I didn’t understand for the longest time why I was the way I was. I think that is why I curled up into myself, trying to protect the one thing I thought I could protect: my heart. But it was already broken. I think it broke when my body did, after my cancer battle, after the encephalitis broke my body. I am all right now, with the brokenness, because I know that where I am weak, He is strong. But of course, I had to learn that the hard way. My whole childhood was a process of grieving a life I would never have again.
My elementary school years were spent in a haze of denial, and probably, the same can be said about my middle school years. From preschool to maybe fourth grade, I didn’t really think about the fact that I was different than the other kids. I was young, and they were too, and they were more accepting of me back then. By fifth grade though, they started to ignore me. And sometimes, at recess, the boys would tease me so that I would start chasing them just to get them away from me. And they would laugh. At me. I had a walker (still do), and so I think the other kids didn’t really associate me as being one of them. I was the “weird” one. I did not have feelings.
But of course, they were wrong. Of course, I had feelings. And of course, they were easily hurt.
But, oh, I had friends, both real and imaginary. I hung out at school with a couple girls, and we had a very messy relationship. I don’t want to get into details, but you know how girls are. I started crying every single day. I didn’t understand anything, and probably understood everything I needed to at the time. I knew I’d never fit in. It was not okay. And it would never be okay. I would never accept it, at least not until the last two years of high school, when I gave up on the majority of my peers. They mostly ignored my pleas for friendship for years, and I was left out of everything. So finally, I was like, fine, be like that. And I thought, one day. That’s all. One day.
My “real” friends back then were fictional ones. Mary, Dickon, and Collin from The Secret Garden. Sara and Becky from A Little Princess. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy from Little Women. And then I had the girls from The Babysitters Club series: Kristy, Claudia, Mary Anne, Stacey, Dawn, Mallory, and Jessie. Anne from Anne of Green Gables. Laura from The Little House on the Prairie. You know, those types of friends, the ones who could never hurt me.
2 and 3. Anger and Bargaining
Many, many, many times during my childhood, I tried to make “deals” with God, or the entity that was my idea of God. I was raised in the Catholic church, and usually spent Sunday services eyeing the Crucifix above the altar with a mixture of fear and disgust. Fear because oh my gosh, there was a dead body on the cross and everyone else seems to think it is normal! Disgust because if He knew what was going to happen to Him, why didn’t He do anything about it? Couldn’t He have just hidden from His enemies? I really didn’t understand why He died, why He choose to die. He could have just slipped from their grasp, right? He could have run away. Like I did, and kept doing, over and over.
I’ve always identified the most with the Bible story of Jesus raising the little girl from the dead, like from the minute I heard it or read it, whichever it was. I tried to reconcile that Jesus with the terrifying one in my head, and I just couldn’t do it. I remember waking up, drenched in sweat, in the middle of the night, from a dream, nightmare, really. In that nightmare, I was alone in the church, and it was dark except for candlelight, which was everywhere. I heard something, like wood breaking, and then I saw it. Him. I saw Him. He was flesh and bone, not like He was on the cross, where He was ceramic or whatever he was made of, porcelain, etc. AND HE WAS COMING FOR ME. Bleeding profusely from His wounds. I could see a trail of blood behind Him. My heart was in my throat. I couldn’t scream even if I wanted to. I couldn’t move at first, frozen by terror, and then I could. I raced to the door, but it held fast. I was trapped. That was when I woke up.
Since having that dream, I’ve always wondered what would have happened if He had caught me. Back then, I thought He was going to hurt me, even kill me, and that is why my survival instinct took over. That is why I ran. Interesting thing: In my dreams, most of them at least, I am free from the limitations of my physical body. This is how I see myself most of the time. My dreams are a manifestation of that. Of course, I know now, that if Jesus had caught me in my dream, He probably would have just pulled me toward Him in an embrace. He probably would have whispered comforting things in my ear. You aren’t alone. I’m here. But I guess I wasn’t ready to hear it. I fought it. I fought Him. There wasn’t much I had control over, and there still isn’t, but this is the one thing I had total control. I don’t know. Maybe I liked feeling sorry for myself. Maybe I liked being angry. My anger gave me something to focus on, and I held on to it with all my strength. I kept asking why. Why am I like this? If You loved me, then You would heal me. I know You can heal me. I want to be healed. When I wake up tomorrow, I want to be healed. Please. There is nothing I want more.
But I woke up with the same body, the same problems I had the day before. And I said: FORGET YOU, JESUS. I was so mad. So disappointed. So heartbroken. I did not understand that wasn’t how Jesus worked…
The earliest stages of grief are tied up with each other, My childhood was full of denial, bargaining, and depression. I was a little ball of anger. And then, I saw a picture in my first photo album… the ones that had pictures of me from birth to after the encephalitis. There aren’t many of me in the hospital – who wants to remember that? But there is one that spoke to me… it is one of me, holding hands with another little girl. I only know she’s a girl by the caption: ”The Smiley Sisters: Missy and Danielle.” We are more or less bald and wearing hospital pajamas, footie sleepers, holding hands, and emphatically NOT smiling. In fact, we look miserable, like we were lost. I asked my mom about it once. She said the nurses at Seattle Children’s called us that because, despite that picture, whenever we were together, Missy and I always smiled. So much. The picture doesn’t do our friendship justice. Missy was my first friend who wasn’t part of my family, who wasn’t a cousin. And then… and then I had to ask my mom what happened to Missy. I already knew she’d had some form of leukemia. My mom looked me in the eyes, and told me, “Honey, she died. Not too long after that picture was taken.”
I didn’t know I could break anymore than I already was broken, but I did break more then. One thing I’ve learned in my 31 years is that there are no limits to how much you can break.
Just like there aren’t any limits to how much you can heal…
I think my depression really began before that moment of truth, though. I think it began in the moments in which my first scoliosis brace was being made. I was 9 or 10, and these people who were supposed to be helping me had me lay down on a stretcher just had a thin strip of material down the middle, and empty spaces on either side. I was so scared of falling, despite the fact that these people said they wouldn’t let me fall. Where were you, Jesus, when I was so scared? I felt so vulnerable and I cried and tried to fight. My philosophy back then? Always go down fighting. And so I fought. But I was no match for them. No match for the hot plaster they tried to suffocate me with (not really). I was just a little girl. So helpless. So scared. So confused.
I don’t even remember hearing the word “scoliosis” until much later, much, much later. Like in high school. I’d had back surgery in November of my eighth grade year. I knew pain. I knew the embarrassment and awkwardness that came with wearing a back brace. I hated it all. If wishes were punches, then my troubles would have been punched. HARD. I was finally allowed to shed the brace in the winter of my freshman year of high school, and it was so freeing. But my back problems were not over. They followed me into adulthood. I had only a partial spine fusion in 1995. They only did the bottom half, and over time, because it was a temporary solution, it began to break down. I was in constant pain the year after I graduated from college, and the more active I was, the more the pain intensified. Finally, I had surgery to repair the areas that were wearing down. I thought I knew pain, but boy, was I wrong.
My first night home from the hospital, I felt something drop, or give away, inside of me, and then I felt a burning sensation in my leg. I didn’t know how bad it would be until the next morning, when I tried to get out of bed. On the pain scale of 1 to 10, it was a 20. Seriously. I wanted to die. I begged God to take me. I screamed and cried multiple times a day, for 4 weeks straight, through 2 rounds of steroids. The steroids only helped on the first days I took them, when the dosage was the highest. I lost 10 pounds, weight I couldn’t really afford to lose. The diagnosis? Pinched nerve. My doctor told me that he had only 60% chance of fixing me (no burning pain) with a second surgery. The problem was, everything he had done in the surgery before was now loose inside me, and I know now he was afraid that my pain was permanent. But thank GOD ALMIGHTY it wasn’t. I wouldn’t be a functional human being today if it was permanent. I have a very low pain tolerance – it’s so low I can’t even claim to have any pain tolerance at all.
That was a dark time… a time of testing. I dunno whether I failed or passed. It is either/or at this point. I do know that I am human, and where I thought I could not handle that level of pain, God knew I could… because He knew what I was made of… Because HE made me…
TO BE CONTINUED.