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.
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.