.

At the same time, a “church answer” I never implemented into my life was giving God the glory after a performance. Even though I knew that I can do nothing without Him, I still didn’t think He deserved the credit for performing pieces that I spent hours upon hours practicing. Watching so many Olympians in the past week give glory to God has made me feel guilty that I never did the same.

As I reflect on the past two years of my life, I have to count the cost: Is creating more memories, that may or may not compete with the memories I already have, worth further injuring myself? If I feel like God is calling me to full-time ministry, how much longer should I keep pursuing a dream that will end up hurting me, short-term and long-term? What’s the purpose of being goal-oriented if my goals keep me from giving God the glory He deserves?

The funny thing about my condition is that I’m overly flexible. And “flexible” is exactly what I have to be, in regards to my future. I’m not a quitter; I’m an adjuster. My mind doesn’t keep changing; my connective tissue keeps changing.

As a result, I’ve decided to change to a Religion major with a Music minor. Although I obviously would have loved to continue my music degree, I am equally excited about what the Lord has to teach me in the Religion department.

If my identity was solely found in my abilities, then my current condition would cripple me beyond physical means. On the other hand, if my identity was solely found in my disabilities, the same result would occur. Praise the Lord for the new identity He gave me with the gift of salvation!

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

“But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

Just as I counted the cost of following my dreams, I must continue to count the cost of following Jesus. In Luke 14, Jesus addresses the crowd and declares, “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” In order to follow Christ, I have to give up my identity as a musician, and as a victim of chronic pain, to receive my new identity as a child of God. After counting the cost of following Jesus, I share the response of Peter: “Lord, there is no one else that we can go to! Your words give eternal life” (John 6:68 CEV).

Paul, in the book of Philippians, expresses similar desires in knowing Christ.

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself.”

Philippians 3:7-14, 20-21 (ESV)

I’ve counted up the cost, and now I press on. For His words that give everlasting life are worth more to me than a music degree. More than a predictable future. More than my own life, for He has made me His own. Rather than waiting for my own plans to come about, I await a Savior Who has a better plan for healing than I could ever imagine. I wait for Him, Who will, one day, make my body perfect and complete like His own.

Dissonance in “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

This week I got back into writing music. Although I was creating lyrical melodies, I’ve never used as much dissonance as I did in those few phrases. (Non-musician friends: Dissonance is a clashing of harmonies that doesn’t sound right to normal people.) The melodic M7th interval is something I never would have used before studying music in college, but I used it in every phrase this week. It’s funny how something I was taught to avoid at all costs is now my go-to strategy. I guess it takes an acquired taste to appreciate the unfamiliar.

And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.

(Genesis 1:31a)

Sometimes I wonder how God could have ever looked at this world He created, that has become so broken, and called it “very good.”

In the past eight weeks, one side of my family has experienced three deaths–both of my grandparents and now a great uncle. The first funeral was a reflective time that evoked peace at the thought that my grandfather was no longer suffering from his progressive disease. The second funeral, just five short weeks after the first, was a time of shock and confusion, filled with more tears and longer hugs than before. My grandmother’s funeral was painfully similar yet vastly different.

Timing is everything. “There’s never a convenient time, but if there was one, now would not be it,” I explained before both funerals. My grandfather’s funeral was during finals week, while my grandmother’s was at the same time as the appointment I had been waiting for six months for, in hopes of finally getting a diagnosis. At the end of the semester, I was in a mindset of closure, and it was easier to accept that my grandfather’s suffering had ended. However, I entered my grandmother’s funeral from a completely different mindset.

After her unexpected and tragic death on a Saturday afternoon, the funeral was scheduled for that Tuesday morning, with the visitation on Monday night. The thing is, on Monday morning I had an appointment 200 miles away to determine whether or not I will be having back surgery. After hearing that I will not be having surgery, we then headed to the next rescheduled appointment; instead of waiting another several months for a cancellation, the doctor’s office squeezed me in for that afternoon. Two major appointments, one day, zero solutions. I did leave with a list of biomechanical problems, most of which I didn’t know I had. (And technically I got suggestions for some symptom relief, but no overall solutions or diagnosis.) The traveling and medical-information overload left me exhausted. That night after the visitation, I felt too tired to have the come-to-Jesus meeting I so desperately needed. So I walked into the funeral the next day unprepared.

One congregational hymn was common to both funerals: “Amazing Grace.” However, at the second funeral, we sang the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” I’ve played and sung this hymn for years, and I had just sung it in one of my classes a week or two before. I knew the lyrics, but I studied them as I held the handout in my hand.

“Thy compassions, they fail not,” I read. I found that I couldn’t keep singing.

I knew this to be true, and I remembered the passage from Lamentations 3 on which this hymn is based. But my mouth couldn’t utter the words as the song continued.

“As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning, new mercies I see.”

After this phrase, I felt the dissonance–the clashing of ideas. The objective truth that God’s compassions never fail, and the subjective perspective of seeing them.

I realized then and there that I hadn’t seen new mercies that morning. Or the morning before. Or the week before when my grandmother was tragically slipping into death’s hands.

I realized that I couldn’t see anything past the pool of tears streaming from my eyes.

Not because of my pain or loss.

Because I realized that not seeing new mercies doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Because I finally felt the ache from holding God at arm’s length.

Because I realized that I have nothing but Him, and I better start looking for His mercies.

God is an artist who had to adjust His artistic style to the brokenness of humanity. He now creates beauty from pain, beautiful melodies from dissonance.

It took my ears two years to fully appreciate the beauty of dissonance. I wonder how long it will take for me to fully appreciate the beauty of God’s sovereign will through suffering.

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

Lord, give me eyes that see how You make beauty from pain.