You know what they say: when you have a hammer, everything becomes a nail. Well, when you have a blog, everything becomes a blog post.
In reading all this stuff from the 70s-80s-and-90s iteration of conservative Evangelicalism, I’ve had more than a few demons to exorcise. And one I’ve been intentionally avoiding talking about here. I just don’t want to think about it because the tears come too easily. I want to forget it. Ignore it. Hope it goes away. And so . . . I think, then, that I really should talk about it.
It all came to a head 10 years ago just before my 30th birthday. But it started about 5 years before that. If I had had a blog back then, this is what it would have been about.
I won’t bore you with all the medical details. Who wants to hear the gory specifics about someone else’s medical condition, right? But suffice it to say, I had all the symptoms of Cushing’s Syndrome. Consistently my cortisol levels were double the normal values. That’s high, but not really that high.
I don’t know exactly how I got to that point. It may have been the birth control pills I started taking after I got married. I don’t really know. Nobody knows. But, ironically or not, as soon as I had invested my entire life into fundamentalism, it started.
Things weren’t right with my health, and my mother taught me that when things weren’t right, you need to go to the doctor for help.
When I told the (BJU-employed) doctor everything and that I had been exercising to lose the weight I had gained, she didn’t believe me. She said something like, “It’s quite obvious that that couldn’t be true.” Or something like that.
She didn’t believe me! How is that even possible? How dare she! A health-care professional who, at first blush, accuses her patient of lying!?? She, in sum, patted me on the head and sent me on my way, assuming, I’m sure, that not indulging my sinful lie would put a stop to my troubles.
This really bothered me. It still bothers me. Because I still assume that people aren’t going to believe me when I tell them what I’m doing or not doing. And I don’t live a raucous, devil-may-care life. I exercise — I have pretty consistently except for pregnancy and sickness my whole adult life. I don’t drink. I have never smoked. I take my vitamins daily. I’m a square. A total square. But when I see that white lab coat, I assume that whatever I say will be disbelieved. It’s a kind of learned helplessness for my health.
Anyway. . . . I am nothing if not stubborn. And so I set out to prove her wrong — like her opinion of me mattered somehow. I continued to power walk like mad — between 16-20 miles per week. Our lab-collie mix joined me. Back campus there. I’m sure my neighbors from that time remember seeing me in rain or shine, winter and summer.
I didn’t lose a pound. I actually gained weight. And we were so BJU-poor, that I let my shoes get too far gone. And I developed a pretty serious pain in my foot.
So back to the doctor I went. Here I had a definite, material symptom this time, right? And this doctor was supposed to be the best one, I was told. The female. The one that understood. I told her about the foot pain. And she actually told me that it couldn’t hurt that bad. That I was imagining things.
I insisted. She belittled and accused. I insisted some more. In time, I got worse; the symptoms seemed more mysterious (more Cushing’s like). I brought Grant with me. We made big enough pests of ourselves that in disgust she passed us along to a specialist although she did make it clear to him beforehand that I was a nutcase.
Thankfully, he took one look at my symptoms and blood work and did not agree with her character assessment.
But he didn’t have any answers either. Nor did his buddy up the road. Or his buddy in Indiana (we moved to Bloomington at this point). Or his buddy. Or the other endocrinologist. I got poked, prodded, infuriated, mortified, and still no answers. The pain in my foot was so intense, I’d have to crawl to the bathroom first thing in the morning. I eventually got a cane.
Because this last Indiana guy was Dr. Wait-and-See, I took the bull by the horns and got an appointment at the Mayo Clinic during my summer break in 1998. Grant had summer school and couldn’t go with me, so my mom joined me. We took the Amtrack up to Minnesota that summer. That entire experience is a blog series in and of itself. But King Hussein of Jordan was there at the same time! I didn’t bring my sedan chair though.
It was mostly a waste of time. They told me nothing new. I got poked, prodded, mortified, tested, and even photographed (!!). As before, they’d take one look at my symptoms, act all positive that they could solve everything, and continue with the testing. But when the results were neither normal nor abnormal enough, they’d shrug and pat me on the head and wish me well.
No character assassinations though. There are small blessings.
I found a NIH trial at the University of Michigan on Cushing’s Syndrome. I got in. If I remember correctly, they were testing the effects of cortisol on memory. 😉 They did the same old stuff and were headed quickly toward the same conclusion.
Until. . . . a physician’s assistant listened. Really, really listened. She asked me about the pain in my foot. I described it to her like I had described it a dozen other doctors: it felt like a nail was stabbing my heel. It’s the worse in the morning and then it gets better, and then there’s a point of no return and I can hardly walk at all.
She, God bless her, said, “I think you have a heel spur.”
A HEEL SPUR? Really?? You’re kidding?!?? . . .
One $35 X-ray later and we had our proof. There it was. For five years I had had a lousy, plain-as-day, ordinary, run-of-the-mill spur. I wasn’t imagining it at all.
I was still in denial, but my darling mother dragged me, hobbling and weeping, to the orthotic store the next day. I didn’t believe this would work. How could it? I still wondered if it actually was my bad character that was causing these problems.
Within 2 days, I could walk normally. And within a few weeks I was . . . well, all the Cushing’s Symptoms started to clearly diminish. I got back home to Bloomington and visited a sports doctor (tons of them in that college town). I told him what was up and he said, “You poor thing! You have really suffered.”
That was the first doctor among all those others to empathize with me. And the first to offer me actual but really inexpensive solutions.
I used to say that what I learned from all this is that doctors are really just mechanics. You need them, of course, but they aren’t much more than technicians at some point. And Occham’s Razor, of course: the simplest answer is usually the correct one.
Now I think what happened is that the birth control pills messed with my system, so I walked like a fiend to fix it (and prove my worth), got that heel spur, and the pain from that caused my stress-hormone cortisol production to rise. That was a form of “Pseudo-Cushing’s” in the end.
In the grand scheme of things, one doctor was just as incompetent as the next. Probably they were so focused on their own endocrine specialty that they couldn’t listen to the whole problem, although you’d think the famed Mayo Clinic could sort through that. It took a PA to get to the bottom of it. And it took a sports doc to understand and actually solve the problem.
Usually specialists rely on general practitioners to catch these heel-spur sorts of problems. But my general practitioner was stuck. Stuck in a lousy ideology that made it easier to accuse an Other of sin than listen. Confronting was more her job than diagnosing. Judging was more important than thinking. The metaphysical heart was easier for her to “see” than a malformed heel bone.
I still hear her voice in my head. Or perhaps, reading Jay Adams and his ilk accentuate her long-forgotten self-righteous and ill-proven diatribe delivered to me at a time of physical pain and fear while I was wearing nothing but a paper dress. Through all this, I’ve discovered that my main motivation in fundamentalism was shame and self-loathing, and that’s a deliberate systemic thing. It’s described, defended, promoted, and assumed. It’s the first knee-jerk reaction. “No doubt the trouble is with you,” right?