Self Doubt

Doubt is a common sensation. It takes many forms and can be a useful tool for self-protection and in the search for truth.  There was a long season in college where I began to seriously doubt my own Christian faith and the Bible.  My doubts led me to explore, learn, read, and think about the Bible and the historical tradition of the church in ways I had never done before.  I am extremely thankful to God for this season of serious doubting because I came away from it changed. I didn’t get a lot of my questions answered, but I felt I had learned to ask the right questions.  In later posts I may return to some of the things I learned during this season, but in this post I want to specifically address the self-doubt I’ve experienced as a caregiver for my wife, Johanna.

The doubt I’ve felt as a caregiver feels markedly different than the kind of doubt I experienced in my faith during college.   When I had serious doubts about my faith, I turned to the abundant resources of Christian thinkers, science textbooks, philosophical writings, and to my own Christian friends.   When I have doubts about myself as a caregiver for Johanna it’s harder to know where to turn.  I often worry I’ve made a mistake in helping her, keeping her safe, or even in suggesting what medicine we ought to try next (we often have choices because MCAS is so poorly understood).  Sometimes I just feel weak, like a balloon with small holes everywhere, always unsure I’ll have the strength to keep pressing on as I do the many daily tasks required to keep Johanna alive and safe.  Some of this is because our situation is so unique and Johanna’s illness so poorly understood.  There’s no plotted treatment plan for people with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome.  Sure, there are lots of medicines to try, but there is no sure treatment for anyone with the disease.   This is a bewildering feeling.  It’s even worse in Johanna’s case, however, because not only have we tried dozens of treatments, but Johanna has developed allergies to medicines which have helped her in the past.  Johanna’s illness and our difficult situation make it easy to think I’ve made a wrong turn, and hard to know the difference between a wrong and right turn itself.  I’m easily filled with self-doubt.

As I reflect on where these self-doubts as a caregiver come from, I again think about our modern understanding of illness and disease.  Up until Johanna’s diagnosis of MCAS, I didn’t know how little was known about our bodies.  I thought there was always a way forward, even if that just meant pain relief.  Johanna’s illness shattered this understanding.  Johanna’s illness is mysterious.  Every step forward feels like a magnified sensation of missing a step (or thinking there’s an extra step) on a staircase at night – that jolting, jarring impact and low-grade anxiety s that something is coming.  Another source for my self-doubt is my experience as a caregiver juxtaposed against my inflated sense of self efficacy.  I have never encountered an obstacle so large and confusing as Johanna’s MCAS.  I have never faced a problem so persistently perplexing. Though my efforts have helped Johanna, they have never accomplished the degree of help and healing I’ve wanted for her.

I’m not self-doubt free these days, but I fight my doubts with humility and trust.  The first weapon, humility, acknowledges that the task ahead of me is too much for me.  I can’t handle it.  It’s overwhelming.  It is crushing.  The word humility has its linguistic roots in the Latin word humilis, meaning ‘on the ground’.  That’s very similar to what it feels like to face the needs and realities of Johanna’s illness. Whoever said ‘God never gives you more than you can handle’ is lying. A practical action God has patiently helped me learn is the act of opening my hands, palms up, symbolizing the releasing of control over what is happening.  I’ve done this when a meal I’ve made for Johanna goes wrong and she doesn’t have enough food to eat.  I’ve done it when I’ve spent hours watching Johanna suffer without relief in the hospital and at home. Nothing I can do will fix these errors. I can’t go back in time, or magically heal the intricately broken nature of my wife’s body.  My anger won’t fix it either.  So I lift my hands, and say, ‘This is too much for me’.

The second weapon, trust, feels like the other side of the coin.  One side says, ‘This is too much for me.’  The other side says, ‘God is bigger than this.  Your life and suffering have meaning’.  It’s often not clear what that meaning is, and I’ve found our suffering painful to dwell on, but I trust that God will one day fully reveal his purposes. In the meantime, he has shown himself to truly be bigger than our suffering and has sustained us. At its deepest level for me, I equate trust in God in our present situation with His transcendence. God really is transcendent over Johanna’s life, and mine.  It’s hard in the most painful moments to see how this can be true.  I struggle to believe it. I open my hands saying, ‘I believe there is more going on here than I can see.  I believe you have purposes I cannot see.  I believe that Jesus’ call to follow him is valid, even in this dark valley.’

At the start of this post, I mentioned that when I have doubts about myself as a care-giver, it’s hard to know where to turn.  Although that’s still true, I’ve found the most helpful place to go is the same source that eventually became my anchor as I wrestled with doubts about my faith in college: the Bible.  I’ll explain more of my thoughts on this next week when I discuss the monotony of caregiving. Caregiving requires the same actions every day, many not exciting (some even unpleasant). Join me next week as I write about the ways I view and deal with monotony.

I love hearing from you, so feel free to leave a comment or question!

Author: Scott Watkins

My name is Scott Watkins and I'm married to an incredible wife, Johanna. She suffers from a severe form of Mast Cell Activations Syndrome (MCAS). My website is all about our lives, and mine particularly as a caregiver, husband, and follower of Christ.

9 thoughts

  1. Dear Scott,

    I spent almost 30 years in the dark about what was causing all of my bizarre food intolerances. Many doctors concluded that I must be anorexic because I would simply stop eating due to the horrible symptoms food caused me to experience. None of the people in my life were able to walk this journey with me for any length of time, not even my dear and loving mother. It has resulted in me being homeless twice for several years each time because I cannot work and SSI disability does not provide enough for housing. For most of this 30 years, I felt that I was somehow responsible for causing my illness. No one understood and no one really believed it was physical. Once I finally learned about MCAS, I felt so much relief that words cannot even describe it. Finally, I had a name for what is wrong with my body. I’m not crazy! The shame and self-doubt that I suffered through all those years was enormous. Meeting so many others with this illness through MCAS Facebook groups has also helped me tremendously. I am not alone! I still have not been able to get an offical diagnosis because I cannot find a doctor who knows anything about the illness and, sadly, none of them are interested in learning about it. But simply knowing what’s wrong, and being able to tell doctors and friends and family what is wrong, elicits an entirely different response from them which I find both interesting and disturbing. All of the shame and self-doubt I have felt has largely been a result of not having others understand and believe me. I am now free of those feelings to a large extent. I realize that when i eat something, how my body reacts to it is not my fault. When I react badly, it’s not because I did something wrong. There is almost nothing right you can do in trying to help a person with MCAS. If you happen to find a food or medication they can tolerate, it’s a small miracle. If something you try doesn’t work, or something you’ve been doing stops working, it has absolutely nothing to do with you or some wrong turn you made. It’s simply the nature of this illness. Knowing this truth has freed me from the bondage and struggle of trying to fix the brokenness of my body. It has allowed me to fully surrender myself to Christ, to give my suffering to Him, to accept this Cross He has chosen to give me and trust in Saint Paul’s words, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).

    Love in Christ,
    Esmée

    1. Hi Esmée,

      What you describe is something very familiar to us. Johanna was told many silly things like, ‘you have anxiety’, or ‘this is something psychological’ when the doctors first saw her unexplained symptoms. I am so sorry for all that you went through. We too have experienced the freedom that comes with surrender to Christ. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Scott, I am thrilled that you heeded the call to write this blog! I have followed your story since The Gospel Coalition broadcasted it. I have MCAS, a patient of Dr Afrin. I am in a new difficult season where the things that worked are no longer working, and my loving husband is struggling as you speak about. This blog came as an answer to prayer for me today! My husband gives so much, as you do, and its hard for me to watch his struggle. We both are confident in a very caring and sufficient God, but these days of “persistently perplexing” obstacles can be so trying. Thank you and I look forward to reading more. Praying for you and Johanna today.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. As I walk with my best friend though her MCAS life, I see her needs, I pray for her, I help when I can. But I never understood her husband’s struggle. This will help me pray for him better. Thank you for your transparency.

  4. Hi Scott,

    I was moved and encouraged on how you and your wife are facing these challenges right now. But, I believe that God is Bigger than the disease. Declaring for healing in Jesus name, inner strength, comfort and increase of Faith!

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! God is bigger, indeed, and has been with us every step of the way. Jesus doesn’t bring easy answers to our suffering, but he does promise his presence.

  5. Hi Scott first let me congratulate you for not giving up on Jahanna. I have MCAS and I see my husband’s devotion like yours and wonder what I did to deserve someone so dedicated to me where he could just walk away and be happier and at least less stress. This condition tests all your beliefs whether religious or society bound because nothing you thought you knew makes sense anymore. I have faith that our struggle has a reason for being and just having husband’s like you and mine is a sign that God takes away but replenishes two times over. Thank you for your kindness to Jahanna and never self doubt that even if she gets sick with your food, you are the few hopes she has.

  6. Dear Scott
    Your love and dedication to Johanna is breathtaking and moves me to tears.
    I cannot truely comprehend the pain you both are going through.
    I pray for God to continue to bless you both with strength and hope!
    I pray also that a cure will be found

    Your sister in Christ
    Isabelle

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