When You Don't Know | The Beauty & Pain of Suffering

This is a tough season of my life. A very important mentor in my life once told me that each time I get to the mountaintop, I’ll find myself in a valley just as soon, so it’s important to stay humble. Those prophetic words have been so true for me. Just six months ago I was feeling really expectant and grateful for all that was happening in my life. There was actually a lot of stress and many unknowns in my future, but God was spiritually moving me in profound ways, which rippled into every area of my life. I was feeling positive and hopeful.


In an effort to be incredibly transparent, hope has been very thin for me in the past few months. I find myself in a place that is testing all facets of my faith- in my body, my knowledge, and my trust in God. I am not a stranger to difficulty, nor do I think anyone really is. My suffering has indeed shaped my character, as God tells us it does - suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character hope. I’ve also been richly blessed, in ways that I truly do not deserve.


But the pain that is so particularly grievous to the soul, is the suffering of the body. This body is my vessel; this vessel is my true self. My body cannot lie to me- it always tells the truth. My body is the fleshed out existence of my spirit on the earth- it is the representation of all that I have been created as. It is the friend that I adore- the one I once counted as an enemy in past suffering, but reconciled in full gratitude. It is that which is closest to me, in obvious and less obvious ways. When my body is tormented, it is a particular kind of pain that feels nearly unbearable. It feels as if for me, this is magnified all the more, because the past six years of my life have been dedicated to nurturing, listening, and experiencing my body as the true wonder that it is. I have learned how to master my body- how to use food, movement, the mind-body connection, tuning into it’s language, my moon cycle wisdom, education, and so much more- to arrive in a place where I feel exuberantly skilled at keeping it in harmony and freedom from most of life’s ailments. It took me such a long time to get here- I walked through so many years of suffering in my body- chronic pain and discomfort, loathing and disconnection to get there.


But now, I am once again at war with my body. It feels most days like a disconnect that presents itself at traitorship. The body I trusted, listened to, cared for- has turned against me. I still know and believe that my body is ALWAYS working for me, not against me. Yet, my daily experiences have bred a new kind of frustration and disdain towards my body.


It started a year ago, as a small patch of white on the inside fold of my arm. A circle- odd and harmless. As time went on, my hands would sometimes bother me- itching, burning, and red as I was cooking. Acidity of lemons, too much hand-washing- it was a discomfort I shook off. At some point, another white patch appeared, and another, until a few connected in certain areas. Suddenly, it began to itch more. Only at times- maybe during a really hot bath, a sweaty gym session, or seemingly at random. The more circles that began to appear, the more red and itchy it would feel. I went to my doctor, who was shocked at how bad it looked. I think I have a habit of wanting things to get better, so I reduce the severity of what’s happening in my head. My doctor determined it was ringworm and prescribed me an anti-fungal pill and cream. Grateful for an answer and some relief- I left for a hiking trip and started the protocol. I started getting better the week I was away on my trip, only to get much worse once I returned home.


I was then sent to a dermatologist, who tested the skin patches, which now itched constantly and oftentimes oozed. They determined it to be nummular eczema, with a lovely MRSA (staph) infection attached. I was prescribed steroid creams and an intensive, month-long stint of antibiotics. I try to avoid conventional medicine at all costs, because I have the education and knowledge to understand the ways in which they harm rather than help. There will always be unwelcome side effects from medicine, and the root cause of the problem is still neglected.. leaving you with more problems, and still no answers. But in the case of MRSA, a dangerous form of staph, I felt I had no choice but to take antibiotics. I had not taken antibiotics in years.


Antibiotics are incredibly harmful to the microbiome or gut. They eliminate the bad bacteria, but they also eliminate the good bacteria- the bacteria that supports your immune system, produces serotonin for your brain, absorbs nutrients from your food, stimulates your digestion, and various other critical components of your bodily functions. When you damage the gut, you can end up with scary consequences, which stem from leaky gut. I actually had leaky gut most of my life, until I transformed my health by using food as medicine. The list of issues from leaky gut is extensive- chronic illnesses, autoimmune conditions, pain, inflammation, depression, and so much more. My point here is that we want to structure our food and lifestyle choices to support and help our microbiome flourish- and avoid anything and everything that will damage it. Taking antibiotics was a hard decision for me- I cried for days about it. Not to mention the side effects were things like permanent vision loss. I had to leave my fear and frustration at the feet of Jesus and do what I could to heal.


I knew that eczema was an issue of the gut and immune system- and thought it was something I could easily reverse and heal- just like I have with every other health issue I’ve had. As I took the antibiotics, and occasionally used the steroid cream, the itching and pain subsided. I was grateful and focused on restoring my gut function and eliminating the eczema. But the eczema never went away- the patches would continue to grow. Always as small white circles, then turning into red scaly patches. They would flare and then calm. Stress, sweat, and certain foods seemed to trigger flares. Most mornings I would wake up and itch my fingers and hands for several minutes before breathing my way through the discomfort to start my day.


During this time, I noticed the ceiling wall caving in at my condo. I lived on the top floor of a three story building. The building was old and not well maintained. I also noticed drips of water from the ceiling fan on hot days. The handyman came once the ceiling started to crack open and ripped open the area so that he could restore the ceiling. He left it open, and planned to come back the next day. As I looked at the wooden beams that had been uncovered I noticed black patches of mold covering them. This alarmed me. My landlord was less than willing to admit that he thought it was a problem. It took a lot of hassle (and some really strong words) to get him to take it seriously. He had someone come out and take a look, who determined it looked harmless but couldn’t be sure until he was paid to do further testing. My landlord was unwilling to pay the man, and instead did a mail-in culture. I was frustrated and skeptical about all of this. The mail-in culture was inconclusive. My landlord offered many solutions such as cleaning with bleach or spraying biocides- all of which I researched and felt completely uncomfortable with. Cleaning mold with bleach does not kill it, and biocides cause cancer. He found a less harmful alternative, and against my better judgement, we taped off the area and set off a mold-killing bomb. We then implemented an HVAC system for the next week to clean the air from toxins. They closed the ceiling back up, but I still felt discomforted about all of it. I wondered if there was mold in other places in the ceiling, or the air system. I wanted to leave, but I was almost finished with my lease and making some big decisions about moving out of state- so I couldn’t leave immediately. My gut told me that mold was still a problem, and I needed to go.


All the while, my rash continued to fester. It grew slowly- at times being annoying, but never unbearable. One of the primary ways I have learned about the human body, sickness, and the ability to heal, is through my own experiences. I am determined to find answers, because I have hope that there are ALWAYS answers. My radical healing from chronic migraines, IBS, hormonal imbalances, and so much more, proved to me that there are answers to the body’s imbalances, you just need to find them. This has enabled me to be an expert on my own body, while also teaching others how to listen to the symptoms and cues their personal bodies give to them. This is how you become a healer- by experiencing pain, suffering, and sorrow in the deepest marrow of your bones and then choosing to wrap your revelations up into potent pieces of wisdom for those also struggling. You serve others with the knowledge you gain through your darkest moments- so that they can manifest hope in their suffering.


I was also, admittedly, going a hundred miles a minute every day at this time. It was a time of growth for me, in my spiritual walk, my personal life, and business. Being an entrepreneur comes with times of intensity- and this was one of those seasons for me. Because of this, I think I wasn’t as tuned into the real problem of my rash as I should have been. It was certainly annoying, painful, and confounding to me- I was working on figuring it out, but I wasn’t creating a truly conscious effort to recognize the magnitude of what was happening. I’ve recently learned this is also a pattern of mine- I can recognize a problem, but don’t allow myself to feel it to fully if I do not know what to do - for fear that I won’t be able to bear it, or take care of it.



I then made a decision to move to North Carolina, and I was happy to be leaving a toxic environment. But my rash had increased in intensity, and I wanted to focus on getting more help to determine what I needed to do. I started to fear that I was suffering from mold toxicity. Before driving across the states, I saw a functional medicine doctor in St. Louis. He was an MD, who specialized in a functional approach- treating the root cause. He believed I was experiencing a yeast overgrowth, or SIFO- small intestinal fungal overgrowth. This is also known as CANDIDA. I had suspected this might be contributing to my rash, so the diagnosis made sense to me. They put me on a protocol of nystatin, an anti-fungal, to kill off the yeast. They also had me doing small injections of CANDIDA once a week to get my immune system desensitized to the yeast. I finally felt like I had an answer, and a protocol. I was so incredibly hopeful and grateful. I started the protocol, and a week later I packed up my car to drive to North Carolina. The days before I left, I noticed a small rash on my neck and face- which was confusing to me since I had only ever experienced rash symptoms on my arms and hands. I drove to Tennessee where I planned to stay for a day of rest before continuing on my journey. The next morning, when I woke up, the rash covered my neck and face- and I felt very lethargic. I realized that the medicine was causing a reaction, and decided to stop taking it until I could talk to the doctor.


My eyes itched so bad it was hard to continue my drive to North Carolina. I was miserable and the rash freaked me out. The doctor assured me this was just a die-off effect of the yeast, and encouraged me to lessen my dose and try again after my skin had calmed down. I didn’t really want to, but figured I would try once more. Once I got to NC, I tried the Nystatin again, and immediately had a neck rash. I decided I was done with that. I was still taking the injections, but then I started to get a rash- seemingly the same as the rash on my arms, on my hips. I quickly realized I needed to stop the injections as well. This protocol may work for some- but it did not work for me. Unfortunately, it seemed to make my symptoms much worse.



Severe eczema rash, pain



The first few weeks after my move, my rash began spreading at a rapid rate. I was always grateful before that it had stayed central to my arms- I could wear long sleeves and hide it. Now, the rash began covering my hips, near the area I was receiving injections. I started noticing patches on my eyelids and the back of my knees. It got worse and worse. Within a few weeks, my entire hips and torso were covered, my arms and armpits, and my neck and face had patches. I also began to have intense swelling of my eyelids in the mornings when I woke up. The rash was always itchy and oftentimes painful, but it suddenly became much worse than I could have ever imagined.


I honestly couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I refused to believe it was eczema- it just didn’t make sense to me originally. The way it spread so rapidly made it seem like something more contagious in nature. I also started getting boils again at this point, which are incredibly painful- coupled with eye styes every week. My body was freaking out on me. Boils and styes are generally a sign of staph infection, so I was afraid that was what I was experiencing again. I wondered if I would ever heal from this. I had always hoped it would change, or get better, but when it got this bad- it truly felt like I might be this way forever. No one had answers for me, and for once, I couldn’t seem to find the answers either.


As I began to research I realized that an onset of eczema was an auto-immune issue. This was a terrifying revelation to me. As someone who has dedicated most of their adult life to being healthy, an autoimmune disease is something you never think you will experience. Because I know all of the knowledge behind the severity of this issue, it frightened me all the more. I began to succumb to fear- fear that I would never heal, fear that I was stuck with an autoimmune disease, and fear that I could never see others without being embarrassed by a rash that covers my body and face.





Severe eczema rash


It was at this point that I realized my deep desperation and brought it fully before the Lord. It’s interesting how you’ll talk about your problems with friends, family, doctors, and even strangers.. But you’ll only bring it to the Lord in quick prayers or desperate cries. Over and over again I am reminded that in my relationship with Jesus, He wants me to bring my FULL heart before him- not just pieces that spill out at times. I focused on getting in his presence, pouring out my heart before him, and being still enough to hear what he was saying.


In the past, I would be frustrated at God for my struggle. Now that I know his character, I never feel frustrated at him for my experiences because I know he does not cause pain, rather he takes it and transforms it into the catalyst for so, so much depth in our lives and those around us- if we are tender to it. Instead of coming to him in frustration, I come to him as a daughter in desperate need of comfort and refreshment. I need strength and encouragement. I need hope and release. And oh, he is so faithful to give me all this and so much more. One grievous day the Holy Spirit gave me Isaiah 45:2 to hold onto to:


‘I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron.’


My God is big enough to fight my battles- the battles that I truly feel are impossible to fight. Because I am in covenant with him, He is faithful to his word. In Him, I have hope when it seems there is none.


There are many lessons I am learning in this season. It has been literally and figuratively painful, but I am still seeking to have eyes to see and ears to hear in the midst of the pain. Throughout this experience, I searched and searched online to find someone else who was having this same experience.. And I could not find anyone. I truly felt that no one around me could understand how I felt, and I honestly desired deep compassion. What I came to realize is that the compassion of humans can only go so far, and the deep compassion my spirit truly desired could only come from my God. Even so, God blesses us with community to work through our biggest struggles.


One day, YouTube showed me a video of a woman who had suffered from severe eczema. Her eczema had been a lifelong battle, and the major flare (that was just like mine) was from withdrawal of using topical steroids her whole life. I was amazed to find someone who had the exact same flare experience as me. She suffered through so much pain, itching, and misery. She had to be patient as her body flared and struggled. As she described, crying, how difficult her journey had been, I felt this sense of connection that I was seeking. Finally, someone who had gone through it, and came out on the other side. It took her 8 long months of reducing stress, supplements, and much more to heal- but she did heal.


I’m telling you this, because it further confirmed to me that we need to be fully transparent and vocal about our struggles. In this way, we can bring hope to others and bring a sense of compassion that others, who have not had the same experience, cannot bring to us. Thus, I will continue to share my pain.. Because there is purpose within it. That purpose is not only for my own growth, healing, or understanding- but also to enlighten and encourage others on their own journey. In the sharing of our struggles, Jesus’ commandment to love others is fulfilled.


I want to share what the Lord is teaching me in this season.



Surrender


It’s incredibly easy to get into a routine of control. Especially as an entrepreneur who makes calculated decisions and has plans for every hour of the day written out in detail. Yeah, that’s how I roll. But the stark reality of this life is that there is much you cannot control. You cannot start or stop your heart from beating. You cannot change the attitude of the people in your life. You cannot guarantee happiness or success. You can choose how to react to situations- but you cannot control every experience you have. And this is exactly where I have found myself again- completely unable to control something that is incredibly painful and tormenting. Yes, there are practical things I am doing, but I cannot make myself instantly heal. I do not know when I will heal. I do not know when things will change.


The grip of control results in anxiety and fear. It once again makes us believe that we are the answer to life’s problems. We have what it takes to fix it, change it, or better it. It’s exhausting to believe that lie. Control is one of the biggest sources of frustration, resentment, anger, and worry. This experience has snapped me back to the reality that I do not have control. Instead, I must lean into the unknown with the unwavering hope and confidence that my God is fighting for me. In fact, this hope is something the Holy Spirit reassured me of recently in my quiet time. Quite honestly, I struggle with trust when I am in my deepest moments of despair, and during this time- there are many days that I feel myself slip out of trust and into worry. But when I draw near to God, he reminds me. He strengthens me.




Trust


Another thing I have learned during this time is deeper trust. Trust in the Lord and my body. There was a time I truly believed my body was against me- it was always producing painful migraines and stomach aches. It felt like a burden, not a gift. And what I came to know is that it was constantly trying to let me know things needed to change so that I could live in harmony with my body. All that time, it was working really hard to sustain me- even when I was abusing it with toxins and negative thoughts. I have felt myself gradually slip back into the mindset that my body is a burden as I struggle through hours of itching and pain. But then I am reminded of where I was before, and how I came out of that experience with a deeper trust and understanding for my body. This is my reminder to trust, trust, and trust again. And the Lord is setting my foundation of trust in him.


For me, this hardship with my body, my intimate vessel- is the ultimate struggle. This body that I have developed such a connection to. But among many other foundational lessons the Lord is teaching me in my youth, I am learning to trust His promises. He has promised to bring me through this- and better yet, he promises me JOY in the trial. I have been able to experience deeper levels of freedom and revelation from the Holy Spirit in this season.


There is a particular kind of grace that has been lavished upon me in my suffering- and Jesus is more near than ever. Each day, my grip of expectation loosens as I trust that I already have the victory in Jesus- and although my body may be in torment, my soul doesn’t have to be. Nothing can separate me from the love of Christ, and the intimacy I have with him- not even suffering of my flesh. I have reached new heights of trust and commitment to the promises God has given me.




This body is more than image


On the mental front of things, having a severe rash on the body is unsightly. It is not pretty. It is not attractive. And it is hard to hide. Long sleeves and hats have become my best friend. And although it is incredibly difficult to feel ashamed of the way you look- it has taught me to respect my body for more than it’s image. God looks at the heart, not the image. (1 Samuel 16:7)


I have had a habit of making an idol of my image in the past. Before I came to Christ this manifested in different ways that were detrimental to my spirit and also my psyche as a woman in a culture addicted to image. But even after Jesus set me free from so much bondage, there were lingering idols of my body, such as working out. My fitness routines were fueled by how I could change my body- tighter here, leaner here, etc. I love to workout because it makes me feel really good mentally, but if I’m being transparent - that was not my driving force for the workouts I was doing. With anything, there is balance. And with everything, you have to check your spirit. It doesn’t make working out inherently bad- or wanting to tone up or lose weight evil. It comes down to your motives, your thoughts, your desires. Am I content with my body even if I can’t change it? Am I satisfied to exist in this body even if I can’t work out? Am I grateful for the creation God has made- no strings attached?


Those are the questions I had to come face to face with when my rash disabled me from my workout routines. Between the fatigue, the pain, and the itching.. Working out became increasingly difficult and eventually impossible. I could no longer sustain the stress on my body. Working out is good stress for the body, but when your body is struggling- no stress is best.


And in stepping back from the idol of shaping my body into perfection- I have come to love it in a completely fresh way. A way that I have never experienced as a woman. This is partially due to awareness, but even more so, it is the work of the Spirit in my soul.


When we step back and create space for God to give us revelation- we receive the work of the Spirit in our souls.


Repeating affirmations, changing up my workout routine, and saying I didn’t care what anyone thought of me would not have changed my relationship to my body. It never did in the past. The problem with strongholds that have rooted themselves to your soul is that you actually can’t change them. That’s a lie from the enemy to keep you from ever seeking Jesus. You can do practical things to start creating change, but I have found that the real transformation, like the way you start to accept what you never could before, comes through the supernatural work of the Spirit.

Some of the most profound change I dreamed of- like the deep deep stuff we don’t say out loud, has come from just yielding to the revelations God gives me in my quiet time with him and then allowing the Spirit to create heart change. It’s quite unexplainable. And it’s gloriously freeing.


My image is not my identity. It is not a commodity. It is not something to be changed for praise or happiness. It is the vessel God gave my soul- and I am learning to love, respect, and enjoy it in the fullest capacity- no matter what it looks like on the outside.


Praise is my weapon


Another interesting revelation during this time is that praise is actually a weapon for me. It has become something that I practice doing every day, and I can feel the visceral effect of strength I receive from worship. Walking through this intense time of suffering has brought up a lot of feelings of defeat. The enemy tries to place depression, fear, and hopelessness on me in my weakest moments. But when I praise the Lord, and sing of his goodness in the face of the battle, I break off anything the enemy tries to place on me. It puts my focus on the goodness of God, brings joy to my soul, and truly invigorates me with strength.


Not by might, or strength, but by the Spirit


Perhaps the most profound lesson I didn’t expect in this difficult season is the ability of the Spirit to work through me even when I feel like giving up.


Job 42:2 states, “I know that You can do all things; no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.”


Straight up, no filter, there have been days when I felt like I had to give up. My legs were in so much pain from boils and the rash flaring I couldn’t really walk. I itched so much throughout the night I wanted to scream. My eyes are so clouded with floaters and swollen that it’s hard to open them in the morning hours. No relief in sight, no remedy for my struggle.


I have felt desperately isolated and confused at what is happening to me. I have doubted my purpose and my ability to continue forward. I have cried many tears to the Lord, telling him that I could not do it anymore. I thought I was going to have to just give up Mindful Manna and working with people. It felt impossible to encourage others and teach about health in my position. So I did stop. I stepped back and took a break. I focused on sleeping and waking up and making it through the day without breaking apart. And Jesus held me all the way. The Bible tells us that The Lord is close to those who are lowly and contrite in Spirit. And I wasn’t just sad or frustrated, I was feeling bitter towards the Lord.


I didn’t want to feel that way and ultimately my heart and soul are tethered to his goodness. I have experienced so much redemption and restoration in my life that nothing could ever change my mind about his intent of goodness. But I would feel bitterness about my situation creep in and then feel guilty for that. Timely, as always, the Holy Spirit prompted me to Psalm 34:18-


The Lord is near to the brokenhearted

And saves those who are contrite in spirit.


I held onto that verse and prayed it over myself. I felt the Lord draw near to me each time. There was supernatural comfort that would come over me. My tears were welcome- my pain was worthy of being witnessed.


Then, I looked up the word contrite. I wasn’t sure of the meaning.


Contrite- feeling or expressing remorse or penitence; affected by guilt.


Yes, I was broken. But I was also feeling guilt for my bitterness- against everything, including God.


But oh my, he accounted for that. He is closer to me when I’m in that place. He accepts my broken, guilty heart. He comforts me in that place.


Such a good Father he is, with love that surpasses all my bitterness and pain. And his comfort would abound. Most nights I would weep and recite that verse, and he would comfort me into a deep sleep. I would fall asleep feeling a supernatural presence of peace and of being seen and known.


When you’re hurting in a severe way- you desperately want to be seen and affirmed in your pain. It’s vulnerable. There is just this feeling of wanting to be affirmed that yes, you are suffering greatly, and you deserve to feel that pain.


But the truth is- no human can give it to you. I have people in my life who deeply love me, pray for me, talk to me about it. Tell me they are sorry. Cry with me.


But it didn’t meet the deeper need of comfort I was craving.


I didn’t understand this or know how to process it, until I started showing up in desperation with the Father. And Jesus, who understands what it means to suffer in the flesh in great capacity, would draw near to me and affirm that He saw the injustice- and He was with me, aided by the Holy Spirit who would blanket me with comfort and peace.


He wasn’t just with me when I could see the silver lining, or process the lessons learned. He was with me when I was lowly and contrite in Spirit. There is no love or comfort that can surpass that. It is the treasure of living in a broken world where sin and pain abounds- that there is a living God who doesn’t just dictate the big things, but draws near to experience the intimate nature of our struggles with us. And he doesn’t leave us there, He brings comfort through his Spirit. Supernatural comfort.


The deeper I fell into pain, isolation, and torment.. The closer his presence would draw me in. I have become more hungry for God than ever before.


And the most fascinating thing happened.


I started receiving calls and getting connected to women who were suffering with torment of the mind and soul. Broken, anxious, confused, and pressed upon by demonic forces trying to take them down into paths of hopelessness.


And even when I was having the worst day, I would minister to them. The love and strength of the Spirit in me would come through in the most powerful way. Every piece of me would come alive. It was radical. I would be so encouraged and empowered myself after praying for them and speaking life into their souls.


It is a true testament to the capacity of the eternal Spirit that is at work in me, that even when I was on the constant verge of giving up and felt like I couldn’t do it, He would empower me to do it. And it would be life-giving for me and the woman.


Because you see, even though my flesh might be failing and going through torment, my Spirit can be strengthened in the midst of it. God’s purpose in my life prevails. Nothing can shake it- not even my own weakness. His Spirit is stronger, his presence is greater, and His encouragement is testament to the freedom available to us in the midst of great suffering.


Jesus, I love you.


I CAN do all things through Christ who strengthens me.


And with this great hope - I press on.


The breakthrough is coming. My God is great, and his deliverance is sure.


Ashley


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