Holding on When You Can’t Hold Out
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Jeff and Sarah WaltonJeff and Sarah Walton are the co-authors of Together Through the Storms: Biblical Encouragement for Your Marriage When Life Hurts (2020, The Good Book Company). They have four children 13 and under and are members of the Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, IL. Sarah is also the co-author of the award-winning book ...more
Not many couples want to pattern their marriage after the book of Job. But Jeff and Sarah Walton, hit time and again with heart-crushing circumstances, began to find great comfort and wisdom in those pages.
Holding on When You Can’t Hold Out
Bob: When stress and pressure go up in a family, so does marital tension and conflict. That’s what Jeff and Sarah Walton experienced. Jeff had a high-demand job, providing medical supplies for surgeons. He had to be available on a moment’s notice to what those surgeons needed. Meanwhile, Sarah was home with kids, including a special needs child who was acting out. She needed her husband’s help.
Sarah: I mean, there was really no easy solution in those moments. He knew that, if he didn’t show up at that surgery, he could lose that doctor’s business. I knew that; so I really did try to be understanding to that and tell myself: “I know he would be here if he could. I do believe he’d be here if he could”; but I felt like I needed him more than any other time. I remember saying to him, “I’m waving the white flag; this is a time when I need you.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, June 22nd. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I’m Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. What happens during stressful times in your marriage will either drive you apart or can bring you closer together as a couple. We’ll talk more about that today with Jeff and Sarah Walton. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. So when was the last time you read Job, Chapter 1?
Dave: I read it every day, Bob—[Laughter]—my favorite chapter in the Bible.
Ann: I’m going to admit that I read the Bible through every year.
Ann: When I get to Job, I’m always like, “Oh no!”
Bob: You don’t want to read it.
Ann: I don’t because it makes me sad and scared.
Bob: Chapter 1 is this chapter where Satan comes before the Lord and says, “You know these people, who are following you—Job and his family—they are just following you because you bless them.” And God says, “Okay; you have permission to take them—
Bob: —“through and see what happens.”
Ann: That’s the part I don’t like!
Dave: Here is my question, Bob. As you get ready to introduce them, have you ever thought about writing a marriage book based on the Book of Job?
Bob: Never had the idea. In fact, I’m not sure how many people, like Ann, would want to buy that book; right?—[Laughter]—except that it’s a powerful and profound book.
Dave: It is.
Ann: We all suffer and go through times of suffering.
Bob: We do.
Jeff and Sarah Walton join us on FamilyLife Today. Guys, welcome.
Jeff: Thank you very much.
Sarah: Thank you so much.
Bob: Jeff and Sarah live in suburban Chicago. They are graduates of Taylor University. They are the parents of four kids and have written a book called Together Through the Storm.
It’s been a storm; it’s been 16 years of marriage, right? And it’s not been 16 uneventful years for you. How long, after you were married, did you experience your first “Oh, we have a major bump in the road here”? Do you remember?
Sarah: We had just moved; he had just gotten this job. He had been working at a station hotel, and he had just gotten hired as a medical sales trauma consultant; so he was going to start being on call.
Sarah: We had just moved to be closer to the territory that he would be in, and I found out I was pregnant. It was about two years after our marriage. After I had our oldest—I think he was seven weeks old—he suddenly spiked a fever. Anybody who knows, when a baby that young spikes a fever—and it was like 102.5 fever; it was pretty high—we were rushed to the hospital with him. They did a spinal tap; they did all sorts of things. They informed us something very, very serious was going on; but they didn’t know exactly what. We were told this could be meningitis; this could be leukemia; this could be this option; ….this option. Each one was kind of worse than the last.
We ended up being there for five days. He was pretty much lethargic the whole time. He was on very heavy doses of antibiotics, and we had no answers. Every day was new options of what this could be. They had taken sample after sample. His white blood cells were skyrocketing; his red were dropping. It didn’t look good at all.
Bob: Were you stoic, or were you fearful?
Sarah: I think we were in a little in shock. I had just had a baby seven weeks ago, and it was all new; this was just thrown at us. Actually, I remember it was our anniversary when we were in the hospital. I think it was our third year anniversary.
Jeff: For me, I was really fearful. I think, when I/you head into being a parent for the first time—and just like marriage—you think everything is going to go well—
Jeff: —there is not going to be the bump, initially.
But when we came into that, and had the bump in our road within the first two months, I remember even calling my parents from the hospital and trying to get out, over the phone, what they were starting to look at. My voice was just gone; I was just in tears, so overwhelmed by a ton of emotion and just everything flashing before our eyes of: “What is going on? Our life is about to change,”—just the unexpected before us.
Sarah: Yes; so, anyway, after five days, they basically said: “Nothing has come back. We can’t find what’s wrong. We can tell he has a severe infection, but we don’t know what.” At that—I think it was the fifth day—his numbers stabilized. They didn’t really improve, but they stopped going in the wrong direction.
They sent us home. They said: “We are sending you home with an unknown infection, and we will monitor. If anything else comes back, we will immediately get in touch with you.” That was kind of it. After we went home, I think we were a little bit in shock, like, “What just happened?!”
Dave: You weren’t like feeling relief? You were like, “Well…?”
Sarah: It was such a sudden—
Sarah: —up and down. We still didn’t have answers, so it wasn’t like it was nice closure—like: “Now, we know what happened. He was healed.”
Ann: Was he healed? Was he still lethargic?
Sarah: Each day he got better, and he was seeming like he was back to normal; but the rest of that year, he seemed susceptible to infections. He got a really bad flu and lost a lot of weight; but overall, we thought, “That was a testing ground for us.” God really—that was our first real major test as a couple—and I think I thought, like: “Okay; we’ve made it through that,”—like—“We survived that. We really did lean into the Lord.”
We were terrified, of course; but I did see us cling to the Lord in that—that we had to come to grips with: “God has given us this child. If He takes him from us, can we trust Him?” That was really hard to wrestle with, but I think it forced us to ask that question.
Jeff: The ironic thing is—one of the verses that we dedicated our son to—was that he be lent from the Lord; and so, that put into clarity really soon of: “Are we really holding loosely to a son? He is a gift from God. Now, we have the choice of fully trusting in God; or are we going to try and grip and just do it on our own strength?”
Facing that reality, within the first couple months, I think has really been a launching point then for what we’ve faced in the 12 years since, and just with parenthood in general.
Bob: His first year, you continued to have health, up and down; still no diagnosis of what’s going on with him. Did you ever get a diagnosis?
Sarah: No, it’s been 12 years of several different doctors. It started out as the health scare. It was/I think we just assumed that life was going on as normal, other than certain—you know, getting sick a little bit easier—things like that; but by the time he was able to crawl—I think it was about 18 months, as he started crawling and walking—we noticed he just kept repetitively going back to things he shouldn’t do—knocking things off of shelves—just had a little bit of a destructive type of nature.
We would try all sorts of little parenting techniques. You know, you’re told all the different ways to do it/handle these situations: “…to redirect,” “Give a little hand swat, say, ‘No; no.’” We went from one to the next to the next; and it just seemed to get harder, and harder, and harder.
As he got older, it started to turn into severe tantrums and strange behaviors that we couldn’t quite figure out what it meant. We tried all sorts of parenting techniques to try to help train him to listen and all the things you are taught as a Christian parent. We took all these different Christian parenting—
Ann: At that point, were you thinking this had anything to do with that initial infection?
Sarah: No; I don’t think we had—honestly, at that point—I think we just thought: “We have a really strong-willed kid. We just probably have the strongest-willed kid on the face of the planet.”
Dave: You know: “Parents of strong-willed kids are just bad parents.
Sarah: Yes. [Laughter] That’s the initial thought.
Dave: “If they really knew what they were doing, that kid would be—
Dave: —“behaving right.”
Sarah: Yes; exactly; exactly. Yes; it was starting to increase to the point, where I had a hard time going to playdates. He would hurt kids; it was very impulsive behavior—stuff I couldn’t see coming—so I was on alert every moment I was anywhere.
Ann: Was he hitting his milestone markers in development?
Sarah: He was, other than talking—he was a little delayed in speech—but otherwise, I think that was what was so confusing. He seemed to be developing relatively normally, but there were these behaviors that we couldn’t make sense of. Because he was our first, we just didn’t really know if there was anything wrong; or “Is this just kind of the way he is, and we have to adapt to that?”
I would say, it probably wasn’t until he turned four—and we had just moved—he actually got an infection. I believe he got strep, and he was put on antibiotics. Something happened in him; and it became/he became erratic—just screaming, shrieking, banging into walls, hitting, and doing anything/throwing everything—within, I mean, a matter of hours.
Sarah: That’s, I think, what finally made us realize: “Something is not right.
Sarah: “Something is going on.” That’s what initially launched us into searching out for a doctor that could, maybe, just figure out: “Is this abnormal? If so, what are we dealing with?”
That began our search for doctors. We just began with pediatricians; they didn’t really know. We started with the lowest we could: just changing diets, vitamins/increasing nutrients that he was clearly depleted in.
Bob: The internet had all the answers you needed.
Sarah: It does; it does. [Laughter] You know, you can believe everything you read on the internet. [Laughter]
Bob: So, at age four, he is—are you thinking, “Autism”? Are you thinking, “Developmentally disabled in some way”?
Sarah: Yes. I think the closest we would have thought, at that point, was autism.
Sarah: But what was so confusing to us is—he also could seem completely normal, so it wasn’t consistent. There would be times where he was a sweet, bright, very engaging little boy; he was funny. But every day/good portions of the day would be these things that would be triggered in him that would last two hours/three hours of screaming tantrums.
Bob: You’re a stay-at-home mom; right?
Bob: Were you just exhausted?
Sarah: All the time; all the time. I had no—I mean, nobody knew; I didn’t know what to tell anybody. Taking him to a store, I would leave with him screaming and hitting me. We’d be caught in really scary situations in the car that I couldn’t control. It got harder with other/once we had other kids as well.
Ann: Were you wondering, “What am I doing wrong?”
Sarah: All the time! I mean, you are doubting yourself every step of the way, especially as a Christian parent. I’m thinking: “I’m reading these Scriptures. I’m trying to find out ‘How to raise and parent your kids.’”
Bob: You’re listening to FamilyLife Today. [Laughter]
Sarah: I’m listening to FamilyLife®. I mean, we were really/we were really seeking wisdom; and we would reach out to other Christian parents that we respected. I remember we would take advice, we’d try to implement it, and it would make our situation worse. It was so—it would leave us feeling really, really kind of despairing like, “What are we doing wrong?!”
Bob: Jeff, how are you handling all of this?
Jeff: Yes; I think the ironic thing was—during this time, as Sarah had mentioned, I was in medical device sales—and we are trying to figure this out on the fly. So much of that, with being a first-time parent, you don’t know what you don’t know. You just kind of go from one day to the next and kind of plow through that.
When I was in this role—and on call 24/7, being called out at a moment’s notice and not knowing what the next day will bring—
Bob: —because you were bringing parts into surgery/medical devices into surgery. You’d get called into a trauma case. I’m thinking of a guy in medical sales; I’m thinking, “He goes to the doctor’s office at 10 in the morning, and he is done at 5”; but yours was a unique kind of situation.
Jeff: It really was. It was for orthopedic trauma; and knowing that those accidents happen around the clock, and I did not have normal hours. They don’t take off for holidays and weekends and all those special events, which created a lot of tension/growing tension throughout the nine years that I was doing this.
Probably, one of the biggest challenges, really—where that was the difficulties at home and everything that we had—Sarah’s world was in that 24 hours a day; and I was in and out, like a revolving door.
Jeff: Could be gone for 12 hours, back home for an hour, and then get another call and have to rush out. Just probably, my nature—like many guys in general—you can kind of turn the page, and now you’re plugging into work.
Bob: We call that compartmentalization.
Dave: It’s a wonderful thing. [Laughter]
Ann: Not really.
Dave: It really is. [Laughter]
Ann: It’s not; is it, Sarah?
Sarah: No; drives me nuts.
Jeff: It is wonderful until you come back home—and you feel like you’ve moved on from that situation or that—
Dave: There it is.
Jeff: —and there it is. You’re right.
Ann: So this is all affecting your marriage.
Sarah: Yes, yes. It was a lot, especially because I would be walking through, really, a lot of very scary situations. I was doing it on my own, while having other kids that I needed to somehow care for. I would have to be in a room, restraining our son, while the other kids had to take care of themselves. I would come out from those, physically/emotionally depleted. Then that would often happen several times a day.
He would come home; and I didn’t even know how to explain to him what had happened. I couldn’t explain to him/I couldn’t explain to him the terrifying moments or how it feels, as a mom, to be—have words and actions spoken and done to you, from a child that you are called to love and care for, and deep-down knowing that he wants that; but he couldn’t control it—so having to be that nurturer while, at the same time, feeling kind of like at the hand of an abuser, in a sense, at times; because he couldn’t help it.
Bob: You might be looking, thinking, “Well, Jeff will be home, and I’ll get a break.” Then Jeff comes home, and he’s got to go back out immediately; and what you were counting on—you’re depleted.
Bob: Now, all of a sudden, Jeff is the bad guy in all of this.
Sarah: Yes; it was/there was really no easy solution in those moments. He knew that, if he didn’t show up at that surgery, he could lose that doctor’s business. I knew that; so I really did try to be understanding to that and tell myself, “I know he’d be here if he could”; but there would be/there became situations, where I felt like I needed him more than any other time.
Dave: How did you handle?
Sarah: I remember saying to him: “I’m waving the white flag. This is a time when I need you, and I know you have to go. I support you as much as I can in that, but this is a moment that I need you.” We had probably, on one hand, those white flags were waved.
Bob: Jeff, let me ask you about those white-flag moments; because I’m thinking, as a guy, who’s going: “This is my job/my responsibility. I’ve got to go do this. I’m providing for my family. I don’t have an option here. My wife needs me. Is this the point, where I call the doctor and say, ‘I can’t come, because my wife needs me’?”
I feel the tension you’d be in at that moment, going, “What’s the right thing before the Lord to do here?”
Jeff: Yes; and I wrestled with that tremendously—knowing that what I thought I was doing, in that moment/in those moments, I thought I was doing the honorable thing; I was providing for my family. I was being loyal to the surgeons that I was calling on; and knowing that, by not showing up, they were so easy to flip and go to a competitor. That fear was in me/the fear of man. Where that started to consume was: I didn’t have a boundary or a line in the sand that said, “If this happens, and if Sarah cries out to me, then I’m going to stay home.”
I think the biggest challenge was all of this is often hidden. You know—what was going on in our home—no one knew what was going on, externally. If I say to a doctor that my wife needs me at home—we’re having an issue going on—that just doesn’t resonant well; but if your son is in the ER because of an emergency/a broken bone or something that might make more sense.
We didn’t have those; so by not having a clear answer—
Jeff: —of why I could maybe get out of this and, at least, get an excuse—that presented a lot of problems; because I chose work over being home. I thought I was really trying to do what was best for our family.
Dave: As you look back now, would you do it differently?—or could you?
Jeff: I think I would have needed to. Like Sarah said, it’s only a couple times throughout those nine years that she was crying out. I walked out of the door and, again, went to turn that page and put my foot in the door in the hospital; and she was left home, getting the brunt of everything.
Knowing what that did, ultimately, to our marriage—and how that was a huge challenge and something that we’ve had to work greatly through—I should have made a different decision. Again, a case by case—everyone’s work and industry that they’re in, there is always different challenges—but “Is it to the point where I put my work above my family?” There has to be a line where family is going to come first; and certainly, with our desperate situation, I did not show that.
Bob: Sarah, there are some wives, who are waving the white flag every day when their husband leaves; and the husband is in a no-win situation. It’s like—
Bob: —the wife is so needy and dependent; she’s got no other support system. She’s depending on him to be everything—
Bob: —including be Jesus for her in that moment—so you can see the tension. Some husbands feel like, “If I said, ‘Yes, every time my wife waved the white flag, I’d be out of work.”
Sarah: Yes. No, that’s definitely true.
Bob: Were you feeling that tension that he might lose business? You guys might not have income if you waved this white flag?
Sarah: Yes; I mean it was, like I said earlier, there was really no right decision in many ways. It was just a bad situation.
Ann: What were the ages of your kids after your oldest was born?
Sarah: I would say, when these situations were happening more frequently, as his business was getting increased and territory was growing, it was probably when our oldest was like eight—about.
Jeff: Each kid was just over two years a part.
Sarah: So about eight, six, four, and two; and that was really probably the most difficult time in our son’s life. He was bigger, so it was more difficult for me to handle. The other kids were sometimes hurt, so I was trying to juggle all these things. I was also dealing with chronic illness, so I was trying to do that while not feeling well.
Dave: Wait, wait, wait. You just threw in another—
Sarah: Okay; we’ll get to—
Sarah: —I’ll hold the storm off if you want to go on with—
Dave: No, no, no; so you’ve got the kids’ thing—
Dave: —and now, you’re dealing with illness.
Dave: What’s that?
Sarah: Well, I had been dealing with some illness stuff, really, since the beginning of our marriage. I had been having just really random things—stomach issues overall—but nothing that was debilitating me. But each child that I had—just the stress of the pregnancy—revealed new symptoms that were coming out of me. By the time I had had my fourth, I—the best way I can describe it is I felt flu-ish all the time—I had these horrible aches all the time. You know, when you have the flu, you just want to do nothing but lay in bed and curl up and die; it’s such an awful feeling.
I was having to somehow muster through that achiness. It would often come with chills, and with fatigue, and stomach issues, and a lot of really random things—like nerve pain or a joint would hurt—or different things like that. I just didn’t have the option. I could not lay down; I couldn’t rest. I had to be on call myself, 24/7, with one—our son—but typical kids, too; we had three others that had needs—and they needed Mom to take care of them. They were also trying to deal with the after-effects of the stuff that had gone on with our son. They were trying to make sense of that, so that also created behaviors in them that were also difficult. It became where I was trying to constantly care for these really difficult situations, but I felt terrible doing it.
Then he would walk in the door, and I’d be ready to just check out. I almost needed to—I didn’t—my body finally had a second to let down. Often, he’d walk right back out, and that struggle in me would create: “Well, when do I get the out? I know he doesn’t want to leave; I know he wants to be here, but I can’t go on like this forever. I can’t keep doing this. So am I to sacrifice here? Am I just going to be the one that is beaten to the ground?” I saw that I couldn’t keep going on like this, because I was getting sicker and sicker by the day; and our situation was intensifying.
Ann: I would have been raising several white flags by this point.
Dave: —probably throwing a red flag. [Laughter]
Ann: Yes; I think I would have been throwing—
Dave: —at me.
Ann: —many. [Laughter]
Bob: Well, you stop and think—the early years of marriage are stressful—
Bob: —for every couple; you’re making adjustments.
Ann: Having four kids!
Bob: —that’s stressful. You throw on top of that these health challenges and these career issues. I’m guessing that there are more couples, who can identify with your story—maybe, not the specifics—but they can feel those stress moments of trying to figure out: “How do we do this? How do we do this so that we can both, not just survive, but so that we can build what we hoped to build when we first got married?—a marriage and a family and have all of that be good.”
We’ve just scratched the surface on the challenges you guys have faced. Ultimately, your diagnosis was Lyme disease; right?
Bob: And we’re going to talk more about that this week; but you’ve talked about this in your book, Together Through the Storms: Biblical Encouragement for Your Marriage When Life Hurts. We want to make your book available to any FamilyLife Today listener who would like to get a copy of it. If you can support this ministry with a donation, we’d love to send you a copy of Jeff and Sarah’s book. Again, the title is Together Through the Storms. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com, and there is information there about how you can make a donation/how you can receive a copy of the book.
FamilyLife Today is listener-supported. You were able to listen to today’s program because somebody cared enough about you to donate so that today’s program could happen. We’re asking you to do the same for others. If you’d go to FamilyLifeToday.com—make a donation—you can request your copy of Jeff and Sarah’s book, Together Through the Storms; or if it is easier, call us at 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, tomorrow, we want to continue to hear about the challenges Jeff and Sarah Walton faced in their marriage and how they had to lean into God to find the strength to endure those challenges. I hope you can be back with us for that conversation.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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