For over a decade now I have been fighting a great war within. A war where my body targets my own cells and proceeds to wreak havoc without mercy. My enemy is stealthy and sly; an autoimmune disease much akin to Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis. Seemingly, their devilish offspring has taken up shop in my blood. It lies deep within me, giving me little notice of when and where our next battle will ensue. Inevitably though, the battles wage on.
Each year, I find myself standing before the King of kings on Yom Kippur pouring my heart out and begging for His mercy; pleas for life. Not just physical, but spiritual as well. When will I be cured and given respite from this disease? When will I be well and returned to my former health? When will the pain that this illness brings to my family and friends cease to hurt the ones I love? As Yom Kippur approaches, these thoughts run through my mind nearly 24-hours a day… yes, even as I sleep.
However, as this awesome day approaches, I am reminded that until such time as God sees fit to grant me these wishes, at the time that is right (not simply when I want them to be right!) there is a war that continues on. As in every great war, there are borders that must be defended with utmost bravery, never relinquishing an inch, for as we all know even an inch can lead to demise. My particular war is being fought on three fronts: physical health, emotional well-being, and spiritual growth.
Sometimes this illness leaves me a prisoner of war, held for long periods in a hospital bed. But I try to follow in the footsteps of that great Jewish hero, Natan Sharansky, who never let the enemy break his spirit.
Often people ask how "I do it" even in the face of this great enemy. The short answer is: “There is no other choice." The longer answer is that I have a number of specific strategies:
1. My life is meaningful.
I am not a victim. Rather I am a loving, smart woman. A believer, blessed with wonderful family and friends. That is who I am. Whenever my illness has me confined to a hospital, I find ways to remind myself of my innate humanity. I am not simply a number on a chart or a compilation of blood tests and scans. No, I am Beth Goldsammler, a thinking, feeling human being with the ability to affect the world around me for the better… even from the confines of a hospital bed.
Innumerable people walk through my door on a daily basis while in the hospital. People who are, for the most part, invisible, among the streams of fancy doctors and specialists. Those who clean my room, transport me to tests, take my blood, bring my food, refill my water even! People who do their jobs dutifully, but rarely get even the smallest acknowledgement of their efforts. They are my first line of defense. I make sure to both learn their names and no matter how I am feeling, to thank them wholly and sincerely. Merely saying "thanks" is not enough, rather I go into great detail as to how they specifically are making my stay in the hospital more pleasant and comfortable.
You’d be amazed at the looks on their faces. As if the concepts of kindness and gratitude are not ones they have experienced before. These wonderful people who truly take care of my most basic needs are shocked by my simple show of thanks.
This, I have learned, not only brings the staff great joy, but does even more for my own well-being. Each time I can change someone's day for the better, for even a moment, I actualize my humanity and remind myself how much I can do to help the world, even from my stifling bed. As long as I can give to others, I am very much alive and kicking in every way that counts.
2. The power of joy.
On Yom Kippur my thoughts are often a jumble with memories my own grandmother, Millie Duboff, whose painful Yom Kippur yahrtzeit will mark 30 years since she succumbed to her own illness. But she was never without an off-key tune on her lips and a laughter emanating from deep within her heart that could penetrate even the darkest of moments. She has left me a legacy and a road map as to how to fight illness with joy.
I have learned that through joy my fellow patients can be a great source of strength for me. It’s more than just the tremendous inspiration and motivation to fight with grace and dignity that they provide. It is the laughter that we bring to each other that is truly healing for us all. Some might consider it "dark humor," but sitting in a recliner while being pumped full of "treatments" is just about the oddest of circumstances one can meet another in. In that time and space there is no difference among us. Race, religion, nationality… none of it matters.
What does matter, though, is attitude. Bringing laughter to an otherwise morose set of circumstances is a wonderful accomplishment. Each time I start a "pool" guessing just how many sticks it will take to start my IV, the laughter I receive in return leaves me stronger and readier than ever to face my enemy head-on. Laughter truly is the best medicine, and whether the patient is me or a 7-year-old little boy battling cancer, it never fails to leave us all that much healthier in spirit.
3. Keep the faith.
Arguably most importantly, I never forget from whence I came. God put me on this planet with an express purpose. What that purpose is, I am not exactly sure. But certainly my battle with this illness cannot be ignored in my attempts to figure it out. I have faith in God that even when I am all alone, wrapped in a cocoon of stark white hospital blankets, He is always sitting right beside me, watching over me, and protecting me from the enemy.
Yes, it is true that He brought me to this place, but it is also He Who will ultimately free me from it as well.
Admittedly, I do at times cry, worried mostly about how I may have transgressed and contributed to being in this often-torturous place. Particularly during these Days of Awe, and Yom Kippur most specifically, I struggle with these haunting thoughts.
The prayers recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur often leave me shaking and breathless, as I take to heart the words of the powerful U’nesaneh Tokef prayer, “Who shall live and who shall die.”
The liturgy also reminds us that repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree. There are actions we can do during these difficult times that make a difference and bring us peace in our lives. Beyond that, it’s all in the hands of the Almighty.
I also recall all the "close calls" that could have ended so very badly, but thankfully did not. When I remind myself of all the "could-have-beens" (and yes, "should-have-beens"), I quickly return to a place where I don't question God or even fear Him, but rather thank Him deeply for the innumerable kindnesses that He has bestowed upon me.
Being sick with any illness is difficult, but reminding myself who I truly am and who I continue to be even in the face of great adversity gives me, and many like me, the strength to fight on. After all, I am the only “me” there is, and I am not giving up even an inch without a fight.