The Place Beyond Exhaustion

If there is a place beyond exhaustion, I think I have discovered it. For the time being, I can probably have my mail forwarded here.

Have you ever reached a point in life where no matter how much sleep you get, no matter the amount of caffeine you consume, or the amount of pleasurable activities you engage in, you are just tired? You’re spent. You’ve had it. I’m there. I find myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually burned out.

Any one situation or a combination of factors can trigger such events, but what can you do when the constant bombardment finally breaches your defenses? You find yourself trying to rebuild the stronghold while simultaneously fighting off a never ending horde. The physicality of the fight consumes you and everything you do is done through a sheer act of will power. The simplest tasks-getting out of bed, going to work, and the rest of your daily activities are chores of epic proportions. You become like a slower version of the Energizer Bunny- you keep going, but the battery finally runs flat.

It would be great if life had a mercy rule, where a referee stops the fight and says, “He’s had enough. No more trials.” Speaking of mercy, I often ask where is God in all this? I try to connect with Him through His word, prayer, and try to live the best life I can-nothing. As a Christian, I have heard frequently of God’s will and God’s plan, but He doesn’t seem forthcoming with how everything fits into His will and plan. Life seems like a jigsaw puzzle with critical pieces gone or other pieces belonging to an unrelated puzzle.

I know it could be worse. I know there are people out there, maybe some of you, that have been through worse situations, but for my fight, this is exhausting! I have spoken about this in other blogs, but I believe this is one continuous narrative of how the last two years have been one setback after another. Just when I think I know the opponent’s plan, something changes. Anemia; Laid off and unemployed for four months; Starting back to work for less money;Celiac disease; The suicide of my nephew and the family turmoil that followed; Start another job; Go back to school while working six days a week at forty-years-old; A complication of Celiac disease- osteopenia, or loss of bone density; My parents are experiencing health problems in their early retirement years;My wife’s health and our infertility struggles; Frequent relapses into depression and anxiety- no wonder I’m exhausted!

Christians say that God’s working it out. The Stoics say to control what you can control and to be content with your lot. “God wouldn’t give you more than you can handle.” However, I’m starting to think that me and God have a difference of opinion on how much I can handle. In boxing, they call it “a puncher’s chance,” all it takes is the right punch at the right time can knock out the most formidable foe. I have survived darker days and I know that I will get through this. I might come out a little more jaded or more pragmatic, but I will get through this. There are positives to focus on, as I have graduated and I am working a new job related to my field for better pay, so I can start there.

Whatever it is that you are facing, keep swinging, keep punching. Thank you for taking the time to read my rant. I normally don’t write this way, but I felt the need to get this off of my chest. God bless you.

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Celiac Disease: One Year Later

This week marked a rather dubious anniversary- it has been a year since my diagnosis of Celiac disease. What is Celiac disease? I had the same question when my gastroenterologist asked me if I had ever been tested for it. Celiac disease is an allergy to gluten, a binding protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. My diagnosis was confirmed through blood work and an endoscopy.

People who are allergic to gluten can suffer from a host of health problems- anemia, inflammation, intestinal issues, fatigue, vitamin, mineral, and calcium deficiencies, among others. Celiac disease can also interact with and complicate other autoimmune disorders, which can make diagnosis tricky. For a more in-depth study of Celiac disease, I recommend the book Celiac Disease: A Hidden Epidemic by Peter H.R. Green and Rory Jones.

My diagnosis was an immediate lifestyle changer. After thirty-nine years of eating what I wanted to, I was forced to give up a lot of the food I enjoyed. Eating out became challenging because I could not order any type of pizza, pasta, pancakes, breaded food, soups, deep fried food, no pies with crust or cakes. Celiac disease forces you to read food labels even closer than before. When you read food labels look for such words as “wheat flour,” “barley,” “rye,” “glutamate,” and the phrase “may contain traces of wheat.” Although you may think a certain food is clear of gluten, it may have been made in a facility where gluten products are made. To be on the safe side, look for “certified gluten free” on the label.

Celiac disease not  only affects you, it affects those around you. When my wife and I are trying to decide where to go for dinner (one of the longest discussions a couple can have), she has to ask “What can you eat there?” When work orders pizza for everyone, you may have to explain why you’re not eating pizza. (You ever notice how people look at you if you aren’t eating pizza?). At certain family meals, the gluten-free food is in a separate dish, which is made known to me and those in attendance.  One of the unexpected upsides is that family members specially bake gluten-free desserts for me, even when it’s not my birthday!

My diagnosis is not all gloom and doom. I still enjoy meats, fruit, vegetables, some cereals, coffee, and dairy products. I have learned to cook with gluten-free flour, which means pancakes and waffles. I can enjoy pizza, it just has to be a gluten free crust. Though I may long for a gluten-filled meal, I just think of the consequences and how I will feel later (tried that already). I just have to think back to my struggle with anemia and it deters me from eating gluten. (For more information on my struggle with anemia, I invite you to read my post, “How Blood Loss Lead to New Life.”) https://triumphantinchrist.wordpress.com/2016/07/31/how-blood-loss-led-to-new-life/

As I reflect on this past year and learning to live with Celiac disease, I do not mourn over the foods I cannot eat, but rejoice at the foods I can eat. I am thankful to be making good progress in my health and I have educated myself much more. In fact, I would consider Celiac disease to be a mixed blessing of sorts because most of the foods I cannot eat were not good for me in the first place. Though this diagnosis changed my life, it will not stop me from living a full life. In my personal journal on this topic, I came across this quote from my favorite philosopher, Epictetus:

“Nothing truly stops you. Nothing truly holds you back. For your own will is always within your control. Sickness may challenge your body. But are you merely your body? Lameness may impede your legs. But you are not merely your legs.? Your will is bigger than your legs. Your will needn’t be affected by an incident unless you let it. Remember this with everything that happens to you.”1

God bless you all.

1Epictetus The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue Happiness, and Effectiveness, Translated by Sharon Lebell. San Francisco: Harper Collins (1995): 16.

Negative Visualization and Faith

What’s the worst that can happen?” If you ever asked this question, you have been greeted more than likely with being shushed, glares, or heard, “Don’t say that.”

As humans, we do not like to contemplate the worst-case scenario. In fact, we develop a kind of superstition about such questions as “What’s the worst that could happen?” because we have tendency to think that asking such a question is going to invite some heartache or tragedy into our lives.

Although we do not like to mention it, we do take precautions against the worst-case scenario. If we are worried someone would break into our home, we lock our doors and windows, we install a security system, or we may purchase a weapon to protect ourselves in the event of a home invasion. We also purchase homeowner’s or renter’s insurance in the event our home is burglarized or damaged by a fire or disaster. We have health insurance in the event we get sick. We have car insurance in the event our car is wrecked or stolen. We buy life insurance to make sure our family is taken care of in the event of our death.

It is only right and commendable that we take precautions to protect our families and everything we have worked for in our lives. However, what if we were able to contemplate the worst case scenario without living a life crippled by fear and anxiety?

The Stoics practiced what is called negative visualization.

Negative visualization does not mean that we live as a “Gloomy Gus” or “Debbie Downer,” finding the negative in everything, but it teaches us to have peace of mind in the midst of challenging circumstances. Thus, negative visualization can mentally prepare us and lessen the impact of the worst case scenario. This in turn will increase the joy in our lives as we embrace our loved ones and this present moment even more.

According to William B. Irvine, “Negative visualization, in other words, teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it. But it simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us. It teaches us, in other words, to enjoy what we have without clinging to it. This in turn means that by practicing negative visualization, we can not only increase our chances of experiencing joy but increase the chance that the joy we experience will be durable, that it will survive changes in our circumstances.”[1]

Someone right now may be raising the objection, “Aren’t we as Christians supposed to have faith that God will protect us?” Yes, we are supposed to have faith, but our faith does not prevent us from experiencing hardships in this life.

“We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22b, NIV).

“Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 2:3, NIV).

“I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV).

Thus, by practicing negative visualization, we can still have faith and joy in the midst of circumstances.

Going back to the example of protecting our homes. Let us imagine someone breaks-in to your house and steals your new TV. Naturally, we would be upset about our TV being stolen, but we can take stock of what’s around us. If we were to step back, we could be thankful that we were not physically harmed, our family is safe, our pets are safe, the house is still standing, and the insurance will replace the TV. We have reason to praise God although our TV was stolen.

We can examine terrible situations and still find a reason to rejoice. I have discussed in several posts about my battles with anemia and celiac disease. I was very ill and could have had a fatal heart attack due to the strain the anemia placed on my body. While going through the anemia was difficult, the doctors found out that I have celiac disease. Celiac disease is an allergy to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Patients with celiac disease also experience anemia. I had to make sudden dietary changes, but it worked out for the best because I am no longer anemic. I have my energy back and was blessed with a second chance at life.

I came close to death, but I did not die. I know that one day I will die, but I do not let that stop me from living life. In fact, going through this trial with my health has given the opportunity to be more mindful of the life that is all around me. My faith has been deepened through my experiences because I know that God has allowed me to endure and to overcome these obstacles. If I were to contemplate what would come next, I know I would be able to handle that as well. Maybe you have already experienced a worst-case scenario- whatever that is. You are still standing. You are still here. You have lived through that experience, even though it may be the lowest point of your life. You have the training and strength to get through the next trial. We must not take anyone or anything for granted. Let us be grateful for the present moment. God bless you all.

[1] William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. New York: Oxford University Press. 2009:83.

How Blood Loss Led to New Life

The Symptoms

One year ago my life changed forever. In the months leading up to the fateful day, I experienced shortness of breath when climbing stairs, I was severely fatigued, I lost ten pounds without even trying, and my appearance became very pale. Unfortunately, like most men I know, I put off going to the doctor and continued to shrug off my symptoms. After numerous conversations with my wife, my concerned parents, and other family members about going to the doctor, I finally reached the physical point where I could not take it anymore. I left work early on a Friday to an appointment with my family doctor’s office. At the appointment, I had four vials of blood taken, a chest x-ray, and an EKG. All I had left to do was wait.

The wait was over on the Saturday morning August 1, 2015. I was weekend supervisor at my previous job when I received a call from the nurse practitioner, who told me that I needed to get to the emergency room because my hemoglobin was 6.3 (hemoglobin is what carries the oxygen in our blood cells. Normal hemoglobin levels for an adult male range from 13 to 15). For some reason, the gravity of the situation didn’t register and I kindly told the nurse practitioner that I will go when I left work at three o’clock. After all, I was trying to call in extra people to deal with an emergency flood. She replied that I needed to go to the emergency room now because with my hemoglobin level being so low, any undue stress could put me at risk for a heart attack. (I thought, Don’t you think telling me this is putting me under stress?). I got it. This was serious. I talked to my wife and I called my boss to tell him that I had an emergency situation and had to leave. The drive to the first hospital was the only time I felt fear for what would follow.

After three hours at my local hospital, I was transferred by ambulance to a larger hospital, where I spent Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. After I received multiple blood transfusions and iron treatments, my hemoglobin rose to only 7.9. I was out of the heart attack danger zone, but I was still severely anemic. I have a history of ulcerative colitis and I was scheduled that Monday for a colonoscopy. However, I was experiencing no symptoms of ulcerative colitis nor did I have any visible bleeding. During the colonoscopy, ten polyps were removed from my colon, all of which were benign (no cancer). It appeared that the source of my anemia and bleeding had been found.

God is always on time and His timing was perfect in this situation. My wife and I were leaving for Colorado later in the week, which she asked the doctors if I was able to travel (I was). However, multiple doctors informed her that if I didn’t get treatment when I did, the high altitude and our planned activities could have strained my body and I could have died before receiving medical attention. I was thirty-eight years old when all of this happened, I never thought for one second that death stood at the door. Of course, like any adult should, I have life insurance and most importantly, my spiritual affairs were in order in the event that I would die one day, I didn’t know it could’ve been that close. I went back to work Tuesday morning and I naturally had a few days when I was tired, but the trip to Colorado was very enjoyable and relaxing. I followed up with my gastroenterologist and hematologist. I began receiving iron treatments and taking iron pills daily. My hemoglobin levels eventually bounced back up to 15.2 at my last appointment. I later discovered that though this health crisis was over, the journey had only just begun.

I never lost faith during this time because I knew God had His hand on my life. I don’t know exactly for what, but there had to be something greater. I unfortunately knew many people who died young and I knew how blessed I was to come out of this.  I don’t know the exact reason, maybe it was the side effects of the anemia, the continued fatigue, my thyroid, or whatever else, but I slid into a deep depression. The depression deepened as the stress of my former employer’s contract situation lingered in the air. We later learned that a new company won the contract bid and they would take over January 1. However, more stress came on December 23, 2015, when the new company informed me via letter that my services, along with other members of management and staff, would not be needed. It marked the first time in my working career, which started at age fifteen, I was let go from a job. Christmas Eve was the last day I worked, as I had previously scheduled vacation.  I took off a few days for Christmas, collected my last paycheck, and began the process of filing for unemployment and job searching. I was unemployed for three months, going to interview after interview, putting in application after application, before I went back to work.

 Sports Talk Radio and the Wisdom of the Ancients

Since I had time on my hands, I would get out of the house for a little bit every day when the job searching became stressful. One day I was on my way to my parents’ house to take care of their dogs when I was listening to The Jim Rome Show, a sports talk show. Jim Rome’s guest  was Ryan Holiday, who wrote a book called The Obstacle is the Way, which was about turning obstacles into advantages. One of the things discussed was Stoic Philosophy. When we hear the word “stoic” we think of someone who is emotionless, kind of like Mr. Spock from Star Trek. However, as Mr. Holiday spoke about how he came into Stoic philosophy, it sounded interesting. I took Introduction to Philosophy in college, but I don’t remember learning about Stoic philosophy (maybe it was because class was at 8am). The Bible mentions the Stoics in Acts 17, but does not go into detail about who they were, other than Paul citing a Stoic poem.  I have a firm, fixed set of beliefs, but I also love to research and learn new things. I went on a quest to learn about Stoic philosophy- YouTube Videos, Ted Talks, my local library, and bookstores. I bought Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, followed by the works of Seneca and Epictetus, and finally The Obstacle Becomes The Way, and devoured them like a hungry wolf. Using the Bible as my measuring rod of truth, I compared Stoic philosophy to biblical teaching and found them very compatible. The Stoics focused on being content with our lot in life, not worrying about what is not in our control, living for today, working on our inner character, living with purpose, being thankful in the moment, that we have nothing to fear in death, managing our perceptions, tempering our expectations in life, and realizing that it is not our lives are not about what happens to us, but our response to the events, all of which are biblical concepts and sound life principles. Over time, I came out of my depression and gained a new perspective on life, but God was using all of this to prepare me for the next stages of my life.

A Tumble Down the Stairs

Three weeks before I went back to work, I received a text from my wife informing me that she fell down some stairs at an offsite workshop and was going to the hospital. I met her at the hospital in Bloomington, Indiana where she was in the emergency room. My wife was diagnosed with a mild concussion and later with post-concussion syndrome. Though she does not remember what happened, I took solace in the fact that my wife was not more seriously injured or killed and that she did not do any damage to her surgically repaired back. If I was working at the time, that would have complicated matters with taking her to doctor appointments and the like. I was thankful that I was home to take care of her until I went back to work. Those first weeks were the roughest, with severe migraines and attempts to get the medicine dosage right, but my wife eventually became able to do more things on her own and went back to work a few months later. My response to all of this would have been different a year or even months before as I would have worried incessantly about my wife’s health and our finances, which at the time of her concussion involved workman’s comp and unemployment, but God was faithful and sustained us throughout the ordeal.

More Symptoms Arise

I went back to work, albeit for less money and a more physically demanding job, but I applied Stoic principles and attempted to be thankful for being back to work. However, a few months into working again, I began to feel fatigued and I started to look pale. People told me I “looked tired.” I learned my lesson and did not mess around with my symptoms. On a scheduled day off I had blood work done, and followed-up the next week with the hematologist. I told the doctor about my fatigue coming back and she informed me that my ferritin levels have dropped. (Ferritin is how your blood stores iron). She recommended upping my dosage of iron pills and following up with my gastroenterologist because of concerns about my ulcerative colitis. I was able the very next day to see the gastroenterologist. After telling him about my symptoms and what the hematologist said, he asked if I had ever been tested for Celiac disease. I said that I have not been tested. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease which is caused by an allergy to gluten, a protein found in foods made with wheat, barley, and rye. The doctor said that my ulcerative colitis was too mild for me to be as anemic as I was. I had more blood work done and it indicated Celiac disease. I followed up with an endoscopy that confirmed the diagnosis of Celiac disease. I now have to be on a gluten-free diet the rest of my life. However, I do not see Celiac disease as another battle to fight, but the battle to fight. From everything I have researched and everything I have, Celiac disease is the common denominator with anemia, hypothyroidism, joint inflammation, and other autoimmune issues I have dealt with over the years. Though I am in the early stages of making this lifestyle change, I am hopeful and optimistic that things will begin to clear up. As of this writing, I am a few weeks into the gluten-free diet and I am feeling better.

 My Advice

The Bible discusses “the peace that transcends all understanding.” My faith, even in the midst of one terrifying and one life changing diagnosis, has eradicated any sense of fear. This year has been a year of discovery and growth for me. God has blessed me with wisdom that has allowed me to modify my perceptions and see life in a new light. There is a popular saying of “live each day like it’s your last,” which some may interpret to mean throw off all responsibility and party like a rock star, but that should not be the case.  God was gracious and gave me more life. If you are reading this, God has given you another day to live. Make the most of it. Live deliberately. Live for and with a greater purpose. Consider your actions and ways. Be the best person you can be, no matter who you are or what you do.  Don’t get caught up in chasing the temporary and fickle externals of money, fame, and possessions. Don’t get caught up in drama. Don’t get upset if people don’t like you or don’t respond to you the way you expect- you can’t control what they think. We can’t control the world around us, only how we respond to it. For example, I have control of how I take care of my body- diet, exercise, rest, medication, but I had no control over developing anemia or Celiac disease. I did everything for over seven years to keep my job- show up, be on time, do a great job, do what was asked and expected of me, changing shifts, etc., but I could not control the contract bid or the economy. I can control how many jobs I apply for, but I can’t control who says “yes.” I have come to believe that what has happened to me in these areas of life has turned out to be a blessing because it has led me to right here, right now.

Expect difficulties in life. You will encounter situations and people’s actions that will devastate, unnerve, irritate, rattle, frustrate, and shake you to the core, but you and you alone determine the response. When knowing that you have a limited amount of time to live, ask yourself, “Is this situation or person really worth my time of stressing over?” “Is this situation within my control?” “How can I turn this adversity into an advantage?” Have faith in God, but work as if it is up to you. I have spent many years of my faith being passive, just waiting for something to show up or happen, only to end up being discouraged.  I have now realized that God has given us all we need to live a full life, we just have to use the tools. All of us don’t get the same amount or quality of tools, but we all have the ability to make the best of life and any situation. Take time to dwell on what can go wrong, because you won’t be devastated if something does, which is also a Stoic principle. Don’t grieve over who and what you don’t have, but rejoice over who and what you do have. Love your loved ones every chance you get. Always end conversations on a good note. Don’t allow bitterness, regret, shame, hate, or an unforgiving spirit to rule your life. Take control of your thoughts. Grow a virtuous character. Forget the past. Don’t fear the future. Be grateful for today because it’s all you have. True faith and positive thinking is not about believing everything will work out, but believing what happens will work out for the best. God bless you all.