Coming Home – Beth’s Story
I attended my first church service within a week of being born. I was a later-in-life addition to the family. My older siblings were 9 and 11 years of age when I was born, so I spent most of my early years tagging along with either my brother or sister and their friends. They and my parents were heavily involved in our local Baptist church, a commitment that went well beyond Sunday attendance. The church was our spiritual family, our social life, the focus of much of our time, energy and resource and our compass of truth.
I made the decision to officially become a Christian in 1974. I was 12 years old and, having heard a message at church about the people who would be waiting for us in heaven, I wanted to guarantee that I would see my grandparents again. I didn’t want to be left behind. It was a genuine commitment but my relationship with God didn’t really develop beyond that point. I loved being part of the church community but, from an early age, was one of those children who always had questions. There were things in the Bible that didn’t make sense to my enquiring mind but I quickly realised that most of these were non-negotiable.
Music and singing were a big part of my life and one of my greatest sources of joy was being part of the worship team at church. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had moved from our family’s Baptist church in the suburbs to a more contemporary, charismatic church in the city. I flourished there, I felt like I had finally found my fit. I became part of the worship team and developed a network of friendships that continue to this day.
My professional life was also flourishing. I began my nursing career in aged care but, by the mid 80’s, I had moved into a new area of specialisation and care, HIV/AIDS patients. There was still a significant level of fear and confusion about this disease and many were hesitant about being involved with patients who had contracted it. I had always had an affinity for the underdog and those who lived on the fringe of society. Perhaps in part, because of my own quest to experience real belonging, I relished the opportunity to bring kindness and support to those who were isolated and misunderstood. After five years in this role, I suffered a debilitating back injury. I made the decision to move into infection control, an area that required less hands-on nursing.
In 1995, I was diagnosed with depression for the first time. My confidence was at an all-time low and I felt like I was losing my sense of self. Things were made even more challenging when, in 2000, my treating doctor committed suicide. I was devastated. I moved to a new church but I struggled to connect with the people there. I felt like my character and integrity were being questioned and this shattered my already fragile self-esteem.
I decided that I was not very good at being a Christian.
In 2004, doubts, disappointments and hurts from my past, that I had never really dealt with, resurfaced with a vengeance. I began to question my faith, the church and the reality of God. Fuelled by frustration and a growing sense of anger, I began to explore the writings of modern humanist and atheist writers like Richard Dawkins. I finally felt like my intellect was being engaged and it was liberating.
The more I read, the more I began to withdraw and isolate myself from friends and family.
I found my safe place on the internet. Facebook and chat rooms provided a sense of community and connection that was relatively anonymous yet still satisfying. In this space, I was able to express my growing discontent with Christianity and all that it represented to me. On the internet people didn’t judge me, they agreed with me. Despite warnings from my closest friend, I invested an increasing amount of time into my online relationships. By 2005, I was in an intense relationship with a man who lived in another state. He convinced me to relocate from my hometown and move interstate to live with him. This was the beginning of a 10-year toxic and controlling relationship that almost destroyed my mental and emotional health.
I became isolated and estranged from those closest to me and it seemed like there was no way back.
In 2015, I suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalised for a month. It was during this time that I got the courage to end the relationship. Whenever my partner came to visit me he was verbally abusive and manipulative. It got to the point that the nursing staff banned him from visiting. This helped give me the courage to tell him that he needed to move out.
The end of our relationship was messy and protracted. By the time I felt like I had finally disentangled myself I was lonely, broken, and a shell of the woman that I used to be. It was time to rebuild my life.
This was no easy task. I threw myself into my work, joined a local choir and a social group. The thought of returning to church entered my mind from time to time but I resisted. By 2016, I felt like I was beginning to gain some positive momentum in my life but sadly it was short lived. At the beginning of 2017, I reached absolute rock bottom. My work situation was incredibly stressful, my finances were in dire straits and my mental, emotional and physical health was at an all-time low. Depression, anxiety and an overwhelming sense of despair engulfed me. I was hospitalised for depression and spent the next few months off work, as I tried to regain my strength and energy. Through a series of quite random encounters, I reconnected with a friend from my past. She and I had been on the worship team together at church more than 20 years earlier. We began spending some time together and one day while we were having coffee I asked if I could come to church with her.
I was on high alert throughout the whole service. 10+ years of atheism and 50+ years of life experience meant that I was very sensitive to any form of manipulative or emotive religious language. The music captured my heart, the people were friendly without being too intrusive and the message was average. It was a good start. At the end of the service the minister gave an invitation for anyone who wanted to commit their lives to God to raise their hand. My hand went up. This would not be an emotional decision.
It was a considered and intentional choice.
I felt like I had spent the last 12 years walking through the shadowlands of hurt, anger, frustration and rebellion. That day I realised that no matter how hard I had tried to deny, reject and distance myself from God he had never wavered in his love for me. What’s more, in the midst of my mess he was pursuing me. I couldn’t fight it any longer. I had become a Christian cliché but I didn’t care.
Although I had grown up in church it felt like I was discovering God for the first time. I began reading the Bible again through fresh eyes. In the past, I had seen judgement, condemnation and impossible standards of behaviour. Now I saw grace, mercy and unconditional love. For perhaps the first time, I realised that the truth that Jesus declared and demonstrated with his life was not narrow and exclusive but generous and expansive.
There was a place for me here.
2017 was one of the hardest years of my life. When the calendar clicked over into 2018, I was hopeful and expectant that positive change was coming. I was slowly building new and healthy friendships and getting my finances under control but I continued to battle sickness and injury. My work situation was tenuous and at times it felt like it was two steps forward, one step back. In June, I was off work for more than a week with a virus that sapped every bit of energy I had. I eventually went to the doctors to see if there was anything else going on. I was losing weight and tired all the time. My doctor called me at work with the results of my blood tests. Without giving too much detail, he told me to go straight to the Emergency Department at my local hospital. I called my friend Linda and asked her to meet me there. I knew it wasn’t going to be good news.
On 3 July 2018, I was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML). I was admitted to hospital from the Emergency Department and spent the next few days having more tests, receiving blood transfusions and waiting to hear what the treatment plan would be. It was decided that the best course of action would be to move me back to Newcastle, where my family lived, so that they could be close enough to support me while I received chemotherapy. Friends and family cleaned and packed up my house, transported my dog and belongings up to Newcastle and finalised my life in Wollongong. After nearly 13 years away, I was finally going home.
I spent the next 11 weeks in hospital receiving treatment. Doctors told me that I had an 80% chance of achieving remission after the first round of chemotherapy. When this didn’t happen, I was told that there was still 50% chance of remission after round two. I completed round two in October. I had come to terms with the crippling fatigue, hair loss and nausea that went hand in hand with the treatment. They were the price I was happy to pay for the good news that we all hoped would come. It took a few days for us to receive the results of the bone marrow biopsy that would determine my future. I was nervous but optimistic.
The results were not what we hoped for. The chemotherapy was no longer working.
From the moment I was diagnosed, and every day since, I have had such a strong sense of God’s presence and protection. Hearing the news that the cancer was terminal was hard but, within a short time, I felt God’s peace descend on me like a blanket. While some describe their cancer journey as a battle, for me it has been more about surrendering than fighting. I have surrendered myself to God and I am trusting him to lead the way.
People have commented that I seem so calm in the face of this news. I have no other explanation than this; I am now living the reality of a verse that I have sung since I was a child;
‘God has not given me a spirit of fear but of love, power and a sound mind.’
2 Timothy 1:7
Despite receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, I have not experienced any relapse of depression or anxiety. I have a joy and peace that I can only describe as supernatural. I was recently chatting with my sister-in-law about this very thing and I was reminded of this verse;
So, I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten,
The crawling locust,
The consuming locust,
And the chewing locust,
Within the next few days two other people, independent of each other, spoke this verse over me and my family. As I reflect back on the last 12 years I realised that fear, anger, bitterness and disappointment had robbed me of so much. The last six months, however, have felt like a time of restoration. My dream for 2018 and beyond was that I would have the opportunity to move back to my home town, to be close to my family and friends and to rebuild my relationships with those I loved. As strange as it sounds, leukaemia has enabled me to experience all of those things. Although my physical body is deteriorating, my heart and mind are flourishing. I am so keenly aware of the reality of God in my life. I can’t help but sing the words of this old song from Andrae Crouch;
But if heaven never was promised to me,
Neither God’s promise to live eternally.
It’s been worth just having the Lord in my life.
Living in a world of darkness,
You came along and brought me the light.
I do not know how many days I have left on this side of heaven but I am beyond grateful for the gifts that my cancer journey has brought me.
I know that I am loved by God, held by God and at peace with God. God has been good to me!