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December 3, 2020

Pill Bottle

A few weeks ago I finished up a course of antibiotics for a sinus infection and was about to throw the empty bottle out — when I hesitated.
7 min read

—A few weeks ago I finished up a course of antibiotics for a sinus infection and was about to throw the empty bottle out—when I hesitated. It’s currently sitting on my desk, a memento I decided to keep because I was sure this small thing had something important to say.

I’m prone to sinus infections and this last one was a doozy. Mainly because my son and I started off sick together with allergy symptoms and he bounced back whereas I got worse. Because it was an upper respiratory matter for both of us, we got covid-tested. Thankfully, the results came back negative, so I was spared a scarier fate despite my descent into illness. However, it’s hard for most moms to be knocked flat on their bums while their kids jump around like wild monkeys.

It can be especially challenging for me because my eight year old has autism, a vivid curiosity, high intelligence, and a seemingly endless supply of energy. What he lacks is a sense of personal safety and the ability to speak much, so our home remains on high alert to avoid all manner of harm. When I compare the level of hypervigilance my husband and I exercised when our son was a toddler, it doesn’t differ much from what we do now, some six years later. It’s exhausting. And discouraging. And isolating. Most people don’t really grasp the grueling marathon we run every day unless they’ve got a special needs child of their own.

So there I was, crawling out of bed in the morning to take my son to school, and crawling back into bed until his bus brought him home again. Although my physician husband assured me I had been this sick before with sinus infections and was not, in fact, dying of the plague, it was hard for me to believe him. Then I went on the antibiotics and within a week or so, the picture changed for me dramatically. I started to feel like a human being again, began doing more than just the bare minimum. The whole experience remains fresh enough in my memory for the contrast between “before” and “after” to really stand out.

And I think: what a miracle that I could swallow pills that automatically “knew” what to do for me. Deployed into my body, they worked their magic—quashing the source of my upper respiratory distress and overall exhaustion. I taught them nothing, they gave me everything. Everything I needed to be transported from one place to quite another. In essence, they schooled me in becoming a humble believer in—and recipient of—their power.

Alas, I suffer from other medical conditions that are not so easily resolved. Having inherited depression, anxiety, and a misfiring brain from my family tree, I often long for a simple answer. A ten-day treatment of pills would be lovely, thank you, but that’s not how these things work. As with the distressing complexity of my son’s autism, I often find myself struggling with hopelessness and despair before God because I know there will be no quick fixes. Sometimes I can barely address him about my mental health, because my prayers feel like mere drops in a bucket. It seems that I will never be able to drum up enough petition to make the needle move even the slightest. If not for the faithful intervention of family and friends, I would go stark raving mad.

Not many days after my sinus recovery I was hearing a particular song repeat itself in my head. This is not unusual for me, as my brain tends to get quite noisy. Sometimes the music or chatter sounds like a loud neighbor whose door I’d like to kick down. Sometimes it feels as if I’m circling round and round in roller rink with the sound cranked up like a siren. Either way, this recurring condition reminds me how much control I often lose in the space between my ears. When guillotines start looking like a viable treatment option, there’s a problem.

As things go, the morning in question wasn’t terrible. It was a Christian song looping in my head, after all, not an anthem to Satan. I could still function and I was, as I got in my car to drive. Setting out on an errand, I reached over to turn my radio on and there it was. Of all things, there it was—the exact same music playing in my head. Sure, it was only the last few measures of the song, but I could still identify the synchrony between inner and outer worlds.

As I stopped at a red light and absorbed this “coincidence,” I felt a warmth come over my head. Yes, my poor head, which houses my battered brain. And with that warmth a kind of tingly sensation, as if a large hand had reached out and draped itself over me like a small blanket. And then I heard a voice within, which I am absolutely sure belonged to the owner of the hand.

It said, simply, “I’m inside your head.”

And then, as quick as it takes for a stoplight to turn from red to green, the moment passed.

But it was not over.

I knew what I had heard, but did not understand what it meant. And I also knew that it would take some unpacking to figure it out. First things first: I noticed that the initial impact of “I’m inside your head” brought relief. Over the years, I’ve undergone many forms of mental, emotional, and spiritual intervention. Whether talking to a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor or pastor, I have spent huge amounts of time explaining myself. Specifically, explaining the thoughts I think and the feelings I feel. Ninety-nine percent of the time I walk away from these encounters with gratitude welling up in my heart. It’s good to let the inner demons out and to have a safe and constructive place to do so.

However, every now and again, I’ve come away from a counseling session completely exhausted—disheartened that I have to keep digging up the bones of my struggles and present them to an outsider (however compassionate and helpful that person may be). I weary of the process of excavation and classification. I want to drop the shovel and take the lighted helmet off.  Though I am a lover of words, the quest to find exactly the right ones to describe myself drains me, in much the same way that a receptionist might get home from work and put every phone she owns on “silent.” The idea that my mind is being live streamed by God brings comfort. He’s always uploading my info—and with far greater accuracy than I could ever manage to transmit it to him.

Second, I instinctively grasped that God being inside my head should change the way I pray. What would my prayers look like if I closed my eyes and pictured myself talking to him as if we were sitting side by side in a movie theater of the mind, watching the same film? Would words fall away, such as they do in that enclosed setting? Would we huddle closer together, letting ourselves get absorbed by what was playing, speaking—only when absolutely necessary—in whispers?

In other words, if I wasn’t spending so much energy explaining myself, where would all that energy go? What if I trusted God to automatically know—and do—what is best for me, the same way that I trusted those antibiotics to work?

Because when I’m scared or hurting, God often seems distant, an indifferent observer of my anguish. One who is not going to move on my behalf unless I give him a darn good reason to, either through constant pleading, exemplary behavior—or both. (This is not good Christian theology, I know. But the heart believes what the heart believes, especially during tough times).

There’s a verse from Psalm 139­ that captures my perception of God being so far away when I’m in trouble. Using metaphors taken from nature, the poet offers a reversal of God’s creative activity at the very opening of the Bible. Rather than being separated from the darkness (Gen 1:4), the light the psalmist mentions is swallowed up by it. A situation that is definitely not (as God declares so many times in Genesis 1) good:

If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night.”  Ps 139:11 (NAS)

Interestingly enough, the Hebrew verb translated as “overwhelm” above (shoof) appears only two other places in the Bible. The earliest occurrence comes when God tells the snake in Eden that human beings will “bruise” his head, even as it tries to “bruise” their feet (Gen 3:15). The other occurrence emerges in Job 9:17, when Job accuses God of “crushing” him with a storm of woe. Whether you take shoof as an act of bruising or crushing, the poet laments that he has been wholly undone by his affliction—whether inner or outer in origin. Worse yet, he seems to be saying that he feels utterly alone, using the first-person pronoun three times. There is no “we” or “us” in this crisis, just an “I” and “me” who is being sucked into a black hole of suffering.

Relatable? Absolutely. But no place a sufferer wants pitch a tent and call home. Thankfully, the next verse in the psalm shows the poet professing hope, and not in the manner one might first imagine. He does not say, as in other psalms, “God is going to yank me out of this pit of darkness—and I will thank and praise him for that until it happens.” Rather, the poet says something rather astounding:

Even the darkness is not dark to You, And the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to You.  (Ps. 139:12 NAS)

Rather than making his rescue contingent upon whether his darkness gets flooded with light, the psalmist basically says, “It’s all the same to You.” Meaning, it’s not a matter of whether I can discern a way out of this mess, it’s about Your commitment to remain with me in it. I may emerge out of my dark place like a Lazarus (John 11:44), still wrapped in my graveclothes, unseeing, not fully comprehending what has happened.

But as long as YOU see and comprehend what’s happening, I’ll arise.

As long as You’re inside my head, I live.

And so the first person pronouns disappear in this verse and are replaced by the second person “You.” Notably, the word “darkness” appears three times in this ten-word verse. It’s almost as if the poet is disarming that word, saying that, however much the darkness may surround him, he will prevail in his Maker’s presence.

You know, there are many times when my husband and I have said that we wish we could get inside our son’s head. We want to understand the thoughts and feelings that his autism does not allow him to express. And yet, I suspect that if we could shrink ourselves down and sit in front row seats, the movie playing before us would make little sense. We are simply not equipped to interpret that complex text, much as we love our boy. So the question that remains to us is: are we spending as much energy praying to our son’s all-seeing Maker as we are ferreting out every clue to what he’s communicating—worrying all the while that it’s not enough?

Do we instead need to swallow whatever assurance God is offering, trusting that what he says he will surely do—so that our son can get better? Be transported to a dramatically different place? Us too?

So, consider me officially on the hunt. I’m going to search the Scriptures for a few specific promises. Good medicine that may not manifest as a quick fix, but will, as I pray them over time, make me more aware of God’s presence in the terrible dark. Who knows, maybe I’ll develop a some night vision myself, if I bear enough of my Maker’s image for that to happen.

And may the encouragements God gives change us all into more humble believers in—and recipients of—His healing love.