I seem to have a very ridiculous default position. No matter how far I've come, or how many years I've had in therapy, when the world starts falling down around me, my default belief is that I am deserving of punishment. Whatever is happening: health problems, marital difficulty, or zombie uprising, the belief I have to fight away from is that this negative is exactly what I deserve. I'm not allowed or entitled to expect goodness in my life. And if goodness does happen, it's only because God was looking the other way at the time.
Even though I was in the depths of despair, there was a part of me that was pretty damned pissed that after five zillion years of therapy I still found myself going to this position when I shouldn’t. I know in my brain how irrational this belief system is, but my heart can't seem to get on board.
I still had enough sense left to call my shrink. The fabulous thing about my shrink, Jeannette, is that she gets me completely and intuitively gets what it is I need from her. She knows just how uncomfortable nurturing and support makes me, but she's able to do it in such a way that I receive the benefit without going into overload and shutting down.
Jeannette called me that Saturday night around 8:30. Despite all efforts to stay clinical, I found myself blubbering through the whole medical update with her. By the time I was done I had segued into the whole God hates me bit that had become my theme song by then. "I was fine and healthy! I didn't smoke ever! And now I'm going to die alone air hungry on a ventilator!"
"Wait, wait, wait a minute," she said calmly, "let's slow down here. We seem to be going to the endgame before we even have enough information to understand the rules."
"I know I know! Everyone keeps telling me to just wait and see what the new pathologist says, but I know it's going to be bad. I just know it because I was too happy and God hates me." I kept sobbing into the phone.
"Liana you are just so scared right now. That's normal and that's human. You've never liked to see yourself as being human. You hold yourself to a standard that most human beings can't reach. You're scared. You're angry. You're despairing. I don't really need to say it but with you I do, all these feelings are normal. It doesn't make you any less than to be feeling this way.
"And the thoughts that God hates you... you know that old tape from way, way back. This is the same tape that says you don't deserve to be happy, that you don't deserve anything, and everything is your fault. And that's never been a message from God. That was the message you received from your parents. God is about love. There is nothing you could have done in your life that could take away God's love for you."
"I don't know..." I snuffled. And I sat there for a few seconds really trying to use my logical brain to come up with what I could've done so monstrous, so horrible that God would hate me. Getting IPF would be a totally fucked up piece of fate/luck/life, but it's not punishment. Then I remembered the last time I felt this scared and was certain that God was punishing me.
It was way back in the day, almost 15 years ago, when I finally had to break down and get the HIV test that I had dreaded during most of my sexual life. I was in med school when the AIDS epidemic hit. It was a crazy, crazy time. I was trying on some sexually adventurous personas (cough, cough, slut phase) and there was still an underlying mythos that as long as you avoided the high-risk groups, you'd be fine. For the most part I was okay but then after a bad breakup I decided to clean out the pipes with one of the sluttiest, slutty men I've ever known. A man so odious that he later said that if he ever got HIV, he'd sleep with as many women as possible to infect them as well. Clearly this was not a point of good decision-making in my life.
As my "punishment" for that decision, I got diagnosed with an STI. I was so devastated and ashamed. I felt that no one would ever want me again because I was now “dirty." I thought about getting HIV-tested then for completeness, not truly because I thought this guy was HIV-infected, but I was terrified at the thought of a positive test. I ended up developing what they called FRAIDS at the time: people afraid of being HIV infected, but too scared to be tested. I even went to the head of Infectious Diseases at the medical school and told him everything. He thought that I was being a bit ridiculous but was unable to convince me to get tested to put myself at rest. Instead I just played as safe as possible, was up front with partners, and put off testing until finally it was time to do it.
My shrink at the time didn't like the power that this potential result had over me and she marched me down to the testing center, herself, and waited while I had my blood drawn. Remember those were the days when it took about two weeks before you got your test results.
That interval, that wait was a time of total hysteria. I was absolutely convinced that even though I had made significant life changes and changed my past behavior, God was going to punish me. There was no other way I felt it could go. My shrink suggested that I talk to a priest, so convinced was I of this outcome.
I know you're saying to yourself right now, okay this isn't going to go very well. Priest dealing with atheist/agnostic/Catholic over sexual guilt? What good could come of that? But I’ll tell you in advance that this turned out to be a life changing visit.
The parish that she sent me to was not your traditional orthodox Catholic parish. Phew! It was a parish that served a population that included gays and lesbians. My shrink assured me that this guy, whose name I now cannot remember, was the guy for me to talk to.
Still I was a bit wary when he walked in for our meeting. He listened to my firm conviction about God’s seeking to punish me for my past. I told him all the bad things that I had done and slopped my shame all over that charming little room. I was certain that I was going to be told to go to confession or do some arduous penance when my litany came to an end, but that's not what happened at all.
Instead he asked me about the work I was doing then. I spoke animatedly about how much working with my teenaged patients meant to me. How much I wanted to guide them to a safe adulthood. How much I understood the challenges, the stumbling blocks, the bad decisions that go along with growing up and I how I try to be a person there for them since I remember nobody being there for me during those years. He listened intently again, and then threw me another curve ball.
"Did you ever think that the experiences you went through, the mistakes you made, helped you to become this skilled and effective doctor who really gets it when it comes to teens? The doctor who understands what teens need and how to approach them? The one they can sense understands their pain because of her own experiences? Did you think that maybe what happened to you in the past had nothing to do with punishment but instead was a building block in your becoming an amazing caregiver for a group of people, teenagers, who really need providers who get them?"
I was utterly and unabashedly stunned. I think my mouth hung open stupidly (catching flies, as my dear mother would call it). Never had it occurred to me that my life could have been a series of experiences that in accumulation could help me to be better, do more, and give more to others! Adolescent medicine had always felt like a calling to me from the moment I chose this specialty (one day I have to write about that), and I was damn good at it. Again, it had never occurred to me that the reason I was so good at it is because of all the experiences and learnings I had under my belt. Well! That truly rocked my world.
I can't say that my fear of the test result ever completely went away, but I was much calmer and felt more prepared to handle this next experience after I had had time to sit with my new framework. If I was to be HIV-positive, then my task was to be someone who can spread a message of better choices, self protection, and self-respect as a person who had had to learn this lesson the hard way. It was about sharing experiences and growth to help others.
Mercifully, the test was negative. But I never forgot that guidance I received from the priest. I lived (and still live) my life in service to others with the goal of doing everything And anything I could to help make life better for teenagers.
And now so many years later I found myself back slipping into old scripts and old patterns that have nothing to do with God or religion but have everything to do with the brokenness I experienced as a child.
"Jeannette, so many people are sending out thoughts and prayers for me but I've not been able to pray for myself. It seems egocentric, like hubris. How dare I ask for help, for a good result, for a miracle? God would listen. It’s too much!"
"You can and you should pray for yourself. There is nothing egocentric about that. It doesn't mean that you're expecting a miracle. It just means you need a little help making it through this tough time. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with praying for strength."
Later that night I confessed to AdoringHusband that I'd been totally unable to pray for myself. He was so surprised because he did not realize that my negative tapes were keeping me from doing something he felt would be so simple for me. I then asked him if he had prayed for me.
This is always a little tricky because he considers himself an atheist though he comports himself more like an agnostic. But he has prayed at times of great fear, confusion, or agony. So I wasn’t attempting to push him into something that was not comfortable for him. I honestly just wondered whether or not he had taken that step.
Yet he confessed that he had not prayed for me. He had helped Zara with her prayers for Mommy but had not prayed himself.
"Why haven't you?" I asked softly, my head lying on his chest.
"Why would he/she/it even listen to any prayers from me?" he replied, sadly.
"Ain’t we a pair?” I chuckled, “I don't feel that I have the right to pray for myself and you don't feel that God would listen to you if you did pray for me. What a mess we are!"
He laughed a little as well.
“Can we just lie here together and send up a little prayer for me?” I asked him.
I started to see the cracks in the façade he was holding together for my sake and for Zara's sake. For he, unlike me, was able to put off thinking about the biopsy and the what ifs until we got the results back. He was holding it all at arm’s length and that allowed him to keep it together. I envy him that ability at times.
The façade cracked a little but did not shatter completely. I cried in his arms as I prayed to God for the strength to face whatever happened next.
“God I’m scared, terrified really, out of my depth and utterly lost. Please God just help me find the strength to handle whatever happens next.”
I looked at AdoringHusband and saw his cheeks were wet with tears. "I prayed for you. I don't know if it'll do any good. I don't know if anyone was even listening, but I love you so much that I will do anything that will help you stay here with me and Zara."
Calmer. Definitely calmer. My freak out scale managed to drop from absolutely batshit to reasonably terrified over the next few days. My silent mantra was "God help me find the strength." I never asked for miracles, just strength.
Surprisingly early in the 7 to 10 day wait my dear pulmonologist called me. I tried to remember how to breathe as I heard his fast words going into my ear.
"Well the lung pathologist got back to us a lot faster than I expected. I have her report in front of me. I’ll read the appropriate pieces to you. But I'll first say that this report is much more encouraging than the previous report. She found no signs of UIP. She does not believe that there is any fibrosis. The most likely diagnosis she believes that it is chronic hypersensitivity pneumonitis with areas of BOOP that should be responsive to steroids. We don’t know what the hypersensitivity is too, but you should get your house checked for anything unusual that we didn’t test you for."
I let out my breath with an audible whoosh. And then I started crying and could not stop. I thanked my hyperanal pulmonologist for doing this due diligence that pulled me back from the edge of despair to a point of hope and blessings.
He said that he would begin steroids for 3 to 6 month high-dose course and then a wean.
"I need to know how much you weigh for the steroid since I don't have your chart in front of me," he said evenly.
"Too much," I quipped, recovering a bit.
"I know," he deadpanned, "but how much do you weigh?"
I couldn't even be mad at him. Right now, my obesity was just another item on the list to be addressed later now that my world had turned upside down again.
I got off the phone with him and thanked God for this blessing. Short of getting hit by a bus, I might just get to see Miss Zara become a fully formed adult, rather than the teenaged almost 4 year old that she currently is.
Then I called AdoringHusband who'd gone to the grocery store. He ended up sitting in the meat cooler in his relief as I shared the particulars from the pulmonologist.
Today I’m breathing easier, dealing with my steroid surges (basement cleaning anyone?) and am taking it slowly, savoring life in every way possible. My perspective shifted just like the dual view of my wet branches diptych. I learned yet another lesson in my humanity, my faith, and the power of love. Thanks for reading along.