Hello, friends! I am not the least bit trepidatious to join this extraordinary group of women who share a commitment to stories, speaking from their hearts to witness the hard and “brutiful” – that is brutal yet beautiful – work and fruits of restoration.
Born the first of three girls to young parents, I was raised in an ecumenical community of different Christian denominations. We joined together in worship and adopted communal rules for living out vocation and family life.
Discipline in my house was strict and swift and I developed a strong fear of hell from both Catholic religious education and the dread of strong punishment at home. I became the peacemaker, striving to keep harmony in the household, and crying over any fighting or discord.
In the summer between 8th and 9th-grade, a major division fractured our community. Revelations of wrong behavior and long-held secrets caused the breakdown of families, households, and marriages. I watched as my classmates suffered. My family was intact and my parents’ marriage was strong, but I grieved for the wounds of those around me.
Unable to relate to the challenges of my classmates, I remained loyal to my teachers and was ridiculed for it, being labeled things like “teacher’s pet,” and “goody-goody.” I cried every night at home with my parents, wishing I could see an end to the discord and brokenness. I could not understand the brutal anger I was experiencing. Attempts to explain myself were met with laughter and even more anger. This was my first introduction to a world beyond the safe bubble of my home.
My parents withdrew me from that school mid-year and exchanged one world for another. Abruptly introduced to high-school culture, I felt more alone than I thought possible. I hid in the crevices in the back hallways during lunch, ate by myself, and had no idea how to make friends. I threw myself again into studying, one thing I knew I was good at. I made it through the next three and a half years (barely) and went on to a prestigious university, despite reservations about what to do with my life. I knew that I would end up somewhere in health services. As the oldest grandchild, I thought I was expected to carry on the work of my grandfather — a physician who had founded a free clinic for the underserved in our community.
I learned about my Grandfather’s work in the Spring of my senior year. Choosing between either performing 20 hours of community service or writing a 20-page paper was easy for me. I was amazed the first time I visited Hope Clinic. This was my opportunity to seek out and serve those who I could relate to — the misunderstood, broken, lonely, and burdened by unchosen circumstances. I took my first international trip to visit family in Central America and my heart was pierced in a way that would take years to understand. But something was stirring.
Throughout my undergraduate years, I found solace in a Christian group on campus and attended regular meetings. We had common worship, retreats, conferences, social events, and fellowship. I always drifted into the background, taking a service role to avoid vulnerability. The “nothing to offer” and “not enough” lies remained part of daily life, so that is how I approached friendships, service, and life.
I became attuned to the needs of others, listened carefully, striving to be the ultimate friend. I baked countless batches of cookies, sent flowers, remembered occasions and shared scriptures and quotes. If I could prove that was the ever-serving-best-possible friend, then I would finally be needed, wanted and valued.
After college, I returned to my grandfather’s clinic. I experienced solidarity with the vulnerable and thrived on solving problems, organizing and running the clinic, and providing hope to those without. I worked exhaustively, staying hours beyond closing, determined that this was my Christian calling. I expended everything at work, allowing for no personal enjoyment or life beyond my mission.
I begged to join a mission trip and returned to Central America. The stirring I had felt years before was reawakened. I knew deeply that international work would become a permanent part of my life; therefore, in addition to my full-time job, I became a full-time volunteer to progress this small international organization. This was the Christian’s call, right? All for God, none for me.
I began experiencing conflict in friendships that I poured the extraordinary into without offering any of my actual self. I found validation in the compliments from others. I maintained an expert façade that demonstrated my competence and ability to take on more than expected. Inside, I was crumbling. I had no belief in my inherent value, was depressed but too ashamed of the label, and was striving for validation. Full of self-hatred, I felt ugly, took negative comments from friends as stabbing truths, and considered any conflict my fault.
When someone found my imperfections, I attempted to explain and ruminated for nights on end after conflicts. Most significantly, if I disappointed anyone, I thought I was an unbearable disappointment. I smothered friends with affection. When they asked me for space, I cowered and tried to defend what worth I struggled to have.
After obtaining a nursing degree, I shifted to inpatient care. Since I was born with a heart defect, I found a new purpose in caring for pediatric patients with congenital heart problems. It was a new niche, and I loved it. A novel way to define my worth, I desired to be present and accompany those experiencing the ultimate challenge, the potential or actual loss of a child.
I knew I was called to this work, to healing the heart, but the depth of it was yet to be revealed. I coasted on yet again throwing myself into my job and being a favorite nurse. I adopted new friendships, continuing my pattern of emptying myself into them to be the ideal friend. But I questioned living the rest of my life that way.
The call on my heart drew me to Haiti in the summer of 2011. Through providence, I traveled just after the 2010 earthquake with a disaster relief team. The power of that trip etched itself into my soul. Consulting with my pastor, I accepted a voluntary position with a well-established local organization based in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Since my return to the US, I have yet to feel the joy I experienced in Haiti, as I met, learned from, served alongside and loved some of the best people I have met in my lifetime. Supporters stateside said, “I could never do what you are doing! You are amazing!” I assured them that I was not amazing, but that in response to a call, I gave my yes and entered into an extraordinary chapter.
I was challenged, broken, loved, healed, stretched, encouraged, and felt freer in the developing world than in the US. I was ministered to as much as or more than I gave. I witnessed strength and hardship, beauty and dignity. I blogged my deepest thoughts and just as I poured myself into life there, the same happened on the screen.
I returned from Haiti in the Spring of 2013. Experiencing total exhaustion, I looked forward to and dreaded living in the States again. Since I served and gained admiration for working in an extreme environment, I had to find something else of equal worth in my next career step. I accepted a position providing home-based hospice care for pediatric patients.
I moved to a new city, ignored the reverse culture-shock symptoms, and again threw myself into work to try and find solace. The massive disparity between what I had lived, how my heart had grown, and how differently I viewed the world versus my daily life then began crushing me. I plowed ahead, working days, nights, and on-call, as my life grew narrower.
Years of defenses and patterns I had depended on started to break down. An enriching friendship ended as I spiraled through emotions while ignoring signs of anxiety. I had nightmares, spent hours in bed replaying conversations and scenarios, and felt isolated. No one in my current circle could understand or be as passionate about my experience, as their eyes glazed over while I shared.
I attempted my friendship pattern on my new roommate, begging to be rescued, but I reached an impasse. She challenged me, informing me this is not how the relationship would proceed. She did not accept the gifts I bought but pointed me to look within. She encouraged me to obtain counseling, to own my responsibility, and to stop seeking external validation. I had ZERO ideas about how to accomplish this. I had reached my emotional end, and contemplated suicide during my wallowing, anxiety, and attempts to resolve broken friendships.
My emotional illness began to manifest in the physical. I heard recently on a podcast that “shame’s first language is the body.” My shame became constant nausea, lack of appetite, insomnia, and weakness. I visited various physicians for diagnoses, but tests returned clear. I finally saw a psychiatrist and began intensive therapy, but the physical struggles remained.
In the Spring, I suffered a traumatic herniated disc in my lower back, after weeks of worsening spasms. I was unable to work and prescribed medications that altered my ability to function. Barely able to walk downstairs, I often crawled. I sat for hours. I drove myself to physical therapy and began seeing an acupuncturist and chiropractor. I limped around the local market, making food for myself which I could not stomach.
Strong pain medications caused more symptoms, and I became weaker. Still attending therapy, I began to identify a correlation between my emotional and physical selves. When asked about certain memories and people from my childhood, I would clear my throat and experience nausea. Where I would have changed the subject previously, my therapist gently guided me to introspect why I had that physical reaction when my mind traveled to a memory. I addressed my feelings, yet I grew weaker and the physical symptoms persisted.
My blood cell counts changed and nutrient levels dropped. I started noticing marks on my legs. I got up throughout the night to use the bathroom, and my urine was very dark. Ever the nurse, I justified my symptoms, deciding it was my medication and nutritional supplements.
On a stifling morning in late summer, I woke up vomiting. All that I had eaten the night before came up undigested. The food had not gone past my stomach. I had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon that I knew I must attend because something was very wrong.
A blood test revealed that I was severely anemic and needed a blood transfusion. I drove to the emergency room and discovered I was in severe kidney failure. I was shocked. I received three blood transfusions and underwent ultrasounds. Developing an extremely high fever, which caused tremors, my blood was tested further. They brought a machine into the room that I recognized, the one that takes images of the heart.
A few weeks before my hospitalization, I had a vision. My heart was in a thick jungle, thorns piercing it, bleeding from traumatic wounds. The jungle was dark and the pain was excruciating. I imagined that this was the steps I was taking then, the unveiling of new and old wounds and that the vision would change over time. I didn’t realize back then that there was much more to that picture.
I was diagnosed with endocarditis, a severe infection of the heart valves caused by bacteria. It attacked my heart valve and damaged it so badly that I needed a valve replacement. The diagnosis was not lost on me: my heart had suffered for years, in every aspect. I had allowed the power of lies to infiltrate it, lies that I fed, until my body broke. I moved home to live with my parents, applied for disability insurance, and sought opinions regarding surgery. Born with a small hole in my heart, what I feared awaited. I would be opened up and my heart would be repaired.
December 17th, 2014 was a powerful day for me. I knew the surgeon and the team caring for me. I trusted that my physical pain would be well managed, and it was. The repair was beyond the physical, I patched the emotional and spiritual holes, and the scar on my chest would be a reminder that recovery is possible.
Being ill for an entire year yielded a long recovery period. I sought out a therapist in my hometown to continue my healing. I began physical therapy and had many hours of rest. I struggled to believe in my worth without a job, an income, or a physical contribution to society. But this was a forced rest, a gift. I had to be and to learn that this was enough.
Old friends offered encouragement and I sat with people and just talked. I chose to open my heart and tell my story, however ugly or unpresentable I thought it was. And people listened. My therapist affirmed me. I talked about Haiti. I discussed memories, from early childhood to the present. I recognized the fear, the false self I had created and adopted, and my unhealthy approach to relationships. My desperation stemmed from not believing that I was good.
I was invited to events and extended volunteer opportunities. For the first time, I learned the word NO. My parents made suggestions, but I knew that what worked for them would not help me. I examined old photos and slowly began to process the trauma of the last two years. I recollected my unique Haitian experience and my calling to the healing of bodies.
I came to know true friendship. The roommate who had challenged me to the hard work of restoration remains one of my closest friends. Depth and understanding were no longer foreign concepts. I found solidarity with others. I apologized to women that I had wounded in my past, and I was forgiven. Some relationship wounds remained unresolved, and I learned how to resolve them within myself. I forgave when I knew I would not receive an apology. I wrote letters I did not send, safely expressing what I could not say directly. I learned that disappointing loved ones is a part of being human, and that conflict does not equal the end of a friendship.
Still, on this journey, I am flooded even now by much that I have taken to heart and some I would like to revisit. Restoration is a slow process. This is the first time in nearly seven years that I have written! I stumble and fall, and the lies creep back in at times. But now, I know who I am apart from what I have to offer. I know the Truth and can discern it. I stay away from unbalanced relationships. I guard my heart and my time.
I look forward to sharing more of myself and my experience. And to also stand in solidarity with many more of you as this collaboration grows.