A Letter to Mormons

Dear Mormon Neighbors,

Having lived in Gilbert for most of my life, we have been visited by many young, passionate, Mormon missionaries throughout the years. Recently they have been offering their help with anything we may need assistance with. These exchanges always include the typical pleasantries where I thank them for their generous offer, and add that, “no, we don’t need help with anything at this time.” After their last visit however, as the young men pedaled away, I realized that I do have a request. A request that has been bubbling beneath the surface, unspoken for quite some time now. A desire that began formulating in my grade school years and has been refined since having children of my own. The next time a Mormon missionary asks if there’s anything they can do for me, I’m going to humbly and vulnerably reply as follows:

  • Please teach your children to be inclusive of my non-mormon children and please guide them to carry that inclusion past grade school, into middle school, and throughout high school.
  • Please encourage your children to sit with mine in the lunchroom.
  • Please permit your kids to invite my kids to their slumber parties, birthday parties, and weekend get togethers even AFTER my child has made it clear that he or she is not interested in attending fireside, seminary, or church with your family.
  • Please allow your teen to go with mine to school dances, athletic events, and group dinners trusting that just like you, my husband and I have done the best we know how to raise a teenager who knows right from wrong.
  • Please welcome my children into your homes and permit your children to visit ours.
  • Please ask your kids to consider how isolating it must be on “Seminary (extra credit) Days” for those kids who do NOT come to school dressed for church.
  • Please reflect on the fact that adolescents spend the majority of their waking hours comparing themselves to their peers, so when they recognize that it would never be “acceptable” to date your son or daughter or be your son or daughter’s best friend, it is, at best, damaging to their delicate self-esteem.
  • Please call to mind your younger years when your primary objective was to be loved and accepted for who you were without having to pretend you were someone else.
  • Please understand that my families faith also emphasizes the importance of loving others, giving of ourselves, forgiving those who have wronged us and seeking forgiveness when we wrong others, doing what is right and turning from evil, seeking a relationship with God, spending time in prayer, and living a life inspired by Jesus.
  • Please support your children in having open, vulnerable, honest, transparent, loving, kind, accepting conversations with my children about what they believe and why. In fact, while our kids are having that “grown-up” conversation, I also hope to enter into this depth of sharing with you…the Mormon parent.
  • Please know that I hold your child in the same regard as any other child who shares my family’s faith or who prescribes to no religion at all. Your child is special, and beautiful, and worthy of my love and caring regardless of doctrine or theology.
  • Please believe that I see our differences as an opportunity for us to grow together in loving-acceptance. God did not call us to tolerate our neighbors. I love and welcome you, your family, and your faith because we are all children of God made in His image. Your faith is a sizable component of who you are, and you are God’s creation with gifts and beauty and a soul that has the ability to positively transform my life with each encounter.

As these hopes for my children spill out, I realize that these are the same yearnings I had when I was too young to express them and they remain yearnings for me now. I would like to know my Mormon neighbors. I would like for us to share our celebrations and mourn our losses together. I would like to enter into deep relationships with you that allow us to celebrate our differences and lift each other up versus silently judging one another from across the street or the backyard fence. I would like us to hug and share dinners, and text jokes, and go to movies, and have pool parties, and discuss politics, and cry and laugh, and live life together. These desires have never been expressed because I never felt important enough to express them, but now that I have children there is nothing more vital than ensuring they have a deep sense of belonging to this village we chose to raise them in.

For decades now I have felt an invisible yet palpable partition between my family and our mormon neighbors…a silent criterion that has said, “we can’t be that close…we can’t walk this life together too often, we can’t be intimate friends unless we share the same faith.” I want to tear down this barricade and abolish this silent destroyer of fellowship. I fear we are forfeiting valuable friendships and life-changing communion with one another as we allow religion to segregate our lives.

We are not that different. Our children are not that different. We are all living in a beautiful yet broken world doing the best we can with what we have. With inclusion and acceptance we can lighten each other’s burdens and love each other through the brokenness. We are all damaged humans, so let’s be damaged together. As our fractured pieces are assembled together, we will transform into a magnificent and vast tapestry of vibrant hues and unity…we can weave our hearts into a community of “us”…dynamic threads of surviving souls stretching out to reach each other, love each other, understand each other….staying true to ourselves while supporting one another. Loved and loving! Fully belonging!

Sincerely,

Renee’ (your hopeful neighbor)

P.S. I am not proposing that Mormons are the only religious group that could receive a request comparable to this one, or that this applies to every Mormon. I’m also not assuming that I wouldn’t, myself, benefit from reading the same words and applying them to my life with regards to another group or an “other,” an “outsider.” I believe every religion and every denomination could benefit from being more inclusive, but I write this letter in relation to my own experiences and memories and the concerns I have for my children. My Jewish/Agnostic husband could write an identical letter, based on his history, and just change the greeting to Dear Christians or Dear Italian Catholics. We can all admit that it feels good to belong to a group, but too often it’s at the expense of living a life void of those who are different from us, and I believe this is a tragedy. It is exhausting to correctly locate and consistently remain in the good graces of the right “club” these days. Race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, political affiliation, socio-economic status, neighborhood, state, coast, country, profession, and the list of ways we etch the invisible line goes on and on. I find that when I try too hard to belong to a particular group I lose sight of God’s vision for my life, which starts with loving “others” the way He loves me. We are created for community, and I believe our lives will always be richer if we truly follow God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. I pray that God will give us the courage to knock down walls, the strength to build bridges, and the grace to love with out qualifiers. I pray that my children will grow up loved and loving! Fully belonging!

Constellation Baby

To my dear son Isaac Burton,

You met him once in the vastness of heaven and space. His arms reaching for you, no longer stiff, no longer cold. The cosmos faded as he watched you draw near. His eyes smiled, no longer grey, no longer lifeless.

He waited for you in the stars and held you close as you journeyed through the constellations.

He whispered his love for you and kissed you gently before you entered the life from which he had just departed. He shared his ocean blue eyes and startling smile with you – those eyes and that smile that he inconceivably left by the Ty River. You touched his soul, swallowed his essence, embraced his light, and then you EXPLODED into our world.

You met our grief with healing and beauty and powerful, overwhelming life. Your first breath was a cooling and beautiful fog over our scalding trauma – a cleansing of our hearts that had festered with loss and bled with each shattering tear. Your ocean blue eyes opened and we saw him gazing back, searing hope into our souls, connecting life and loss in a circle of complete unity. Both of you permanently branded into our lives forever. Your smile illuminated the room as if he were there, holding us together in his starlight. Your vivacious cry was his voice assuring us that we can hurt and still heal. We can shudder with grief and still laugh. We can die and still live in the hearts of those who loved us and those we meet in heaven’s stars.

In Loving Memory of my brother, Burton James

 

My Testimony

For 34 years, I described my faith as “inherited.” I spent a significant amount of my adult life wrestling with my convictions and whether or not my spiritual life was solely a result of my upbringing. I openly shared with other Christian friends the desire to have a faith that was my own, a faith I experienced first hand, a faith I had heard so many others enthusiastically proclaim from the pulpit after encountering a miracle in the midst of their life’s “rock bottom.” I longed for something to strengthen my spiritual walk…I longed to know The Lord in a way so real that there would be no room for doubt….I longed for a testimony that I couldn’t ignore or explain away. I always sensed deep down that to secure my faith, I would need a moment where everything changed….saved by something supernatural, something undeniably bigger than myself. I spent many years praying for that moment and that it would forever obliterate my lingering uncertainty. I prayed for a testimony that I could share with passion and authenticity.

I was 12 weeks pregnant with our first baby and it was 7am on Mother’s Day when my phone rang. I saw that it was my sister-in-law and immediately assumed she was calling to wish me my first “Happy Mother’s Day.” I answered the phone and cheerfully said, “Happy Mother’s Day Nicole,” but in a distant and shaky voice she responded by asking if I was with my husband and if she could speak to him instead. As my husband held the phone, I thought I heard her whisper, “Burt’s dead.” My mind immediately began rejecting the sights and sounds around me as I watched the color drain from my husband’s face and listened to him vehemently repeat, “that’s not funny….stop…why are you saying that?” He left the room and I watched the walls close in around me as the world disappeared. I somehow summoned the courage and the strength to walk from my bedroom to the living room as my husband returned from the porch and somehow conveyed to me that my brother had died in a tragic accident. Reality ripped through me like a jagged knife and I my heart was left severed…barely beating. Soul shattering pain has a sound. It’s deafening silence is filled with cries so raw they don’t sound human. Grief has a taste and a texture. It is sharp and unforgiving. It is bitter but necessary to survive. Tragedy alters your senses forever. I began trembling in an effort to reject the truth as I begged, “you must’ve misunderstood…that could not have happened…he’s probably hurt and in the hospital, but he’s not dead!” I insisted that my husband call the chaplain to get the correct information…information I could live with. I was absolutely convinced there had been a horrible mistake…an incomprehensible misunderstanding and that another phone call would clear up all of the confusion, loss, and darkness. With another call it was confirmed that we were now facing the most harrowing weeks of our lives. I fell to my knees in the middle of the floor, crying out in a voice I didn’t recognize, shaking and rocking as if my body was incapable of absorbing another breath. My husband placed a blanket around my shoulders as if my trembling could be rectified with physical warmth. Screams escaped the deepest part of my being, “not my family! This doesn’t happen to us! This doesn’t happen to us!! What about my mom!? Where’s my mom?! It’s Mother’s Day! Not us! Not us! Not my brother! My mom! Where’s my mom?!” Even 3 years later, when I think back to that horrifying day it’s as if I’m separated from it all and watching from a dark detached place. From afar I can see my mom at my front door trembling with disbelief. I watch my little brother kick open the front door, throw his hat across the room and embrace my mom and I with arms that would never hug our brother in this world again. The sorrow is tangible. The pain audible. I used to hear stories of loss or watch tragedy on the news and say, “I can’t imagine!” and I was right…I truly could never have imagined how horrific unexpected grief would be. Even now that I’ve lived through something traumatic, there’s a barrier my soul has created to protect me from fully re-imagining the devastation. When I let my mind wander, I still cannot conceive surviving the kind of loss my family has already survived. It’s as if what we endured that day was from a separate life…a life once removed and even though we made it to the other side I cannot fathom weathering another tragedy like the loss of my brother.

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My brother and his beautiful family

Five months after Burt’s passing, my little brother (Ryan) and I flew to Seattle to tour where our older brother had spent the last year of his life. We ate his favorite food at his favorite restaurants, took his favorite hikes, and visited where he had very happily worked for the year before we lost him.

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Ryan and I on Burt’s favorite hike

It was a beautiful and gut-wrenching trip. As we waited in the airport for our flight home we reminisced about the emotional yet healing trip we had just encountered. I was flooded with emotion when I finally worked up the nerve to ask Ryan, “How do you know Burt is ok? How do you know God is real? How do you KNOW that you know?” Void of judgment, my younger brother shared with me that he knew Burt was ok because he knows The Lord is real and that his personal relationship with God our Father has made his faith strong. With the few tears I had left, I admitted to Ryan that I didn’t have this faith but that I had longed for it for years. I confessed, “I don’t know that The Lord is real. I don’t know that Burt is ok or that there’s a heaven. I have so much doubt and I want to have peace. I have no peace and I’m scared.” Ryan and I had a powerfully honest and vulnerable conversation and he promised he would be praying that I would find the assurance and peace I was seeking. There was no way for me to imagine the turn my life would take, the challenges I would face, the fear that would soon flood my heart and mind.

Shortly after our trip I became completely debilitated with a chronic migraine that stole my life for months. I wasn’t just weak or weary…I was profoundly incapacitated. After having our son, Isaac Burton, we moved in with my parents. I was unable to work, unable to drive, unable to run a simple errand or clean my house. I was unable to do most of the things we take for granted every day. The loss I experienced from no longer being able to participate in everyday tasks didn’t hold a candle to the grief I felt due to not being able to care for my one and only newborn baby boy. I couldn’t provide the basic things a mother gives her child. I couldn’t feed my son, I couldn’t bathe him or play with him or even laugh with him. I couldn’t comfort my son when he cried. I was soon on 10 different medications whose side effects made me so ill I lost 40lb in less than 2 months. I saw multiple chiropractors, acupuncturists, reflexologists, massage therapists, dentists, endodontists, 6 different neurologists, visited the ER 3 times and was finally hospitalized for infusion therapy for 3 days with zero progress. It was after this hospitalization that my husband drove his spiritless wife back to her parent’s house while she was swallowed by a dark abyss.

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How I spent most of my days for 5 months

A day or two after my hospitalization my brother and sister-in-law brought dinner over for the whole family. My pain was too extreme and the multiple meds I was on made me too sick to eat, so I retreated to my parents room and laid down on their bed. My brother soon followed to offer me a head and shoulder massage in the hopes that he could give me a little relief from the constant pain I had been living with for months. My brother began praying over me and although I don’t remember his words, I do remember the tears of desperation and hoping with all of my being that the power of his prayer would lead to that miraculous testimony I had been longing for. I was imploring the Lord for a miracle.

The next day, as I was taking a shower, fear hopelessness and suffering poured out of me in angry and desperate cries. This moment became the darkest and most isolating time I have ever experienced. The minor physical relief I felt while in the shower magnified the emotional pain of knowing that this relief was only temporary and that my quality of life would once again disintegrate as soon as I stepped out of the shower. I began to sob so uncontrollably that my mom and dad heard me from the living room. My mom opened the bathroom door and hesitantly asked me if I was ok and I could barely choke out a “no.” She offered me an over-sized fresh towel, but I was well beyond physical comforts. Soon, my husband came into the bathroom. He pulled back the curtain and said, “Renee’ talk to me.” All I could utter, over and over and over as I held myself in the fetal position on the shower floor, was

I can’t go on….I’m giving up…I can’t go on….I’m giving up…I can’t go on…I’m giving up.”

I explained that if this was living, then I did NOT want to live and that Isaac deserved a mommy who could care for him, play with him, laugh with him. I told him that the only future my mind’s eye held was one where I lied in a bed watching Isaac grow up while he watched me whither into nothingness. I had come to believe that I if I went on living I would do so without being a part of my son’s life and that I couldn’t bare the thought of deteriorating in front of him. I can say without any dramatization that in that moment I wanted to die and I was ready to go…begging The Lord to take me and my suffering and the suffering I was causing and would continue to cause to those who loved me. With fear and determination in his eyes, Pete said, “I will not listen to you talk like this! I will not let you give up or let go. You’re going to get dressed and we’re going for a walk right now.” We took that walk while I barely had the strength to hold myself upright but I could not be convinced there was hope so I continued to repeat,

I can’t go on….I’m giving up.”

Before my hospitalization I had been gifted a massage with a therapist who travelled to her client’s houses. Having had no improvement from the help of some of the most prominent neurologists in the country there was nothing to lose so I called the therapist and made an appointment shortly after my discharge. Just a few hours after I had proclaimed I was giving up and could not go on, the therapist (Valerie) arrived at my parents house and we met for the first time. She set up her table in my parents room and then asked permission to pray with Pete and I. The three of us stood together in unity and Valerie prayed that the massage would be physically and most importantly emotionally healing. My eyes were almost swollen shut from crying as I laid down on her table. Thirty minutes into the massage Valerie whispered, “I’m going to say something that will probably sound really strange and I hope that’s ok. I’ve never had anything like this happen before, but I feel like I need to share something with you.” Not knowing what to think or expect I tentatively responded, “ok?”

I feel your brother here and he’s saying that you have to keep going and you can’t give up. You have to keep going! You cannot give up! Have you been thinking of giving up?”

In that instant, I was released from the claws of darkness that had extinguished my hope. In that moment the belief that all was lost was replaced with a promise for the future. In that breath my faith was set in concrete and my doubt was destroyed. Without any knowledge that just hours before I had uttered those exact words, Valerie spoke Truth to my shattered heart. As tears soaked my face, I soaked in the certainty that I would see my brother again and that I would one day be an active and healthy mother to my son. Valerie continued, “Burt and The Lord want you to know that this is just for now. It is not forever. This trial will equip you to be there for others in a way that you would not have been able to without this experience. The Lord is preparing you to be a witness for others…to give hope to others. This is just for now. It is not forever.” She then asked me a question I never would’ve considered. She asked if I had believed the lies of hopelessness…if I had let the spirit of suicide into my thoughts. When I confirmed that I had been consumed by fear and despair she offered me the chance to repent. I had never before thought of the need to repent, but I realized then that I had spent months choosing to believe words from the enemy instead of the promises from My Father. Valerie lead me through a prayer asking for His forgiveness and for His strength and grace to keep my eyes on Him no matter how long my pain lingered. We prayed that I would never again enter that place of desolation and that He would make his plan for my life come alive.

I need to be clear that this supernatural experience didn’t come with physical healing. My pain did not go away. I did not start taking care of my son. I did not go back to work. This was a mental, spiritual, and emotional healing that could be physically felt by those around me. My mom later shared that after my massage she felt a dark cloud lift from our home. My husband agreed that he felt a peace in me he hadn’t had a glimpse of in months. I was a new woman inside. I had a gripping faith. My heart and mind were filled with radiant hope. I had experienced the Lord in a way I never had before and I knew I would one day be whole again. I knew my brother was with our Lord and that he was with me…with us and that one day I would see him, laugh with him, embrace him again.

Shortly after this life-changing event I shared my story with a dear friend. We both cried as I recounted the supernatural change that had taken place in me and then she told me something that made my encounter with The Lord even more genuine and powerful. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she had been at my parent’s house the night my brother prayed over me. She had stopped by to drop off groceries and was told I was in my parent’s room laying down. I recalled someone had been holding my hand while my brother prayed and at the time I assumed it was my mother. My friend shared with me that when she walked into the room there was a wall of suffocating darkness and that it felt like she had walked into my funeral. She said the oppression was palpable and in that moment she knew I was fighting a spiritual battle as well as a physical one. When she left the house she told her husband, “we have to pray for Renee’. She is in a fight for her life.” That night, my friend sensed the destruction I was succumbing to. She had a glimpse of my desire to give up. As she told me her experience I was overcome with awe at the realization that her visit that night and the desperate prayers that followed were a spiritual intervention that literally lifted me from the cold shadows my heart and mind had staggered through for months. It was the very next day that my life was changed forever and I was saved from fear, wariness, and death. When I didn’t have the fortitude to pray there were so many others interceding for me and I will always be grateful for their faithfulness because it was their belief that saved me from my disbelief. It was their conviction that lifted me up to meet and know my God and Savior in a way that transformed me from the inside out.

Even with my heart and soul altered forever I was still living with constant pain and In mid-February, I received a dreaded call from my employer telling me that if I didn’t return to work in 1 week then my job would no longer be protected. As I heard those words from HR, I had 2 thoughts: “This is it, the life I’ve known is over” and then, “Renee’, this is it, God has a plan for your life and you are not in control.” I don’t memorize Bible verses, but my massage therapist later quoted Jeremiah 29:11, “for I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but that verse came alive for me and was branded on my soul the split second I heard that I was days away from losing my job. I finally embraced the realization that if I could will myself well it would’ve happened months ago. I acknowledged that I was not in control of what life doled out, but that I could choose how I reacted to the hand I was dealt. I had a choice…I could crumble, lose all hope once again, and accept that the life I dreamed of was over, or I could let it all go, step away from the helm and TRUST that God had a plan for my life and that His plan is always good. Again I felt that supernatural peace and strength wash over me. I realized during that phone call that I truly had no authority over how my life would proceed, but I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was surrounded by love, and that no matter what happened to my health or my job, The Lord had a plan and he would give me the strength and grace to see that plan through. I felt this truth (Jeremiah 29:11) in my inner core…a truth that gave me a peace so real that I can only describe it as being from God. I spent the rest of the day struggling with how I would tell my husband that I would most likely be unemployed soon, but when I finally gained the courage to say the words out loud, he also sensed that same inexplicable, “crazy” peace. We just KNEW that we KNEW that we would be okay. My husband and I decided that I would attempt to go back to work the following week and we remained prepared to accept that this probably would not be a successful endeavor. The day before my return was like every other day had been. I had the same level of pain and found it difficult to imagine that the next day of waking up early, getting ready, driving myself into work and starting a brand new job would be any degree of manageable. The night before, I took my regular handful of sedating drugs and my nightly bath, but then something different happened. I went to bed with more peace than I had felt in 5 months. As I fell asleep I said a prayer of gratitude. I was thankful that I no longer felt the urge to control what happened to me and that I could unreservedly rest in The Lord and His plans for my life. I could see that He had used my brokenness for something good. He had used this chapter in my life to deliver me from the prison of worry and fear. Releasing apprehension and anxiety from my daily routine was a freedom I had never had in my life. Roman 5:3-4 says, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” I was nowhere near rejoicing, but I could finally see how He was using this time in my life to transform me, and I could finally lean into my faith with confidence, because He had made himself so real to me through this trial. The weight of worry had been lifted and I felt lighter.

When I woke up the next morning I was pain free for the first time in 159 days!

I arrived at my new job and although the familiar pain visited me throughout the day, it never came close to what I had withstood day in and day out for 5 months. February 28th, 2014 was the day I finally saw a glimpse of the goodness God had in store for me and I believed God wasn’t just going to give me the strength to live through the pain…He was going to see me through to the other side, and all the while I would be made stronger through the journey. On my way home that day I called the same friend who had been my prayer warrior for so many months and I cried as soon as I heard her voice. I was so overwhelmed with disbelief that I could barely get the words out, “it’s a miracle! There’s no other way to explain it. It’s a miracle! My pain level is manageable! I’m going to be ok! I worked….I can’t believe it…I worked! God is so faithful!” It had been so long since I had been capable of functioning at this level, that I couldn’t stop repeating, “I can’t believe this!” When I walked through my parent’s front door I saw them standing in the foyer anxiously waiting for me to return. I don’t think I was able to get a word out before we were tightly holding onto each other. I realize now that they were there because they knew I would either be ready to celebrate or in urgent need of comforting. I was finally able to tell my parents that I had turned a corner and that one day I would be myself again. The gratefulness, relief and joy we all felt stunned us into silence. The following 7-8 months, I continued to have significant daily pain, but NEVER resembling those previous distressing months. I continued with medications that made me feel terrible and injections in my head to help control the pain, but none of that weighed me down because I was ecstatic to be living again and to be walking with The Lord. We moved back home and began to see our little family develop the way we had always envisioned. I felt nothing but gratitude on the days I would work long hours and then arrive home to take care of my son, because this was far more life than I thought I would ever be capable of living. Even with chronic pain, I was finally in a place where I could be a mother, I could spend time with my family and friends, I could work again!

 

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Home from work and enjoying time with my son!

With several years passing it has become easier to forget how far I’ve come and how much has changed. I must remember what I’ve survived. In 2017 and for every year hereafter, it is my desire to use these lessons in life to shift my perspective to what really matters and avoid complaining about the things that don’t. I also want to use these lessons to remain mindful of the many priceless yet mundane experiences that make up this crazy life. I want to BE PRESENT. I must always remember that right here, right now is precious and beautiful and should never be taken for granted. And, when dark times visit again (which they most certainly will in this damaged world), I must remember that no matter how torn I feel or how dark the clouds around me, The Lord has a plan for my life and it is always good. I am thankful for a testimony I can share with passion and authenticity!

View More: http://sonshinegirlsphotography.pass.us/baby-sonoma

It is amazing how much can change in 3 years. God has blessed me with this beautiful family and I am forever grateful for His goodness!

One Year Ago

I found myself crying the whole time I wrote this. My intention was to make this post concise, but as I began to reminisce, it didn’t feel right to leave anything out…especially since so many of these memories are the most powerful and life-changing ones I have. I have done my fair share of venting about the chaos at work these last couple of months, including how bummed I was to have to travel on Super Bowl Sunday instead of being with my family and I have grown weary of listening to myself blather about not feeling well the last few weeks. With that being said, I’ve spent the last few days reflecting on where I was this time last year, and I’m shocked and disappointed at how easily I lost my perspective when life got busy! Today, I am choosing to reset how I respond to the stressors in my life, and to jumpstart that reset, all I have to do is take a few minutes to recall what life looked like for me this time last year. One year ago, I was completely debilitated and had been for over 4 months. I wasn’t just weak or weary…I was profoundly incapacitated. I was on approximately 10 different medications whose side effects made me so ill I lost 40lb in less than 2 months. I had seen multiple chiropractors, acupuncturists, reflexologists, massage therapists, dentists, endodontists, 6 different neurologists, visited the ER 3 times and was finally hospitalized for infusion therapy for 3 days with zero progress. I was unable to work, unable to drive, unable to run a simple errand or clean my house. I was unable to do most of the things we take for granted every day. The loss I experienced from no longer being able to participate in everyday tasks didn’t hold a candle to the grief I felt when I couldn’t care for my one and only newborn baby boy, Isaac. I had wanted to be a mother since I was able to push my dolls in a toy stroller and when I finally had the blessed opportunity, I couldn’t provide the basic things a mother gives her child. I couldn’t feed my son, I couldn’t bathe him or play with him or even laugh with him. I couldn’t comfort my son when he cried. My heart breaks as I recall a time I was holding Isaac and accidentally scratched his forehead with my fingernail. He cried so hard and so loud that my dad came running in from another room to hold him, soothe him, and quiet him because the pain I was living with had seized my ability to be my son’s comforter.

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One year ago I sent this email to my Primary Care Physician: I’m happy to tell you that I have a 4 week old beautiful and healthy son. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to enjoy him or take care of him on my own because of chronic migraines that I’ve been having since the beginning of my 3rd trimester. I’m sure that between the loss of my brother during my first trimester and the hormone changes in my body, I presented the perfect breeding ground for migraines. My MRI was normal and although we’ve tried lidocaine shots to my head, acupuncture, reflexology, chiropractic treatments, Imitrex, and a steroid, I’ve had no relief. At this point my neurologist has prescribed me Topomax (so I can no longer nurse my son), and he says it may or may not help, but even if it does help it would be at least 4 weeks before I get any relief. I can’t live in this pain and without the ability to care for my newborn son for another 4 weeks, but the neurologist (Dr. Marzulo) tells me that there are no other options. Even after I’ve researched things like Magnesium, B-12, all the triptans, Amitriptyline…he offers me nothing. Every night I fight the urge to go to the hospital for treatment as I deal with a level 10 migraine. I’ve contacted 3 other recommended neurologists (Dr. Win Toe, Dr. Fechtel, and Barrows Neurology) but it’s weeks before they have openings, and again I just can’t go on like this. I’m truly at my wit’s end and do not know what to do at this point. I was considering going to St Joe’s ER just so that I could get some relief and establish a relationship with a neurologist at Barrows. I’m reaching out to you because I don’t know what else to do and I know that you care about your patients. Do you have any insight or advice? I’m trying my best to advocate for myself and make wise decisions for my new family but I’m at a loss. Any help is greatly appreciated. Thank you Dr. Smith. I followed my doctor’s advice and went to St. Joe’s emergency room and several weeks after my ER visit, I was admitted to Barrow’s Neurological for infusion therapy. On January 5th, I was discharged from a 3-day stay at Barrows with no improvement. My husband and I decided to move in with my parents so they could help care for our son and their daughter. From the hospital, we stopped by the pharmacy to pick up $1200 worth of meds that, “could help me feel better in 4 weeks,” but in the meantime would make me feel like I was being poisoned. It was in the drive thru pharmacy where I lost all emotional control. I had never been so terrified in my entire life. I was watching my life, and the life of a son I couldn’t bond with, pass me by. It was by far the darkest, scariest, most hopeless time in my life. We arrived at my parent’s house and I was in so much pain emotionally and physically it’s all I could do to get inside and sit down in a chair without collapsing in the driveway first. My mother-in-law shared with me later that she was struck by the fact that I didn’t ask to see or hold Isaac as soon as I came inside (since I had been away from him for 3 days). When I look back on that day, the only thing I can remember is that I felt absent. I was already gone. I was no longer significant. My life was slowly slipping away and I was just watching from the sidelines. I don’t know that I even thought I could be or ever would be Isaac’s mommy. I didn’t think of myself as a source of life he needed or a source of life at all. I no longer mattered and soon would no longer exist. One year ago, I would wake up morning after morning, and with my eyes still closed I would pray, “let this be the day I feel better…let this be the day I get my life back…let this be the day I turn the corner…let this be the day I start living life again…please Lord, please God Damn-it, PLEASE!!!!!” I would slowly open my eyes, gently turn my head and feel that same pain that showed up day after day month after month, stealing my body’s ability to operate. I would instantly be reminded that I had to face another day of ice packs and heating pads, medications and dizziness, nausea and diarrhea, stabbing pain, throbbing pain, aching pain, and rubbing my face and head with so much intensity that my face would swell and become hot to the touch. Another day of trying to eat, another day of telling my family I was not feeling better, and another day of watching my son through a veil of fog that viciously divided me from him. Another day added to my list of convincing reasons that this would never end. I would spend each day participating in Isaac’s care in whatever way I could manage. Sometimes this meant laying on the floor next to him forcing a smile through the tears…stroking his beautiful face while telling him how very sorry I was that he didn’t have a mommy who could give him what he needed.  Other times it meant feeding him half a bottle until the pain was so intense my mom would lift him from my arms and my dad would help me get back to the room to lie down where I would cry from the pain and from the shame that accompanied the sad reality that I couldn’t be a proper mom. While Isaac took his naps, my parents and I would read every devotional in their house out loud, and I would use this time to search for the tiniest seed of strength, peace, hope, joy, wisdom, or solace to get me through the remainder of the day. Looking back now, I can see what precious moments these were with my parents and The Lord. As I felt myself falling apart, The Lord was using this time of struggle to build an even stronger bond with my family and with Him. The rest of my days were mostly spent lying on the couch or trying to eat something to keep up what little strength I had left. I would begrudgingly survive the day until I could take my cocktail of tranquilizers at 8pm and go to bed. The only thing I looked forward to were the hours I got to sleep under heavy sedation and be rescued from the pain that had tortured me for 12 waking hours. Most evenings my husband, dad, or brother would massage my head and shoulders long enough for a bath to be run. I would take my handful of pills, and then I would lie in the tub until the water was cold silently crying out with all my being, “PLEASE heal me or take me! I can’t endure any longer!” Writing this brings tears to my eyes as I remember sinking under the water to scream in anguish at the top of my lungs knowing that I would never be the mother I had always dreamed of being. Those baths, alone at night, I could so clearly see my future…laying in bed and slowly rotting till there was nothing left of me but breath. I would lay in the bath while the water drained, imagining all of the hurt and pain and disappointment going with it. By this time, the medications would begin to kick in, someone would help me get back to my bedroom and then my mom, or dad, or husband would sit on the side of the bed and stroke my head or lightly tickle my arm while I cried myself to sleep. I’ve often wondered if they ever intentionally took turns tending to me, as I can only imagine how draining it must have been to take care of someone so hopeless and scared. One year ago when I was left home alone, I would lie prostrate on the floor with my face in the ground and scream at God to take me, begging him to relieve me of my suffering and the suffering I was causing others, whether it was healing or death. IT DID NOT MATTER! I don’t write these things to be dramatic. This is how it was for me one year ago. It still frightens me to think back on those days and just how hopeless and alone and desperate I was. My stomach hurts when I think of the things I prayed for and when I remember that spirit of darkness that surrounded me with thoughts of letting go. With no light left, I would ask my parents and my husband dozens of times a day, “Am I ever going to get better?” I’ll never forget the terror I felt the day my husband asked me, “is this how our life is going to be from now on?” In a reaction of pure fear I screamed, “You can’t ask me that! I need you to believe that it won’t be like this forever and I need you to tell me over and over and over that it won’t be forever!!!” I required others to be confident that this was not the end, because I was no longer capable of believing in or even hoping for better days. It was during this time that countless friends and family held that hope in their hearts for me (for us) and there will never be words to adequately thank them for holding on when I no longer could. One year ago it was almost impossible for me to socialize, and if I did, there were painful consequences for days afterwards. I attempted to participate when I could, even though I knew there would be a price to pay. On Superbowl Sunday I took one of my dad’s Percocet’s just so I could be around family and friends for a few hours, and the next day was spent in bed recovering. I had missed all of my nephew’s basketball games, so I made up my mind I was going to go to the last game of the season no matter the cost! I attended the game and left during every time-out to avoid the music and loud announcements, but afterwards my pain escalated to an 8 for 3 straight days. Prior to my hospitalization, I attended my little brother’s 30th birthday and wasn’t able to move or converse at length due to the pain. I sunk into the couch attempting to protect others from the misery that surrounded me. I will never forget the sincerity in my nephew’s voice when he asked, “do you want me to sit with you so you’re not alone?” He sat with me and he made me a plate for dinner when the food was ready. Later in the evening, my oldest brother joined us and he held my hand while I rested my head on his shoulder. I don’t know if either of them will ever know the comfort they provided me that night while I tried to participate in a life that was always an arm’s length away. They were holding me together with love and I felt overwhelmed by their selflessness. Life was all around me and I was an outsider begging to get back in. Each gathering I attempted to be a part of only solidified that I wasn’t really living…I was painfully fading into the background. One year ago I told my husband that everyone would be better off without me. Isaac needed a mommy who could take care of him, take him to the playground, get him ready for school, help him with his homework, FEED HIM FOR GOD’S SAKE! I no longer saw value in my life. I said, “If this is living then I don’t want to live!!” This was the day my husband told me that I had to stop proclaiming that there was no hope. He made it clear that he would not accept my resignation as a mother or a wife and that one day we would reach the end of this terrible road together. This was the day he made me go outside and walk 1 short block while I cried in pain. He made me walk so that I would be reminded that the sun was still rising and I was still breathing. He made me walk to remind me that there’s beauty outside of what I was feeling…that there was beauty even amidst the ashes. He made me walk so that I would know that HE trusted there was light at the end of this dark journey and that I needed to hold on for him and for Isaac. He made me walk because I could! One year ago, many lovely friends visited to assure me that they had faith I would one day be well again. They brought me food I couldn’t eat and gave me love I desperately needed. Family and friends came by to hold me, cry with me, rock me in their arms, pray for me, and embrace and love on Isaac. So many people brought their light into my room of shadows and they will never know to what extent they gave me the comfort and hope I needed in the very moment they were present with me. I remember the dear friend who did my family’s grocery shopping each week and the friend who brought us a hot meal every Wednesday so that for one evening my incredibly benevolent parents wouldn’t have to worry about cooking or doing dishes. The love that was so graciously poured out on me and my family carried us through the bleakest of days and I cannot think of a way to appropriately express my gratitude to each and every person who gave of themselves with such compassion and generosity. One year ago, I knew that my maternity leave was coming to an end and I would be expected to return to work. Prior to having Isaac I had landed the job of my dreams and had been scheduled to start the first day I returned from FMLA. After my hospitalization in January, I sent my new boss (who I hadn’t worked a day for) this email:

“Dear Kelly,

I absolutely hate to be sending you this email and I pray that the next time you hear from me it will be nothing but good news. I have had debilitating migraines since having my son. My husband and I have had to move in with my parents and I was just recently hospitalized for 3 days with no relief from infusion therapy at Barrows Neurological. Most of the neurologists believe this is hormonal and will pass with time so I am hanging onto that hope. I am going to have to extend my leave to 16 weeks. I cannot begin to tell you how sorry I am. I did not intend to start my new job by letting everyone down. I’ve always been a healthy person and this has just been the most horrible time of my life. I am so looking forward to the day that I can take care of my own son and step back into life and give 110%. I am so sorry.”

By February, my pain had retreated to a constant 5, but I was still unable to fully care for Isaac or myself, and the idea of trying to work seemed an impossible feat. I constantly worried that even if there was a day I was well enough to return, I would already have a reputation of someone who avoids work if she has the right excuse. I imagined the conversations my soon to be co-workers were having about me, and they went something like this: “She probably had her first kid and has decided she doesn’t want to work anymore.” or “How long can a person possibly have a migraine?” or “We shouldn’t have offered a position to someone right before she had her first baby.” or “Why doesn’t she just resign so that we can hire someone else versus dragging it out while we’re drowning in work?” What I desperately wanted them to know was that I couldn’t care for my firstborn let alone fathom the possibility of learning and working a brand new job. I couldn’t tell them that there was nothing I wouldn’t give to be able to do just one of those things. I couldn’t tell them that for me, it was just a pipe dream that I would one day be a functional mother to my son AND work a full-time job. I had begun to bitterly digest the idea that I would most likely lose my job, but even worse, that I would let down a group of women that I greatly respected and admired and who would never know how desperately I wanted to work alongside them. The following is a voicemail I left for my brother right around this time:

In mid-February, I did finally receive that dreaded call from my employer letting me know that if I didn’t return to work by 2/28, my job would no longer be protected. As I heard those words from HR, I had 2 thoughts: “This is it, the life I’ve known is over” and then, “Renee’, this is it, God has a plan for your life and you are not in control.” I don’t memorize Bible verses, but my massage therapist later quoted Jeremiah 29:11, “for I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but that verse burst to life for me and was branded on my soul the split second I heard that I would probably lose my job. I finally embraced the realization that if I could will myself well it would’ve happened months ago. I acknowledged that I was not in control of what life doled out, but that I could choose how I reacted to the hand I was dealt. I had a choice…I could continue to crumble, lose all hope, and accept that the life I dreamed of was over, or I could let it all go, step away from the helm and TRUST that God had a plan for my life and that His plan is always good. This is when I finally felt that supernatural peace and strength I had been pleading for all those months. I realized during that phone call that I truly had no authority over how my life would proceed, but I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was surrounded by love, and that no matter what happened to my health or my job, The Lord had a plan and he would give me the strength and grace to see that plan through. I felt this truth (Jeremiah 29:11) in my inner core…a truth that gave me a peace so real that I can only describe it as being from God. I spent the rest of the day struggling with how I would tell my husband that I would most likely be unemployed soon, but when I finally gained the courage to say the words out lout, he also sensed that same inexplicable, “crazy” peace. We just KNEW that we KNEW that we would be okay. As Bob Marley so wisely sang, “everything’s gonna be alright.” My husband and I decided that I would attempt to go back to work on 2/28 and we remained prepared to accept that this may not be a successful endeavor. The day before my return was like every other day had been. I had the same level 5 pain and found it difficult to imagine that the next day of waking up early, getting ready, driving myself into work and starting a brand new job would be any degree of manageable. The night before, I took my regular handful of sedating drugs and my nightly bath, but then something different happened. I went to bed with more peace than I had felt in 5 months. As I fell asleep I remember saying a prayer of gratitude. I was thankful that I no longer felt the urge to control what happened to me and that I could unreservedly rest in The Lord and His plans for my life. I could see that He had used my brokenness for something good. He had used this chapter in my life to deliver me from the prison of worry. Releasing worry and anxiety from my daily routine was a freedom I had never had in my life. Roman 5:3-4 says, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” I was nowhere near rejoicing, but I could finally see how He was using this time in my life to transform me, and I could finally lean into my faith with confidence, because He had made himself so real to me through this trial. The weight of worry had been lifted and I felt lighter. When I woke up the next morning I was pain free for the first time in 159 days! One year ago today, I arrived at my new job and although the familiar pain visited me throughout the day, it never came close to what I had endured day in and day out for the last 5 months. February 28th, 2014 was the day I was finally convinced that I would be well again and that God wasn’t just going to give me the strength to live through the pain…He was going to see me through to the other side, and all the while I would be made stronger through the journey. On my way home that day I called a precious friend (who had prayed with me all of those months) and I cried as soon as I heard her voice. I was so overwhelmed with disbelief that I could barely get the words out, “it’s a miracle! There’s no other way to explain it. It’s a miracle! My pain level is manageable! I’m going to be ok! I worked….I can’t believe it…I worked! God is so faithful!” It had been so long since I had been capable of functioning at this level, that I couldn’t stop repeating, “I can’t believe this!” When I walked through my parent’s front door I saw them standing in the foyer anxiously waiting for me to return. I don’t think I was able to get a word out before we were tightly holding onto each other. I realize now that they were there because they knew I would either be ready to celebrate or in desperate need of comforting and they are always there when their kids need them. I was finally able to tell my parents that I had turned a corner and that one day I would be myself again. The gratefulness, relief and joy we all felt stunned us into silence. The following 7-8 months, I continued to have significant daily pain, but NEVER resembling those previous hopeless months. I continued with medications that made me feel terrible and injections in my head to help control the pain, but none of that weighed me down because I was ecstatic to be living again. We moved back home and began to see our little family develop the way we had always envisioned. I felt nothing but gratitude on the days I would work long hours and then arrive home to take care of my son, because this was far more life that I thought I would ever be capable of living. Even with chronic pain, I was finally in a place where I could be a mother, I could spend time with my family and friends, I could work again! I never felt more blessed and as I reminisce how far I’ve come in 1 year I’m reminded that every day is a blessing and can never be taken for granted. One year ago my husband held me in his arms and promised me that, “a year from now, you will not be in this much pain. A year from now, life will not look like this or feel like this. Renee’, so much will change in a year!” I could not see the future he imagined, but today, right now, 1 year later, we have a life that is blessed beyond measure. Revisiting the past year has done exactly what I imagined it would. Writing out my story has helped reset my outlook on life. Before I begin to complain about anything I face, I must remember what I’ve survived. It is my desire to use these lessons in life to shift my perspective to what really matters and avoid complaining about the things that don’t. I also want to use these lessons to help me remain mindful of the many priceless yet mundane experiences that make up this crazy life. I want to BE PRESENT. When we take our son to the playground, I must remember to stop and be aware that walking outside used to be an impossibility. When I throw my son in the air and hear his adorable giggle, I must remember that there were days I wasn’t capable of holding him in my arms. When I feel the pressures of work, I must remember the day I realized I might never work again. When I don’t feel 100%, I must remember there was a time I wasn’t healthy enough to even become sick. I must always remember that right here, right now is precious and beautiful and should never be taken for granted. And, when dark times visit again (which they most certainly will in this damaged world), I must remember that no matter how torn I feel or how dark the clouds around me, The Lord has a plan for my life and it is always good. No matter the trials I am sure to face in the future, I will remember that a year from this trial I can once again say, “One year ago….”

 

What a difference one year makes!IMG_7336