On Prayer and Chronic Illness, Sober

By Audrey Fox 04/25/16

At seven years sober, I was diagnosed with auto-immune disease. Here's how I'm coping.


I’m a stubborn alcoholic—stubborn and proud. In seven years of sobriety I never entirely learned acceptance—until I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. (For the purposes of identifying and not comparing I won’t specify which so much as abbreviate to AD, to aid in identifying with the feelings beyond the facts.) The parallels between alcoholism and AD could almost be comical—both progressive and incurable, each pitting an entity against itself. As my alcoholic mind once produced endless self-detrimental thoughts, my ill body now attacked itself in equal force and strength. My intellect, humor, wordplay, professional experience, social esteem and physical appearance stood no chance at charming their way past the surge and settling-in of a new condition with which I’d be battling for the rest of my life.

Too embarrassed to be seen, isolation quickly gave way to depression only deepened by my dramatically altered appearance and departure from my profession.

Since moving to New York at 17 and getting sober at 18 I’d grown accustomed to a certain level of autonomy, only somewhat mitigated, though often gladly, by meeting attendance and compliance to a sponsor. I was practiced at using my looks and smarts to hobnob through difficulties, swinging from problem to solution with relative ease and taking full credit for all of it. While I did meet periods of struggle their difficulties were less readily admitted than frequently glossed over, dressed as minor inconveniences more than dire straits. My recovery resembled a polite deference to the rooms not-so-secretly overshadowed by an overarching sense of Emersonian self-reliance, and I liked it that way.

All of that changed this fall however, and rather rapidly—within the course of several months I became symptomatic of a repeatedly misdiagnosed illness; resigned from the job in which I’d invested a majority of my identity and worth; large blisters covered my face, arms and torso; open sores bled within my nose and mouth; and hypersensitivity to heat relegated me to my apartment. Too embarrassed to be seen, isolation quickly gave way to depression only deepened by my dramatically altered appearance and departure from my profession.

And so, I prayed. I prayed to a Higher Power whom I call God, though we hadn’t spoken in a while, whom I excused myself from defining. I prayed out of pain and fear, out of knowledge that my way wasn’t working—I prayed as a scared child, as the child I once was, as the child who didn’t know what they thought they knew. I prayed for a sign, one that wouldn’t overestimate my intelligence, that it be made so obvious I couldn’t miss it despite my obstinacy. I prayed to be hit over the head with some answer. One month later my eye started bleeding, and the next day found me admitted to the ICU.

As the severity of potential conditions discussed worsened, my spirits dampened in final recognition of the situation’s gravity. 

The initial shock induced an overarching disconnection, and so I alternately joked with the nurses about certain GOP candidates, and sang condition-relevant variations of a Joni Mitchell song to passing second-year residents. Determined to present as unflappable amid clear unmanageability, my efforts to deny powerlessness embodied a type of hammy infirmary revue.

As the severity of potential conditions discussed worsened, my spirits dampened in final recognition of the situation’s gravity. Having been so distracted by friends, family, visitors and outright pain the eventual settling in of what my role in this was to be—as patient, as ill, as powerless—I turned all the more to prayer. And, in what may be a more symbolic concession of surrender than even that to most adult Millennials, I relinquished my phone.

[Moment of silence; bow heads.]

The persistent fear and constant changes influenced my mental and emotional states to a never-before-experienced extent. Accustomed to full self-possession in sobriety, total consciousness and at least moderate control seemed the norm. A consummate professional, I prided myself on self-containment, composure and a knack for saying the right things at the right times. Coupled with a severe reaction to certain medications, this experience birthed deep insecurity and profound if transient psychosis. Lacking control of my thoughts and feelings, I freewheeled through myriad emotions at record pace. I doubted all of my decisions, perceptions and faculties to an extent not dissimilar from early sobriety. To further worsen an already unfavorable precipitation of discomposure my memory lapsed and as such I lost long periods of time—leaving me unable to account for important spans and only deepening the disorientation. In an entirely unwelcome return, it appeared that fugue and irrationalism had strong-armed presence and logic into temporary departure. I was terrified and yet, my individualized rules dictated I not admit fear and thus still guided my external expressions. Refusal to admit anything shy of a positive, cheery attitude or in any way relinquish my status as perfect patient meant a deepening store of stockpiled negative thoughts and feelings only stifled for inevitable later sifting.

Determined to have a productive hospital stay and in an attempt to bolster my image I requested: Sudoku puzzles invariably completed incorrectly, overloaded with 3s and 8s; a composition notebook, which I filled with initially cogent observations quickly deteriorating into doodles of family members as ‘50s ranch hands; and a copy of “We Were the Mulvaneys”, which, despite what I’d deemed the perfect occasion to catch up on some reading, I’ve yet to finish. Attempts to maintain pretense—and thereby establish some sense of control, independence, distance— failed absurdly.

Such fear surrounds this seeming concession of sovereign self-steering that it appears an alcoholic would prefer to die at the doing of their will than consider they may not know best.

This silly stubbornness applied to the physical as well, as those changes proved equally unprecedented. Within one month I had lost 20 pounds of muscle, leaving me unable to sit upright, lift anything more than a water glass, or walk independently of an aid. My image—carefully curated as an injured former athlete turned picture of health and wellness—was unavoidably confronted and deeply bruised. Ego aching as badly as body, every acceptance of physical assistance felt like a scourge to my pride. Ashamed and floundering, I found myself asserting how fit I used to be, how my job paid me to be healthy, spouting telltale indications of insecurity and fear. I gussied them up as best I could with salable anecdotes and sometimes-funny one-liners, but any person vested in recovery or of any reasonable emotional intelligence could easily spot my act—a flailing for control.

All of my efforts at appearance and pretense were so plainly laid before me as laughable that acceptance of help was the only option. Any further goes at sidestepping reality for presentation would have resulted in some sad puppetry lacking a game audience—and likely an injury or two to accompany.

By the time of eventual diagnosis and stabilization my fallacy of autonomy was so shattered as to unavoidably betray its futility. With the thought “self-reliance was good as far as it went, but it didn’t go far enough” flashing through my mind, the Big Book once again rang out one of its truths within my life, tolling resoundingly clear against the backdrop of lived experience. Surrendering again, I accepted the help I knew I would need to carry on with happy trudging. In moments of only marginal cognizance my consent to these changes was hardly thought-through and yet, my thinking hadn’t been particularly helpful of late.

Tossing reins to the more capable, they commenced next steps. Their outcome and its execution contained wisdom beyond that to which I’d then had access and, despite its lacking the stamp of my will’s exertion—and likely, because of its absence—flowed with an ease beyond human influence and ability. My parents rented a van, packed up my apartment, settled outstanding financial matters and checked me out after three weeks of fluids, endless blood tests, blood transfusions, bone marrow biopsies, medication introductions and changes and endless uncertainty. The confounding curiosities of the hospital, its sounds and motions, the rounds and fascination were all trappings I was eager to flee, and when I was discharged I felt a sense of freedom and fresh terror. I knew that there was a lot of information to process—the implications of this diagnosis, the impending procedures, the fear and loss—and knew that for as much as I’d have preferred a different outcome, the only way out was through. I flushed my ID band and hit the road—I was sprung.

Throughout our drive from Brooklyn to the Southwest cut flashes of clarity, shining stark against a haze of malnutrition, mental confusion and impaired awareness. The trauma a body undergoes during a period of illness and hospitalization should never be underestimated—and this was a lesson I learned last of all who surrounded me during that time. My legs folded under themselves with the dignity of a baby giraffe, unable to lift me shallow steps and, if not affecting outright collapse, at least threatening it—the virtual Verrazano Bridge of my lower body. My will made repeated, feeble attempts at self-assertion: prodding me to do pushups in a Pennsylvania hotel room to swiftly land on my pig-headed head; cockily refusing an arm for support in Oklahoma to wilt a half-block later; and insisting I run up a hill in Texas to wobble pathetically into a mid-sized crater, as observed by two panicked parents and one unimpressed buffalo.

It seemed the healthier I (felt I) became, or at the very least the more time I put between myself and the hospital, the more my will flared, quickly forgetting that things work best when my will defers. That the amount of time for which I had not had to use a bedpan was only two days was no matter—and thus began one of the most obvious episodic introductions of the aforesaid special rules I have for myself, abject dictates serving as riders hung heavy with the full implication of my worth as a person. Interestingly, however, they only flared temporarily, seemingly superseded by a shift in faith and conditions. The recent change in circumstances seemed to impart a personal impatience for my own nonsense, somehow finally impelling mass practical application of the spiritual work I’d done throughout sobriety.

The artifice of returned choice and ability so quickly reinstated my ego to its helm that I nearly missed the lesson—that self-forgetting, acceptance and allowance facilitated beneficial outcomes while my involvement netted none. The practice of prayer remains active as I navigate this disease in a new environment, and has afforded a level of grace previously unknown. The facts are unfavorable and yet, recognition of the role of God as capable of equipping my navigation of them has entirely resurfaced a landscape that otherwise would be impassable from the outset.

Since AA’s beginning many speakers in many rooms have discussed praying not for their own will to be done, but their Higher Power’s. Newcomers invariably share their fear of becoming “the hole in the donut”; old timers chant, “keep coming back”; newcomers leave the meeting a-huff; remaining members cryptically mutter, “more shall be revealed." The dialogue is so predictable as to be elected official tradition, and not solely as indication of the stubbornness of alcoholics but more widely as indicative of our petty, predictable, frail humanity. Such fear surrounds this seeming concession of sovereign self-steering that it appears an alcoholic would prefer to die at the doing of their will than consider they may not know best. Clichéd a picture as this may be of the mulishness of our fellowship, it is certainly one of which I am a part, and entirely representative of the extent to which my pride prevailed over earlier stretches of my recovery. This experience, however, has illustrated the importance and utility of not praying for specific outcomes so much as for the facility to navigate difficulty in a manner qualitatively reflective of my relationship with God, divorced of self-seeking and prescriptive requests.

Prayers for particulars leave us either disappointed or unrealistically wed to an ask- receive prayer practice—either we don’t get what we prayed for and God is dead; or we get what we prayed for and God is vending machine. I spent my eighth anniversary hooked to an IV in the infusion center of a local hospital, grateful for my sobriety, yes, but more so for the aggregate ability to exercise it as far more than totem. This week brought word that my condition has only marginally improved; the medication I have been using for the past five months has been of only negligible benefit; and as such I’ll be starting chemotherapy. This was not quite the picture I’d projected for age 26; and yet, it is the reality I’m tasked and blessed with living—not of my own strength, but in the strength of surrender, the grace of acceptance, and fullness of faith.

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Audrey Fox is a writer who lives three-quarters of the year in Brooklyn and summers in their mind. Audrey last wrote about sobering up young. She can be found on Linkedin