That We Might Have Joy: Brian's Story

My name is Brian.  On the morning of November 22nd, 2012, I was watching the morning news and a story came on about a local little girl named Caroline.  She was 5 years old and had a brain tumor called (DIPG).  Her parents, Rachael and Kevin, explained how this cancer was pretty much a death sentence-- no hope, no cure.  Typically children between the ages of 5-9 are diagnosed, and the life expectancy is 9-12 months.  I watched in disbelief.  How can this be?  At the end of the program they said they created a Facebook page for her so people could follow her story.  I decided to "like" the page.  Caroline became the first child I ever followed.  I watched update after update, and my heart broke more and more.  By following Caroline's story, it lead me to follow more kids, and by doing so, I realized how a simple gift would cheer them up.  On March 7th, 2013, I created a page called Jars of Hope "Inspired by Caroline."  I fill an 8x4 plastic jar with as many toys possible to kids ages 3-12 battling any health issue.  I put the child's name on the lid along with their favorite stickers.  My aunt also makes character pillowcases that I include in each package.  Each child is sponsored for $20 by a follower on my page.  $15 helps pay for the shipping and the purchase of toys and $5 from each sponsored child is banked at the end of the month and the money will help a family.  Four months after I created the page, Caroline passed away from her 8 month battle with her brain tumor.

This challenge isn't so much my personal challenge, but how can I help someone out during theirs. I can share so many illnesses that my followers have never heard of and help spread awareness, along with joy.

Being able to send a gift like this in the mail can turn a bad moment into a good moment, a bad day into a good day.  Some kids take these to their appointments.  Some kids receive their jar and pillowcase in the hospital.  It brings me great joy to see them smile.  My joy is found knowing that every smile created is a result of the impact Caroline's story had on me.

To date, over 1,400 kids have received a jar and 600 kids have received a pillowcase (they were started a bit later).

In this picture is a little boy named Vincent. He's enjoying his jar and Batman pillowcase. He lost his left eye to retinoblastoma (cancer).


That We Might Have Joy: Meg's Story

I was paralyzed when I was 22 after I fell off a cliff while hiking in southern Utah. I am now a C-7 quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down without the use of my hands. I do have the use of my arms, neck, and head, so I push a manual wheelchair.

I find joy through being grateful and serving others.

Here is an article I wrote that describes what I have learned through my trials:

Ten Reasons Trials Give You More Out of Life

I had a stroke last week. One minute I’m sitting on the bed talking to Whit and the next I’m in the ambulance unable to say my words properly. However, it was small and, except for a few IV poke remnants, I have no lasting damage.

I had some time to ponder during my three days in the hospital. I was lucky. Way lucky. But there are others not so lucky. I thought of the people around me, close friends and family struggling with troubles of their own. Cancer. Infertility. Disease. Death. Depression. Loneliness. Financial concerns. Worry.

…and the list goes on.

And I think that all of us might have a little trouble accepting the difficulties that life divvies out. We wonder Why me? Why this? Why now? I know I had trouble accepting this wheelchair ten years ago when I fell off a cliff and became paralyzed. I stared at myself in front of a full-length mirror and wondered the same things. No more legs. No more tummy muscles. No more hand use. But there was no one to be mad at. Except God.

I think it’s just human nature to want to assign blame, and God is the perfect target when there is no one else. Through my tears, my heart shouted clear to heaven. Why have You taken away so much from me?

Almost immediately, my soul heard a tender message. It was meant for me, but could have just as easily been said to you. Right now. In your trying time as your heart shouts clear to heaven, heaven responds with the same message: Don’t covet. I have given you more.

It has been ten years since I’ve been paralyzed and ten years since I heard this answer. And I am still maybe another ten years off from really understanding what it means, but in my probably childish grasp, let me share ten ways I have learned trials can give us more out of life…

1. We learn more confidence. 

I was not born with any amount of humility to speak of. I liked praise for my good grades. Recognition for my (totally awesome, did you see it?!) performance. Approval. Applause. Compliments. I liked it all. Well, I won’t lie, I still like it all. But humility has come in small degrees as I’ve tried to gracefully endure being wheelchair bound.

Before I was paralyzed some guy always got the door for the beautiful me. At school. The Post Office. Stores. And in a wheelchair, guys still got the door, but for a much different reason. I look the same, but not really, as “I” am not the first thing people see. The wheelchair takes center stage. I have had long looks in the mirror, and it has taken a long time for me to decide for myself that, yes, it is okay that people get the door for me, because I can’t. It is okay that many don’t “see” me the first time we meet. It is okay that no one applauds when I finally make it up a steep ramp, and no one recognizes how quickly I can do my makeup. I can be confident in my ever-growing abilities and take my turn to now give others the approval, accolades, and compliments.

Don’t get me wrong –I still get some attention from others, but it was initially jarring how different it was. Any trial that shakes you to the core will surely shake loose some of the pseudo-confidence we have that’s built on the words, looks, and actions of others. And let it fall. The sooner we can accept ourselves for who we are, who we aren’t, and what we can and can’t do, the sooner we’ll begin to love what we see in the mirror – even if what stares back at us is scarred, battered, and bruised (but not beaten) by trials.

2. We become more patient.

I think most people would describe themselves as impatient. I think it’s just how most of us are made. I remember being called out on my impatience several times before I was paralyzed, and my impatience was obvious after. With my new paralyzed body, I had to relearn the most basic tasks, like flipping a light switch and picking my nose.

In the hospital rehab, I just got sick of it and quit. I think that’s how it goes when our impatience peaks, we can either learn patience or quit. I refused to go to therapy and stayed in my hospital bed. A brassy nurse came thundering in, ripped off all my blankets, pointed her bony finger at me and snapped, “Missing therapy is not an option! This is not an option!”

I went to therapy. I never missed again. Because she was right, while I did have two options, quit or continue, the stay-in-bed-sulking-option was not the right one.

When we choose to push through whatever challenge is in front of us, we can learn patience even if it is just with ourselves.

3. We get more strength. 

I believe every person – with any challenge – wonders if they are really strong enough to handle it.

For sure I didn’t think I was. I was 97 pounds when I left the hospital, and I couldn’t even laugh without passing out.

I couldn’t push myself ten feet. I couldn’t lift a 2-liter of soda. I couldn’t brush my teeth without fainting. I was a pansy, and I knew it. And I kept saying it – to myself and to others. I’m such a pansy. I’m a pansy. I’m a pansy.

But my first October in a wheelchair I noticed that the little potted purple pansies on my front patio didn’t seem to get the memo winter was coming. They were still in full bloom, green leaves and all. They stayed that way all month. Then through November. Then through December. I saw those purple faces poking out of the snow in January and standing tall through sleeting rain in February. I’m not sure when they wilted. In my mind, they never will.

I learned that, for a flower, pansies are kind of tough. And if I was going to be one, I’d better really be one.

Despite what I know I look like, I now actually think of myself in very strong terms. The constancy of physical challenge makes it possible for me to “prove” myself time and again. Every day. From the moment I wake up in the morning and wonder if I can muster the strength to sit up by myself (or if I have to ask Whit to help me) to the last moments of the day when I approach my bed again and wonder if I have anything left to scootch over (or if I have to ask Whit to help me…)

For anyone with any trials in any form, strength is something that grows. We become stronger-willed, more firm in our beliefs, more self-reliant.

Because no matter how much of a pansy you might look like on the outside, strength still grows as long as we’re a pansy on the inside, too.

4. We learn more appreciation.

When I had the stroke, I was truly terrified. I actually don’t remember being so afraid, and I am not sure I ever have been. My speech kept coming and going, and each time I said a wrong word, I panicked. At one horrifying moment, my right side went numb and, not only couldn’t I speak, but I couldn’t even feel my arm.

But in a relatively short amount of time, the feeling returned and so did the speech, and they sent me to another area where I could just be monitored. I was on a medication through an IV in my elbow pit (that a paramedic placed with one poke while straddling me in a moving ambulance!) but every time I bent my arm, it temporarily impeded the flow and the alarm would sound. The poor nurses were a little tired of coming in to turn off the alarm and suggested putting in another IV where it wouldn’t be such a bother.

The first nurse tried, but popped the vein. She felt awful and got a second nurse who popped another vein. A third nurse was committed to succeeding and, after many sticks, a lot of blood, and some bad bruising, finally got the IV in.

Like most people, I am pretty squeamish about needles and blood-draws and stuff, but I felt the pricks oddly reassuring. I even liked to feel them. They hurt, but the pain was a message to my heart – I could feel my arms – both of them. I could speak. I was okay.

I think when we have something taken from us, or when we struggle to get something, we value it more. We love it more. We appreciate it more. Anyone who has struggled with infertility, or lost someone close, or any number of similar challenges could surely write a list of things they appreciate more, not in spite of being challenged, but because of it.

This popular song sings it well: Let Her Go

5. We become more realistic.

When I see a doorway, I can’t pretend it is anything other than what it is. I can’t pretend it is wider or taller or greener or WHATEVER. I don’t have the luxury of pretending the physical world is anything different because my wheelchair is 24 ½ inches wide, and no amount of positive thinking is going to change that.

Likewise, moms of children on respirators can’t pretend the air quality is better than it is – they have to know exactly what is real so they can plan accordingly. I think, for whatever challenge we face, we become more realistic. We think deeper. Out of necessity, we become more aware, and this extends out into other aspects of our lives.

People have argued that you have to trade “realistic” thinking for “positive” thinking. I think some do. The more trials someone gets, the more realistic they can become, the more pessimistic they can become. However, the world is full of positives that are realistic, and there doesn’t need to be any down side to seeing the world exactly the way it is.

6. We see more of others’ talents.

This is a tough one for most people. I think the majority of us are born with some kind of warrior gene and we can – and want to – do it all.

Trials provide a magic warrior-gene-disabler. They make it so, in some ways, maybe large, maybe small, we really can’t do it all. We can fake it, maybe for a little while. We can struggle through our hardships and heartaches alone, pretending we’re fine, but when we finally accept our limitations, we become free to see just how capable those around us are.

Other people can bring us dinners. They can watch our kids. They can get our mail. They can come sit with us.

…and they don’t mind.

Not only don’t they mind, but they like it. You like it, too, when it’s you who gets to be the giver (and not the receiver). I think being a good gift receiver is a lost art. It’s easier for us to give and share our own talents; it’s more fun. When we get to be the ones who give, we get to show just how willing, capable, and loving we are. But when we allow others to give to us, we let them show off all those things. We see just how willing, capable, and loving they are.

7. We see the good side of more people.

I once fell out of my wheelchair on a very dark and deserted street. I was only on the ground a moment when a loud car roared to a stop next to me. Out jumped a muscly, shaved-head, tattooed, could-be-described-as-frightening guy. He wore a skin-tight wife-beater and baggy, super low jeans with his boxers puffed out. He strutted toward me and, without a word, scooped me up, and put me back into my wheelchair. Then left.

In my ten years of being paralyzed, I have learned that no one will deny me help when they understand the situation. There have been times when, at first, people haven’t understood, and I had a well-dressed lady tell me off for not knowing how to pump gas into my car (once she understood that I couldn’t walk she felt terrible and pumped it for me. We parted as friends.)  I’ve had people question why I am asking for help (again, it usually is when I am in my car and they can’t see I can’t walk). But once someone understands the need, they are more than willing to help!

I think it is important to understand that almost everyone is ready and willing to help with whatever they can, but they just need to understand what that is. It is common for people to offer a well-meaning, “Call me for anything!” but we need to call them. And tell them how they can help.

Yes, this means there is a certain degree of pride-swallowing. We have to admit – out loud – that we need help. But I promise that if we’re willing to help others understand our situation, they will love the opportunity to help.

8. We develop more empathy.

When sharing about a current challenge, no one likes to hear that someone “knows” what they’re talking about. Unless, of course, they really do. And to really “know” about someone’s trial, you have had to have been there. Done that.

Some might argue with me, saying they understand diabetes perfectly, because they tended their uncle all the way to his grave. I agree that this person definitely understands diabetes well, but their perfect understanding is with giving care to a patient with diabetes, not in having the disease itself.

True empathy is like a beautiful flower bouquet. You might see and smell other beautiful flowers, you might have pressed your face against the petals of others, but the only ones you can really give are the ones in your hand.

All moms have a lot in common, but I have seen the tender interactions between moms of patients at Primary Children’s Hospital. The trials they share bring them closer together. They understand each other on a level only reached through experience.

Once we’ve endured a trial and come out on the other side, it is our choice if we’re going to use our newfound expertise to help others. Elder Ulisses S. Soares told us to do so. He said, “…each one of us must look around and reach out to the sheep who are facing the same circumstances and lift them up and encourage them…”

A favorite poem of mine by Will Allen Dromgoole shares the sweet need for all of us to reach out to others who are going through something we’ve endured and conquered:

An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day,
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”

9. We gain more opportunities.

My husband and I run the Ms. Wheelchair Utah pageant. We founded it the year after I was paralyzed and our mission is “to provide opportunities for women and girls in wheelchairs to recognize their unique potential, not in spite of being wheelchair bound, but because of it.”

I see many girls, just like me, who’ve found purpose in being wheelchair bound. Some are athletes, some are speakers, some are teachers, some are students. These girls have a lot of success. But sadly, I’ve also met many girls who are simply wheelchair bound.

I don’t believe the successful girls are just “lucky.” I don’t believe the less-than-successful girls have it “harder.” I think it just comes down to who is willing to answer the door when opportunity knocks.

…and this goes for all of us.

Because of his experiences in the Nazi concentration camp, Viktor Frankl was able to write Man’s Search for Meaning. While it took a strong heart and a lot of overcoming, Frankl saw the opportunities for learning and growth in the terrible circumstances he was in.

Opportunity doesn’t always knock at the door we want. In fact, I would dare say that opportunity’s faint knock taps three doors down on the wind-beaten wood of a door with rusty hinges. But if we’re willing to answer the door and welcome the unsolicited learning experiences, we can find a new path for success we’ve never considered. We can reach our potential, not in spite of the trials we face, but because of them.

10. We can have more times of inexplicable peace.

My face was pressed into the red dirt as I lay at the bottom of the 45-foot cliff I’d just fallen from. I knew stuff was broken. I knew stuff was bleeding. I knew it was bad. The people around me seemed frantic, but I, surprisingly, was calm. I was peaceful. I knew I was going to be okay.

I have since had many moments of peace when “peaceful” would not be a word used by onlookers to describe the situation.

I have a friend whose teenage son struggles with a terrible disease that affects her whole family. I asked her what blessing she gets from her trials, and she told me, simply, peace. She said that between unwanted lab results, looming medical procedures, and missed baseball games, when she feels she might be at her breaking point, she reaches toward God. And even though chaos is two feet away, she has an inexplicable pain-free moment to rejuvenate. “Without trials,” she said, “we wouldn’t seek those moments out.”

When faced with a seemingly insurmountable trial, people tend to go one of two ways. They can reach toward God, or, well, not. And while I’ve met many in varying degrees of toward-God-or-not, I haven’t ever met anyone (who is experiencing a difficult trial) in the middle.

When we reach toward God we can have peace. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:27)

Reaching toward some divine reason for why we’re struggling so much gives us hope. It helps us accept that, while our lives might be terribly trying right now, it is for a reeeeally good reason. Like the beautiful poem by Corrie ten Boom reads:

My life is but a weaving
Between my God and me.
I cannot choose the colors
He weaveth steadily.
Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow;
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
And I the underside.
Not ’til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvas
And reveal the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned
He knows, He loves, He cares;
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives the very best to those
Who leave the choice to Him.

So there you go. Ten ways trials give us more out of life. Let me rephrase that, ten ways trials CAN give us more. We have to be willing to become more confident, patient, and strong. We need to take a step back to appreciate what we have and not get hung up on what we don’t. We have to want to see things the way they really are and not lose our optimism. We must allow others to help us and find ways we can help others.

We have to recognize the opportunities available, even if they lead us down a path so far from the one we’d rather be on.

And we have to seek those moments of rejuvenating peace, pecial moments just for us, if we’ll take them.

I know it’s been said before, but this old adage, at least to me, never gets old: Trials don’t define us. They refine us. I know that I am what I am, and you are what you are, because of the trials we’ve experienced. Big trials. Small trials. We all have some of both and each is meant for one purpose – to give us more.

***If you would like to continue following Meg's inspiring story, you can check out her website or her facebook page.


Finding Joy Through Devastation

Last Wednesday and yesterday (just the evening) were devastating days, and I'm still not sure how to accept or handle what is happening.  Twice in the last week, I have experienced the shaking, difficult breathing, and heart racing of mania again.  I haven't had this since April, and I had already forgotten much of the detail of how miserable and painful it is.

Part of me wants to be so angry and upset, to question "why me?," and to not try to pick back up from this, but another *better* part of me knows that bitterness will never get me anywhere.  I must keep going.  I must keep trying to find joy even through this devastation.

I knew this was probably coming.  I knew that the high of mania that I have been experiencing (that I finally took the time to write about just before it changed... haha) wouldn't last forever.  But it didn't really sink in completely that I would face something so horrible again.

Currently, I am not taking any medications and haven't been since June.  In December, I started taking lithium and Zoloft.  After 3 dose increases and still only minimal progress with the mania and depression, we switched to latuda.  This switch was twofold.  We knew we needed to switch to something new to try to help me feel better, but also latuda is the only bipolar medication approved for pregnancy, so we switched to that one with the hope of being able to have another baby soon (of course through inspiration and prayer which I will share in another post at a later date).

The first two months after taking the latuda, my mania improved dramatically.  It was like night and day.  Suddenly, the mania turned into a very pleasant high and was a welcomed relief after each phase of deep depression.  It was the time I could catch up on things, feel like myself, and feel some of the good emotions that were missing for so long.  Unfortunately, at the same time, this medication made my depression much worse, to the point of me feeling absolutely no hope during that phase and thinking about dying hundreds of times a day.  It also made me very sleepy, so sleepiness combined with severe depression meant having very intense struggles to even get out of bed.

By the end of the two months, my mania went away completely, and I spent the next few weeks in this unrelenting depression.  It was getting worse by the day, so I told my psychiatrist. She upped the dose with the hope that it would maybe improve my depression.  After taking the increased dose for only 2 weeks, I knew that I couldn't take it anymore.  Those two weeks, I was so tired that I could only stay awake for a few hours each day.  I hoped this would improve as I got used to the medication, but the psychiatrist told me the unfortunate news that this would not improve over time if that was how my body reacted to it.

Feeling like there was no other option and under the direction of the psychiatrist, I stopped taking the medication.  I felt relieved stopping it and went on a wonderful vacation with my family the next week.  I was happy to be awake and feeling relatively well for that precious time with my family.

Shortly after, my cycles began switching again with my mania staying very enjoyable.  It was such a blessing to have that time, and I am holding onto the hope that I can get there again.

After almost two months of being off the medication and still doing well with the mania, I thought and hoped and even prayed that it would stay like this forever.  We could just quickly have a baby (because we know this is right for our family at this time, even though it will be very difficult for me... I promise that post will come soon) and then figure out something else later.

But this last week all the good emotions that have been filling my mania left as I endured a very difficult and painful mania.  Part of the hurt came from the actual symptoms I was experiencing, and the other part was from the memory of all I endured before we got this under control.  It's so hard taking a step back, especially into something so difficult to understand and endure, but I know that good things will come in time.

We are exploring further options at this time and hoping to find something that will at least provide some relief while we attempt to grow our family.  As my mind feels so weighed down by the fear that things are going to get even harder in the coming weeks, I find relief in looking for joy and the evidence of God's abundant blessings all around me:
  • I am LOVING my haircut!  Seriously, it's so fun having short hair, and it has motivated me to do my hair every morning since getting it cut!!  Just the small act of doing my hair every morning has made me feel better.  I feel like I am doing something to make myself feel good, and I genuinely enjoy getting ready in the morning again!  
  • Yesterday was the first good day I've had at church in weeks or months.  I didn't struggle at all!  It felt like the greatest blessing I could ever have!
  • I got a new sewing machine (my last one faced a tragic death after smashing down on the concrete at the hands of my 2-year-old), and I have really enjoyed sewing to fight my struggles.  Something about creating with my hands makes me feel calm.
  • A few people have told me about specific ways that my blog has helped them.  My heart and mind have been filled with clarity that my struggles have a purpose, because I can use every devastating experience I face to uplift and hopefully bless another.  This makes all the pain worth it!
  • Two Sundays ago, I had a very hard day.  But for the first time in a while, I didn't hold in the pain and endure the three hours.  I let it out.  I cried nearly all three hours of church, and my broken heart was wrapped in so much love from the kind people who love, care, and selflessly want to help.  My life has been beyond blessed by the wonderful people God has handpicked to be in my life at this time.
  • My husband and daughter have continued to show unconditional love and bring me overflowing joy as they help me through this difficult time.  I will never have to face my struggles alone with them by my side.
I am blessed, really really blessed!  I know that I can get through whatever devastation comes my way as long as I trust in God and have the courage to search for the joy that is all around me.  Someday all of this will be made right, and I will have the privilege of seeing the complete, perfect purpose to this painful time, and I'm sure that will be glorious!  For now, I am holding onto anything that resembles hope and trusting in good days ahead.


That We Might Have Joy: Trish's Story

Searching for Honeysuckle in Winter

I firmly believe that my little portion of Heaven, whenever I end up there, will have permanent lilac blossoms lining my home.  (And that home doesn’t even have to be a mansion.)  I fully expect Mimosa trees to be blooming their perfect Truffula-like flowers, and, above all, I’d like to request perpetually blossoming honeysuckle bushes.  

If possible, I’d also like to settle in the mouth of canyon of a glorious mountain that surrenders to an ocean beachfront.  And lastly, of course, an orchard of citrus trees will grow there, promising to bear its juicy fruits for the greatest love of my life, so he can cultivate the trees he loves so much.  And our kids and their children and their children’s children will come and bask in the joy of late nights on top of tree houses underneath a blanket of stars.

This is what Heaven looks like to me.  

In the meantime, I look forward to these late spring and early summer flowers every year.  Each time I find them, I try to stop and savor the moment, because for one reason or another, their blooms are so very brief.  I often, usually while drinking in their perfect fragrances, find myself wondering, ‘Why, oh why, can’t this moment last forever?!’  

I’m no scientist.  I don’t understand botany, and chemistry freaks me out.  But if I could, I would  create the world’s first forever-blooming Lilac-Honeysuckle Mimosa tree.  I’d call it the ‘Honey Limosa’.  Then again, it’d probably smell like social garlic growing next to a garbage can.  Either that or I’d accidentally blow up my garage...and my neighbor’s (sorry in advance, neighbor I love so much.)

The truth is, the perfection I’m seeking is impossible in this existence.  And it’s only now, as I feel the contentment and peace of a quiet moment this afternoon, that I feel such clarity.  I am writing this reminder for me, more than anyone, with the hope that I can remember this simple truth in the inevitable ebbs and flows to come.  I hope I can remember, not just during future victories, but also during the waterfalls of tears, that everything will be okay.  

For now, right now, it qualifies.  And that can be enough if I let it be.

In this today, I recognize how, yes, life is like a box of chocolates but it’s also like the search for  Honeysuckle.  For several years, our family has endured the pain of what feels like winter.  It’s a loneliness others can feel with you, support and love you through, and yet, you still feel alone.  It’s hard, in the midst of carrying cumbersome burdens, to see the joy, the Honeysuckle if you will, that lies before you.  But even if you can’t see it, however deeply it’s hiding, it is still there.

Now, the back story:  
Our winter began 4 ½ years ago.  We were living in a place we’d affectionately come to call ‘Neverland’.  Our home was a few steps from a river that emptied into the ocean nearby, our neighbors grew citrus trees that smelled like pure joy, and our home was part of a circle where little feet ran in between the houses so often that there were paths worn where grass no longer grew.  It was a good life.  We were finally financially comfortable, feeling the promise of paying med school loans off early.  We traveled, we played, we served.  We were happy.

And then, the bottom dropped out.  During the furlough, my husband’s department ran out of money.  Most don’t get 7 months notice their job is disappearing, but we did.  We were grateful, but after weighing our options for several of those months, we realized we had to move.  My husband had been practicing his license under the umbrella of the military out of the state he originally licensed in.  The process of re-licensing and buying a practice in Neverland felt wrong, no matter how much we wanted it to be right.  And so, after much reluctance, we packed up and left.  

We arrived back ‘home.’  We were both scared, and I was pregnant.  Job prospects for many medical professionals are frightening right now.  There’s so much debate and political infighting between the powers-that-be and so many of those within the medical field are left holding the bag.  My husband is among them.  

Gratefully, he’s been blessed by incredible mentors who love and support him, but he had to start over in his late thirties.  Working two jobs that pay less than minimum wage as he builds his practice has been one of the hardest thing we’ve ever done.  During part of his training, he was gone for six months of the year our first son was born.  And I’ve watched him agonize over the pain of feeling like a complete failure.  

Our children have carried the load of being the perpetual ‘new kids’.  They make the most of our relocations as we’ve moved several times during this period, but it has still been very hard.  As many small businesses do during the first couple of years, we hit a very rough patch last summer.  It ended with our family losing the home we intended to buy and settle into.  It wasn’t due to malice, deceit, or anything other than timing for us and our landlord.  But it was a blow our family is still recovering from.  

We were once again leaving our happy, familiar place.  It was a place where lilacs grew in our yard and honeysuckle blossomed every late spring along the path we walked daily.  I finally came to terms with the change while running very early one September morning.  I finally felt the sense of confidence I’d been seeking.  I remember thinking, ‘If this is it, we can handle this.  It can’t be that bad.’  

Two weeks later, I had a generalized seizure, formally known as a ‘grand mal’.  

I became conscious in the hospital.  My body hurt, and my head felt foggy.  I couldn’t understand most of the words people around me were saying.  And the look on my unwavering, level-headed husband was one I’d never seen on him before.  Fear.  I didn’t know it at the time, but he thought I had a stroke.  I remember thinking, ‘This is the last thing he needs right now.’

The following months were a dance between recovering and preparing for the next seizure.  Then finally, a diagnosis.  Epilepsy.  Weird.  I’d never had anything like it before.  Why now?  Right as I was preparing to self-publish my first book that I’d worked so hard and long for.  Why me, why us?  We were trying to do everything right.  Why did crap like this keep happening?

I was angry.  I felt betrayed by my body, by God, by life.  Nothing I’d planned for, nothing I’d prayed for, nothing, seemed to go right, and it just kept getting worse.  I’ve always managed to be happy, to find the silver lining in the hard things.  But this hope began to fade, and I found myself in a very dark, very scary place.

I kept praying for deliverance, but it didn’t seem to come.  I cried.  A lot.  I agonized over how these new challenges were affecting our children.  I couldn’t drive.  I struggled to form complete sentences.  We were in a temporary home, and our creature comforts were in storage for months.  And I finally began to admit to myself:  I was miserable, and that just made me feel guilty.

I can’t say the deliverance I was pleading for came instantaneously.  Quite the contrary, actually.  But the first glimmer came early this year as I read something a wise man once said:

“Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has 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.”  (Jenkins Loyd Jones)

An even wiser man I love more than I can put into words added to this:  “Cultivate a spirit of thanksgiving for the blessing of life and for the marvelous gifts and privileges each of us enjoy.  The Lord has said that the meek shall inherit the earth. {Did you hear that?!  Honeysuckle, lilacs, Mimosas, oh my!}  I cannot escape the interpretation that meekness implies a spirit of gratitude as opposed to an attitude of self-sufficiency, an acknowledgment of a greater power beyond oneself, a recognition of God, and an acceptance of his commandments.  This is the beginning of wisdom.  Walk with gratitude before Him who is the giver of life and every good gift.”  (Gordon B. Hinckley)

In the moment I finished reading this, I realized I had forgotten to be thankful.  In the next moment, I remembered I woke up from my seizures.  Two people I love dearly never did.  I remembered, in spite of everything, we had a home, and we were surrounded by people who love us and would do anything for us.  I remembered that my children have always gone to bed at night with full bellies.  They’ve never fallen to sleep frightened for their own safety.  I remembered what a gift it is to be madly in love with someone who loves me just as madly.  I remembered what I had forgotten. 

I also realized, for the first time in my life, it’s okay to admit things are hard.  It’s okay to admit you’re having a hard time keeping it together.  It’s okay to admit you need support.  The people who count in your life will answer the call, whatever it may be.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the deliverance I was praying for was coming, and this was the first thing.  It didn’t happen in an instant.  I’m beginning to suspect it rarely does.  It dawned on me recently that Job lost everything.  EVERYTHING.  Eventually, he was blessed with even greater abundance, including an even larger family, BUT considering we all know how long it takes to bake a baby in our bellies, his deliverance probably took quite a while.  

Hmmmmm.  Lightbulb!

We all have our scenarios.  You know the ones.  They’re the ones we fear the most and plead and pray will never happen.  There are moments, usually on the bad days, we feel terribly guilty because we blew it, and yet feels like we have nothing to complain about, because everyone we love the most is still standing.  Yet, we’re still struggling to find the honeysuckle in a path of weeds.  But here’s the thing:  Life is really hard sometimes.  We get overwhelmed.  We get scared.  We get mad.  It’s okay.  It’s okay that it’s hard to find the joy.  But it’s there.  We just have to keep looking for it.  It may take a few days, weeks or even months, but we can’t give up.

I’m relieved to say, our winter feels like it’s fading.  Reflecting upon the recent past, I’m realizing it wasn’t as long or as harsh as I thought it was.  In those 4 ½ years, we’ve welcomed two sons to our family.  We haven’t had to worry about medical bills, because my husband’s second job (the one he was gone a half a year for) has provided excellent health insurance.  Our kids have been healthy, and the struggles they’ve endured have helped them become very close.  We’ve made dear, life-long friends.  And through years of hard work and late hours (not only mine, but my husband’s too), I am fulfilling my lifelong dream to become an author.

Our deliverance has, indeed, not been instantaneous, but it’s coming, and it’s been exactly what we’ve needed.  We’ve moved into our home and it’s beginning to feel familiar.  My seizures are occurring less and less and are becoming less severe.  My husband’s practice is growing, and his patients love him.  

When we moved here, I began looking for running trails.  I found one to love and began my ritual runs.  Several weeks ago, while there, a familiar scent wafted across my path.  I immediately knew.  I took a detour, running toward the smell.  It was near; I just had to find it.  
Finally, I found it.  There it was, the most glorious hidden pathway.  It was lined with honeysuckle bushes, bursting with blossoms.  It smelled just like my Heaven.  In that moment, I knew God loves me.  I swept away the guilt I felt for forgetting recently and just let myself feel it.  

I’ve run that path several times since.  Each time, there are less and less blossoms, but they still make me smile.  A couple of days ago, I noticed the blossoms were gone, changed into a lush, green bush providing shade to cool me as I ran past.  And yet, as I continued along the trail, I recognized another happy scent as it lingered.  It too, was unmistakable.  

Somewhere close, a Mimosa is beginning its summertime bloom.  
The search is over.  
For now.


Helping a Spouse with Mental Illness

Several people have asked me, "What can I do to support my spouse with a mental illness?" so I thought I'd address my thoughts on this topic.  As always, this is my experience with how my husband helps me, so some of these things might not help or be applicable in another situation, but I hope at least a few of these thoughts will help a spouse who wants to be loving and supportive to their spouse with a mental illness and simply doesn't know how.

First of all, my husband is my safe place, and he has created that feeling for me by listening, loving, and caring unceasingly.  He recognizes that he can't fix everything for me as he's not a psychiatrist or a therapist, but he is always available to listen to me talk about what I'm feeling or struggling with, dry my wet eyes, and make me smile.  Sometimes I have a hard time going to him about things, because I don't want to burden him, but I ALWAYS feel better after opening up to him, and I can't imagine not having his safe arms to hold me when my heart is shattering under the heavy pressure of darkness.

There are several different things my husband does to help me, and I usually need different things at different times, but here is the comprehensive list of things that he does to support me through this trial we are facing together.
  1. He doesn't take my feelings personally.  He recognizes that there is something chemically wrong inside my brain, and no amount of love from him can heal me.  So when I am feeling down, he recognizes that it is not his fault.  He hasn't done anything wrong to cause me to feel the way I feel, and he knows that I simply need his love, the one thing that can carry me through the pain and the raging storms inside of me. 
  2. He stays calm as we talk.  I can say with a certainty that I would feel much worse and close up if my husband got emotional as I explained my struggles to him.  His ability to calmly and patiently listen helps more than anything, because often I just need to talk about what I am thinking and feeling and then things get better.
  3. He asks me how I am really doing.  By now, my husband can tell when I am sad.  Sometimes it's hard for me to start the conversation of how I am feeling, so it really helps when he asks, giving me the opportunity to talk to him without having to find a way to start.  
  4. He knows when to be bold.  I don't know how he knows when I need this, so maybe I should have him write a blog post about his side of things, but sometimes after listening to me and as I am getting myself more worked up, he says, "It's time to stop.  You know those things aren't true, and you need to stop thinking that way."  I always hate it when he does this at the time, because it stops my thought process from continuing the way it was going, but in the end, it helps me so much!  It helps me recognize that what I am thinking and feeling is not true, and I know it.  It helps me stop thinking things that only fuel the fire already blazing in my brain.  It helps me remove my emotions from the situation and think through the current situation more rationally.  I must add though, he only does this AFTER listening to me thoroughly and recognizing that my train of thoughts are not healthy or productive.  
  5. He helps me with daily tasks.  I know I shouldn't admit this, but my husband kindly encourages me to get up, get ready, shower, brush my teeth, exercise, eat, take my medicine, etc.  I really struggle with these daily tasks, and I need his support in helping me take care of myself.  I can't adequately explain how helpful it is to have someone by my side helping me in this way, but it is one of the best things he can do for me.  
  6. He encourages me to do the things that will help me feel better.  While dishes and cleaning need to be done constantly, he patiently accepts the days that I just can't do those things and supports me in taking a mental health break.  Sometimes he makes dinner or does the dishes for me when I am struggling, because he knows that is what I need.  He is patient with me when I need time to crochet, sew, be with friends, etc. so that I can get back to feeling well again soon. 
  7. He helps me get help.  He has been fully supportive of me going to the psychiatrist (sometimes coming to the appointments if I feel like I need him there), taking medication, going to counseling, etc.  He wants me to feel better, so he does what is necessary to help me get to the point of feeling better. 
  8. He tells me over and over again that he loves me.  I often fear that my husband will stop loving me because of my struggles.  While he has never given me any inkling of a reason to believe this is true, it is still a very large fear of mine, especially because I know how lost and devastated I would be without him.  I'm sure he gets tired of reiterating to me again and again that he will always love me no matter what, but he never complains about it, and he is always willing to calm my fears by repeating to me the tender feelings he has for me.  
  9. He thanks me for what I do.  The truth is, I could do so much more, and I'm sure he knows that, but he thanks me for what I am able to do and recognizes that I am truly trying my best.  He constantly tells me that I am loved and appreciated by him and my daughter and that they both need me so much.  
  10. He asks what he can do to help me and then does it.  Sometimes I need to go for a walk, take a nap, create a schedule for my day, or find a project to do.  He suggests things that could possibly help me too, and he is always willing to do whatever we think can help me.  Often times, I know that I need to get outside or eat something, but I feel powerless doing it for myself, so he does it with me.
  11. He is my eyes and ears for truth and happiness.  He points out to me when my brain is feeding me lies.  He emphasizes times of happiness so I can remember them later. He helps me see things as they really are and not as my brokenness feels they are.
  12. He always finds a way to make me laugh through my tears.  After we get done talking about the things making me sad, he does something to make me smile.  Sometimes he tells a ridiculous joke or story, makes a pun, acts weird, etc. but he always makes me laugh.  This helps me to stop crying (sometimes it hard to stop once I've started) and to realize that everything is really truly going to be okay.  
  13. He joyfully bears my burdens with me.  He doesn't understand what it's like to struggle in this way by experience, but he has developed such an understanding of mental illness through my struggles.  He is compassionate and kind, loving and patient, reassuring and supportive.  He loves me for who I am, even the parts of me that are broken, and he genuinely wants what is best for me.  
As in all things, this has been a process that has taken time.  My husband had no clue when we first got married how to support me with my struggles, so be patient with yourself as you learn how to be supportive and loving to your spouse with a mental illness, and don't forget to take care of yourself too.  It will take time and hours of communication to figure out what works best for the two of you, but I fully believe that marriages can thrive, even when mental illness is involved.

I will forever be thankful to have the loving support of my husband through this trial of darkness.  He truly is a source of so much JOY and comfort at this time, and I'm constantly amazed at the wonderful man he is to take such good care of me through something so difficult to understand.  We are a team, and together, we can overcome anything!


The Life I Dreamed

The other day, a friend on Facebook posted, "Are you living the life you dreamed?"  This question has captivated my thoughts for the last few days as I have pondered my life and the dreams I've had for myself.

Am I living the life I dreamed?

Well, I've always had the dream of helping others.

When I was dealing with depression in 2014, I told my bishop that I wanted to get better, simply because I wanted to help others dealing with similar struggles.  I thought once I was "better," "healed," "fixed," etc. then I could finally help others, and that was my motivation for getting help for myself (along with feeling better for my family).

I remember one evening praying to God and asking Him to take away this struggle.  I sincerely prayed, "Heavenly Father, I want to serve.  I want to love.  I want to help.  But this trial is getting in my way."  I begged, "If you just take it away, I promise to reach out, to serve, to love, and to help others going through this.  I could do so much more if it was just taken away."

I continued to pray this same prayer to no avail.  The sorrow wasn't lifted.  My heart wasn't made whole.  I still struggled with daily tasks, so anything above that was nearly impossible.  And my frustration grew daily.

Why wouldn't God just take this away so I could use it to do good?  Surely I could do 100 times more if the burden of a heavy heart wasn't weighing me down.

After a couple of years of praying and begging God to relieve me of this weight so that I could do good with it, my depression lifted.  But I don't think it was in answer to my prayer.  I think it was in preparation for what God wanted to teach me.

Since that time, I have learned that I don't have to get better to help others.  In fact, the reality that I am not "better" yet has allowed me to do more than I ever dreamed of doing.  I may not have physical strength to offer, I may not be able to bring dinners to everyone who needs them or babysit every time someone needs help or clean someone's house for them (you should see my house... haha), but I have my heart to offer-- my understanding, my compassion for those struggling, my talents, and my love.  I have my own story to give, my life experiences in their raw, honest form.

And while it's hard for me not to wish that I could help without feeling these painful emotions or that I could offer something other than my understanding of mental illness, I have grown to feel thankful that God knew not to take away my struggle when I asked (and sometimes still ask).

Am I living the life I dreamed?

I'm certainly not living my dreams as I envisioned them, but I would say that I am living something greater than what I dreamed, because God saw more in me than I saw in myself, and He found a way to take the little I have to offer and turn it into something more.  He has changed my life in a way that reaches beyond anything I could have done and has made my fondest dreams a beautiful reality.


That We Might Have Joy: Jennie's Story

I have always struggled with anxiety, though I didn't know it at the time. It's in my blood. So is depression. Years ago, I traveled to Mozambique for a service mission of sorts with a non-profit organization. We went to an orphanage and held the babies and played with the kids. I felt an immediate connection with one of the babies I picked up, one of those connections where there aren't words to describe it. My heart knew him. My heart wanted him. One of the nurses we were with saw him and said that he wasn't going to make it. He had AIDS. I was devastated for him. Not knowing much about the disease, I held on to the hope that she was wrong, and I would some day be able to adopt him. About a month after I had been home, I found out that he had passed away. I didn't know it at the time, but that news sunk me into a deep depression. I struggled to get out of bed. I struggled to interact with people. Through much prayer to my Heavenly Father and counsel from my earthly father, I was able to pull out of it for the most part. Though my heart still longs for that boy daily.

Years passed, and I had my first child. Through complications with the pregnancy, I ended up needing a C-section. I felt as if my womanhood was stripped from me. I was broken. I could not deliver a baby the "normal" way. Again, I sunk deep into depression, post-partum depression. I resented myself for not being good enough, strong enough. I resented my child for being breach.

Again, I finally was able to talk it out and pull out of the funk. I did not believe in medication at the time. I had to be perfect. I had to put on my "perfect" face and check the boxes each day to ensure I never went back to that place. Of course, this was black and white thinking that never got me anywhere.

Over the years of having children, it was a whirlwind of emotions (as it always is).  One child contracted whooping cough that nearly killed her. (Trauma is real! And it plays a huge impact on how we deal with life!)  Then baby number 6 was conceived. Finally, after 5 girls, we would have a boy! The pregnancy was rocky from the moment we took the pregnancy test. I began bleeding, and it was pretty evident that we would miscarry, which we possibly did miscarry a twin. Our little guy hung on for dear life. I was told I had placenta previa at 16 weeks and was put on bed rest. Then about 21/22 weeks we found out that I also had another condition called placenta accreta, where the placenta inbeds itself into the scar tissue of the uterus (from previous C-sections) and often grows like a cancer through the uterus attaching itself to other organs.

After seeing a perinatologist, it was confirmed. I was still spotting daily, and they were concerned that I would hemorrhage (a common side effect of the accreta). So I said goodbye to my husband and kids and went over an hour away to a specialist hospital (about 24 weeks along).  They watched me for the next 6 weeks. I had two major bleeds during that time, and they told me that the third bleed is usually when things get critical. They didn't want me to get to that point, so we scheduled a C-section/hysterectomy for a few days later. My baby would be born 9 weeks early! His chances of living were decent, but the possibilities were endless of the complications he and I would both have. My chances of survival were unknown but not looking great. I did the hardest thing I ever had to do. I told my husband I wanted him to re-marry. Our children needed a mother, and he needed a companion. I wrote him and my children my final letters to let them know how much I loved them. We asked everyone we knew to envelope us in fasting and prayer.

Surgery day came, and the plan was to let me see the baby before they put me completely under for the crucial part of the surgery. We had a complication, and they ended up needing to put me under before delivery. When my husband came into the room for the delivery, he said there was blood everywhere. After an 11 hour surgery and 5 units of blood, I had survived! My baby was in the NICU. I was in the ICU. I woke up intubated, which brought on a whole new set of trauma. My finger, and well, everything was swollen to capacity. I was still in pretty critical condition, but I was alive. They had to take my uterus to keep me from bleeding out. They also had to remove it from my bladder.

After, it would be 24 hours until I could see my baby. 36 before I could hold him. He was stable but weak. I was stable now but weak. Three days after surgery, I looked very ill and pale. They gave me two more units of blood, which did wonders. 5 days after surgery, I was released from the hospital where I would spend the next week in a hotel, drain and catheter in tow.

Our last night/morning in the hotel, I ended up going back in to the hospital for complications. There I was told I needed another surgery. I was terrified. My poor husband was a wreck knowing I wasn't out of the woods yet. (He has is own very traumatic story watching all of the last two months happen and having no control.)

I went back "under" so that they could fix a hole that had broken through in my bladder. I was terrified to wake up intubated again. The surgery went well, and I was able to go home that day.

I got to see my children for the first time in a while. I sat there on the couch, an hour away from my baby, empty. He was still fighting for his life as he struggled with breathing. Despite the steroids, his lungs were still very underdeveloped. One of his doctors had been part of the team that developed a surfactant to be able to help give NICU babies the extra boost they needed. This did wonders for our little miracle man.

I was still so weak from being on bed rest for so long and having 2 surgeries in under 2 weeks. I had to resign myself to turning my baby over to the doctors to take care of him so that I could heal. I was so fragile that the trip to Phoenix and back was too much some days. I saw him when I could, but knew I had to get well so that when he did get home, I could take care of him.

9 weeks after surgery, I was able to finally ditch my catheter and pee like most human beings again! The next day, our little man was able to come home. A few months after surgery, I began to notice my anxiety was larger than normal. I would be terrified to go to sleep. I would lay in bed at night staring down the hallway just waiting for catastrophe to strike.

I noticed it in other areas of my life as well. I began researching this magnified level of anxiety and talked with professionals and others who had been through the same experience. That is when I learned that I had PTSD. I thought PTSD was something you only could get going off to war. I was quickly tearing up from the inside out. When the anniversaries came, I was a mess, re-living each and every moment of each and every day of it all. I saw a counselor who was amazing with trauma, and eventually was able to convince myself to get on medication. I tried everything to avoid it, thinking it would just prove what I already knew-- I was broken.

The trial and error of the medication took me on a roller coaster. I became very suicidal with a couple of them. I hung on to the hope that someday I would be able to be "normal" again.

We found one that worked, and I was thankful to be back to life, as normal as life could be. I continued to bake a little more than I had done in the past. I found it to be very therapeutic for me. I took on more challenges in that world, learning new things and pushing myself to be better. I found my nitch. I loved it. In those moments, I was able to let go of everything and just do what I loved.

Then we moved out of state. I forgot for a while how therapeutic it was and began to focus on the stress of getting cakes perfect and having them ready for weddings and parties on time, so I decided not to continue my little baking business that I had built.

Then this last winter hit. It was long. It was depressing. We had some close calls with the icy roads, and I began to just stay home to avoid them. Then I began to stay in bed to avoid looking out the window and facing reality. I knew I was getting depressed but didn't care. My two little children knew how to get their own snacks, and I let them take care of themselves as I watched them from my bed. I let the TV babysit us all while my husband and kids were at school.

I got to a very, very dark place in my life. I was frequently having panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. I knew I needed to go to a mental hospital, but I knew how rough it would be on my family. At least I was home with my kids, so my husband didn't have to worry. Although he did worry. Every day he worried. He dreaded each day, hoping he wouldn't get that phone call. He tried to keep it together and push through school, so he could provide better for his family.

He would offer help and advice. I didn't want it. He would keep offering it, offering love. Finally one day, he asked me to do one thing physical each day and that was all he wanted from me. Even if it was getting myself out of bed and going right back in. At least I would have something positive to say I accomplished that day, and I wouldn't have to beat myself up for all of the things I didn't do each day, which feeds the anxiety and depression.

I slowly began getting out of bed, wanting to live. It was long and hard, but I was getting better. I became strong enough to see a doctor about getting back on medication. I started going to a counselor. Then one day I knew; I knew I needed to bake again. Not just for my family but for others. I needed to connect. I needed someone outside of family to count on me. I began building my business back up, and it felt good. I had something to help me get out of bed in the mornings. I had something to look forward to each day.

My desire to end my life began to leave as I pushed myself to try and accomplish new things, as I put myself out there for others to see, as I created relationships and connected with people. I began to thrive. It has been about 6 months since I started dreaming and living again. Baking saved my life. (Of course the medication and therapy were huge factors in helping me get to the point that I could start baking again!)

I have been able to fulfill (with lots of help and connections) dreams I always wanted, but never thought possible. I have been able to put myself "out there" and challenge myself to reach greater heights, accomplish un-accomplishable tasks. I have been able to live again!