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What now?

This post has been a-brewin’ for awhile now.  There’s a reason I haven’t blogged in over a week and it’s because I’ve been searching for the words to tell a very personal story.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a beautiful blogging event I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about by now, Blog Sugar.  It’s always a great day, meeting new people and seeing some friends.  This year though, there were speakers.  Amazing women who are brave and honest and speak from the heart left me feeling motivated to step it up in my own little corner of the internet.  Several times I was asked how I got into photography and that’s quite a story in itself, and I’ll get to that today.

I’ve been pushed, encouraged and inspired to open up on my blog and really be…real.  Posting lovely photos and talking about other people (my clients, my husband, my fishies, etc) is easy.  It’s easy for me to find the best in the people I know and relay that to the world.  What’s difficult for me is to be raw.  To be an open book.  To tell my story.  So from this moment forward I will be trying harder to be open.  Be real.  Be me.  This wallflower is blooming.

So, come on into my internet home here.  Pull up a chair and stay awhile.  It’s story time.

Whenever somebody incites me to tell my story there’s one very specific thing that comes to mind.  But first, a little detour…

Last week my husband and I went to see the movie 50/50.  I love just about everything Joseph Gordon Leavitt does.  Mysterious Skin shook me to my core.  500 Days of Summer is adorable.  Inception needs no explanation.  Even Hesher was beyond interesting.  And I’ll never forget the time I ran into him in person at a midnight showing of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Fairfax.  (He’s so tiny and cute!)  Needless to say, I’m a fan.  Branden too.

So, we went to see 50/50.  Don’t worry, no spoilers here.  The story is about a healthy 27 year old guy who is diagnosed with cancer and his journey through the disease.  It chronicled not only his struggle through the disease, but his loved ones’ as well.  It was really great.  JGL was wonderful as always and Seth Rogen was the perfect good friend and a great comic relief from the heavy subject matter.  We liked the movie.  The audience seemed to enjoy it and left rather cheerful.  You leave hopeful….or at least they did.

As we sit in the dark with the credits rolling, the music just barely drowned out my breathless, body-shaking sobs.  I couldn’t breathe.  Hysterics might be a fitting description.  The projector shut off.  The lights came on.  The theater empty except for the two of us.  I couldn’t move.  Except for the shaking.  My husband wipes tears from his own eyes (and he’s not a crier like his blubbering wife).  But this was different.  This was personal.  This hit a nerve I thought I’d buried deep inside.  This was something we’ve been through.  Together, but in wholly different ways.  I can’t remember the last time I cried that hard.  Actually, I can.  And the movie showed it scene for scene when the main character, Adam, was prepped for the surgery that meant life or death.

To be fair, I’ve never had any kind of life-threatening illness (thank God).  But I do know what it’s like to have my life as I know it (as a healthy 25 year old girl) ripped away from me in the blink of an eye with a back injury.  I know what it’s like to be in so much pain that I literally couldn’t move without involuntarily crying.  I know what it’s like to be pumped full of medication that doesn’t touch the pain but does succeed in making me horribly sick.  I know what it’s like to know no relief.  Lying in bed, the pain continued.  A spine injury isn’t all that unlike cancer in a lot of ways.  The only thing the painkillers did was make me ill.  They never touched the pain.  Not even the strongest narcotics.  There were no guarantees for my future.  Only ridiculous, practically made-up statistics.

The injury wouldn’t kill me and for that I’m thankful (now) but I literally had no life.  I often thought a deadly disease at least had an end in sight.  Amputees were far more mobile than I was.  Living a life in so much pain that you can barely move is not living.  With the back injury I literally had years of my life ripped away from me.  I lost friends.  Nobody understood.  I was called lazy.  People were upset when I had to withdraw socially.  Co-workers thought I was looking for an easy way out of work.  Thank Jesus I had my mom and one other very special person who never judged and were just there for me.

This movie triggered so many awful memories.  The countless anxiety-inducing doctor’s appointments.  The MRIs.  The EMGs.  The XRAYs.  The epidural steroid injections.  The physical therapy.  The acupuncture.  The chiropractic care.  The awful painkillers.  The never-ending paperwork from insurance companies and lawyers that was a full-time job in itself.  And NOTHING.  No improvement.  Quite the opposite. Many of them only made the pain worse.  For two years I struggled through these things until there was nothing left to try.  Almost.

After  years of unceasing pain I finally decided surgery was the only option left.  Even that I had to fight for.  I had second and third opinions.  I fought for the doctor my gut told me was THE ONE.  I had a spinal fusion and total disc replacement.  Here’s a little picture of what’s going on in my back now.  I have one of each, right on top of each other.  Pretty cool huh?

This surgery was by far the scariest moment of my life.  I made a will.  I signed up for life insurance.  Most people I know don’t know about that but it’s true.  Death is always a risk with surgeries of this magnitude.  Youth was on my side so we kept that in mind and I went in that day scared shitless and full of hope all at the same time.  I knew there was a long road ahead but for the first time there was a real future beyond that road.  Our pastor and friend, Sean, stayed at the hospital with my whole family all day.  He prayed with them, took them to lunch and was just there for them.  This meant the world to me.  I know it wasn’t easy for them to deal with either and I appreciate someone caring enough about me to be there for my family.

This photo was taken post surgery.  I spent 3 days in the hospital.  They had me up and walking on day 1.  By day 3 I could walk up a few stairs safely (with the help of the occupational therapists) and I was allowed to go home.  I spent about 3 months (out of my 6-12 month recovery) in a bed in our family room, downstairs.  I had a walker.  I had a little grabby thingy to pick up items on the floor.  I had this crazy device that helped me put socks on but usually a family member did it.  My mom had to help me bathe.  At 20-something years old that act made me feel hopeless/paralyzed/exposed/embarrassed.  But still, I was thankful that I had a mom who’s a registered nurse and could handle being a caretaker.

I met Branden, my husband, only a few months before the injury and he stuck by my side through the absolute worst years of my life.  If I believe in anything at all, it’s God’s timing.  I don’t know if I could have made it through everything without him.  There was a sense of hope with him.  I wanted that future with him.  I had to get better.  I was young and healthy and had a long future ahead of me so I HAD to trust that God had a plan.  I wavered, oh boy did I waver.  Don’t get me wrong, I felt weak.  I felt helpless.  I was helpless.  Everyone was.  I didn’t know how I could keep going on.  I didn’t know if I would ever have my life back.  I fought God, I felt betrayed and at the same time I knew that He was the only one who could lead me back to a full life. But it was Branden who kept that hope alive.  And I believe that he was sent straight from God.  I still don’t know why the guy stuck around when after only a couple of months together our world was turned upside down.  But he stayed by my side for 3 1/2 years of torture.  I’ll never understand how he did it with so much grace and patience.  He never once showed frustration, only understanding and love.  He’s truly one of a kind.  We just had our 5 years-as-a-couple anniversary.  That means we’ve spent more time together in hard times than in good.  Thank you God for these good times we have now!

I’m almost done, bear with me, I know it’s a long one!

My post-op recovery was long and it was difficult but because with this operation I had a renewed sense of hope, I planned ahead.  With the pain I endured prior to surgery I was bored out of my mind.  I started spending more time online, on Etsy, in communities and even started a blog.  A new world opened up to me that didn’t care that I was stuck at home, I could still participate.  But most importantly, knowing how much time I would have ahead of me during recovery, I decided that I would not let everything I’ve been through be in vain and I decided during my recovery I would learn something I’ve always wanted to do.  That one thing was photography.  I’ve always been interested in it.  I’ve always had a camera in hand of some sort.  Having my life ripped away for so long made me happy I had photos of the happier times in my life.  And now that I’ve recovered well and moved past the surgery, I’m thankful for that photo above as a reminder of how far I’ve come.

I bought a DSLR prior to surgery.  I bought a bunch of photography books and I immersed myself from my bed in photo-blogs and forums learning as much as I possibly could while I was down for the count.  I had to get out of bed and walk around the house a few times a day in the beginning and then we started going for short walks outside.  Baby steps.  I took my camera along with my baby steps.  I literally taught myself everything and it’s a fact I’m proud of.  My photography progressed along with my recovery.  I couldn’t wait to get out and photograph the world instead of my living room.  A new passion developed that helped me push forward.  When I finally worked my way up from pretty flowers to photographing people, a little spark ignited.  I realized very quickly that this could be something for me.  An answer, a future.  I get to be creative while meeting new people and bringing out the best in them.  I can’t imagine a better job.  I never looked back.  Post-surgery, I never went out and got a job.  I created a niche for myself in this photography world I love so much.  I believe whole-heartedly that God had this plan for me all along.  I never would have gotten here on my own.  I’ve learned so much along the way and I’m the first to admit there’s always more to learn but the point is that I’m proud that I used a hardship to become better.  I’m not bitter about my painful past.  I’m hopeful I never have to deal with it again but mostly I choose to do the best I can here and now because you just never know what life is going to hand you or tear away from you.  Part of what I love as a photographer is capturing that moment in time that is so rare and so special.  Life is short. Live it to the fullest.  Find what you love.  Maybe even let me capture it for you : )

The movie ended with a simple line of dialogue, “What now?”  This, more than anything else, is what set me off.  I cried those tears for the pain and suffering I had endured (Branden too), but I cried too for the fact that I’m in the “What now?” phase.  The overwhelming thankfulness that I was given this second chance.  The knowledge that I’ve made it through to the other side and I have my life back.  And it’s better than ever!  What now?  Whatever I want!  As long as it glorifies God and I remain thankful to those who were there for me in the worst of times.  I feel good.  I’m a fully functional human being again and for that I am eternally grateful.

***This brings me to a related personal note.  It seems spinal degeneration runs in the family and my mom is now suffering a painful spine injury as well.  She’s right at that do I or don’t I have surgery moment and needs prayer.  It’s a life changing decision and although it was right for me, it isn’t for everyone.  She is more confused than ever.  I would appreciate greatly any prayers you might be willing to give for my mom who is still trying to be a good mom to my young brothers while she battles this awful pain.  I  might be a grown up but I still need my mom around and I’d prefer if she wasn’t miserable!  Thank you, dear friends!

I want to hear about your journey too.  Leave a comment and join the conversation!

What is the most difficult thing you’ve ever had to deal with?  What did you learn from it?

How did you finally make it through to the other side?

Can you use your story to inspire others?

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admin - October 7, 2011 - 8:31 pm

Thank you Jenn! You are always so open and truly honest that it’s been an inspiration for me too. I’ve learned so much from all you girls and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to put it to good use!

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admin - October 7, 2011 - 8:30 pm

Thank you Angela! The odd thing is I never felt like a fighter but those little slivers of hope did keep me going. I felt weak. I felt like giving up but that wasn’t fair to those who were fighting with me. Now I choose to keep moving forward and only look back to remind myself how far I’ve come and not to take all this for granted. Thank you for sharing too! It’s inspiring to know what moves you to be who you are when life gets tough.

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admin - October 7, 2011 - 8:26 pm

Marcia,

Thank you so much for sharing all that with me. I feel honored that you would take the time to sit and write about your own struggle. I think we can not only keep moving forward but we can keep learning from each other. It’s a pleasure to get to know you beyond the surface : )

During the years of pain I developed some major “tummy issues” to put it lightly so I know exactly what you mean when you say you kept it to yourself and had to cancel sometimes at the last minute and people just thought you were flaking. That’s not an easy thing to go through and it’s definitely not easy to talk about.

I think it’s so amazing that these issues of ours somehow weeded out the guys who couldn’t take it and left us with the ones we really wanted all along. God truly does work in mysterious ways. Painful ways sometimes. I never want to take that for granted. I choose not to fear the future or dwell in the past but every now and then a reminder is a good thing. Looking back and regaining perspective is what keeps me appreciating the way God has moved in my life and how I need to keep working hard to be the best I can be.

I’m so glad you found a home that saw you through such a rough time. We’re looking for a new church at the moment and I miss that!

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Angela Powell Woulfe - October 7, 2011 - 3:28 pm

Melissa, thank you for sharing your story and being real about all that you have endured! Our struggles and perseverance is what makes us the people we are today. I sit here right now in a t-shirt that reads “SURVIVOR” on the front. It reminds me of my own struggle at the age of 32 with cervical cancer, and not knowing if I was going to watch my daughter grow up. When facing a difficult situation, it is easy to give up, become complacent, and withdraw into our own misery and struggles. Or, like we did, we can choose the high road and fight, proving ourselves over and over again. I will choose “fight” every time. I can’t say I wish I’d never had my diagnosis, because if I hadn’t, I would not be where I am today. Keep fighting, girl.

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Jenn L. - October 7, 2011 - 10:54 am

This is so beautiful friend…seriously, it brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for being open and sharing your story. SO powerful. xoxo!

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Teresa - October 7, 2011 - 1:57 am

Thanks for being real and for sharing about your journey, Melissa! I am inspired by you 😉

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Marcia - October 7, 2011 - 12:59 am

I’ve never built up the courage to start a blog worth reading, so I applaud you for being so open about your life.

Health is definitely something everyone takes for granted. I am guilty of it myself. I wasn’t exactly raised by ‘health nuts’ to say the least. Bread and potatoes were often the common side dish, and fast food was no stranger in our household and my high school years. I was blessed with a high metabolism, so I was always a thin person, despite my eating habits and lack of interest in sports/exercise. But by junior high, I was proof that skinny does not always mean healthy.
After numerous visits to the school nurse, being sent home with stomach aches, and my reassurance to my parents that I wasnt just trying to skip class…they finally took me to a doctor. I was (questionably) diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. A gi disease that causes a long list of unpleasant and embarrassing symptoms. Unfortunately, cause is unknown and disease is uncurable.
Long story (somewhat) short, I spent the next 12 years dealing with this disease. In and out of doctor’s offices filled with elderly people, making me feel like I was way too young to be cursed with this condition. I was given numerous prescription drugs that made me just feel like a lab rat. Nothing giving me full relief. Evasive exploratory procedures and a handful of medical trials, slowly chipping away at my sanity.
I, too, lost many friends. Many failed relationships with guys I either hid it from, or became a source of problems, including a failed marriage with an unsupportive jerk who accused me of faking the disease for attention. (A whole other nightmare) A social life of any sort seemed impossible with a disease that was so crippling and unpredictable. I was clearly depressed and developed a love/hate relationship with food. It was often a comfort when I was feeling down, but was usually a source of even more discomfort when it helped worsen a flare up, making wish I never had to eat again. I have to admit, I sometimes sat on the bathroom floor in pain, telling God that this was not the life that I wanted to live any longer. Asking him what I did to deserve this?!
Then a few years ago, an old friend from junior high contacted me on Facebook. She was starting a bible study group at the same time and invited me to join. I attended her church for the first time and I left in tears. It really touched me and gave me hope for my future for once in a long time. I met great friends in her study group and learned a lot in the time we shared together. As I continued to struggle with my disease, more failed relationships, unhappiness at current job, and problems with family, I was still happy to find a place that gave me encouragement and hope for my future.
With this renewed connection with God, I grew confidence, faith and positive outlook on my life. Within a year, I got a job promotion, started dating a great guy and was working at living a healthier lifestyle. I shared my condition with my boyfriend after my previous one dumped me right after he learned of my condition and decided he couldnt handle it. I didnt want to waste any time hiding it. Nate was amazing. He never made me feel self conscious about it. He was more than understanding when I had to flake because I wasnt feeling well. Feeling comfortable around him even improved my condition, since stress was a trigger too. He even supported me as I got sick in France on our honeymoon cruise. Anyone else would’ve hated me for ruining their once in a lifetime vacation, but he loved me the whole way. Only the type of person that God could’ve placed on earth just for me. A type of love I never thought I’d find.
And carrying our precious baby, not only curbed most of the UC symptoms for 9 months, but once she was here she gave me something more important to focus on. Since so much of my disease was stress-induced, and stressing and worrying about getting sick, became a vicious cycle, stress-relief was a huge part in getting better.
Not only have I been blessed with a great family at home, but I’ve gained confidence in re-entering the social world again. I am guilty of taking life for granted. Often it takes a rare flare up to remind me of how long its been since a sick day. Or I hear about a health/life struggle of a loved one, and think of how lucky I have it. Reflect on my own mortality and scold myself for wasting even a day of my blessed life complaining or being unhappy with the hand I was dealt. We never know what tomorrow will bring. We never know if we will have a tomorrow. We have today. We have all the yesterdays and the trials that they gave us, to build us into the person we are today. And hopefully that person will chose to live today. To its fullest.

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admin - October 6, 2011 - 10:18 pm

Thank you Alli! I never felt strong but I suppose what they say is true. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger! I’m thankful that I know first-hand what my mom is going through and can truly understand what many don’t. Thank you for the prayers! I believe they do make a difference.

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alli masters - October 6, 2011 - 9:46 pm

I am so grateful for being welcomed into your private thoughts and feelings. There are few things more therapeutic and intimate than our lives expressed through words. You inspire me :)but if your mom is one tenth as strong as you she will get over this. Xoxo

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