There are times when winter is reminiscent of being swallowed by a deep black hole. And if we're not careful, we may forget the light that's right behind the cloud cover.
I hold deep antipathy for darkness, and I often look up at the sky in the wintertime wondering if the bleak gray of winter will come to an end. It's common to hear talk of "winter depression" or "seasonal depression," but I almost never hear talk of what it's really like, or what it even really is. I wish I could say that wintertime was merely a battle with sadness, but I've found it's often much deeper than that, and the PTSD that comes from long months of illness is as real as the PTSD that comes from fighting in a war. In all reality, this is a war for those of us who push through winter with chronic illness, one heavy step through deep snow at a time.
Last year at this time my family was walking right into "The Lyme Flare of 2019." I took up my bed in February of 2019 with pain so deep and penetrating that I couldn't lay on one side of my body for too long without having to sorely role over to another side to release any pressure that was weighing on my pained muscles. I had been in this place many times before, but this time was a complete recession from how I had slowly been improving throughout 2018. Like falling down the stairs or off of a tall cliff, I looked up at this beast referred to as a "Lyme flare" that I was somehow facing once again and felt completely destitute and defeated.
At the time I had been struggling with piercing feelings of insecurity, worthlessness, and the fear that I will never be enough. I had been striving so relentlessly hard to work through life on my own, that my mental health had completely receded. I prayed for relief from the monsters inside me and instead of relief I was left to cope with physical pain and my ability to do anything removed from my grasp. And it was in this time-frame that I resolved to surrender everything to God and hope that by some miracle I could be pulled out of this darkness that swallowed me while I lay helplessly in a bed or on a couch. The "winter depression," as one might call it, was so heavy that I often felt completely paralyzed. I remember at this time that every time I could manage to glance out of a window my eyes would be met with gray skies and cold frigid air.
What I didn't know at this time was that this wintry flare that left me feeling completely lost and pained, ended up being one of the greatest blessings of my life, and resulted in one of the greatest lessons of my life.
Up to this point in time, I was living subconsciously as if I have to do everything on my own for quite some time. I'd never done anything half baked, and I'd always found myself meeting my problems and pitfalls with ambition and hard work. Unfortunately, there are things in life that one cannot possibly do on their own, such as facing monstrosities like Lyme disease, betrayal, or abuse, and I often found myself passing blame to myself for the misfortunes that happen simply as a result of mortality. I blamed myself for my negative feelings, and I numbed myself to my heartaches and hurts as a way to somehow prove that I was strong and that I could heal and survive on my own.
If there was anything that "The Lyme Flare of 2019" taught me, it was that I simply could not do it on my own. I had been driven to a place where burning over my pains with work and busyness was no longer efficient because my body would not allow me to. And as one can imagine, I faced my pains with the quiet allowance of feeling. It was excruciating. But with that, I learned about grace.
It was as if God had answered my cries for relief by giving me permission to stay in bed and sleep for a month or two. I felt His love and support even when all I could do was rest. And surprisingly, life went on. He took care of what I couldn't and I felt great peace and comfort that this was a time of RECOVERY, STILLNESS, and HEALING.
You see, we are not expected to pass through toil and trial on our own. And in a world where I have heard the phrase "God doesn't give you more than you can handle" run freely from the mouths of those who have yet to taste bitter cups in this life, I commonly assumed that there was something wrong with me because THIS was more than I could handle.
Lyme is more than I can handle.
Betrayal trauma was more than I could handle.
Watching parts of my family fall apart because of this disease was more than I could handle.
Living day, after day, after day for years watching my mother in pain and suffering that is seemingly endless is more than I can handle.
And the heartache that comes from isolation and loneliness is MORE THAN I CAN HANDLE.
The truth is that there are many times in life that God will give us more than we can handle and that is simply because we were not meant to handle it by ourselves. We were given grace, tender mercies, each other, and a Savior who loves us tremendously. So as we pour out our aching souls to Him, He gives us grace for grace, and mercy for mercy. Who knew that lying in a bed in debilitating circumstances could teach me that I am enough, that I don't have to "handle" everything by myself, and that just because I can't handle something doesn't mean that He can't.
So now I face this winter with similar anxieties, pain, and emotions boiling to the surface. I still glance out the frosted over windows to see bleak skies and frigid air. I still often find myself in deep weariness of soul because there are some battles in life that do not merely end.
The increase of symptoms and the seasonal depression can still weight heavily on my body and heart, but this year I fight with a changed perspective. This year I fight with quietly loud faith knowing that I am not fighting alone and that I don't have to face the scary aspects of life on my own.
The winter will always pass through where I am. The skies will always gather clouds and the storms with often rage. The cold will often chill us to the bone, and sometimes coats and scarves won't always be enough to warm our troubled hearts. But one thing I can guarantee is that bright blue skies will always appear again. Light conquers cold and dark. And there is often something beautiful awaiting us in the middle of these merely bleak or utterly terrifying winters of our lives.
The trick is to remember in the middle of them that as we strive, we are enough, we're not alone, and sometimes you can even find some beauty within the storm. For I always thought that snowflakes could turn out to be quite beautiful anyway.
God's grace can and does sustain us, and I pray for that as we persist through another winter.
I grew up on Hallmark movies. We all the type... Those movies that always begin with a single, independent, seemingly flawless woman with some high-end job in the city, or some cozy gift shop or bakery in a small town. And after a short intro of this stunningly beautiful girl, we're then introduced to Mr. charming, handsome, CEO, or buff small-town handyman who only wears plaid and manages three small businesses of his own. Along the way Mr. Charming meets Ms. Independent and in less than a day this unlikely couple can manage to save a town... or their small business... or Christmas; all while simultaneously falling in love, finding some reason why they'll never work out, separating for a few minutes, and then later (in the same day I might add) manage to resolve everything. Furthermore, we all know that every Hallmark movie ends with the world's most romantic kiss. And at the end of every Hallmark movie, we all assume the success of that perfect couple.
I suppose that somewhere in my adolescent heart I believed that such perfection could exist. As I grew older I subconsciously held my expectations high and my hopes even higher that someday my Hallmark life story would become a reality. Let's just say I put the word "hopeless" in the term "hopeless romantic." I aimed high and hard for that reality. My perfect reality. My perfect lie.
I'm sure you can imagine my shock when life didn't turn out the way I thought it would. Now, don't get me wrong; for I do not solely blame Hallmark movies for cultivating my perfect lie. I have found society, social media, social norms, and the status quo nurturing this perfect lie more often than not.
I've watched young people my age post fundamentally every Olympic moment they experience in their short lives to their various social media accounts; leaving others relentlessly comparing their personal worsts to everyone else's public bests.
I've observed pictures of endless glamorous and fun first dates. I've scrolled through perfectly edited engagement pictures in perfectly white fields or stunningly flawless mountain ranges. I've clicked on flashy engagement rings and completely enchanting wedding videos. I've liked and commented on many college degrees, job promotions, immaculate maternity photo-shoots, and perfectly clean pressed children. I've seen it all and aimed for it all, only to find that it is not all real.
The problem with this subconscious facade is that it manifested in my very conscious life. I spent my days making never-ending lists of qualities in a "perfect man", only to find that there isn't a man that will check everything off on my list, and the most important things in a man weren't even on that list! I went to college because that's what you're supposed to do when you're young and fresh out of high school, only to find that college wasn't for me and that didn't in any way make me a failure. I've been obsessed with lists, schedules, planning, and my idea of perfect only to find that sometimes the lists and the schedules are significantly less important than God's timing, and that life is what happens AFTER you make plans! My reality was that I flirted with perfection because I thought it looked pretty, and the ugly in life scared me.
I learned very quickly that the easiest way to overcome your fear of the ugly is to face the ugly head on and trust that God will lead you through the painfully imperfect moments in life.
I found myself sitting in a dentist chair the other day conversing with the dental assistant who was cleaning my teeth. She asked me a few things about my life in which I shared with her about my blog, the gift shop I'm opening, etc. I mentioned a few small things about my life that I currently feel good about to which she replied:
"Wow! It's like your life came straight out of a Hallmark movie! You inspire me!"
To be honest, I'm still minorly laughing at that statement because oftentimes there are a lot of things that go unseen in other people's lives. It's natural to miss the sweat and tears that go into starting a business. Many people do not comprehend the long nights and overly stressful days that accompany earning a college degree. There's a lot of hard work and effort that is often overlooked among young people who can only see the outward "perfect relationship." Most people don't see that I have a debilitating chronic illness that adds extra weight and struggle to my daily life. Most people don't witness that agony of betrayal or abuse. The agonizing pain of many things that often feel like more than we can handle is often not talked about or recognized. This then leaves a lot of us wondering what we're doing wrong and why the long hard journey is something that must be borne alone. And then for those who are at high peaks in their lives it leaves them blind to the suffering around them and unknowing how to help, or unaware that it's even necessary for them to help at all!
My life is far from perfect and that's okay! I've lived my fleeting moments of perfection. I've been the young girl at college with the world at her fingertips. I've fallen in love at Christmas and have pranced around with a flashy diamond ring. I've had perfect mistletoe kisses and perfect family photos. I've picked out the perfect wedding dress and posted perfect engagement photos to my social media.
But there are shadows in every picture and wounds that go unseen. I also went home from college due to chronic Lyme disease and have spent years suffering and praying for relief and healing. I've passed through "a boyfriend for Christmas" only to be met with a breakup in June. That perfect mistletoe kiss only lasted for a second, and that flashy engagement ring meant nothing when glaring straight into the face of dishonesty and betrayal. Those perfect engagement pictures never lead to a wedding, and those family photos were originally meant to be wedding photos and are missing a few members of my family.
And all of these imperfect things were things that were and are out of my control simply because they are a result of mortality.
So, life is far from perfect... where's the hope in knowing this?
The hope is in knowing that the value of your life is not calculated by the sum of your perfect moments or the moments that everyone sees on social media.
Life is not about the flawless moments that take your breathe away. Sometimes it's about the moments where your heart feels like it can no longer beat because your grief is too great to bear. Occasionally it's about sudden rainbows in the sky or dancing in the rain. More often then not it's about the moments in tears on the bathroom floor because we've all be there at one point or another. Sometimes it's about laughing so hard your stomach hurts. Often it's about embracing through the hard and wiping tears through the sorrow. It's about long nights and headaches. Intermittently it's about the first good night's sleep you've had in forever. Frequently it's about worrying and praying for a good outcome. Sometimes it's about problem-solving, and hand-holding, and enduring, and pouring your heart out to God in prayer. You see... life is the sum of all human experience because without the pain, sorrow, and imperfection, we would have virtually no recollection or appreciation for the joy, love, and beauty that comes in life.
The most beautiful moments in life, are the moments that are borne out of great suffering. They come in the form of sudden beautiful vistas, sudden miracles, and moments of peace, hope, and unexpected smiles. Without opening up about the ugly imperfect moments of life, there are no hands to hold when you are called to pass through your life's ugly. So instead of hiding in secret, may we all be safe spaces for people to share their imperfection. Because becoming perfected for the eternities is all about striving to overcome the imperfect in mortality, and thanking God for the beautiful journey that life is.
"Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he’s been robbed. Most putts don’t drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. Life is like an old-time rail journey–delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride." (President Gordon B. Hinckley, Ensign, Nov. 1984:86 )
We have Christ to heal us from the imperfect of mortality. And we have each other to aid in the healing process if we so choose to lift each other in love and support. May we all share our imperfect. Because at the end of the day... all of the outward perfection is just a lie anyway.
No matter how old I get, it always seems that around back-to-school season I can manage to conjure up that feeling of an antsy little school girl; eager and apprehensive for her first day. It often seems like no matter how hard I attempt to avoid it, I get that strange "butterfly in your stomach" feeling, accompanied by anticipation for the new school year. Insecurity and unstable footing repeatedly accompany the nostalgia, and it often leaves me feeling sick to my stomach.
How is it possible that something as simple as everyone going back to school drudge up such ugly and unnerving feelings? Because these memories are a vicious cycle of guilt and shame that circle through my mind every fall semester... Because my life looks VERY different from all of my friends in college.
I was eighteen years old when I walked through the door of my first apartment. I was simultaneously eager and terrified for the adventure that was right at my fingertips, and everything smelled new and fresh. I was always terrified of this first step into adulthood, but feeling it painfully necessary I managed to dive headfirst into my first semester of college.
I grew up singing, and I always felt like my vocal abilities were a gift from God, something that I had great passion for, and what my future held. Music was what I was supposed to do, and all that I thought I wanted or knew how to do. I was a vocal performance major, diving into 16 credit hours of music classes. And as nervous as I was, I felt prepared and ready to delve into endless hours of vocal practice, theory, piano basics, aural skills, and performances. Music was about to consume my entire existence, and at the time I felt perfectly okay with that.
I'll never forget my first day of college as I managed to get lost seemingly dozens of times, and mentally stumbled over all the different textbooks that seemed to make my head spin! That quiet little mouse of a girl sat quietly in the back of each class with her stomach in knots, avoiding eye contact at all times and trying desperately to remember every ounce of theory and vocal technique. For the most part, I was like every other college kid: young and eager for my future to begin. But what most people don't know is that I was far from being an "average college kid."
My symptoms began long before college, but I easily managed to push them to the side in attempts to fit in with my peers and create a future for myself. When college hit, my symptoms simply spiraled downward and left me experiencing enough discomfort that before my first semester I was tested for coinfections and other possible health problems. I remember laying on a bed telling the nurse about the college I was attending as she took thirty vials of blood. No matter what, I wasn't going to let anything get in the way of my college plans.
School soon began and among all of the regular college stress, I began to experience extreme fatigue, joint pain, muscle pain, regular panic attacks, and extreme pain in my lower abdomen that would come in waves. The problem with this predicament is that I was "supposed to be in college," having the time of my life and learning all that I could for the benefit of my future, but these seemingly always lingering symptoms made it near impossible to successfully do anything. I recall coming home every day and crashing on my couch, only to wake up realizing that I was late for a tutoring session or a rehearsal, which only caused greater stress and anxiety, which then caused an increase in symptoms. With this brewing storm over my head, my grades dropped, and I found myself fighting for test accommodations that didn't even pan out to be all that helpful. I found myself crying on the floor of my apartment regularly, wondering why I seemed like the only college kid in the world that couldn't handle school in any way, and I often spent Saturdays on the couch or in bed.
I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease about half-way through the semester. Treatment began rapidly, and in my attempts to stay at college I decided to move forward with treatment on my own, in an apartment with roommates that probably thought I was completely nuts. Treatment added the extra stress of diet changes, sleeping with oxygen, and taking ridiculous amounts of pills and supplements every day that I hardly had time for. And at the end of every day when I would check and record all of my vitals for my doctors, nothing changed, and nothing seemed to improve.
Throughout all of the pain, anxiety, and desperately trying to stay on top of school, I prayed desperately to know if going home was the right thing to do, and I got an overwhelming and resounding yes. I found myself walking through the front door of my house and collapsing on the floor about two thirds into my first semester of college, and I never went back. And I never will.
I do not record my story of a 22 year old college drop out to claim that everyone should follow in my footsteps, or to say that those who are in college should quit now before they're ahead, for I don't actually believe that. What I do write this for is to say that college does not necessarily equal success. Those who have walked the path less taken, away from university and college life, to heal from chronic illness should be celebrating that MASSIVE victory, not feeling embarrassed or ashamed from their differing experiences.
I learned fairly quickly that when you choose not to attend school in your young adult years, everyone and their dog will try to convince you of all the reasons why you should be in school. It's important to remember that those people do not know the battles that you are fighting and SUCCEEDING at, and you do not have to allow uneducated comments even an ounce of your ground. For your ground is one of blood, sweat, and tears that we often face by ourselves. For our arena is often unseen and unrecognized, yet very real, and very scary.
When I first left school, I wanted desperately to go back. I craved the need to fit in with my peers, and I felt like an utter failure because for the first two years of my Lyme battle school what absolutely impossible. What I wish I knew back then was that life does not end when school does, and there are often things in life that can educate you in ways that a college education possibly never will.
God has been my personal mentor and tutor for five years now, and I couldn't be more happy with my decision to leave and not go back. I have now attended an online school where I received my health coaching certification. I'm well enough to work, and am starting my own business. I find joy on the days that I feel good. And on the days that I don't, I have room to breathe and recuperate. Life is very different than what I ever envisioned it to be when I was a freshman in college, but I am proud of my battles that I have walked out of broken and scarred, but still held together by God's grace and enabling power.
There are two ways that you can look at an experience like this: call me a college drop out, or call me thriving in the Lyme life. Either way, I'm happier than I've ever been as I seek for success and happiness. I no longer believe that success comes from a degree, as big as an accomplishment as it may be. The greatest success we can experience in this life lies within our hearts, our relationships, and our ability to endure and conquer the afflictions of life. Your worth or intelligence is not based on your college education. Quality of life is more likely measured by your heart and your spirit and how they propel you to whatever beautiful destination is in store for you.
I always find it minorly amusing when people express to me how happy they are for me that "all my dreams are coming true." I must have developed the art of appearing to be successful on social media the past few years because the truth is that I often find myself on my bedroom floor in tears because my life seems so drastically different than I imagined it to be in my younger years.
Dreams are funny things. Funny in that when I was younger I often thought I could make my dreams come true by wishing on a star, dropping a coin into a quaint little fountain, or blowing out birthday candles. The unlikelihood of dreams coming from those simple acts of belief are slim to none, and when I was diagnosed with Lyme disease I learned that hard lesson fairly quick.
Through the Lyme battle, I've been blessed to learn a few things that have shaped me into a completely different person. This odd transformation hit me not too long ago when I realized that I often don't recognize myself when I look in the mirror anymore. This fighter that was stripped of all of her dreams was once a young girl with her head in the clouds. And it turns out that this dreadful disease has compelled me to see life in a whole new way; a way that I never before would have thought possible. I've rolled this one over in my head multiple times in an attempt to discover whether or not that fact is a blessing or a curse.
It has been five years since I have felt like I have done anything worthwhile, and five years since I received my diagnosis and returned home from my first semester of college. I remember leaving before the semester ended, and feeling like a complete failure because my body could not physically handle being in college for one minute longer.
Since then I have spent lots of time doing things that always seemed useless and often ended in failure. For the first two years, I watched seasons of my favorite shows dozens of times over while I often felt like I was drowning in supplements and protocols, and yet saw no results as the pain relentlessly persisted. I went to three different colleges (and dropped all of them.) I picked up every hobby I could find and quit many of them after I realized that I couldn't keep my brain fog away enough to even finish what I started. I couldn't hold a job due to Lyme crippling my abilities. I planned a wedding; only to call it off and find myself right back where I started (single and still sick). And in my head, all of these failures made up the sum of me as I continuously was forced to fight Lyme every step of the way.
But I did something recently that made me realize that a person is not the sum of their failures. It is often when you stand back and look at your life as a whole that you realize that most of those seemingly big failures were stepping stones to successes, and Olympic moments weren't meant to occur every day.
I recently had the opportunity to participate in a vendor event where I was able to sell laser engraved products that I've been working hard to design and produce. Learning something new is always scary and can often seem like a large task when you begin to glare it in the face. I had many a moment where I was ready to give up. Moments when I butchered an entire basket of products while I was learning to use the laser (to which I now call the basket of misfit items!), moments when the wind and rain would destroy my entire display after I had just barely set it all up, and moments when I would spend the morning in discomfort and pain from Lyme, only to get up and buckle down for the busy evening and rush of busy customers. But despite it all, I persisted and pushed myself harder than my Lyme disease has ever allowed me to before.
Many may not realize this, but this vendor event was a huge victory in the life of Lymie like myself. I spent eight days on my feet and overworking my body in ways I haven't done in years. I spent eight days around huge crowds while my Lyme riddled nerves burned with anxiety. I spend eight days surrounded by food vendors that were a constant reminder to me that I don't eat what "normal" people eat because I'm sick. And I spent eight days smiling and rarely ever mentioning my illness because every time I mention Lyme to the average person, it is rarely graciously received.
My overall response to the crazy week I just lived is pure victory. Victory that I set a goal, saw it through to the end, and it was a success. Victory that people liked and bought a product that I made and that I just had a whole new start to a business that I'm hoping will grow and be a success. And victory in that I was able to interact with hundreds of random people and my nervous system was strong enough to hold its ground and not put me in a panic.
Although the experience was far from perfect, and there were days that I fought through pain and Lyme symptoms, I feel like I just broke through a massive wall in my Lyme journey. And that wall was the big fat lie that Lyme disease makes me a failure. Lyme disease in no way made this event easy as I found myself fighting symptoms all along the way (and now paying for the overworking of my body), but it made it worth it because that wall in now broken and never again will stand tall.
The fact of the matter is that I learned some things through this experience, and they're things I'll hold with me for life.
The first lesson being that people with chronic illness and disability can still do wonderful and amazing things. The fact that they fight through debilitating life challenges makes them all the more strong for being able to do all of the great things that they accomplish. A great victory for someone who is sick may seem minuscule to the average person, but when a child is learning how to walk we never complain and tell them how they should be talking by now. So when my biggest victory was managing the pain just enough that I could manage to take a shower by myself again, that was something to celebrate. And now my biggest victory is starting a small business that may go absolutely nowhere, but that isn't going to stop me from trying.
The second lesson learned came to me the last day of the event when I thought to myself how I wish I could go back to that sixteen-year-old girl who had dreams of being a vocal performance major, opening her own vocal studio, getting married and raising a family. I wish I could go back to that girl and tell her that all of those dreams were going to be utterly smashed to pieces by a disease that can manage to strip you of everything. But I also wish that I could go back and tell that girl that through all of the rubble and scattered pieces of her broken dreams, she would find beauty, peace, and great joy in her renewed view of life and the endless possibilities that it holds. Life is not easy. And it isn't supposed to be. For if life were consistently easy, we would miss out on some of our greatest victories.
My third and perhaps most important lesson I have learned from this experience is that it is the little things in life that bring us the greatest joy. Little things like laughing so hard your stomach hurts, and crying tears of joy for the first time in forever. Things like stopping to smell the flowers or walking barefoot in the grass. I often missed the little things in life that give depth and meaning, and I often gave too much of my attention to things in life that are artificial and temporary. For I have found that the only thing that can strip a person of their artificiality is great trial and affliction that burns the artificiality out of us and compels us to look a little deeper and take note of the little things that the average person misses. And although I sometimes question that deep sensitivity I've developed in the past five years, I am also deeply thankful for it, for I have come to see the world in a completely different manner than what I saw it before.
The reality of life is that the cure for broken dreams is to dream again and to dream deeper. And as you walk the painful path that's lined with seemingly shattered dreams, you will find new dreams among the rubble and the ashes, and I guarantee you that you may grasp some of your dreams past as well. Whatever you do, just don't step off the path no matter how painful it may be. Because walking the path of your broken dreams can lead to the most beautiful of destinations.
I sense extreme pressure that builds up in my chest and makes my nerves tingle from my heart all the way to the tips of my fingers. Pressure that makes me fear the future and gives me a severe distaste for my present. Pressure that brings tears to my eyes when I least expect it and leaves me looking at myself in the mirror wondering who that girl is.
I'm not completely sure where this pressure comes from, but I have a slight notion that it originates from past traumas. Memories of insufferable pain from Lyme disease for long nights. Recollection of people that I love making promises they never intended to keep. Thoughts of being hurt by the harsh words and actions of people who don't even seem to understand how much effect you can have on another's human heart. This odd awareness for past experiences flashes through my mind when I least expect it, and leaves me feeling like something inside me is crawling up my spine. I can't stand it, and for once I'd like to just be me and not have to worry about being crushed again by the insensitive human temperament that so many seem to possess.
I want my heart back, and I want to feel comfortable in my own skin again around other people.
When I'm occupying my own space, I get to experience a sense of acceptance of the girl that screams to be free. In my sanctuary, I have the privilege of being that girl that doesn't eat sugar and experiences a thrill from eating healthy food. I'm that girl that can sense things that others can't and is allowed to be highly sensitive to smells, tastes, sights, and the little beauties that are all around us, and it's not crazy, it's insightful. I'm that girl that sings her favorite song as she's walking down the street and wears maxi-dresses for no special occasion, just because she can. I'm the girl that jumps up and down when she gets excited over seemingly insignificant things, and I'm that girl that obsesses over to-do lists and loves schedules, but also loves feeling free as a bird! I'm the girl that never does anything half baked, and it doesn't matter if everyone else executes everything in their lives with half the effort, because she can be happy living in her full and vitalized life. I'm the girl that lavishes my entire heart in her endeavors and thoughtfully verifies that the beautiful living creatures that she comes in contact with can experience the intense Divine love that she can bestow.
I'm also that girl who can be smiling one minute with gratitude that she's not in pain and crying the next because coping with trauma from illness is SO HARD. I'm that girl that can laugh at the humor in life one second and be on her knees in prayer the next praying for release from severe anxiety and depression. I'm that girl that can be on my feet and doing yoga one day, and in bed with a heating pad hardly being able to move the next, because Lyme disease sometimes breaks you. But when I experience my whole being in a safe place for myself, I don't feel completely insane for the various and rapidly changing ups and downs. When I'm safe, I can accept that I'm just a girl with a chronic illness who is trying to learn how to heal to the best that she can and sometimes she's dissatisfactory and defective at it, other times she thrives, and that's okay!
In the presence of large groups of people, everything changes and I often find my indestructible and merciless brick walls building up around my heart as a protection against the naysayers. I often can feel the lock and key as I stuff my personality in a corner for the meantime. I often feel trapped to be like everyone else, and if a little part of me comes out it could be dangerous in the hands of people who disagree or misinterpret. I often find myself performing the act of the perfectly composed woman who wasn't just in excruciating pain the night before and can be wherever it is I need to be because I'm expected to be there, even if my body cries otherwise. Concealing my thoughts, holding my tongue, not venturing too close... Because if you unexpectedly get too close to someone who bites... you're left suffering on levels that they don't understand simply because they haven't experienced their severe adversity yet. Protecting myself is chaining, exhausting, and lonely. And for that reason, I choose my safe space as often as I can.
Everything changes in the presence of people who misunderstand and misinterpret. And the unfortunate truth is that so many people throw wrath and fear at others simply because they lack the ability to reach their hearts into someone else's. So many lack the ability to be raw and honest with themselves and others about their lives. We all struggle, and if the human struggle was a shared effort where we all sustained each other, there wouldn't be so many who feel the need to live a double life.
I often wonder what it would look like if it were possible to compile all the tears from human suffering into a box, how big that box would have to be. And if people had a chance to witness how large that box was, if it would soften their hearts in a way that made them slightly more sensitive to the people around them and slightly more aware of the hearts that are crying out for help. If we knew how deep other people's waters were, would we take extra time to stop and help them so that they don't drown? And if everyone stopped and helped the people in deep water, maybe all the water as a whole would be lessened to the point where we could all patiently wade through less troubled waters together. Maybe if we all decided to be a little more real, and a little more honest... then maybe those who suffer wouldn't feel the need to live a double life because then they would know that they weren't along and that there were strong hands waiting to lift their aching hearts.
God doesn't expect us to live out our lives in cold hard shells so as to not let other's notice our pains. God desires us to love and lift the hands that hang down. God wishes us to let love penetrate so deep that we can all feel His Divine love through each other. I hate the pressure I feel to live a double life as a chronic illness warrior (and I know I'm not the only one), and I've found that I'm more effective at bringing light into other's lives when I'm simply striving to be my best self. Maybe all of us could come to that realization in a way that could change the world.
It recently occurred to me that I've been fooling myself. I've faithfully proclaimed on social media year after year since I was diagnosed my deep hope that the next year will be easier, or that it will be better than the year before. I've hoped, and prayed, and fought my way into society's view of a "better" and "easier" life, only to find that this "easier" life that I'm seeking for doesn't exist. There's no such thing as "easy" in the vocabulary of a chronic illness fighter, and it turns out that the moment you think that the chronic illness battle has become "better" or "easier," something else painful and heartbreaking will come along that will try your resilience and test your nerves. And then after you've made it through that trauma, your illness will flare again. Due to this eternal pattern that keeps kicking me, I have finally reached the point in my life where I can say that I am no longer hoping, wishing, or praying for an easier year ahead!
Sounds like I've reached the point of intense embitterment, but I wouldn't exactly call it that. In fact, I've finally discovered that this statement that I'm making isn't a negative or chaining statement at all. In fact, admitting to it is probably one of the most freeing experiences I've ever had!
For as long as I can remember, my family's motto has always been "we do hard things." I was taught growing up that working hard and doing things that appeared to be difficult would bless my life and create a stronger person inside me. I was taught that striving to achieve things that were seemingly out of my reach was healthy and something that should be practiced on a regular basis. Back then it never occurred to me that there was something harder out there than Saturday morning chores, striving for a 4.0 GPA, and losing a best friend. Hard things came and went when I was young, but eventually, there will come a time in all of our lives when those hard things won't just leave. There will come a time when those hard things stick around, and you'll find yourself on your knees begging for relief more than once.
I've been in that place for years now, and I think I'm finally beginning to understand and live the truth that adversity and affliction has a divine purpose. Things may not get easier in the moment, but that's okay. Because God promises us better things through our suffering and God sustains us every step of the way. It's through the hard things that I've developed sensitivity to God's precious mentoring that He blesses my life with.
C.S. Lewis says that "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." I think my world has been roused and it's been a loud and painful awakening, but completely worth it. Many of us have probably experienced that this year, and what a blessing to say that we've learned this lesson firsthand.
I'm not going to begin to pretend like I have life all figured out. In fact, I often find myself in prayer expressing how unsure I am about life. But there is one thing that I do know:
Sometimes life is absolutely awful. Sometimes it's blood, sweat, and tears to make it through the day. And sometimes it seems absolutely unbearable. Other times life is magical, joyous, romantic, and absolutely beautiful to the point where you can't seem to breathe in enough of the moment, and you wonder what you could have possibly done to be blessed with such a perfect moment in life. And other times life is somewhere in between... mundane and boring. And the reality is that in order to live life to the FULLEST, every single one of these experiences is absolutely necessary. Because without the pain we wouldn't appreciate the joy. And without the mundane, we wouldn't appreciate the magic. And the glorious truth is that we have a loving God who sustains us through it all. How loving and merciful He is to enable me to do the hard things, even if they seem to be never-ending.
So this year I'm not praying or hoping for things to be easier. I'm hoping and praying for the strength to endure the hard, the wisdom to appreciate the magic, the patience to remain hopeful through the mundane, and the courage to submit to God's will even if it's more difficult than past years. May we all have the ability to discover those places of balance and vitality in the year to come.
Stay in bed and cry all day, and you're not trying hard enough.
Show improvement and look beautiful, and you're not actually sick.
Share your terrifying reality with others, and you're seeking attention.
Keep to yourself and pretend that everything is okay, and you're not actually sick.
Smile, and you're not in pain.
Cry, and you're in more pain than the people around you can tolerate.
I've found myself spinning this dizzy cycle in my head lately and trying to understand how I'm supposed to act and feel as someone with a chronic illness. I've found myself listening to the discouragement that comes from this vicious cycle from other chronic illness warriors. And I've seen lots of posts on social media expressing the same concerns in attempts to understand what exactly we're supposed to look and feel like as chronically ill people.
Unfortunately this perception that other people can sometimes give is frustrating and causes a lot of guilt and an unnecessary inward struggle. I often put extra pressure on myself because apparently there is a certain "look" that chronically ill people have and if we don't fit that particular "look" then we're not an acceptable sick person. The irony of that is that nobody actually knows what that "look" is. They just believe that it's different from whatever vibe we're giving off.
I believe this pattern can be found in any kind of misunderstood suffering. If you haven't been through it yourself, you don't understand, and while it's okay to not understand, it's also important that we increase our love and compassion towards that level of suffering because generally, the person is already suffering enough without that extra pressure. We don't need to put that pressure on ourselves or others because the reality is that PAIN AND JOY CAN COEXIST, and it's okay!
Your Traumas Don't Define You
"I don't want to be known as the sick girl."
I remember having that thought when I was at my worst. I remember feeling extreme frustration from my desire for people to offer extra love and kindness that I desperately needed at the time, but also to know that there is more to me than Lyme disease. It seemed to me like I couldn't have both and I remember feeling like I was never enough because I was now some disease that controlled my entire life and trashed my hopes and dreams for my future.
Fortunately, that was never the case at all, and I've since learned that it's not your traumas that define you. I have Lyme disease. That doesn't mean I am Lyme disease. Your traumas, afflictions, and adversities in life are there to shape and refine you into the person that God intends for you to be. They exist to soften you and shape you. It's through the furnace of fire that we become flexible and transformed into something beautiful. The piece of coal that never had to undergo heat and pressure was still just a piece of coal in the end. We may come out with a few burns. We may be wounded. But we're not eternally broken or stamped with our eternal label. Nobody comes out of this life with a big stamp on their forehead that states their largest trauma.
It's not our traumas that define us, but how we choose to respond to those trials. And sometimes our response is a day in bed or a day in tears or simply doing the best we can do at the time, and that's okay. And other times that response is laughing through the tears and smiling through the heartache, and I've learned that those days are often some of the best days. Some of those days are the days that we learn important life lessons that change us forever. On those days there is no "look" that I feel the need to have. It's just me in my most raw form, and sometimes that form is exactly what I need to be in the moment.
A friend once told me that it's okay to cry. It's okay to stay in bed for a little while. It's okay to be debilitated for a moment. Just don't freeze. The joyful message is that even in moments of pain and paralysis, we don't have to freeze. We can continue on to the best of our ability with hopeful hearts. Our best efforts are always counted in the sight of the Lord, and when we're given that knowledge, we don't have to submit to all the views of other people. When we press forward the best we know how in our adversities, we can come to a place of self-love where we can be happy with our own state of being, whether that be in tears or in laughter.
How is it possible for joy and pain to coexist?
I've often found in life that opposites can regularly coexist. I've found that I can make a list of things I love about myself, while simultaneously making a list of things I hate about myself. I've found that I can be in pain and still find things to smile about. I've found that even when I feel hopeless, there's still hope in the journey.
How is that possible? How can pain and joy exist at the same time? That phenomenon is made possible through a loving God who keeps His promises, and a Savior who was sent to succor and sustain us when we can't manage to sustain ourselves.
First, God promises us that ALL trials come to an end, even if the end isn't seen in this life.
John testifies in the book of Revelation of the people who "come out of great tribulation and have sanctified themselves... that God will wipe away all tears from their eyes." (Revelation 7:14-17)
He then later testifies of God's people and how "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain." (Revelation 21:5)
And then there is our Savior, who He Himself declared at the end of His sufferings: "It is finished." (John 19:30) There will come a day when every single one of us will be able to declare that "it is finished." Our sufferings do come to an end, not always through death, but through healing and enabling love and power made possible through Christ.
That fact alone is something to rejoice about.
Second, God consecrates all of our afflictions for our good and promises us that our glory in heaven will be returned twice as much as our suffering on earth.
Peter tells us that the trial of our faith is more precious than gold. And "although we may be tried with fire we can be found unto praise, honor, and glory at the appearing of Christ." (1 Peter 1:7)
He then later tells us to "think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy." (1 Peter 4:12-13)
God reveals to us in those words that we can REJOICE during our fiery trials. That does not diminish our pain. That doesn't say that we're not actually suffering on such a horrendous level. That doesn't tell us that we're not allowed to feel our pain because that's a sign of weakness, and we lack faith if we feel pain. It declares to us that suffering isn't a strange thing to our Father, and He understands, and He promises hope for a better future. We can be ourselves, and we can find joy in the moment. Not the kind of joy that promises no pain and tear-less eyes, but an inward joy that declares in our hearts that this too will pass.
It's okay to look like you're struggling. It's okay to look happy and beautiful. You should absolutely share your reality with others, and if you feel the need to fake it until you make it then that's okay too! It's okay to smile when you're in pain, and it's okay to cry in front of people even if it makes them uncomfortable! Life is full of ups and downs that we were meant to experience. And as we become accustomed to pain, we are granted the blessing to experience joy, even in the midst of suffering.
Thank goodness for a merciful God and Savior who loves us through it all.
The holidays are meant to be joyful! Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on blessings throughout the year, and a time to express gratitude to loved ones and to our loving God who blesses us with more than we deserve or comprehend. So if that's true, then why does it simultaneously seem like the holidays are a time of mourning and grief for so many individuals who have suffered a loss of some sort? Why does a heavy heart often creep into our celebrations and merriness?
Suffering is a universal concept. We've all experienced loss in it's many relentless forms:
The loss of a job or an opportunity.
The loss of a loved one through death.
The loss of a loved one through betrayal, or simply the choice they made to leave.
The loss of health and therefore, quality of life.
The loss of hope that there is happiness and joy in the future.
At times the amount of loss in life seems unfair and insufferable.
The holidays are the time when it seem like our losses should return and magically reappear so the holes in our hearts can be filled for that short period of time when we're "supposed to be joyful." I often find myself wishing for the holes in my heart to be filled once more just for the holiday season... but life doesn't work like that. Instead we must find a way to fill those holes with new reasons to rejoice. This year I've found that obtaining a thankful heart might just be a tool in our toolbox to finding joy despite our grieving hearts or pained bodies.
When I was at my darkest place in my illness, I didn't believe that gratitude could change anything, and I often went about my day filled with bitterness and resent for people who were blessed to live their lives pain-free. Being thankful for what I have would do absolutely nothing in relieving my physical pain, so why should I try so hard when I felt I had nothing to be thankful for? Why should I try so hard now when my past pains often burden my heart in a way that seems unbearable in the moment? Gratitude will not take the PTSD from my nerves and mind. Gratitude won't make my heart any less heavy. Gratitude won't take my past or future flares from occurring. So does it matter at all?
The answer is yes! Practicing and expressing an attitude of gratitude and thanksgiving changes you. Allowing thankfulness to envelop your heart and senses can be the difference between having a happy holiday and having a hollow holiday. Will it relieve all of the pain from the injustices of life? Of course not, but it will take the edge off in a way that gives you the power to endure the pain, and endure it well. A thankful heart often reminds us that there's always a reason to keep going, even if your circumstances are less than desirable.
With that said, there will always be times when gratitude will seem unreachable.
I didn't feel thankful during my panic attack today.
I didn't feel thankful during my endometriosis two weeks ago.
I didn't feel thankful when my heart pinched with pain when I was reminded of the loss of someone I love on Thanksgiving Day.
So what? Do we throw the towel in and quit? NO! We recognize that we're not always going to be happy, and allow ourselves to feel our pain. We then get up and trek onward with hope in our hearts for a better future and faith that God will give us the strength to endure. And when we feel like we can't even do that, we plead with our loving God and lean on His strength and gratitude until we can find it in ourselves. God is waiting to help us hold our burdens, we simply have to ask to put it in His hands for a time.
I'm not going to pretend to be the expert on gratitude. I'm not. But I invite you to take time to write five things you're thankful for everyday. IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE. I never knew I had so many things to smile about until I took a little time everyday to be thankful. Even if you can only find gratitude for the chair that you are sitting in, it is more than some people have. So take time to feel and express gratitude. It may not take your pain, but it will transform your pain into something beautiful.
This year I'm thankful that the years past are over and that I don't have to live in that consistent darkness anymore. I'm thankful for the health I do have. I'm thankful for the people I've lost so that God can heal and open my heart to new people that I can love. I'm thankful for life, breath, and hope that my Savior, Jesus Christ, instills in my heart if I allow Him too. There's always something to be thankful for... we simply have to take time to see it.
I found myself reminiscing today. I found myself look back, and then regretting it. I frequently resist moments of nostalgia that creep into my mind merely because the happy memory is usually accompanied by a deep ache that penetrates the strongest of walls around my heart. Happy memories are often escorted by laughter that's been silenced, love that somehow managed to slip through my fingers, and time that's been burned over with more time. It often feels like the road behind me is coated with blood and ash which drives me to never look back and fear the moment I choose to take a step forward.
I suppose this is grief at it's finest. I often grieve the life I had before, or the life that never existed because it was replaced with pain and tears that were accompanied with my diagnosis. I often grieve when I watch young people that are out living their lives without a thought as to how they feel physically, or what they eat, or what they're breathing in. I suppose that ignorance is bliss... but I never got to experience that bliss in my first years of young adulthood, and I the grieve the idea that maybe I've missed something. I grieve the idea that my moments of bliss were replaced with heartache and pain... and that just can't be fair. Becoming so well acquainted with grief at such a young age just can't be fair.
I remember when I was six year old and my pet rabbit died. I cried for one night.
I recall when I was fifteen and my best friend betrayed me. I cried for a week.
I was sixteen when my "first love" broke up with me and I cried for a few weeks.
I was seventeen when I lost the presence of my mother in my life to a disease the robbed her of her quality of life. I cried every time I came home to her screams of pure agony.
I was eighteen when I lost my will to live after I was diagnosed with the same disease I watched my mother suffer from for so long. I cried for years as I fought long and hard for my life. I still cry if I think about those moments for too long.
Perhaps I'm just an "emotional person." Perhaps I don't have what it takes to cope with real life. Perhaps some of those things were silly at the time and weren't worth my tears... but despite everything, I've found that it's possible that our hearts are meant to bleed this hard. Maybe we were meant to be broken so we can be healed and revived twice as strong. Maybe life is fair simply because it's so unfair for everyone. How does one experience pure joy if they are never exposed raw pain?
I've bled and cried, I've kicked and screamed, I've complained and raged, I've faithfully and willfully continued to put one foot in front of the other despite the hardship. And what's come from it all is a sense of comfort despite the strong discomfort that plagues me regularly. I suppose the kind of bliss that comes from ignorance isn't really bliss at all because someday you'll find yourself in the sick bed... and you'll wonder what went wrong... just like I did.
I've come to love my sensitive nature. I've come to appreciate my keen sense of air pollution and unreal food. I've come to smile at the funny looks I get from people who can't comprehend why I eat organic. I often ask myself who in their right mind would want bliss if it is required to be accompanied with ignorance? I've come to realize that joy and bliss are two different things, and wisdom doesn't come with age... it comes with suffering...
I've come to gain a deep love for people who suffer on deep and penetrating levels. I've gained a deep respect for people who suffer in ways that change them forever. Suffering that erases the ignorance and replaces it with a sense of comfort and peace even in the storm of discomfort and pain.
These kinds of people are warriors. These kinds of people are the people that have been sculpted in the midst of adversity. These people have let go and let God transform them into beings of light and vitality. These are the people that have discovered great depth in life. These are the people that have experienced the great ache that leads to resilience and fortitude that I myself have not yet mastered.
Perhaps hearts were meant to bleed this much. Perhaps bodies where meant to break down. Perhaps tears were meant to be shed. Not because we live in a cruel universe... but because God has a Divine Design that can transform blood into healing, breaking in wholeness, and tears of grief into tears of rejoicing. May we all learn that lesson in hopes that we can grow in strength and everlasting joy.
Perhaps we all need to reminisce sometimes... Because the past is at times our greatest teacher and mentor. And in the meantime, I've come to love the sound of my feet walking in the direction that God intends for them to be... because the blood and ash behind me doesn't matter at the sight of beauty and light ahead of me.
I frequently travel through my life with a sense of a double identity as our society loudly screams frivolous ideas of success and popularity that seem to be difficult to ignore. And as I attempt to "fit in" with my peers, I always find myself feeling slightly fake and two-faced.
As a woman living in a world brimming with photo-shop, snap-chat filters, and unrealistic glimpses into other people's lives via social media, it's easy to blindly chase after the false belief that in order for me to be a thriving influence in society I must be living up to society's standard: I must be going to school full time, holding a job, eating the best tasting food, traveling to the most exotic places, fulfilling all my callings in the church, and I must be stunningly beautiful every day. I must never have problems... and if I do I must keep my mouth shut in order to avoid causing anyone discomfort. If I experience emotional pain, I must quickly throw it under the rug and pretend it doesn't exist. I must smile... but not too wide and not too frequently. I must be happy... but not too emotional or enthusiastic. I must be tired... but simultaneously drill myself to accomplish all the to-do lists, schedules, and appointments. And while I'm juggling all that... I must also be having the most fun and posting it all to Instagram and Facebook so that everyone else can feel bad about how they're not having enough fun. Thank you social media for this unrealistic and impossible view of reality.
I've tried to be that girl. That girl that has perfection in the bag. That girl that appears to have vitality and richness overflowing in her life. That girl that doesn't talk about her inward struggles in fear that she'll make other people uncomfortable or that she'll give the wrong image or idea. But that girl is fake. That girl isn't real. That girl is living a double life and because I've always tried to be that girl, it makes it easy for my peers, associates, and family to assume that I'm not really sick.
"You don't look sick."
"She must be faking it."
"You're a beautiful girl that probably just feels like you're not getting enough attention."
"You must thrive off of attention."
Some of the comments that all chronic illness warriors hear on a regular basis cut us deep because we're simply trying to survive in our own skin to the best of our ability. What's worse is the words that go unsaid. What's worse is the gaping mouths and blank stares we receive that translates to the disbelief that any person actually suffers on that kind of level. What's worse is the attempt of someone apologizing and stating how hard that must be because they don't know what else to say. The silence is just as painful as harsh words simply because it traps us in the corner of disbelief where we constantly feel the need to prove that we're sick.
So I'll be the first to admit it... You're right... I'm faking it.
I'm faking the smile on my face when I'm trying so desperately to hold back tears. I'm faking that I'm feeling okay when I'm usually riddled with muscle pain, nerve pain, or severe anxiety. I'm faking that I'm living life pain-free when there are so many times that I feel like I'm suffocating under my own skin. I'm faking my sanity when I feel like there are bugs crawling under my skin. I'm faking that I'm flying when at times I feel so utterly close to drowning beneath the pressure of it all. I'm faking that my heart is whole and complete, when really it feels exhausted, broken, and bleeding.
When these things that I'm faking are expressed out loud, I simply feel inadequate. I feel like I lack the ability to ever be "good enough." I feel like it's my fault and if I just tried a little harder.... maybe my pain would subside. I feel ashamed of my own existence, and I often wonder why at times it feels like the world keeps turning while my time stops and I'm trapped in one place until my inward storm chooses to cease for a while. And as these feelings envelop me, the vicious cycle of feeling forced to "fake it" starts all over again.
We live in a society that believes that pain can be relieved with substances. We cope with alcohol, drugs, pills, porn, food, or anything we can do to numb our afflictions. But at some point, we have to realize that the SUBSTANCES DO NOT HEAL US. The substances numb us to the harsh reality. Instead of relying on substances, we can rely on God and on each other so we don't have to feel the desperate need to "fake it till' you make it."
LOVE is the key to healing. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son." (John 3:16) God loves us, so He gave us His son so that we don't have to suffer alone. Christ knows of our pains and our sorrows, and He loves us all the same. If we strive to be more like Him, we can act as a rock and relief for others who are suffering. We don't have to have all of the answers for the chronically ill. We don't have to take their physical pain away. But what we can do is seek to understand the depths that others and in, and then... we simply love them through it.
Here's the joyful message of it all... Because I have a Savior who loves and sustains me... I can find pure joy through pain and illness, and I'm not faking it. Because I know that people are more important than substances, I can understand that after I walk through my own furnace of affliction I develop the ability to love others through their afflictions. I also understand that as I suffer I gain a greater capacity to later help others which in turn helps me. What I stop trying so hard to fake it, I can be true to myself in enduring pain and happiness.
So the next time that you meet somebody, or the next time that you're talking to somebody... "treat them as if they are in serious trouble. And you will be right more than half of the time." (Henry B. Eyring) It would all do us well to bring our shallow existences to a halt. The next time that somebody says they are doing well and you sense that they are not, do not believe the words they speak. Believe the silent plea for help in their eyes. Believe their subtle look of discouragement and pure exhaustion. Believe that little voice in your head telling you that maybe this person needs help. Believe the inherent ability you have to love somebody through their pain.
We all have that power. May we seek with pure diligence to know how to help ignite that power in ourselves and in others.