by Aaron Edwards
For ten years, I suffered from an absolutely debilitating condition called Trigeminal Neuralgia (TN). The trigeminal nerve branches across the side of the face and is responsible for both sensory and motor functions. TN is known as the “suicide disease”; it is a neuropathic disorder characterized by episodes of intense pain—I am talking painful pain. Neuroscientists describe this condition as one of the most painful known to man because the brain reacts as if there is an exposed nerve being triggered over and over again, creating an electric-shock effect in the cheek, lips, and gums. Needless to say, this made everyday life and even the most menial tasks feel impossible.
As a husband, father, and pastor, I would constantly try to compensate for the screaming pain going on inside my face. I would pretend that I could manage my pain and would basically put all my effort into just keeping it together. For the first six years of my condition, my primary mission was to eliminate my pain in any way possible. After seeing countless specialists and naturalists with little to no relief, I opted to see a pain management doctor. She prescribed hydrocodone, which did not make the electric-shock sensation go away, but it did take the edge off the pain.
It did not take long for me to develop a dependence on the medication, and I remained on some form of opiates for the next two years. One day I woke up and my neuralgia wasn’t as active as it usually was, so I decided not to take the medication that day. By midday, I felt like I had the flu; I was sore all over and had chills. It hit me that I was going through withdrawal. Many people in our community are in recovery— though others are still in the throes of their addiction—and friends have tried to explain to me what it feels like to detox from heroin or other opiate-based drugs. That day in 2007, I began to understand exactly what they had been talking about. I was supposed to be the pastor that ministered to the addicted; instead, I entered into solidarity with the addicts.
The idea of withdrawal terrified me, so I decided to do what made most sense—I took a couple of pills. Thirty minutes later I felt fine. This created a discovery that scared me even more—I was full on addicted to opiates.
My addiction was easy to justify because, after all, I had the worst pain known to man (there’s a reason it’s called the suicide disease), and because I had taken my medication as prescribed. But my withdrawal symptoms haunted me everyday. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I made sure not to skip a day because I did not want to feel that way again. I also made sure to have the refill prescription on hand before I ran out because now, on top of being consumed with the pain, I was also consumed with the pain medication.
This was my process for the next few months, constantly running from the pain while simultaneously running from withdrawal. One Sunday at church, I decided to out myself. I told my community that I was in a dilemma. I said that I needed the medication for pain, but I also needed it to avoid getting “dope-sick.” It is amazing how much room the Spirit has to dance around when we go beneath the facades and get real. I was fully embraced by my brothers and sisters and walked away feeling thankful and filled with grace.
The day after that beautiful church service, I woke up overwhelmed with the notion that it was time to stop all medication completely. There was no doubt in my mind that this was a nudge from the Holy Spirit. The first thing I asked God was, “Can we wait and have this conversation after you heal me from my condition?” But there was no escaping the fact that it was time. His Spirit spoke and my spirit accepted. However, my mind was being dragged kicking and screaming. This was going to suck so bad! I had butterflies in my stomach, knowing how bad it had felt a few months before after just half a day without the meds. At the same time, my spirit was whispering to my mind that there was going to be a gift in this for me.
The next day a friend told me I could use her little fishing cabin in Galveston to detox. I called a very close friend of mine, Matt, and asked if he would go with me in case I got too sick to take care of myself. He immediately accepted the invitation. Things were working out quite effortlessly, and a couple of days later we were off.
The day we left for Galveston was the first morning in over two years (besides the aforementioned day) that I didn’t take the pain meds as soon as I woke up. It was also the morning I awoke to piercing pain and waves of fire rolling through my face. Of course. It’s a strange phenomenon; when freedom is in sight, slavery tends to bear down hard, wanting to keep us enslaved. As miserable as captivity is, we find ways to get comfortable in its familiarity, making the idea of “letting go” and birthing into freedom terrifying. If freedom weren’t so free, if we could control it just a bit, that would make it an easier choice.
The reality was quickly setting in. My stomach tangled up, reminding me of what it felt like to be sent to the principal’s office as a fifth grader: pure dread. I remember kissing my wife and kids goodbye while thinking, “There is no way this isn’t going to be really bad!”
By the time we got there, I was already feeling horrible. Even the hair on my arms felt sore to the touch. I broke into a cold sweat, and to be honest, I couldn’t tell you if it was from withdrawal or simply from the fear of it. I paced back and forth, wearing out the floor of the cabin. My body was at a fevered pitch of surging electricity and my mind was racing to stay ahead of it, angling for a distraction. I turned on the television and, ten seconds later, turned it off. I couldn’t sit still. I remembered that I brought my Bible—surely the Psalms would be comforting in a time like this. I was able to read for about thirty seconds, which, to the Bible’s credit, was three times longer than the TV lasted. I was being called into my pain, but I didn’t feel I was called into it alone. I had a good sense God was sitting with me through this one.
I resumed pacing. Honestly, I couldn’t have imagined any of the pain I was going through unless I had gone through it. Not that I am recommending the experience, because at this point I was thinking about running my head through a wall. I took up my new pacing habit outside on the deck. The air was windy and salty. I kept walking. Then something happened. The first beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount says, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and His rule” (Matthew 5:3, The Message). I have heard people say, “When you are at the end of your rope, tie a knot and swing,” but I wasn’t enjoying this ride. I had a choice to make. It was at the end of myself where my ego succumbed to my spirit, and my spirit succumbed to His Spirit. I let go. I surrendered.
I sat in a chair on the deck with my arms down, palms up. Words will never be adequate to describe what happened next. God revealed himself, and God was Love, and Love washed over me, so soothingly, wave after wave. My chest opened up to All That Is, and I received. It was like taking everything I ever hoped and dreamed God was and multiplying it times a million. Not only did He fill me with love and peace and hope, He was genuinely glad that I was open to receive it! Overwhelmed is an understatement. I was both bawling and laughing, both within myself and without. And in that place and time, I was free from withdrawal and even from the pain of my neuralgia. I felt like I had been taken into what Paul refers to as the third heaven. In that moment, I became clearly aware that everything I’d ever experienced had been a part of a perfect path and that nothing was wrong. He has always been making all things new. He is on a rescue mission that we cannot thwart.
I looked out at the sun’s reflection on the water and saw millions of shimmering diamonds in the wakes on the bay. I remember literally putting my hand to my chest with my mouth agape because of the sheer awe I felt at the gift of seeing the sun reflecting off the water. My friend Matt was standing in the corner of the deck, graciously giving me my space, and maybe somewhat concerned about my tears and blubbering smile. I looked at him and said, “You’re not going to believe what is happening between me and God right now.” I started to tell him about the mystical experience I was having, and as I was telling him I started to feel the withdrawals creeping back into my skin. I started laughing. I said, “I think I had to step out of the Spirit in order to tell you about being in the Spirit.” For the next two days, I bounced back and forth between discomfort and sheer bliss. We went to Wal-Mart for a few supplies and it took all the willpower I had not to walk up to total strangers, put my hands on their cheeks, and ask them if they knew how loved they were.
I listened to a lot of music at the cabin for the next couple of days with fresh ears and new vision. I read a lot of Scripture, and amazingly, after being rerouted from using the Bible as an escape, I couldn’t get enough of it. I read about being crucified with Christ and knew that it is much more than an idea or doctrine. It is an experience of dying to self and being risen to be in Christ. Jesus showed us in a beautiful, grandiose way what we are invited to do spiritually everyday.
My body spent the next few weeks working the rest of the toxins out of my body, while also relearning how to live with TN. But my relationship to my pain changed completely. Instead of running from it, I learned to lean into it, to be present with it, to allow it to be a passageway to the place where His strength becomes perfected in my weakness. My life has never been the same. I am so thankful to know that God is Love.
That was October of 2007. For the next several years, I went through pain and growth. In 2011, because of God’s grace, I was given the opportunity to undergo a surgical procedure called microvascular decompression. The surgery was successful and I no longer have trigeminal neuralgia. My life is changed. I know how blessed I am. I know that there are countless other people who have chronic pain that may never end on this side of the Kingdom. But I also know that our pain doesn’t happen to us, it happens for us.
I am thankful to have lived with the pain and am thankful to now live without it.
I am thankful for the pain medicine and happy to live without it.
I am thankful for my path, for the times I am far and the times I am near.
I am thankful that surrender births resurrection.