Have you ever looked up into the sky and tried to count the stars? It’s impossible. After counting to the third one, they all start to run together. That’s because we’re human and we’re not able to count the details or numbers or names of the thousands of twinkling dots that light the sky each night. Now think about being dropped in the middle of Times Square on New Years Eve, all alone, surrounded by dozen upon dozens of PEOPLE. Yet God tells each one apart, calls them by name, and creates them by HAND, uniquely and wonderfully. And you and me? We’re in that same group of people. YOU are unique, called by name, FORGIVEN, restored, made new.
It took me so long to finally realize that I was handcrafted, I was bought at a price, and I was born into this world with bright green eyes and a head of dark hair. I was nearly two feet long, minus two and a half inches, with an alien-like (not really) vascular anomaly on my left hand. Known as an AVM (arterial venous malformation), it lived and grew on that hand for three years, just as my feet and nose and body grew too. It was misdiagnosed many times, considered extremely rare, and well, it was dangerous. It bled many times, it took me to the hospital (not literally, but you get the picture…..), and it didn’t have a name like most other objects I have possession of. After a unique and long surgery, that special bit of who I am disappeared and left me with nothing but a gnarly scar that I look at every day and reminded of how I was stitched together piece by piece. I was broken and was put back together.
Fast forward many bandaids, bowls of ice cream, mud pies, bike crashes, hormonal cries, and ponytails later, in the summer of 2009 my left big toenail was smashed in a door (I’ll leave the details for your imagination), leading to infections and a surgery that spiraled down to a diagnosis in 2011. In 2011, I went to the podiatry clinic for a simple (so I thought) ingrown toenail surgery. You see, it really wasn’t that simple because I’d undergone one before and it started a series of pain. So to undergo a second surgery scared the life out of me. But on that day, the doctor simply said, “You have a much larger problem than an ingrown toenail.” Much to my unknown tolerance of pain, I was led through a series of blood pressure tests (you wouldn’t really think bathing your toes in ice water would hurt until doctors force you to basically experience frostbite), blood draws, chest & foot x-rays, etc. For two years, I had battled excruciating pain in my legs and toes. Skin temperature changes and major discoloration, tingling, numbness, loss of appetite, weight loss, hypersensitivity, you name it, almost every symptom described me, so two years of pain left me at a loss. One day and a thousand phone calls later, a diagnosis changed who I am today. After finally understanding that I struggle with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (sometimes referred to as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome or Reflex Neurovascular Dystrophy), knot after knot began to untangle as I learned that I dealt with chronic, invisible pain. Abnormal reflexes developed in my nervous system. Normally, when pain occurs it is sent up the spinal cord to the brain, then back to the point of stimulation–the reflex arc. With RND, an abnormal reflex forms in the arc, making a painful, nonstop cycle that can’t be broken. It causes constriction, which led to the purple feet, lack of blood flow, etc. The lack of blood flow just caused weakness and more pain.
When I was first diagnosed, I was scared out of my mind. Mainly because I was fifteen and I didn’t want to be sick. The RND goes in three stages, and I was diagnosed in between the second and third stage, the third being the most severe. Six of my toes and and always will be permanently paralyzed, but after nine brutal months in physical therapy four days a week, my body learned how to fight. I learned to understand my body and understand what made my pain so severe. Why I couldn’t sleep with sheets on my bed or wear jeans or shoes because of the hypersensitivity. After massages and acupuncture, physical therapy, swimming, and extreme workouts, I learned to accept and be radically grateful for that experience.
True gratitude isn’t an incidental ingredient. It is not a stand-alone product or something that intersects with life. Gratitude has a huge job to fulfill in us and mainly in our hearts.
Looking back to that day in May of 2011, I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t believe it was possible to be infused with joy and walk through such a dark tunnel with a flickering light that seemed miles and miles away. It was the toughest time and most challenging experience to live with a chronic, everyday, invisible illness that no one could feel or see but ME. I can’t begin to express how many times I said to myself, “No one understands.” And the truth was, no one did understand and no one WILL understand. Truth be told, THAT was one of the most painful things to swallow. Because all I wanted from the bottom of my heart was to cry on the shoulder of one who DID understand and feel the pain I was feeling. Through my journey to joy, I found that that shoulder DID exist, and it STILL does and always will exist. The shoulder of my very Savior who walked through and overcame the toughest sacrifice ever given. My heart grew to become infused with joy and gratitude for EVERY day. Looking back, it’s sometimes mind boggling to understand what I walked through and how tough it was, but I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. It molded me and grew me and shaped me to exactly who I am today. It gave me the greatest heart of empathy for those who battle loneliness. Lack of gratitude leads to selfishness, and the LAST thing I wanted to be was selfish during that time, but there were MANY, many times when I was exactly that, I cried giant, salty tears, craving for something I didn’t have.
Understanding that His promises are ALWAYS in force, with His peace and presence ALWAYS available for us to rely on, it becomes so easy to fall victim to the melancholic words of, “Why me?”
When you look at the gospel, you automatically see three words: guilt, grace, and gratitude. We were born with an inescapable guilt. A guilt we are bonded to. But we are freed from those chains the moment we surrender fully to the undeserved grace and forgiveness found in the arms of our Creator. An undeserved miracle, that He breathed life into our dying souls, is a gift and treasure that over and over leaves us with the choice to choose gratitude.
In my darkest moments of solitude and loneliness, and in the moments of wanting to find solace and comfort of the words, “Why me?”, look to the word Eucharist. Think–eucharisteo, which, in it’s purest form, means the giving of thanks. Really, it means grace. All grace. Grace, gifts, gratitude. They all go hand in hand, and are all given in abundance to us.
Undeniable guilt plus undeserved grace equals unbridled, unleashed, uncontrollable gratitude.
It’s something you can say you’ll do, but it’s a completely different story to live by that every single day. It would be a lie if I said I lived by that fully when I was battling RND in it’s toughest state, but I chose to strive for that goal and TRY. I learned to be thankful, radically grateful for the gift of RND. Without it, there is no possible way I would have the faith or the hope I do today. I realized that there aren’t enough hours in a day to be thankful for the more-than-a-thousand gifts given to us every day.
David says it right in Psalm 16:11, “You make known to me the path of life; in Your very presence there is fullness of joy.”
I am who I am because of the challenges and trials He has walked with me through. Because HE already overcame, we can overcome. He has already overcome the world, what better hope to cling to than that? To know that there is NO trial, NO challenge, NO burden, NO pain we will face in this life that He has not ALREADY crushed and DEFEATED and been VICTORIOUS over!?
What a precious, priceless, gift.
My journey to joy is a never ending, always fighting, always hoping journey. It is the path I choose to walk in this life. The path narrow, the path solid, the path challenging. But the path that leads to never ending life and fulfillment and pleasure in the presence of the one who will bring us to that place of rescue!