On a sunny October morning in 2007, my whole world changed. I had completed a 5k charity run for breast cancer awareness the day before, and at 31 years old, I had never felt better, fitter, or more in control. I woke up, got out of bed, and was shocked when I almost fell to the ground because my legs were so weak. As the day progressed, I felt worse, and within a few more days, I was barely able to walk unaided.
A cascade of symptoms and physical breakdowns followed, peaking with the sudden onset of dozens of terrifying allergic reactions for which I had no explanation. After my third ambulance ride in a week and my first ICU admission, my family and I began to realize that whatever was wrong might take much more than my mobility.
The following year was the most difficult and painful of my life. The best we could determine was that an auto-immune disease process was wreaking havoc with everything from vitamin B12 levels to kidney function to allergic responses. I was almost completely home-bound except for emergency visits to the hospital, and for months I required around-the-clock care. Long-term steroids calmed some symptoms but brought on others, including diabetes, osteoporosis, infection, and the creation of 30-40 kidney stones a week for eight months.
In time, I slowly learned to deal with a schedule and diet dictated by medical need, but by the winter of 2008, I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror. I had multiple, permanent spinal fractures, my muscles were atrophied and weak, and steroids had left me with what the medical profession charmingly calls “moon face.” (Picture a long-lost sibling of the Campbell’s Soup kids…) The toll one short year had taken on my health was devastating, but the toll it took on my husband and two children was even more heart-breaking. I was 32 years old and had never before felt so broken or helpless.
I am so thankful that my story does not end there. While that October 2007 morning brought the beginning of hardship I could never imagine, it also brought the start of love I had never dreamed. My cherished friends became a second family, and my husband became my best friend. My children grew stronger and more compassionate. Most importantly, I came to know God intimately, and I learned to believe in unconditional love for the first time in my life. There were days full of more pain than I thought possible for a human being to endure; indeed they would have been unbearable if I was ever alone, without God’s grace and tender mercy.
One by one, the labels I used to define myself fell away: Active? It took all my strength to walk up and down the stairs. Independent? I couldn’t even do my own grocery shopping. Giving? What could I possibly have to give? But the more of me that disappeared — the me that will ever run or jump again; the me that can eat at a restaurant; the me that can take a spontaneous road trip, or dress without wearing a medical ID – as those pieces were taken, I came to realize that what mattered was what remained: my sense of humor, my desire to persevere, my ability to look on the bright side.
There were times when my hands shook so that I could not hold a paintbrush, but I will always be an artist. Although I cannot take my children on a hike in the woods, I can surely guide their steps and love them wholly and joyfully every moment I have on earth. I am not a low-maintenance, trouble-free wife, but I have so much love and laughter to share. I am the one who calls at 2 AM from the emergency room, but I am also the one who will be awake at 2 AM praying for you — because I get it, I know what it’s like to feel such hurt and isolation, and I believe in a God who works unerringly for good.
I also found that being profoundly broken lets in room for new light. I do not grieve some of the pieces of me that I lost along the way. Perfectionist? There is such freedom in knowing I can never even come close to perfect. Self-possessed? I realize now to Whom I belong. Control-freak? Turns out I can let go and the world goes on turning! In fact, it turns out that all those people I was so determined to help and serve are strong enough to help and serve me, if I am wise enough to receive it.
So now, exactly four years after that October day in 2007, I’m starting a blog called created for joy. I am still learning every day what that means. This summer was a difficult one; an egregious medical error during treatment for an allergic reaction caused me to have a heart attack and almost took my life. Complications saw me in and out of the ICU for two months, and I spent indescribable weeks counting the seconds on the clock, just trying to get through.
God has already graciously taught me so much in the past four years, but this summer He granted me a new recognition of how precious this life is. Even after all the difficulty of the past few years, I was still stuck in the mindset that I would start the good stuff as soon as I got everything else out of the way: time for art when the chores are done; time for vacation once I get a little healthier; time to write when the kids graduate from high school… How wrong I was! All those “in between” times — those are the victories because they mean I am breathing, I am standing, my heart is beating.
I believe we are all created for joy, created with the potential to learn and know joy every moment of every day. I also believe we can create joy in our lives by choice. I choose to cook and paint and craft and teach, and I choose to share those things because they bring me joy in spite of pain. Make no mistake, I am not suggesting that being created for joy means being created for ease and simplicity. I pray for healing, and I have already received it emotionally, mentally, and relationally far beyond my expectations. I have seen the restoration of some physical faculties that easily could have been permanently destroyed by disease, and for that I am also immensely thankful. But my back is still broken, my kidneys are cranky, anaphylaxis looms daily, and if I printed out my medical chart, I’m pretty sure it would be heavier than my recommended lifting limit…
Even if you never make a single recipe or try any of the art projects I might write about, I hope that you will share in the laughter, determination, and fulfillment they represent. Don’t wait until tomorrow, don’t give up, and never doubt that you were created for joy.