What Whooping Cough Taught Me

Originally written Thursday, June 29th, 2006

When I was a baby, less than a month old, I caught whooping cough. Whooping cough is a very dangerous disease for an infant. It was especially dangerous back then before all the healing graces of modern medicine were available.

My family was very afraid that I was going to die. Someone stayed with me 24 hours a day for the two weeks that my sickness lasted. They had to leave me on the bed and not try to hold me, because holding me seemed to make the coughing more severe.

I was totally exhausted because I couldn’t eat very well and the coughing kept waking me up. I fought for every breath, and every breath sounded like it was going to be my last. Whoever watched me, had a terrible time of it.
I have tried to imagine how being that sick felt to me as a baby. None of my most basic needs were being met; needs like food, rest, comfort, nurture. I must have felt like I had come into a terrifying world where there wasn’t enough air available to keep me alive.

I am sure I thought that I was on my own with no one to help. I must have been frustrated that I couldn’t express what I wanted, nor could I have even known what I wanted. I lived in abandoned, wordless, comfortless, overwhelming anxiety.
I also wonder how God came to me. I don’t think I had an awareness of God’s nearness but God was there. In my wordless, abstractionless world, what was my spiritual reality like? I cannot imagine it.

But I know God helped me. God gave me the strength and courage to keep fighting. God gave me the power to demand that my world give me just one more breath, then one more, and then one more. For two weeks, I didn’t wear out or give up. I waged a fierce war against death.

I fought my way through a seemingly overwhelming battle and I won. After a few months had gone by, it seemed clear to everyone that my physical health had not been damaged by my ordeal.

Today I believe that this terrible disease actually served me. I want to explain.
The next twenty years were very difficult for me. I experienced terrible neglect and abuse. My Dad killed himself with my gun when I was fifteen. I was often hungry. I did not receive the nurture and support I so desperately needed, but I survived and found a way to gradually become healthy and happy. I have had, and continue to have a good life.

I think the whooping cough experience taught me what I needed to know to prosper despite the abuse and neglect. Here is what I learned in 14 horrible days of sickness when I was a few weeks old. I could not have put it into words then, but I can now.

1. My growing up experience was going to be extremely difficult.
2. I was going to have to fight for survival.
3. Another more serene way of life was out there somewhere.
4. If I fought as hard and as long as I needed to, I could find it.
5. God would give me the necessary strength to win.

I do not believe God gave me whooping cough. That is not the way the Higher Power I know and love operates. God seized on the opportunity presented my illness. I had the disease. That was a given. God simply acted to make an awful experience that I was having, work for me. If I was going to attend the school of suffering anyway, God made sure I got full tuition value.

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