But shortly after she joined Baylor, a mystery disease took hold, beginning her downward spiral. Severe fatigue set in, causing her to miss classes to seek medical help. The doctors, however, were stumped.
Meanwhile, friends convinced Nichols to enter the Miss Texas pageant, believing she would enjoy the experience. And they were right, she says, because all of the demands
were perfect for her self-disciplined personality. She thrived on the preparation: exercising to get fit, studying world events for the interview, and intensively rehearsing piano for the talent phase. “Life was a complete blast at that point,” she says.
Symptoms continued during the pageant, but Nichols just pushed them aside and competed. About six weeks later, though, she began to have such severe pain in her right hand and forearm, she became unable to play the piano. Concerned that continued playing would cause long-term damage, her piano professor sent her to a hand specialist who diagnosed tendinitis and said that with complete rest, her arm would be fine.
For an entire year, Nichols refrained from using that arm. She took all class notes with a tape recorder and secured permission to take her tests orally. Yet, after all that time, she saw no improvement. Furthermore, her symptoms spread throughout her body, including what she called a “foggy brain,” rendering her unable to read a textbook or write a simple summary.
“I began getting concerned because this was the first time in my life that things were not going according to plan,” Nichols says.
The plague years
With a year to go before graduation, she dropped out of college on the advice of her doctors, who thought this would help. As she struggled with growing fatigue, expecting God to heal her within a year, she moved ahead with wedding plans. Fervently seeking the Lord, Nichols received great encouragement when He answered from Isaiah 49:19—”Though you were ruined and made desolate and your land laid waste, now you will be too small for your people, and those who devoured you will be far away.” She married in 1993, but six weeks later Nichols had to get a wheelchair; she was simply too weak to get around. The marriage took longer to deteriorate, ending in 2000.
She saw at least 60 doctors over the next five years, receiving more than 20 diagnoses—everything from fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis to lupus and chronic fatigue syndrome. When one doctor wrongly asserted psychosomatic causes, Nichols’ health insurance company canceled her coverage, forcing her to pay out of pocket.
This caused her evangelist father to become bivocational, adding cattle brokering, which he now does full-time. With the added help of friends, her husband’s income, and her large extended family, Nichols was able to pay the nearly $800,000 her treatment has required over the years. Also, her mother sold her preschool-daycare to take care of her. “It took a village,” Nichols says. “I’m just very, very grateful.”
Confined to bed, Nichols had to be carried around the house, bathed and fed, leaving only for doctor visits. At one point, she was administered massive doses of steroids that turned out to be the worst possible thing for someone in her condition, she would learn much later. It further suppressed her immune system, causing the yet unspecified disease to run rampant. It affected her brain so adversely, she says it felt like she was being burned alive or electrocuted.
Confident the next doctor’s appointment would yield a cure, Nichols told the Lord that if He would just get her to that date, He’d be doing the greatest thing. She did make it, but no cure came. The years passed by—all with intense physical and mental suffering—descending into what she called a form of dementia, leaving her unable to speak in sentences or look anyone in the eye, though she retained full awareness.
By 1995, Nichols’ mother lived with her and her husband on weekdays to help out. During that time, the pain became so intense from the feeling of burning and electrocution, Nichols wailed night and day for three years. Sometimes she would lock herself in a closet, hoping to insulate her mother from her constant screaming. She says she was so loud, the neighborhood dogs would howl along with her. Doctors encouraged her parents to have her institutionalized, feeling she had lost too much of her mind.
“Every moment was a desperate moment. Every moment,” she says. “I was very aware of the pain of all of it, and I remember screaming like an animal night and day. I would often live on baseboards and floors and go in the closet and shut myself in, thinking that would spare my family.”
All in all, Nichols went undiagnosed for eight years, spent 10 years in a wheelchair (1993-2003), bedridden for seven of those years and with dementia for three. As she saw her friends move on in life while hers stood still, she complained every day to God, experiencing great despair.
“I got mad, I got angry, I cried, I got depressed,” she says. “Especially in the early years I moped—what I put my family through.”
She says that Job 17:11 thoroughly encapsulated how she felt for a long time: “My days have passed, my plans are shattered, and so are the desires of my heart.” Unlike Job, however, she did not wish she had never been born. Instead, she longed to die, causing her family to hide anything she could use to hurt herself.
Nichols had sought the Lord throughout her ordeal and He gave her many promises; His timetable, however, never coincided with hers. Back at Baylor, she had spent weeks praying when she got her answer from the book of Zephaniah.
“I remember being on my bed, and the bed was soaked with tears,” Nichols says, “and He answered through Zephaniah 3, 19, and 20. He said, ‘I will undo all that afflicts thee; I will gather her that was driven out; I will bring you home at that time that I gather you.’” I got so excited; I went and told all my professors, ‘God is going to give this back. Let’s just hang on here and sit tight a little while.’ But the disease kept progressing.”
In her dementia, she lost all memories—even how to read music, which she had learned before she knew how to read—yet she never lost the Scriptures she had memorized years ago. When she didn’t see a way to make it another minute, the Holy Spirit would bring out a Scripture. In one of those moments, she remembered Psalm 27, which speaks of singing again to the Lord, of seeing His goodness, with the closing line to be brave and wait for the Lord.
“If I could have killed myself, I would have,” Nichols says, “and He’s saying to hope in Him. It’s not just words on a page, but it’s alive and I’m living off this Word that’s giving me His peace, His perspective, His joy, His power, His life. It was His grace, moment by moment, making up for my lack. The Holy Spirit would fill me up and speak the Word of God to me that God’s power was accomplished in my weakness.
“We encounter trials that we might be made complete. He’d lay out God’s perspective. It’s because of those moments, year after year, that I came to love Jesus so much and came to value Him.”
Satan was also active, she says, trying to take advantage of her compromised mental state. One of the ways he used to keep her depressed was the lie that God does not work through hardship—that instead, God’s way is to remove hardship.
“I realized later I had bought a lie that robbed me of peace, spiritual contentment, and growth,” Nichols says. “Paul said, ‘In all things we are conquerors.’”
As her physical and spiritual struggle continued, so did the agony of seeing her life coming to nothing. As much as anything else, this was a big source of her complaints to God.
“I wanted so much for my life, and I could see it vanishing,” she says. “The longer I stayed sick, the more my dreams were dying.”
Video of Natalie Nichols’ journey
Finally, in 1996, she received the correct diagnosis—late-stage Lyme disease—a bacterial infection stemming from a mere tick bite. It is only curable within the first month, according to Nichols. Once it becomes advanced, it likely becomes permanent, especially when steroids are administered. Every organ system is affected, including the brain. Thus, from 1996 to 1998, Nichols took antibiotics intravenously, orally and via injection as well as a host of alternative therapies.
Taking all the treatments America had to offer for Lyme disease, Nichols suffered from her dementia—without improvement—for another year. Three doctors met and concluded that she likely would not live. Even if she lived, they said, she would remain in her “vegetative state.”
“But,” Nichols says, “I had God’s Word to revive me and give me hope.”
Year after year, Nichols says she was growing deeper in the Lord, while more of her was being burned away and she was gradually acquiescing to His will. Through Psalm 62, God spoke to her again.
“He was telling me, ‘You’re not waiting on the doctor, a cure, a spouse, a husband. Your expectation is on me alone.’ I was looking to doctors, to man, looking horizontally. As deep as I was growing spiritually, I was just looking for relief. He was saying, ‘Natalie, I’m your rock and fortress, let Me be your rock and fortress.’ He was saying, I don’t have to fret about how to get out of this. ‘I see the end of this. Natalie, I have infused you with the life of Christ. There’s no I can’t. Let Me be the impenetrable force.’
“It became my sustenance day in and day out. I wanted to give up, but He kept filling me with his hope.”
Then, about a year later, it happened: Nichols unconditionally surrendered her plight to God. That was the turning point.
“Finally, finally, finally, God brought me to a place of contentment where I just let go,” she says. “I got it. I really got it. That’s when I finally relinquished everything in my life. I just said, ‘You know what? This thing of knowing you is so much more valuable than being able to play the piano, or being healthy, feeling great, having a great, happy mind. Knowing you is so much better. Everything else is worthless.’”
Just four to eight weeks later came the start of her deliverance. Talking about Nichols’ condition while attending a seminar, her husband heard about a treatment available in Mexico called live cell therapy—injection of live cells from shark embryos.
She began treatment in 1998 and her restoration came very slowly and incrementally. At first, she had brief moments where she could think, smile, and read. Most important, her mental agony began subsiding. Her ability to walk and her stamina also gradually increased over the years.
“My grace is sufficient for you”
Today, Nichols is still receiving monthly live cell injections and takes a regimen of vitamin supplements. She doesn’t understand why God chose the gradual approach to restore her but is fully on board because she knows God had a higher purpose. She embraces 2 Corinthians 12, where the Apostle Paul speaks of how God’s grace is sufficient and that he will boast in his weaknesses.
“Whatever His reasons were, I’m just glad He took His time,” she says. “That’s why I like fasting so much, because it’s a way to crucify the flesh. We’ve raised everything else above Him–healing, prosperity. We define blessing according to temporal examples, but there are eternal blessings that count more. The biggest miracle to me was the life of Jesus living for me. That’s why I’m so grateful for those years of suffering, why He delayed fulfillment of His promise. In our Westernized American culture, we put all our stock in health and prosperity, and we have so relegated any hardship to being second-rate.”
In December 2003, Nichols walked the graduation line at Baylor, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in music education. Today, Nichols, 41, lives in Nacogdoches, as does her oldest brother. She maintains an active schedule on behalf of her ministry, Shades of Grace. Together with her mother, she helps her audiences apply Scripture to every circumstance.
Nichols says she accepted Jesus as her Savior early in life and served Him in high school and college, but she never grasped how much she could love Him and His Word.
“There’s a big difference between having Christ’s Spirit living in us and Him living for us,” she says. “One thing I miss about having my autonomy back is that I can go the whole day without depending on Him. I didn’t have that choice then, so I can miss God now. I can miss the sweetest, most valuable treasure. Everything about me was crucified and His life replacing my life was the greatest miracle I could ever know on this earth.
“We have it backwards. We think that success, being able to have a certain house, a certain car, do certain things, that that is success. And in reality, it is really empty. Jesus is the only thing that can completely, totally fill us and fulfill us.”
Nichols says the story of her life is clearly stated in Psalm 119:71-72—“It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.”
“I was so full of depression and horrible brain chemistry that I had to have His mind. I had to have the mind of Christ,” she says. “I had to have His thoughts. I had to have His strength. I had to have His abilities, His peace, His joy. If it wasn’t there, I didn’t have it. So it caused me to experience Jesus in such a greater way than I ever could imagine. It caused me to love Him and to love His Word so much more than I ever could have imagined.”
Too often, Christians view success in terms of accomplishments, even done for God. Nichols says that was the way she subconsciously thought. She learned that the truth is not found there at all.
“When I no longer had any ability to do anything, not even to feed myself, God gave me His perspective of my suffering. He showed me what an eternal work it was doing in me, so who cares what I do on this earth? Knowing Jesus, nothing compares to that.”
Natalie Nichols is the founder and president of Shades of Grace Ministries, where she shares God’s comfort for life’s trials. See www.shadesofgrace.org for more information.
Chuck Goldberg has a degree in journalism and a Master of Divinity in Christian education. A former newspaper reporter and magazine managing editor, he is now an ordained minister and freelance writer-editor. He and his wife Dolly have three children and live in Layton, Utah.