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What I’ve Learned from Being Isolated and Allergic to Everything

Written by Johanna Watkins on . Posted in The Gospel Coalition Blog

Article by: Johanna Watkins

I believe in a blessing I don’t understand I’ve seen rain fall on wicked and the just Rain is no measure of his faithfulness He withholds no good thing from us No good thing from us, no good thing from us

I will open my hands, will open my heart I am nodding my head an emphatic yes To all that you have for me

Almost six years ago, I was sitting in a quiet park in New Zealand, iPod in hand, listening to this song by Sara Groves. I was surrounded by evidences of stunning natural beauty—vibrant trees, exquisite flowers, a gently flowing stream. Yet my heart was far from tranquil. These words haunted me. I’d grown up believing in God and knew I was supposed to trust him. But the thought of surrendering my dreams and letting him have the say was terrifying. Deep down I feared that God was going to withhold good from me, that what I wanted for my future wouldn’t happen. The idea of agreeing to all God had for me without knowing what it was made me want to close my hands, not open them.

As I sat alone that day, tears flowed as an internal battle waged over trusting God in the area of love. I’d finally met the man I wanted to marry but was worried it wouldn’t happen. Additional doubts over whether this was even the “right” guy loomed in the back of my mind. The “what ifs” felt paralyzing. Although I had no clue how to practically trust God with my heart, I eventually and hesitantly prayed this song’s words. A surprising sense of peace followed, which I hoped meant God was preparing me for a happy marriage. I left with a smile, excitedly anticipating my long-held dream of beginning a life and family with a man I loved. 

Little did I know God was preparing me for a future I never would have asked for or suspected. If you had told me that years later I’d be not only unable to have children but also battling a painful, chronic disease rendering me “allergic” to my husband, I wouldn’t have believed you.

God’s Change of Plans 

I believe in a peace that flows deeper than pain That broken find healing in love Pain is no measure of his faithfulness He withholds no good thing from us No good thing from us, no good thing from us

I will open my hands, will open my heart I am nodding my head an emphatic yes To all that you have for me

A year after getting married, the peace I felt in the park was a distant memory. My husband was loving and faithful, but the rest of our life was falling apart. I’d lived with various physical ailments for years, not thinking much of them and leading a relatively normal life. But shortly after our wedding day, they worsened significantly. Favorite foods began causing such severe abdominal pain that I’d curl up on the floor, unable to move or leave the bathroom for hours. Daily migraines intensified, resulting in temporary vision loss and debilitating pain. Instead of date nights, babies, and family get-togethers, life became a relentless series of doctor’s appointments, medical tests, multiple diagnoses, and hospitalizations, with no successful treatments. While the pace of life in this survival mode took its toll, it was nothing compared to the trauma of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction. As I experienced it for the first time, losing oxygen and consciousness while being rushed to an ER trauma room, it was clear my body was failing, and I was powerless to stop it. 

In the aftermath of the anaphylaxis incident, I listened to that same Sara Groves song while sitting alone on the cold, hardwood floor of our apartment. Although grateful to have been spared death, my shaken heart didn’t know up from down. Plagued by the idea that God was withholding good from me, I didn’t know what to hope for anymore. I was unable to work or do most of the things I enjoyed, and I felt trapped in a nightmare with an unknown expiration date. Helpless to fix any of it, desperation drove me to my knees. I begged God to do whatever it would take to heal me. A few months later, I thought he was answering that prayer as the root of my health issues was finally discovered. I had Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, a complicated disease that manifests itself differently in each patient. Though there’s no known cure, it was encouraging to learn many patients can lead a fairly normal life once the right medications are found. So we began the long process of trialing different meds, hoping a return to health and normalcy was just around the corner. 

But as my body rejected almost all the medications with increasing severity, and as my allergy list grew at an alarming rate, the heavy burden began to sink in that a normal life was a distant and unlikely reality.   

Bordering the Science Fiction Realm

I believe in a fountain that will never dry Though I’ve thirsted and didn't have enough Thirst is no measure of his faithfulness He withholds no good thing from us No good thing from us, no good thing from us

I will open my hands, will open my heart I am nodding my head an emphatic yes To all that you have for me

It’s been almost three years since that diagnosis, and my daily life is so abnormal that it borders the realm of science fiction. Many of my worst fears have come true, and in more ways than one, the disease has robbed me of almost all I hold dear. I have hundreds of severe allergies to just about everything from scents, foods, and sunlight to the natural chemicals people’s bodies produce. My husband cannot share a room with me. He cannot even safely touch me. The only way to prevent constant anaphylaxis is to keep me confined to a room fitted with special air filters. Unable to live with the people I love, the loss has been profound. 

If it weren’t for God, I’d have given up long ago. But while I’ve been broken and empty, God has been faithful and strong. He has borne every grief. Never have I been alone. He has lifted my head and filled my anguished heart with a joy unlike any I’ve ever known before.    

 

If it weren’t for God, I’d have given up long ago. But while I’ve been broken and empty, God has been faithful and strong.

Although my health is worse than ever, God has answered my plea for healing in a way I didn’t expect. He has given me what I really needed—a hope not anchored in dreams or circumstances. And has been healing me where I needed it most. By chaining my body with disease, he has freed me from the chains of self-trust. Without realizing it, I’d spent most of my life driven by a desire to protect myself from pain, attempting to create the best life I could. For 25 years, I had tried to live for God out of my own strength—and in so doing had become my own functional savior. My idolatry was slowly suffocating me, and was far more dangerous than the countless anaphylaxis episodes I’ve had. 

Open Hands, Full Heart

Through the agony of disease and loss, God has given me a glimpse of what it took for him to send Jesus to save me. He has taken away much from my dream life, but has given infinitely more at a cost I’ll never know in order to give me the best life. Before getting sick, Jesus was a part of my life, a Savior for when I needed him. Now, Jesus is my life. He has become my past and my future—and that changes everything. His wounds cover the bruises and scars this suffering has inflicted. His unfailing love in light of my unfaithfulness testifies that he is a foundation worthy of my trust. His promise to make all things new gives me hope that this isn’t the end. 

Before getting sick, Jesus was a part of my life, a Savior for when I needed him. Now, Jesus is my life.

While I still pray for physical healing and don’t know why God chose this road for me, this suffering has been a grace, because God has used it to help me love him more. He has withheld some good things in order to give me greater things—the gift of his presence, a thirst for his Word, and a hope anchored solely in him. 

When I listen to that Sara Groves song now, I’m able to open my hands without fear because God is good and his plans are better than mine.

I am nodding my head an emphatic yes To all that you have for me

Editor’s note: Join us today at 1 p.m. (EST) on TGC’s Facebook page for a Facebook Live broadcast with Johanna. She’ll share more about her experience, the Lord’s work in her life, and take up questions from those watching live. 

Johanna Watkins is a wife, daughter, sister, and proud auntie from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has no claim to fame other than being a believer of Jesus and child of God. To follow her journey with Mast Cell Disease, updates can be found at https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/johannawatkins.  

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