Saturday, March 25, 2017

Arthritis Awareness: Music Therapy, Part 6

I figured out pretty early on that the only way I could make this series work is if I was completely honest about what I struggle with myself. So before I get to the songs that I've chosen to feature in this installment, I'm going to tell you a little about what's been going on with me this year. As some of you know, I have rheumatoid arthritis and was first inspired to start this series during arthritis awareness month (May) last year. The first post wouldn't end up going up until June. The best laid plans and all that. I decided to keep it tied to arthritis awareness, but really, the goal behind this series is to use music to try to encourage anyone going through a tough time. Whether they also have rheumatoid arthritis or not.

It's been over a month since I last posted. 2017 has been a tough year in regards to my health. My rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has spun completely out of control and I was without a rheumatologist for a few months. My pain levels have been so far above what I can handle a good part of the time and it's taken a toll. The depression that so often accompanies chronic illness has gotten worse. My anxiety has been through the roof. A couple of months ago, I started having panic attacks after years of not having them. Some of them have been the worst I've ever had. Where's Jack Pearson when you need him? Seriously.

If you don't know who that is, Jack is the patriarch of the Pearson family on NBC's hit shot This is Us. I only just got into it in the past six weeks or so, but I'm completely hooked. Jack, played by Milo Ventimiglia, has quickly become one of my favorite fictional fellas. The reason I bring this up is because some of my favorite scenes from the first season are the ones between Jack and his adopted son Randall. I love their relationship and I find myself relating to Randall because we see him struggling with anxiety. We also see Jack calming him down.. Anxiety is such an awful thing on its own. Throw the depression and RA and everything else in there and things can get out of hand very easily. They all feed off of each other. We could all use a Jack Pearson to help out us in those awful moments. 

In any event, pain - chronic pain, especially - is a tricky thing. It can be a dangerous thing, especially when it's unrelenting. It doesn't just affect you physically; it messes with your mind. It can cause you to lose your grip. To lose yourself as a person. It impacts everything. I have not been in a good head space for most of this year. I've been sad and scared, angry and frustrated. I've been bitter and resentful. I've isolated myself from friends. I have felt useless and worthless and my self-esteem has pretty much been in the toilet. It felt like I had lost my voice. That I had lost my hope. I've been tempted to give up. I had turned into someone I barely recognized and I hated it. I needed a change and I needed it badly. 

The first step was to get a new rheumatologist and come up with a treatment plan to get the RA back under control. Find better ways to deal with the anxiety. Make an effort to stop isolating myself. I decided that I also needed to reclaim my voice and get back to writing again. This was hard at first as I couldn't bring myself to start working on anything. Then something happened. A somewhat new friend of mine inadvertently gave me the inspiration that I needed. 

See, pain has a way of causing a kind of spiritual amnesia. I'm a Christian. I believe in God and yet I struggle with my faith. It's not that I start questioning if He exists; I know He does. It's that I focus on the pain and find myself forgetting things about Him. Like His faithfulness, for example. I forget that as big as my problems sometimes feel, my God is bigger than all of them. I forget that God is still God, no matter what happens. I forget that my God is a healer. I forget that He still has a plan for my life, even when it doesn't seem like it. I forget that God can turn our biggest messes into something beautiful. I forget that there is comfort to be found in the middle of even the most horrific storms. There is still hope. Even when you can't feel it. There is always hope.

I was reminded of all of that. I was also reminded that you need to gain control over your emotions. It's not that you try to suppress your emotions; in my experience, you can only do that for so long. It's not about trying not to feel anything at all. That's not good either. It's about accepting them as they come and then choosing to let them go. You can choose not to be resentful. You can choose not to be bitter. You can choose to be hopeful instead. You can choose to be joyful. It may not be easy at first, but you can do it. 

In choosing the songs for this installment of this series, I decided that I needed to go with the songs that speak the most to me in this time in my life. I'm still not in what you'd call a great place mentally. But I'm getting there. One moment at a time. It is my sincere hope and prayer that these songs may speak to you as well. 

Let's get started. 

1. "Maryann's Song" by Trick Pony. This song was written as Trick Pony member Heidi Newfield's mother was in the final stages of the illness that would take her life. It starts off with a spoken tribute by Kris Kristofferson. It's obviously an incredibly personal song for Heidi, but I think that the lyrics will resonate with anyone going through a tough time. "Oh Lord, take away the pain / Oh Lord, take away the pain / These tears I've cried, they fall like rain / Oh Lord, take away the pain". There's a prayer I've prayed many a time. When you live in constant pain, there's nothing you want more than for it to go away. Even if only for a hour. Sometimes five minutes would suffice. 


2. "Beauty from Pain" by Superchick. Unfortunately, while prayer is undoubtedly a powerful thing, my pain remains. That's one of the hardest things about living with RA. Or anything that cause chronic pain. Sometimes nothing helps. As I said in the introduction, it starts to mess with your mind. It lies. It tells you that you can't live with it. It makes you feel like you must have done something to deserve it. It makes you feel like all is lost. But as a person of faith, I have to believe that if God allowed something to happen, He did so for a reason. I have to believe that there is purpose in the pain.

"After all this has passed, I still will remain / After I've cried my last, there'll be beauty from pain / Though it won't be today, someday I'll hope again / And there'll be beauty from pain / You will bring beauty from my pain". When you get to that place where all you can see is darkness, you have to fight to hold onto your faith. You have to hold onto the promise of a new day. You have to trust that all of the pain that you're feeling - be it physical or otherwise - will eventually be transformed into something beautiful. You just have to hold on. Easier said than done, I know. But you can do it.


3. "From the Ashes" by Martina McBride. If there's one thing I've learned recently, it's that sometimes you have to let yourself be broken down so that you can grow. You have to let go of the past and all of your mistakes. I've spent a lot of time these past couple of months kicking myself for not deciding to renew my commitment to fighting RA sooner. Maybe if I had, it wouldn't have gotten so bad. But you know what? I can't change what I did or didn't do in the past and neither can you. Instead, I have to focus on the now. I have to forgive myself for my mistakes. Learn from them, certainly, but I need to let them go. And so do you. "For all that I'm losing / much more will I gain / The hard part is choosing / To change what needs changed / My step will be much lighter / With these demons off my chest / I'm born a better spirit / And lay the old to rest / So don't try to save me now / Let the walls of my world all burn down / Just stand back and wait 'till the smoke finally passes / And I will rise / From the ashes". 


4. "Praise You In This Storm" by Casting Crowns. When you're in the middle of a storm, praising God might be the last thing on your mind. But if you ask me, that's when you need to praise Him the most. It may be hard in the beginning and that's okay. A wonderful thing happens when you praise God. It forces you to take your focus off of your problems and puts it where it needs to be. On God. Who is bigger than all of our problems. It doesn't matter how bleak a situation seems. God is still on His throne. He is still in control. We might lose our grip of God sometimes - I know I do - but the good news is that God never loses His grip on us. Never. You may not feel Him. In fact, God might feel a million miles away but He's not. He's right there waiting for us to realize how much we need Him. He's there to lift us back up when we fall down. "I'll praise you in this storm / And I will lift my hands / For You are who You are / No matter where I am / Every tear I've cried / You hold in Your hand / You never left my side / And though my heart is torn / I will praise you in this storm". 


5. "Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)" by Gary Allan. When you're in the middle of an especially bad storm, it might feel like it's never going to end. That's when you start feeling like you want to give up. What's the point of hanging in there if things are never going to get better, right? Wrong. Because as Gary Allan reminds us, "Every storm runs, runs out of rain / Just like every dark night turns into day / Every heartache will fade away / Just like every storm runs, runs out of rain". I don't know what kind of storm you might be facing, but it's true. Every storm eventually ends. I know it doesn't feel like it. I know it doesn't feel worth it to wait it out. Wait it out anyway. Sooner or later, it will end. Don't think you're strong enough to hold on until it does? You are. I promise that you are. You are so much stronger than you think you are. You can do this. It will be worth it. Just hang on.


6. "Lean Into It" by Little Big Town. If you forced me to pick my favorite Little Big Town song, this might just be it. It's definitely in the top three. It's been some years since this album (The Reason Why) came out, but it still bums me out that this was never a single. It's a beautiful song. Sometimes you have to fight your way through a problem or situation. Other times, when that storm is raging, all you can do is lean into it until you come out on the other side. "There's a strong wind blowing / I push on, it pushes back / It's a hard time / But I know I'll get through it / Just gotta lean into it". 


7. "I'm Movin' On" by Rascal Flatts. There are times in your life when you come to the conclusion that you need to move on. From the past. Maybe after a relationship. For me, one of those moments happened when I was 17 years old. It was my senior year and the year that I found out that I had rheumatoid arthritis. Life as I knew it had changed. My immune system was attacking itself and I would never be the same. My life is now divided as the time before RA and the time after. I had to learn how to accept them and move on from what I thought my life was going to be. For anyone else who struggles with RA (or something like it), you know that you find yourself needing to accept that more than once. Like when things are going okay, as far as it goes, on the health front and then a massive flare hits. And you struggle with it because you let yourself start thinking that maybe it wasn't really all that bad. But it is.

So you figure out how to accept it. Again. You regroup. Maybe you have a heart to heart with your doctor or find a new one. You get a new treatment plan and you decide it's time to fight. Again. Because you realize, hopefully, that you don't want to give up. You want to try to feel better. Maybe build something that resembles a life. "I'm movin ' on /  At least I can see life has patiently been waiting for me / And I know there's no guarantees, but I'm not alone / There comes a time in everyone's life / When all you can see are the years passing by / And I have made up my mind that those days are gone". 


8. "Broken and Beautiful" by Mark Schultz. Okay, so here's the thing. You've made some mistakes in your life. So have I. So has everyone. You might be in the midst of a horrific storm of some sort. Life has had its way with you and now you feel like a broken shell of a human being. I've been there. In fact, I'm still there. I feel broken in more ways than one. But you know what? It's okay to feel a little broken sometimes. It's okay if you aren't okay right now. It's okay if you don't have all of the answers. Or any of the answers. It's okay if you have no idea what to do next. Really.

Because as I've said, I believe in God. I believe in Jesus and I know that He can and will meet us wherever we are. He looks at us, covered in the messes that we've created and you know what? He still thinks that we're beautiful. Not because of anything we've done, but because of whose we are. His. We are His and He loves us, even in our brokenness. " 'Cause we all fall short / We all have sinned / But when you let / God's grace break in / It's beautiful / Beautiful / Come as you are / Surrender your heart / Broken and beautiful". 


9. "Be OK" by Deejay Young. Hey you, the person reading this, I'd like to congratulate you. For what, you ask? For surviving everything that life has thrown at you until this very moment. I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that at some point in your life, you have faced something difficult. You've had a hard time. Or a lot of them. You might be having a hard time right now. Know this: you matter. No matter what's going on in your life, know that your life matters. Know that you were put here for a reason. You have a purpose. There is a plan for your life. You are valuable and beautiful and you are loved. And you know what else? You're going to be okay. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But someday. Someday, you will be okay. Believe that. 

If this song isn't in your music library, get it. Actually, get the whole Unplugged EP because it's a good one. But this song is important. As Deejay points out, sometimes you need to encourage yourself. Stop beating yourself up for things out of your control. Forgive yourself for your mistakes. Ignore that voice in your head that tells you that you'll never make it. You will. Those people who try to tear you down? Don't listen to them. Resist the urge to give up. Keep fighting. Take these words to heart: "I'll be alright  / I'll be okay / No matter what they try to say / I was not built to break / I'm gonna be OK". 


Before I move on to the final song in this installment, I want to acknowledge that I do see the irony of having a song with the declaration of "I was not built to break" directly underneath a song about being broken. The way I see it, we all feel broken sometimes. We might even be a little broken, but that doesn't mean we were meant to stay that way. I believe that we have a God who never lets us break completely. We might not be able to hold ourselves together sometimes, but that's okay because we have a God who holds us together. No matter how broken we may feel.


10. "Change" by Laynee featuring DeeDee. This song was originally by Christina Aguilera, but this was the first version of it I heard. Laynee = Layne Stein from VoicePlay. You can watch their video for this here. I had a hard time figuring out which song I wanted to close out this sixth installment of the Music Therapy series. Then this song came to mind. Here's the chorus. "Waiting for a change to set us free / Waiting for the day when you can be you and I can be me / Waiting for hope to come around / Waiting for the day when hate is lost and love is found / Waiting for a change". The song is all about wanting things to be better. About waiting for things to change. It's talking about change on a bigger scale, but as DeeDee points out at the end of the video, change begins with us. It starts with the individual.

Maybe, like me, you've found yourself struggling with anger and resentment. Maybe you've been bitter and cold. Maybe you've been sad and heartbroken. Maybe you feel scared and anxious a lot of time. First things first: recognize that everyone has those feelings from time to time. Having them doesn't automatically make you a bad person. What it makes you is human. So if you've been beating yourself over having any of those feelings, stop. Not only will that not make you feel any better, it also doesn't fix anything. 

Life is all about choices. You may not be able to keep negative feelings from happening. But you can choose how you react to them. You can choose what kind of person you want to be. You can change. You can choose to become better instead of bitter. You can choose kindness over cruelty. You can choose faith over fear. You can choose to be grateful instead of resentful. You can choose to be hopeful instead of hopeless. You can choose love over hate. And then watch what happens. Not only would this be better for you as a person, it's better for society as a whole. If everyone did that, we'd all be better off.

When you're stuck in a difficult situation, it can feel like you're going to be stuck there forever. But that's not the case. No matter how dark things may feel right now, I promise that there is still light at the end of the tunnel. Even if you can't see it just yet. It may take some time, but hanging in there is worth it. I am still so far away from where I want to be, but I'm better than I've been. The light is still pretty dim, but I can see it. I know that I'll get there someday - and I know that you will too. My prayer for everyone reading this is that it might give you some encouragement to keep going. To keep fighting. To know that you matter and that you are loved. And that though it may feel like it sometimes, you are not alone. You're not.

Hang in there. You got this. Promise.

Thanks for reading. If you're in a bad place and need someone to talk to right now, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here's their website, where you can talk to a counselor online if you'd prefer to do that instead. There's always help available if you need it.