As a little girl, I'd go with my grandmother Nettie to her church, Beulah Baptist in Harlem, on Sundays. I would sit there, eating the peppermints or caramels from her pocketbook, as the organist played. I'd sway when the choir sang hymns while I waited to receive the "word" -- that's what my grandmother called the pastor's sermon. However, before we'd find out what Bible lesson we'd hear about, a church elder would share the church announcements; a list of the sick, choir rehearsal times or special events. Then, the parishioners would be invited to testify.
I recall being mesmerized whenever someone stood up and began bearing their soul. The stories of sin, woe, or physical pain were told honestly and without shame. They often ended with these lines: "Praise Jesus, he didn't bring me this far to leave me or God is good all the time," that's when the congregation would say, "Amen." I'd often sit there bewildered about how anyone could thank God for the upset in their life but now I understand.
In my teenage years and early twenties, Catholic Church became my home and I was encouraged to go to confession; the same idea but your testimony is done in private. Still, I avoided sharing my most intimate thoughts with anyone. Now, more than 20 years after I was stricken with an autoimmune disease, sharing my testimony is necessary part of my life.
About five years ago, a lump on the left side of my throat changed my approach to my overall health. You see, my head, neck and throat surgeon said he was told to perform a surgical lymph node biopsy because my doctor suspected I had Lymphoma. The thought of dying before I was 40 years ago shook me to my core. Sure, I put on a brave face with my boyfriend, friends and family but inside I was consumed with thoughts terrifying thoughts like will the cancer kill me? Will it bankrupt me? Will my boyfriend leave me because I'm too ill? Why am I going through this? In addition to my physical pain, the mental suffering was almost unbearable. I'd often sit on the toilet in the bathroom and run the shower so that no one could hear my tears. Sleeping wasn't any easier, if the nightmares didn't wake me up, I'd rise in the morning with my heart beating fast and a headache.
Within two months, I'd lost almost 40 pounds. I'd shrunk to the weight I was in college in an unhealthy way. My hair was shedding and my skin and mouth were constantly dry. But, what people noticed most was that the light in my eyes, that sparks that I used to have, was gone. I knew I had to get that back if I was going to survive this fight and the other that came with having a chronic condition that requires me to take more than a dozen pills a day.
So, one day, I dropped to my knees and I prayed hard than I had before. And, I can't explain it, but I rose and knew that writing about my story was one thing that would free me from the stress, self-pity, and worrying. That day, I began updating my blog. A few months later, I started the manuscript for my memoir, Misdiagnosed: The Search for Dr. House. However, I still felt lost and alone; like the burden of living with my illness was still weighing heavily on me. It didn't help that over the next few years my body kept failing. There were three more surgical lymph node biopsy, my stomach was repaired and I began have radio frequency ablation on the nerves in my spine.
I kept praying but I also started sharing my testimony about my everyday struggles on social media and with my loved ones. Being brutally honest about my feelings about the trials and tribulations in my life released me from the secrecy that kept me isolated. With each post, the tension in my shoulder lessened and my sleep patterns stabilized. There was another unexpected benefit, the way I thought about my struggles changed. I began to seeing both the positive and negatives of my experiences. I made a point to include each of these perspectives in my testimonies; this helped me learn how to cope with what I was going through. It also reaffirmed, for me, that faith gives you hope when life and medicine sometimes does not.
Here's my latest testimony. Every step I take I'm afraid: of slipping, falling, injuring another part of my delicate body, of the pain of moving, of appearing to a victim because I'm a woman who moves slow with a cane. I fear getting too weak to get home; of being stranded, alone out in the elements. Yet, I push myself to get up and out every day. Why? I love the crunch of snow underneath my feet; it lets me know I'm still walking. I enjoy the rain beating down on my shoulders; it's then I know I can still feel. I adore the sun on my face; it tells me I lived to see another beautiful day. I'm aware my chronic illness, autoimmune disease, gives me an excuse to stay in bed. But, days like to today remind me I'd rather fall living the best life I can than sitting in a corner of laying in bed waiting to die.