“Only through the Priesthood,” Ensign, Apr. 1984, 40
It was a fine June morning in 1977 when Markham F. Miller suddenly found himself struggling not to black out during his morning jog. He staggered to his home and collapsed on the couch.
Why? he asked himself. What brought on the sudden loss of strength?
The reason for his continuing weakness eluded doctors at first, but in time it was to become all too plain that he was a victim of one of our modern era’s most bizarre and most puzzling diseases. It is an illness which leaves its victims extremely susceptible to chemical toxins that most people’s bodies eliminate. It would make him first a fugitive and then almost a prisoner before he was miraculously healed four years later.
His future had seemed as promising as a clear, cloudless day on the California coast an hour or so from Colton, his hometown. Some six months earlier, he had finished his schooling and married his sweetheart, Shirley Andersen. Their first child was due in a few months. Brother Miller, working in his family’s Southern California honey business, was to enter law school that fall.
And then came the unexplainable illness. Doctor after doctor ran batteries of tests, only to report that they showed nothing abnormal. But Brother Miller’s condition continued to worsen. “I felt like my limbs were made of lead,” he recalls. His energy and vitality were gone. He started law school, but was forced to drop out because he was too weak and sick to attend classes. He suffered from nausea, digestive troubles, nervousness, and insomnia. He grew weaker and thinner.
In early 1978, it became clear that certain chemical compounds made him very ill. Items like cold cream, perfume, and strong cleansers could bring not only physical sickness, but also acute anxiety or deep depression. “When our neighbors had exterminators spray their property, I languished in bed for days. When we had our lawn treated with chemical weed killer and fertilizer, I literally thought I was dying. I felt so much inner tension and anguish I thought my body would burst because of the pressure inside of me. I fled the house, crying, ‘Oh God, save me!’ From that day on, my wife Shirley, our son Adam, and I were fugitives from twentieth-century chemicals,” he says.
In need of another place to live, they stayed with his sister for a time, until the roof of her house was tarred and he suffered another violent reaction. “From the spring of 1978 until the following winter, we moved at least a dozen times—to the homes of relatives, to motels and apartments—in an effort to find a place where I could be peacefully sick without becoming violently ill.”
Both Mark and Shirley Miller were returned missionaries, accustomed to making God part of their lives. Now they poured out their hearts to Heavenly Father in personal and family prayers. Friends and family members fasted and prayed for them frequently, and there were many priesthood blessings. But despite the exercise of faith, his health did not improve. “I longed for an answer of strength and guidance from Heavenly Father. I felt so lost and alone.”
Family support was strong. Relatives uncomplainingly took them in, and his parents helped them financially while he was incapacitated by illness.
At times his wife shed tears because of the hardships, and there were periods when “I would get exposed to something and become very irritable. She just took it on the chin,” Brother Miller recalls. He says she handled trials “superbly” throughout his four-year ordeal because of her faith and her love for God, and for him. The Millers learned later that this illness frequently causes divorce because the spouse of the one who is affected cannot deal with resulting problems.
In January of 1979, Shirley Miller read of a hospital in Dallas where patients intolerant to chemicals in their environment are treated. In February, Brother Miller entered the Brookhaven Medical Center for six weeks of tests.
Here they gave his torment a name—“severe maladaption syndrome,” often called “environmental disease.” Dr. William Rea, who supervised his treatment, explained that Brother Miller had suffered a breakdown of the immune system which left him intolerant not only to common allergens but also to a vast array of modern chemicals. (The most threatening of these were petroleum-based products; chlorinated compounds, including those often found in drinking water; and heavy metals that are part of many automobile and industrial plant emissions.) The illness can affect the central nervous system, bringing on the anger, nervousness, and extreme depression Brother Miller often felt.
“The suffering it can inflict is just incredible,” he says. The doctor had told him that while his case was more severe than most, there are many people who suffer from some sort of chemical sensitivity and do not know it because they attribute their illness to something else. Symptoms can vary from individual to individual; they may include digestive problems, headaches, or other maladies that seem to be centered in particular organs. Doctors who are unfamiliar with chemical sensitivity often treat the illness as a disease of those organs, occasionally even prescribing surgical cures which later prove ineffective, Dr. Rea said.
Fighting the illness is difficult “because, of course, drug treatment is out. The main therapy is avoidance,” Brother Miller explains. Tests had shown he was extremely sensitive to most synthetic materials, chemicals, and many foods. He left the hospital with a long list of things to avoid so that his immune system would have time to recuperate. He was to drink only bottled water, eat only foods from farms where chemicals and pesticides were not used, wear all-cotton clothing, remove synthetic furnishings from the place where he lived, and stay clear of the chemicals he already knew affected him. In the modern world, the task seemed staggering. A concerned Dr. Rea urged him to keep in contact by telephone.
His health improved during the next five months while they followed the doctor’s instructions, but then the landlord told them their apartment had to be sprayed for pests. They waited several hours before going home, but when Brother Miller entered the building, the familiar physical and mental anguish returned. His wife packed a few things, and once more they were fleeing. They lived with relatives in California, Arizona, and Utah, but there was little relief.
In March of 1980, their second son, Jarom, was born, but, Brother Miller says, “I could not enjoy him. I slept in my car in the hills at night and came home to my family just long enough to eat a couple of times a day. I constantly felt exhausted, yet nervous and keyed up. I wanted to collapse and rest, but my inner tension, headaches, and depression forced me to keep searching for a spot where I could rest without agony. The words of Jesus, ‘The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head (Matt. 8:20),’ took on special meaning and brought me comfort.”
During this period, Brother Miller had received a priesthood blessing in which he was promised that he would be made well. But he soon learned the promise was not to be immediately fulfilled, and some of the worst torment was yet to come.
In August of 1980, the Millers moved into his parents’ home in Los Angeles. Neighbors thoughtfully agreed to protect him by avoiding the use of outdoor chemicals.
But the months of running away had weakened Brother Miller, and he could no longer leave the house, even to go to Church meetings on Sunday. His sensitivity to substances he encountered indoors was increasing. The house had to be off limits to outsiders because of the chemical residues they carried in from outdoors on their clothing, shoes, and skin. Family members had to shower after returning from public places and change into clothing worn only at home. Books and publications in the home had to be limited to old or out-of-print items because newer ones carried harmful ink fumes and chemical residues. Television use had to be curtailed because after the set had been on for a time, the plastic components became heated, and gave off fumes toxic to him.
“If my skin came in contact with the slightest chemical residue, it would burn like fire and make me tense and upset. Sometimes when I received a serious chemical exposure, the tension could be extremely severe.”
It was heart-rending not to be able to play with his little boys, particularly when his son ran to him joyfully calling, “Daddy! Daddy!” They could not understand the pain their touch might cause him. “Finally, for the benefit of my children and for my health, I had Shirley take the boys and move in with her parents in Orem, Utah.”
Soon his ever-increasing sensitivity required Brother Miller to confine himself almost exclusively to the controlled environment of one bedroom in his parents’ home. His mother brought meals on a tray and left them outside the door; he spoke to her through an intercom.
“I longed either to be well or to pass on to a heavenly home. During my illness, I understood the Book of Job as never before. Many of his words were a perfect expression of my feelings.”
But he still had hope. Not long after his wife left with the children, Brother Miller had begun to feel promptings that he would be well in the not-distant future. Gradually, the promptings became more frequent.
“Also, I began to know what to do to promote healing. I began to know what to eat,” he recalls. Heeding the promptings, he did a lot of walking and stretching exercises in the solitude of the bedroom. He cut his water consumption to mere sips, then gradually increased his intake again.
He had been impressed not to tell anyone of the feeling that he would be healed. At the time, the spiritual manifestations he received seemed meant for him alone. But he felt comforting peace and calm despite the continuing physical pain.
Then one day in 1981 those feelings of peace left him. In their place, he felt a dark, depressing cloud. He could not shake the gloom or pray it away. It deepened until he felt it would smother him.
That afternoon, however, the darkness left in a moment, “and I knew that my immunity was restored. I don’t know exactly what I felt in my body that was different, except that I knew then I was better.” It was a “quiet, sacred time” to express the gratitude that filled his heart.
He left the room for a tearful reunion with his mother. His body did not react to the outside environment. Immediately he began preparations to go to his family in Utah. He had to prime his car to start by pouring gasoline down the carburetor, and in doing so he spilled the liquid on his hand. Again, no reaction. Over and over, he repeated his silent thanks to God.
“I felt a little bit like a prisoner of war who comes back and is just thrilled with everyday living.”
Shirley Miller’s reaction was similar.
As soon as possible, he started for Utah without telling her of his healing or that he was coming. He wanted to surprise his family, but not to shock them, so he waited to call when he was about one hundred miles away. Stunned, his wife asked if they should prepare a special room for him, but he told her simply that the Lord had healed him and all those precautions were no longer necessary.
After she hung up the telephone, Shirley told her sister, “I feel a little bit like Lazarus’s wife after he was raised from the dead.”
His wife and sons were waiting on the front steps of her parents’ home when he drove up. “One of the greatest joys of my life was to see them and to know that we could be together again.”
The Mark Miller who emerged from that confining bedroom in July of 1981 was a far different man from the one who had collapsed while jogging in June of 1977.
For one thing, though he no longer has any need to take special precautions, “I want to respect my body. I learned a lot, and I want to apply it in prudent living.”
His doctors were not LDS, but they were men of faith who had no trouble accepting the fact that his healing was an act of God. Tests confirmed what they already knew—he was well. But Dr. Rea cautioned that there is a “ninety percent chance” their children might be affected by the disease. Their sons—Adam, Jarom, and Caleb—show some predisposition toward the kinds of sensitivities that tortured him, Brother Miller says. But because he and his wife now know what to avoid, their sons have not suffered any serious problems.
But the changes wrought in Mark Miller were more spiritual than physical. The years of struggle taught him invaluable lessons. “I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything,” he says earnestly, then adds, smiling, “Of course, I wouldn’t want it to happen again.”
“It’s given me a vivid, increased understanding of the purpose of adversity. I know now that when difficulties come, it’s not time to complain or moan. It’s time to pray and ask Heavenly Father to help us learn as much as we can from the opportunity, because when the experience is over, we will be better for it.”
His years of pain and loneliness changed his approach to prayer. “My prayers became much more effective when I quit praying, ‘Make me well, make me well, this hurts.’ When I prayed, ‘Please cure me, but thy will be done. Help me have the strength to do thy will,’ I got a lot closer to the Spirit.”
He bears testimony repeatedly that “no matter how much we have to suffer, we never have more than we can bear. If we hang onto our faith, God will eventually work things out in the way that will be perfect for us and our eternal needs. But it will come in his own due time.”
Because of what he has learned, Mark Miller has changed his approach to life. He is back on the track he originally chose, studying law at Whittier College. But he has learned not to keep his eye so fixed on a distant goal that he forgets to enjoy little daily miracles—the sun shining out of doors, holding his wife and children close, going to church on Sunday with others, eating with pleasure, sleeping in peace.
It’s doubtful that any other student in his school will feel the same deep appreciation of the simple opportunity to sit in a classroom and open a book.