4 Lessons I’m Learning from the Hardest Season of My Life

If you’ve followed my blog for a bit, you know about my struggle with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, and the 5 lessons I’m learning about walking with people in pain. This post is from a different angle–it’s about what pain is teaching me about life. I think the lessons here apply to anyone. I first wrote this a number of months ago for another context, and then ended up not publishing it. But it feels too significant not to share, so I’m posting it here. Let me know what you would add . . .

I curled into a fetal position, slamming my head over and over into the couch, like a drunken war vet who just wants to forget. The hot tears steamed down my face and dripped off the end of my nose, as the air turned a metaphorical blue from the swear words pouring from my lips. I coiled my hand into my mouth and bit down, trying to stifle the screams of frustration, anger, and hopelessness. Then I bit harder, so that I could taste the pain, because somehow I wanted my body to really feel the haunting emptiness and desperate loneliness I felt inside. I had never, ever, felt so alone.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Four years earlier, I had graduated from university at the top of my class. A couple of months later, I married my high-school sweetheart. Six weeks after our wedding, I started as Director of Student Ministries at a large church. I was 22, happily married, full of vision, and doing my dream job. For a couple of years, life was mostly good.

Then the depression hit. Full-scale, I’m-out-of-control, clinical depression. Uncontrollable anger. Desperate sadness. 20lbs of weight gain. Foggy thinking. Total lack of energy.

It was awful. After months of negativity and bad communication, my wife was emotionally beat up and spent. I felt exhausted at work and even more exhausted at home. Perhaps most frighteningly, in many ways, I didn’t even know my own self anymore. Where was the high-energy, straight A’s, idealistic college student of just a few years before? Where was the never-give-up, we-can-do-this, full-of-vision person that I was used to being? My wife said over and over, “I’d do anything to get the real you back.” Me too, I’d think, if only I knew how.

I tried everything to get that person back. Anti-depressants. Counseling. Rest. Light therapy. Vitamins. Exercise. But nothing seemed to help. For three years I lived life with the shadow of death in the passenger seat.

And I told almost no one.

My wife knew. I told a couple close friends and mentors. Occasionally I shared parts of it with a hurting student or staff member as a way to empathize. But when I share this story with most people from that season of my life, they look at me and say, “I had no idea. Things were going so well. I didn’t know you struggled with depression.”

And that kills me.

They mean it as a compliment. Maybe they’re impressed with the appearance of strength and perseverance and diligence and faithfulness. Maybe they admire my ability to seemingly keep going on without burdening those around me. But I know better. And I feel like a fraud.

Yes, I’m thankful that God blessed ministry during that period. By His grace, it was a very fruitful season. And I’m thankful that He gave me the strength to walk through it. I’m thankful for my wife, my family, and my friends and mentors who walked with me, cared for me, and were exceedingly patient with me.

But because I hid, I missed out on the opportunity to share God’s grace with others. Because I hid, I missed out on some of the lessons God had for me. Because I hid, I missed the experience of welcoming others into my hurt. Because I hid, I missed a chance to showcase God’s glory and greatness in my weakness.

I know this, because He gave me another chance.

Fast-forward 6 years, and I’m in Czech Republic, leading a training conference for 230 youth leaders from throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The program is tight. The speakers are on target. The breakout sessions are personal and relevant. The band is incredible. And I can’t be part of it, because I’m too sick. Way too sick.

Turns out I don’t only have depression. I have a genetic disorder that results in a something called Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. Put shortly, anytime I’m exposed to a chemical, my body treats it like poison. My mind slows to less than half its normal speed and capacity. My emotions escalate to frantic anger and desperate sadness. My muscles become clumsy and I lose my sense of balance. At its worst, I become a danger to those around me, including my wife and son. I’ve struggled with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities since that day on the couch, but in recent months it has sharply escalated. By the time I get to this conference, I’ve been living the last five months at 25–30% of my normal capacity for leading, for teaching, for living …

And chemicals are everywhere. I can’t go into the conference hotel, because natural gas, cleaning products, and hot stoves all affect me. I can’t be around too many people, because laundry detergents and personal hygiene items make me sick. The meeting rooms are out because fresh paint, new carpet, and recently built furniture all trigger my disease. Like a canary in a coal mine, my body senses chemicals at a level that you can’t even smell.

I’m leading a conference, and I can’t be part of it. I listen to the main sessions while standing outside under a bright orange patio umbrella. During worship, I sing my heart out–alone. And when everyone else goes inside to escape the cold drizzle with warm coffee and tasty desserts, I watch from outside. Loneliness is the most painful when everyone around you isn’t lonely.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Multiple times a day, I’m on the phone with my wife. She’s back at our house in Hungary, trying to care for our son, who has the same disease as me—but worse. It’s September, which means the neighbors are burning brush and wet leaves—another thing that provokes our disease. Because of the smoke, my 3-year-old son is physically and emotionally imploding, and I’m not there to help. My wife hasn’t had an easy year either. Because of an excruciating spinal injury, her tally of medical visits for the year has topped 60. I’m trying to help her manage my son’s struggles from 250 miles away.

Like before, my world is pressing in around me. I often want to call it quits. Like before, I’m often totally out of control. I regularly doubt God’s love and goodness. Like before, I feel so alone that it threatens to consume me. Sometimes I question whether God is real at all. And I’m always tempted to hide.

But unlike before, this time I can’t hide.

I walk the around the conference grounds wearing a charcoal mask that reminds everyone of Bane from the latest Batman film. I carry a shiny metal air-cleaner that looks like a rocket and is the size of an airplane carry-on bag. While everyone else sleeps inside, I sleep and eat in a rented travel trailer with the windows wide open, in-spite-of the incessant September rain and dropping temperatures. Everyone knows that something is wrong. Everyone knows that I’m not well. I can’t hide it. And therein lies the blessing.

When life comes undone, there are no simple fixes, trite sayings, or easy answers—at least, I haven’t found any. But I’m learning—slowly—that God invites me to share my pain. Not in a “I-have-no-boundaries-so-I’m-going-to-tell-everyone-everything” sort of way. Even Jesus only invited His closest three friends into the Garden of Gethsemane. But we are called to offer our pain to the world. Soon after the Garden, on the cross, Jesus offered His pain to the world as a gift.

Perhaps we’re supposed to offer our pain, as a gift, too. Perhaps pain isn’t meant to be held tight. Maybe it’s meant to be shared.

I’m finding that pain is meant to be shared, because it is in our pain that we truly understand God’s grace, and can share it with others. About a year ago, I asked God why He allowed a disease into my life that made me a worse husband and father. It’s an honest question. Having just lost control–yet again–with my wife and son, I went for a walk, crying and yelling at God. As I wrestled with God, I slowly began to hear Him speak: “Rob, you understand many things about me. You love my word. You love my love. You value truth. And the people you disciple reflect those things. But you don’t understand my grace. And the people you disciple don’t reflect my grace to the world around them. In this disease, you’re going to need my grace over and over and over again. And you’ll become one who spreads my grace to others.”

I’m finding that pain is meant to be shared, because as we voice and process our pain, we begin to see the work God is doing. When I reflect on these last months and years of pain, I would never choose to repeat them. And I would never choose to skip them. God is stripping idols from my heart that have long controlled me. He’s done a complete identity overhaul, and I didn’t even know I needed it. He’s focused and shaped me for the stretch ahead in ways that would have taken years at my normal pace of growth. I don’t like pain. I’d never chose it for myself. But I do see God at work in it. As CS Lewis put it, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

I’m finding that pain is meant to be shared, because it is in our pain that we truly welcome others into our lives. It’s not easy to share our pain. At least, not for me. I’d rather act and look strong. Culture tells us to “Keep Calm and Carry On.” The country song tells us “if you’re going through hell, keep on going … you might get through before the devil even knows you’re there.” But the problem with that strategy is that you’ll always go it alone. All too often, we hide and downplay our pain, and then wonder why others don’t care. And of course, there are those who offer trite counsel, or who give advice when they should listen, or who try to give perspective when they should give empathy. (Click here to read my blog post on 5 Can’t-Miss Lessons for Walking with People Through Pain.) But many others long to truly empathize if we can truly help them understand. The blessing of being forced to wear a mask and carry an air-cleaner everywhere is that then people know that I’m sick, and they can enter into that pain with me. And as scary and vulnerable as that feels, it’s also one of the moments where I most experience the love of Christ’s body. That’s special.

I’m finding that pain is meant to be shared, because God uses the backdrop of our pain to showcase His work. In John 9, Jesus and His disciples encounter a man born blind. Can you imagine being blind for your entire life? And, can you imagine it in that culture and day? You’d have no hopes or dreams–or at least, none that you’d share with anyone else. You wouldn’t dare dream of getting married, or having a job, or owning a shop, let alone making your mark on the world, or being a difference-maker. Your life would be reduced to begging, to eating, and to hearing people talk: “Why do you think he’s blind?” “Maybe it’s because of his sin.” “No, I think it’s because of his parent’s sin. Maybe he’s a bastard child.” Day after day. No hopes, no dreams. A wasted life.

And then one day Jesus comes along. He actually heals your eyes and makes it so you can see. This is incredible! You can see the face of your best friend for the first time. You now know the radiant beauty of a summer sunset. And to be able to move through the streets of Jerusalem at full speed . . . this is almost beyond comprehension.

But the other thing Jesus does might be even more important. Jesus stops the questions. His answer is so simple, it takes your breath away: “Neither this man, nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” There’s a reason that we put a brilliant diamond against black felt. There’s a reason that we love to gaze at the summer stars on a black night. And it’s the same reason that God loves to showcase His grace amidst the darkest times of our lives. It pushes aside all the self-glory that we like to conjure up, and puts God and His love on center stage. God loves to showcase His beauty against the backdrop of our pain. And in doing so, He shares His glory with us. It’s not just God who is glorified in the man born blind; the blind man gets to experience God’s glory in him. I don’t fully understand that, but I’ve felt it, and I won’t soon forget it.

I experience just a taste of this at the youth leader’s conference. By God’s grace, I am able to enter the main meeting a couple of times to teach. People say various things afterwards, but one comment in particular sticks out in my mind. She says something like, “I just appreciate so much how real and open you are about this whole thing. If it were me, I’d try to hide it. I wouldn’t want anyone to know. But you just accept it and allow others to help you, and it’s really inspiring.”

I smile, thinking of all that God has been teaching me in this area, and say, “Well, I haven’t always been like that …”

(By God’s grace, since that conference my health has started to change. I’ve moved from 30% of normal capacity to 70%. I’m hopeful that someday I’ll be at 100% again. But for now, I especially hope that I learn to live a more vulnerable, transparent life. I have a long way to go in learning to share the gift of pain. But I’m convinced that pain is meant to be shared.)

  • Kay Lynn

    Wow. My first thought after reading this was, “God REALLY loves him.” My second thought was, “that means God really loves me, too!” Isn’t it ironic that in our pain and weakness (which feels harsh), he is actually building us up and making us beautiful? He is so patient! What a mystery…. Thank you for sharing so boldly and humbly. I really appreciate it!

    • Well said, Kay Lynn! Thanks for those thoughts. Very, very true.

  • Adam Szabados

    Thank you, Rob, for sharing this with us. I’m glad I know you.

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