Monday, December 16, 2013

Bread, Comas, and Lord of the Rings


I had never really given the sticky molecules much thought before. I mean, who would purposely fill their mind with queries about a protein composite that allows dough to become stretchy, when there are so many other interesting things in the world?

Alas, such days of ignorance are now behind me.

When I first entered the US back in mid-August, health wasn’t my biggest concern, though it was definitely Question #1 as I visited with churches and connected with old friends (“did you ever get...<gasp> malaria??  Or cholera???” ).  I mean, I was the girl who thinks hiking mountains for hours is fun, who looks nostalgically on those summers when I regularly threw 24,000 lbs of haybales, and who would decide if my horseback riding lessons were effective based on the level of pain afterward.

But then I came back to the US and things changed. Suddenly was tired. And this wasn’t just a few-hours-low-on-sleep tired, but the kind of tired that makes a month-long coma look like an afternoon nap. I became so weak and exhausted that sitting up in bed was too much work, and I would drag myself from horizontal to horizontal all day...trying to salvage enough energy to go complete a speaking engagement once or twice that week. My thinking became so foggy that I couldn’t put sentences together after 5 pm, driving became dangerous, and my neck and shoulders would seize up in excruciating pain in my attempt to focus. And then, my hair started falling out in quantities like a chemo patient.

Essentially, I looked and felt like the guy on the right:

(That scary guy on the left? You might think his name is Grima but it’s actually Gluten!)
And so it continued for two and a half months, because no one could figure out what was wrong.

“God, why?”  I would cry into a sopping wet pillow, too tired to stumble into the bathroom to find a Kleenex, watching my precious time in the United States slip away as I lay curled up on my bed, unable to interact with my family. All the things I had hoped for and planned to do during my home assignment were now being carved off my list, as I struggled to complete only my bare minimum responsibilities of meeting with churches that I had scheduled months in advance. I felt like an infant—completely helpless and just as frustrated.

Finally, in mid-October, I found a doctor who suggested I eliminate gluten from my diet. Within five days, my transformation was as dramatic as King Theoden from Lord of the Rings (except, I ended up more like Eowyn...because turning into a guy, even a healthy one, is kind of creepy).

Suddenly, I didn’t have to lean against the doorframe in order to let the dogs out onto the porch or put my finger under words when reading like a preschooler to make myself focus. I could talk to my family and sit up for hours at a time. Or...<gasp> I could even walk to the end of my driveway without stopping for a rest!

Gluten, for the uninitiated, is a protein found in many grains, like wheat, barley, and rye (and, thus, its found in tons of food...from soy sauce to taco seasoning to instant hot chocolate mix to some chapsticks). Unfortunately, some people have an extremely difficult time processing these proteins (those who have Celiac disease can’t process them at all, and it can result in significant damage of the digestive system). It’s often a hereditary condition, and symptoms can vary widely—from digestive upset to exhaustion to no initial symptoms at all (like my mom). Because I don’t eat much gluten when I’m in Papua New Guinea (and the wheat is different over there compared to US wheat), my body spent several years going without...and then when I returned earlier this year and encountered the wheat in the US, my latent sensitivity flared up with a vengeance.

What does this mean? Well, I don’t eat gluten for starters—and if I do, even if it’s just a crumb, within two days, I return to my decrepit state (to quote my dad, “Gluten is like sin. Only a little bit is enough to send you into hell...”). Living gluten-free won’t be quite as difficult as you might think in living overseas since I make everything from scratch anyway, and while it’s a rather large learning curve, I’m blessed to be starting here, in the US, where there are great resources and so many supportive people walking down the same path.

Am I at 100% recovered? Not quite yet (we’re sorting out a few other health challenges as well), though the last 6 weeks have seen dramatic improvements for me, which I’m looking forward to sharing with you later.

Although I’ve found it rather ironic that my health took a nose-dive after I left my third world country, such forced rest was not all for naught. Because, while I couldn’t move, I could read. And as I paged through the red-letter adventures of a Hebrew teacher, I began to learn more deeply about another of His names.

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
Isaiah 53:4-5

Over 2,000 years ago, a baby nestled in the straw, and he was to be called Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace

and Adonai Roph'ekha, the Lord who heals you.