The freedom of healing, part one: Choosing to be healed

Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Beth-za'tha, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be healed?" The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me." Jesus said to him, "Rise, take up your pallet, and walk." And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.
-- John 5:2-9

Last February, I showed up at the doctor’s office with a laundry list of mysterious symptoms. It seemed that the emotional rollercoaster of the past year had finally caught up with me — that the more my life felt like it was falling apart, the more my body followed suit. So when I finally couldn’t take the pain or the uncertainty any longer, I begrudgingly booked an appointment and rode the Hot Mess Express all the way there.

As a public health professional, I would never advise anyone else to wait until they “couldn’t take it anymore” to see a doctor. I’m a huge advocate for prevention and early detection, but alas, I’m also human, and I don’t always practice what I preach. I have a complicated medical history and knew that this appointment would mean sharing my story all over again with a total stranger — a process that would inevitably trigger some not-so-pleasant memories from my childhood and teenage years. So, although I wouldn’t recommend it, I waited until my need for answers was stronger than my desire to avoid rehashing the past. I’m sure many of you can relate.

When my new doctor walked into the exam room and asked what had brought me in that day, I took a deep breath and gave my usual spiel. With each additional detail, I noticed the crease in her brow grow a bit deeper, but she let me continue uninterrupted. When I got to the end and motioned in her general direction as if to say, “Take it away, doc! Diagnose me,” she offered an encouraging smile and began addressing each point in turn. She took the puzzle pieces I had rapidly hurled at her and thoughtfully laid them out, sorted them by color, and fit them neatly into place, and as I sat and watched a coherent picture begin to take shape, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. 

When she got to my anxiety — the last item on the list and the one that had made her brow crease most deeply — I largely brushed her off. By that point, I was feeling encouraged enough about everything else that I felt I could live with the constant worry in the pit of my stomach. After all, I’d dealt with it my whole life, hadn’t I? But she persisted.

“How do you feel on a daily basis?” she asked. “Does your anxiety affect your daily activities?”

“Oh yes,” I replied without missing a beat. “I wake up every morning with a feeling of dread and unease, which steadily increases throughout the day, especially when I’m at work. And occasionally I have panic symptoms. I had been panic attack-free for several years, but lately the symptoms have started creeping back in.” I said all of this matter-of-factly, as if she has merely inquired about the day’s weather.

“And…is that how you want to feel every day?” she asked gently but pointedly.

“I mean…” I paused and let out a defeated sigh. “No, not really.”

She pointed out that my anxiety was likely causing or contributing to the majority of my other issues, especially the throbbing headaches that seemed to crop up almost daily, and she encouraged me to give medication and therapy another try. And although I knew she was right, I still managed to offer a handful of halfhearted excuses — I didn’t have time for therapy, I didn’t want to deal with the side effects of medication, etc. — before finally consenting.

As I left the clinic that day, I was puzzled by my reaction. Personally and professionally, I’m a huge supporter of medication and therapy for managing mental health issues, and I have successfully used both to address my anxiety in the past. So why was I experiencing such hesitation this time? Why was I trying to avoid or delay getting the help I clearly needed?

It wasn’t until the following weekend that I started to unpack my resistance. I was helping out at my church’s high school confirmation retreat, and the theme was healing (because of course it was!). One of the other volunteers gave a talk based on the above passage from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus heals a man who has been paralyzed for 38 years. The volunteer read the passage aloud and encouraged us to reflect on Jesus’ pointed question — “Do you want to be healed?” — and the man’s roundabout response. Why did he make excuses rather than seize the opportunity to walk again? Could it be that he didn’t actually want to be healed, that he was afraid of change, that as much as he loathed being paralyzed, at least it was comfortable and familiar? Or that, after all those years, he no longer believed that healing was even possible

Um, ouch?

I was suddenly very relieved to be sitting in the back of the room, because I could feel my cheeks turning red and my eyes filling with tears as I realized this is exactly what had happened at my doctor’s appointment.

She had essentially posed the same question — “Do you really want to live like this? Or do you want to be healed?” — and I, paralyzed by anxiety, had made excuses. Because if I was being totally honest, I trusted God with a lot of things, but I had essentially stopped even trying to trust him with my health. It was too much of a mess, there was some damage that simply couldn’t be reversed, and anxiety was just going to be my “thing.” It seemed that I was always going to sit just at the edge of the water, so close and yet so far from the healing I wasn’t even sure was possible. But in that moment, I realized I didn’t want to stay there anymore. When Jesus asked if I wanted to be healed, I wanted my answer to be a resounding, “Yes! And I know you can and you will.” So I decided to trust Him, or at least try to trust Him.

When I returned home from the retreat, I started taking my new meds. Two months later, I scheduled my first therapy appointment. Throughout it all, I tried to imagine what it would look like to surrender to God even this area of my life that seemed hopeless and irredeemable. The transformation wasn’t instantaneous, of course — it took weeks to adjust my medication dosage and months to wade through some serious muck with my therapist, and trusting God with my health is still a daily wrestling match. But Y’ALL.

I had all but forgotten that waking up to feelings of intense dread wasn’t normal. I had all but forgotten that my heart wasn’t supposed to constantly pound, my stomach wasn’t supposed to constantly churn, and my head wasn’t supposed to constantly ache. I had all but forgotten that I am capable of dealing with the stresses of life, both big and small — sometimes I just need a little extra support. I can’t believe I almost let myself continue to live like that. Thank goodness for my doctor, who was truly imaging Christ to me that day — reminding me that I was made for more, but that I had to want it and believe it was possible, and take the necessary actions to get there. 

I had just started assuming that anxiety was my cross to bear and therefore I would always buckle under its weight to some extent. And while it’s true that the Lord doesn’t always miraculously erase our physical or mental ailments — more often than not, we end up living with them indefinitely — we can always trust Him with these things and know that He will heal and redeem them in His time. Anxiety may very well be a lifelong battle for me, but that doesn’t mean that the Lord won’t grant immense healing along the way, as He has proven over these past few months. Furthermore, He can use any suffering I experience for good. Already I can see how my anxiety has strengthened my faith and helped me to surrender more fully to His plans. Already I can see how my anxiety has helped me to better love and encourage others with similar struggles. How much more does God surely have in store for my mental health journey.

I was okay with living like a shell of my former self, but the Lord, like my doctor, wanted me to experience the freedom of healing.


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