Disclaimer: this is a little long and pretty honest, so read at your own discretion.
“I, too, have known years of waiting – years of hoping and praying and dreaming of a cure no doctor could offer, years of waiting for a healing encounter with Jesus. Every new morning was a reminder that I was promised no healing and guaranteed no end stamp on the condition I carried. . .It was in the middle of these questions and prayers and confusion that I found myself waiting for a God I couldn’t always make sense of or understand. But I met him in the waiting. And for me, that changed everything.” Ann Swindell, Still Waiting
Every time I get my period without medication, it’s a miracle. Like a “Jesus really came through” miracle. Not the kind that is easy to talk about, but still glorious nonetheless. I want to share with you why.
I got my first period right after my thirteenth birthday.
And as you should be at thirteen, I was so excited. It meant I was less of a kid and more like my twenty-year-old babysitter who I thought was pretty much the coolest person since Hilary Duff.
I didn’t get my second period until months later. And it lasted for six weeks. Six weeks. That’s six weeks of PMS, cramps, and hormone levels, on top of my already crazy adolescent emotions. Tired, overwhelmed, and anemic, I saw the only gynecologist who would take on a thirteen year old. Pitying the poor, exhausted girl in front of her, I was put on the strongest birth control she could prescribe. It seemed like a one-stop-shop answer.
As the months went by and my birth control prescription kept changing because of insurance, it became alarmingly apparent that something wasn’t working. I had noticed a little weight gain and increased lethargy, but it was my emotions that proved to be the most concerning. I was on high levels of synthetic hormones and, at fourteen, I was self-aware enough to realize that something felt very, very wrong. When asked by my parents, I would describe myself as feeling detached, apathetic, and unaware. I felt like I was watching my life instead of living it, like I was in a daze or a dream. I didn’t seem to care about anything in a life that, months before, had been vibrant and energetic. I found myself wanting to sleep as often as possible, though often struggling with insomnia at night. There were daily headaches. Hot flashes. The need to hide my birth control from my church friends to avoid being questioned.
By fifteen, doctors were concerned enough to take an ultrasound and fifteen vials of blood. As they massaged the ultrasound machine over my abdomen, my thoughts were less about my impending diagnoses and more about how awkward it was going to be when I peed all over the examining table. I made it out of the examining room sans embarrassment and waited for answers.
“We don’t really know what is wrong. But you probably have PCOS.”
PCOS, or polycystic ovarian syndrome, is an endocrine disorder that affects 1 in 10 women. As a syndrome, the diagnosis comes from your symptoms and there is no cure. It’s categorized by cysts on your ovaries, irregular periods, weight gain, insulin resistance, anxiety, depression, insomnia, digestive issues, and infertility. I was like the poster child for genetically inherited PCOS. It varies in strength and affects every woman uniquely and individually.
It’s hard to struggle with things that aren’t visible. Most PCOS symptoms aren’t, and the ones that are, like weight gain, can always be blamed on something else. When you acting irritable, exhausted, and anxious, it’s easy for people to write it off as annoying. It’s harder for people to “get it,” to believe that something really is off, when they can’t see it. And when it’s attached to inherently female issues and hormones, it can make people a tad uncomfortable.
So, silently and often alone, I tried to fix it myself. I kept a journal. I spent time with Jesus. I tried to maintain friendships. I ate healthy. I danced competitively. But despite my best efforts, I still did not feel like myself and I continued to gain weight.
And that began to cause other problems. Dance teacher’s told me that if the XL leotard didn’t fit that they would have to special order a bigger size. We would be measured for costumes and our measurements would be called out, which all the girls would later compare. We’d try on our booty shorts and, while everyone else complained that theirs were falling off, I struggled to make mine not look like they were tailor-made for a stripper. Friends would bring cupcakes for their birthday and I would feign a stomach ache. Without realizing it was happening, my world suddenly became about how I looked, what I weighed, and what I ate. Getting a solo or mastering a triple pirouette didn’t seem to matter when I heard girls snickering about how I was the biggest in the company. My crushes were exploited for laughs and my body was used as a punchline.
My medical diagnoses swirled with the reality of my teenage life into a perfect storm of disordered eating. I would go hours without eating. I would count calories. Skip meals. I would come home from hours at dance to do more workout videos. On occasion, I’d jam a toothbrush down my throat to try and make myself throw up. Then, when I got hungry, I often found that I couldn’t stop – I’d binge on a whole jar of peanut butter or pack of cookies. And I’d beat myself up about it, crying myself to sleep and vowing to do better tomorrow.
When I lost weight, people would comment. When I gained weight, people would comment. Everyone had an opinion on my body and everybody had an opinion on PCOS: if you lose weight, it’ll go away. Everything will stabilize if you would just lose 10, 15, 20lbs. One gynecologist even suggested that I tried belly dancing, offering that maybe my weight gain was just a workout plateau. I tried every medication – ones to help stabilize my hormones, ones to help lose weight, ones to help with insulin resistance, ones to help regulate my period, ones to help with my headaches or insomnia. But none of it worked.
With every new doctor, every new lab result, and every worsening symptom, I kept crying out to Jesus: Why won’t you just heal me?
He healed the woman with the problem of blood and all she had to do was touch His clothes. My problem felt eerily similar and yet, month after month, the headaches, the weight gain, the mood swings, the insomnia, the irregular periods journeyed with me. Jesus, in your power and for your glory, won’t you please heal me?
That is still my prayer.
For me, full healing still hasn’t come.
But the funny thing about healing is that it doesn’t take completeness to see miracles. It doesn’t take victory on the other side to assure you of Christ’s presence with you in it. In a season that reminds us of the blessings of God in the midst of waiting (advent), I’ve come to see my journey of healing the same way.
Because while PCOS, it’s associated symptoms, and the remnants of my teenage eating disorder still creep their way into my daily life, I’ve found healing in vulnerability. I’ve found healing in people who believed me, who didn’t tell me to try not eating after 7pm to lose weight, but instead cried with me as I told them my story. Who believed that when I told them that I was experiencing gut-wrenching stomach pain or that I couldn’t fall asleep until 2am, that I wasn’t exaggerating.
I’ve found healing in giving myself freedom, in the permission to both enjoy my life and be honest about my physical pain or emotions, especially when they mean leaving a situation. I’ve found physical things that work – vitamins that help supplement low levels, always having ibuprofen on hand, watching silly TV shows when I can’t sleep, or not eating breakfast until later in the day.
I’ve found healing in clinging to Jesus when the day feels long, stress emphasizes my symptoms, I can’t fit into an old pair of jeans, or it all just feels like too much. I let Him take my tears and frustration and anger. An incomplete healing propels me closer to my Savior, as I put my hope and expectancy in Him and the empathy He demonstrated on the cross.
My story of healing isn’t over, but in reality, none of our stories of healing are over. I know, with full confidence, that all Jesus would have to do is say the word and my cystic ovaries would look shiny and smooth. My wacky hormone levels would be balanced. My sleepless nights would be peaceful and I wouldn’t need carry a sweater around in the summer. But if that never happens, it doesn’t make Him less loving or faithful.
For as much as I believe that the Lord can heal my PCOS, I know now that He may not. I may never have biological children. I may always get headaches, have digestive problems, struggle with insomnia, and find myself unable to regulate my weight. But you know what? That isn’t the worst thing because it, quite literally, keeps me clinging to Jesus. I recognize, everyday, that I cannot do this without Him.
My hope is in the healing and redemption of eternity, not of this life.
My hope is in my risen Christ.
I won’t be living in a redeemed body until I’m standing before my Jesus, face to face. And if that means I have to carry PCOS in my bones (or, more accurately, my reproductive organs), for the rest of my life, that’s okay. He gets to
chose the story that brings Him glory. And, as He’s proven time and time again, He is faithful.