The words I would have chosen to describe myself were exhausted, depressed, anxious, and burnt-out. It had been a difficult year for my family and especially hard on me personally. I could pretty much always use a retreat, but last spring I needed retreat.
It all started with adding a sweet chubby baby to our family, or really with the preceding nine months of puking and aching and continual sickness. Generally by the time baby arrives, I am so happy to be done with pregnancy that life with a new baby is a relief. But somehow adding a third child made life so much more overwhelming. And loud. So loud. We moved out of the newborn phase, and I kept expecting life to get easier.
But Nadia didn’t sleep. I was up with her every hour or two for months on end. I kept thinking, “I can’t go on like this! Something has to change!” Our various sleep training attempts never got us far, so at retreat time I was still seeing my sixteen month old every 2-3hrs all night long.
My journal from her first year was something like this, on repeat: “Why is this so hard for me? I am so exhausted and overwhelmed. Why can’t I enjoy this? It is just so hard.” After many months, I finally realized I was dealing with postpartum depression. In the dark of winter, it quickly escalated from “I’m struggling but I think I can handle it” to “If something doesn’t change soon I will stop functioning.”
In addition to the terrible sleep and the depression, there was the sickness. So. Much. Sickness. Nadia alone had been sick every single month of her life. And since she was attached to me day and night, I usually got sick too. As the year wore on, the sickness intensified. Colds, fevers, stomach bugs, flu, more flu, asthma flare ups, viruses and infections – one followed another in relentless procession. Throughout the long, dark winter we were rarely healthy for more than a few days at a time.
The spring retreat came at the end of an amazing month of health for the entire family (a first in two years). I was rejoicing in our health and seeing improvement in my depression, but I was a case study in burnout. Life was going better, but I was still struggling to keep up with daily tasks, like feeding my family anything beyond peanut butter sandwiches.
As we read through the main passage during the retreat, I was immediately struck by Elijah’s wilderness experience. I had often skimmed over this as a brief interlude between the dramatic power encounter and hearing God on the mountain. But in between was an Elijah I could relate to – exhausted, discouraged, and burnt-out.
God quietly showed me how he patiently cared for Elijah’s physical needs, sheltering him in the desert until he was ready to travel to the mountain and meet with God. He gave Elijah rest and food not just once but twice. I was reassured that God wanted to continue to care for me and provide me rest, although I didn’t know what that would look like returning to normal life.
The day after the retreat, I started to feel sick. I spent the next three weeks in bed with a bad flu turned pneumonia. Three weeks in bed when there are three young children in the picture is no joke! Especially when two of the children were dealing with intestinal bugs and fevers at the same time. I crawled out of bed for multiple trips to the hospital, but otherwise I left my husband to deal with the chaos that was our home.
I thought, “God, this is NOT what I had in mind! MORE sickness after this long year of sickness? How is this helpful? What about the care and sheltering?”
As I laid in bed staring at the wall, I realized—When else would I ever have the chance to stay in bed, to rest, to be sheltered from the demands of the world? God knew that at this stage of life, it would take nothing less than serious illness. And so, “in faithfulness he afflicted” me. I read this verse while sick and strangely knew God was talking about this very sickness. After a year full of sickness and weakness and depression, God gave me the strange gift of more sickness.
As the illnesses continued to pile on (eight in the month of May), I often felt like we could not go on this way. Every time we felt another hot forehead or contemplated another trip to the hospital I thought, “THE JOURNEY IS TOO MUCH FOR ME!!”
But as I laid in bed recovering, still too weak to get around, God reminded me that he valued me even when I couldn’t do anything for him. I couldn’t take care of others; instead I had to allow them to care for me. God showed me his care through friends who brought meals, watched kids, and helped with hospital visits. He cared for me through my husband, who did laundry and dishes and kept the kids alive.
I keep wanting to be the strong one. Instead God keeps showing me that he is the strong one. I keep wanting God to give me relief from these trials; instead he keeps choosing to give more grace and more of Himself. He chose to use this time to strip away at my crazy self-expectations based on my performance-orient idea of God. He chose to use this time to show me his love.
I have the Retreat starred in my calendar and am anticipating ways God will again meet me and sustain me.
Has God ever given you an unwelcome gift? Even in that unwelcome gift, how did he sustain you?
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