How the Retreat Sustained Me {The Grove: Sustain}

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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  1. Lydia March 2, 2018

    I had a similar gift of illness after an exhausting pregnancy, c-section birth, postpartum depression and anxiety and total lack of sleep for 18 months with a fussy, strong willed little munchkin. I got a concussion. It knocked me out of comission completely for a few days and flat on my back I found some rest. Through the healing process I began to accept my limitations – which now included serious brain fog, inability to process information, and tiring even more easily. But during that same time my toddler started sleeping through the night and so did I. I didn’t feel like I had to do it all anymore, because there was no way I could. Being a mom with a challenging kid seemed like something I had to just power through, but mild traumatic brain injury helped me just breathe and take the time I needed.

    1. Ruth Felt March 2, 2018

      We have too much in common…I’m sorry about that! I think that’s the key: “I didn’t feel like I had to do it all anymore, because there was no way I could.” Sometimes we need something serious that we can’t push through, that stops us in our tracks and forces us to realize we can’t do it all. I definitely hope the sleep continues for you – that cannot be overrated!!

  2. Rachel March 2, 2018

    I cried as I read this.
    The past 4 or so years have been the hardest of my life.
    2 1/2 years of daily high stress and burning out on the field. Then re-entry to the states that felt bumpier in real life than what we were told to expect. Aaaand, we’re still transitioning from that – we’re almost at the 2 yr mark of being stateside and still don’t know what we’re doing with our lives!
    In between re-entry and now we lost our third child and second son through a late term miscarriage. It was devastating to say the least, and even though it’s been almost 9 months, the grief still hits and hurts so so bad! The miscarriage began the unspiraling of my life. What followed I would not wish on anyone or want to repeat in a thousand years.
    I had intense insomnia that led to crazy depression and then totally out of control anxiety. I’ve been trying and grasping for “everything” to help me – a self help group, meds, counseling, a nutritionist….
    Thankfully I’m coming up and out of the dark hole, but there are still weeks that go by where I don’t clean the house, and I get the “only feeding peanut butter sandwiches!”
    I love energy and I’ve only had small pockets of it recently.
    This was a long winded sharing just to come around and say I think God is teaching me similar things right now. Namely, that my worth is not dependent on what I can produce. My husband is the only one working right now and he’s paying for all these whopping bills and sometimes has to make supper, get the kids to bed alone, and usually packs the lunches, makes breakfast and gets our daughter on the bus.
    Yet, I know God has been healing me and speaking to me in all of this.
    He’s healing me deeply and I just wish it could stop already but I think when He’s doing His work, He does it more thoroughly than I could’ve even dreamed to ask for.
    So, though I’m still often “so exhausted” to do much, the thought that He’s deeply healing me makes me want to burst with joy!

    All this to say, thank you so much for sharing your story. It met me and was just another reminder from God that He loves me for who I am and not for what I can produce.

    Blessings to you on your journey.

    1. Ruth Felt March 3, 2018

      Rachel, I cried reading your story. I am so sorry for all the grief you have been through in these past years. It is all so, so hard.
      I LOVE what you said here: “He’s healing me deeply and I just wish it could stop already but I think when He’s doing His work, He does it more thoroughly than I could’ve even dreamed to ask for.” I so agree with all this!
      p.s. If you haven’t read Kay Bruner’s book As Soon As I Fell, I think it would strike some chords with you. I think it was a book club book here a few years ago, and I have re-read it several times since then.

      1. Rachel March 3, 2018

        Thank you for your comment, Ruth. It means a lot.
        I’ve never heard of that book. I’ll have to look it up. Thank you!!

  3. Julia March 11, 2018

    Oh Ruth, I totally can empathize with the sickness! We have been overseas almost two years. The sicknesses are slightly lessening but not really. This Lent season, I felt God asking me to fast from getting anxious when myself or my family gets sick. Instead I was to thank Him. Thank HIM! No way I thought. Then I re thought about all the verses about giving thanks and decided to surrender and give thanks. My husband and I went on a trip without the kids and the first night I got sick with a stomach virus. Thanking God for the sickness was hard. I realized that I had the opportunity to be sick without kids (Which never happens). So I could thank God for a beautiful hotel room in the mountains, time to just care for me and not the kids, and for a husband who was disappointed but made the best of the situation.
    Thank you for writing about what is going on in your life!

  4. Ruth Felt March 12, 2018

    Oh, I can so relate to this! Sickness has definitely become an anxiety trigger for me. It is so hard to trust God when things are not going how we expected or hoped. But yes, in recent years I have often thought, “I look forward to the day when the kids are grown and I can be sick in peace!” Having to press through and take care of everyone else all the time makes sickness so much harder!

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