Tendons + Tenderness

I have someone else’s ligament in my knee. Someone who passed away. And because they checked a box on their application for a driver’s license when they were 16, they are a part of me. They are the reason I started walking again yesterday. And I’m very aware of the weight of that; I can feel it. I mean, I can put my finger on it, literally. The suture sticks out beyond my bone and the ligament, so I can put my finger directly on it.

I’ve wanted to write about this topic for a while, without fully knowing how to approach this conversation because it’s lofty and it’s sensitive, and in a lot of ways, I’m probably not the best person for the job.

I want to start a conversation surrounding the differences and similarities of physical and mental disability, because in my brief, brief, brief period of time in a wheelchair and on crutches, I’ve realized how problematic it is that we react one way to physical disability (that still is not nearly the reaction we should have) and approach mental illness with such a different demeanor.

The most annoying thing about being in a wheelchair or on crutches is the number of complete and utter strangers who ask “what happened,” before even saying hello, as if there was any option for me to hide my injury—as if I’m more of a curious spectacle than a person.

The answer they want: “I was surfing with Blake Lively, and we were attacked by a knee-cap eating shark”

The answer I’m not going to give: “I was born with some bone defects because I have scoliosis, so a lot of my bones aren’t well-aligned. One of my legs is actually noticeably longer than the other. Anyways, they had to cut off my tibia tubercle and align it to sit under my knee cap, then they screwed it in, twice, essentially fracturing my whole tibia, which takes six weeks to heal. They also replaced my MPFL ligament because my tendons and ligaments are stretched from the twelve years of dislocations I’ve endured. They’ll do it again in a year and a half, too. Wanna race me on crutches??”

The answer I give, usually through a clenched jaw: “knee surgery” because it’s none of your business.

But, the fact remains—whether out of some amazing, universally-shared concern or sheer curiosity—people ask. They see me and the way I am struggling to live normally, and they ask how I’m doing or rush to get the door or bring me meals. There is something remarkably beautiful about picking out a meal for someone and putting it together with your hands, hoping it will warm and nourish and comfort them in a time of need.

People see your struggle when it’s physical, even if you don’t want them to. They’re confronted with it, even if they don’t want to be. You are inconvenienced and you’re inconvenient, too. People are either kind to you because of that, or maybe in spite of it, or they’re an asshole.

But I’ve been disabled for a long time, long before my bones and ligaments caused me any real problems. I’ve been mentally ill since I was eight years old, at least. That’s the first time I remember having a panic attack, and that’s the first time I remember feeling crushed under the weight of not being good enough in any conceivable way.

I have had days where I felt that if I got out of bed, I’d be doing myself and everyone else a disservice. I’ve had nights where I cannot turn off my brain—I can’t even turn it down—in order to let myself sleep. And I take medication for those problems every day, not just for seven days in a row until the infection goes away and the wound heals back up.

There’s no x-ray or MRI machine they can wrap you up in to see what’s going on inside your head, not really. It typically takes years in a psychiatrist’s office to be told a correct answer—to be given the vocabulary to share what you experience with other people.

In high school, I referred to it in my journal as “the cold.” Because the same numbing, cold pain that you feel on your skin when you walk outside in a t-shirt when it’s 35 degrees out, is what I felt internally, always. And I was capable of hiding that from people, so no one was able to confront it with me or offer me help.  Instead, I received poor grades and was treated for ADHD.

Let me make myself very clear, were this a long term physical disability, I would in no way be making comparisons or pitting one hurt against the other. What I am saying is wholly based on my ability to recover, to point to exactly what’s wrong with me, explain precisely how it is being fixed, and to ask people for specifically what I need in my day-to-day journey of getting back to a better physical state. So I can’t understand or fathom the emotional, mental, or relational hardship that comes with being physically impaired long-term.

But I simply I cannot express how nice it feels, to point to my pain and share my timeline to normalcy with a loved one, and then ask them to pass me something I need to feel better or move forward. I have exercises that I do every day that put me in control of my growth, and I see noticeable, tangible healing weekly. I have a therapist who knows exactly what I require at any given moment, who has seen the same injury and surgery dozens of times, and who is equipped with tools guaranteed to create results. My insurance covers my visits to her, which occur twice a week.

The differences are many, we could do better societally with both, but the similarity is crucial. These disabilities are robbing people of the life that one could have without them, and the disabled person is likely thinking of that every hour, on the hour, every day.

For me, currently, yes, sidewalks could make more sense, people in an ideal world would be less weird and rude, and boy, would it be nice if walking felt natural at all. But the two months of bed rest, and one month of ass-kicking, tendon-stretching pain have nothing on the way I have talked down to myself my whole life, the way that I cannot trust my own perception, the millions of apologies I have said or held close to my chest over things that I don’t believe I could have controlled. I can’t replace the part of my brain that doesn’t work. I can’t cut out the heartache and throw it away. The plain-old, boring, ugly, miserable and to-some-incomprehensible heartache I have felt for little to no reason since I was eight.

Thank you for your care baskets. Thank you for your prayer. Thank you for encouraging me. But please, start talking about mental illness like it’s everyday, common, or like it affects one in four people. Because it does. And those one in four people need your prayer and your understanding too, even when they’re inconvenient for you—probably especially when they’re inconvenient for you. And they are much more alone in that disability than I am in this one.

Chapter Three

I am not broken; I'm naturally not perfectly balanced, which is different and alright.

I know a lot of good people with flaws that don't stop me from loving them. When I accept that everyone is imperfect but there are many reasons I should love them anyway, I’m free to let go of unrealistic expectations of others.

I’m still learning to give the grace that’ll allow me to see myself through that same lens.

I used to worry so much about purpose. Depression made me feel robbed of it. Mania had me convinced I could have it all figured out.

There are things I want to do. I want a baby with tiny toes to rest in my arms, pressed up against my tattoo that says “to hold,” knowing that no matter how she grows, she'll always have a place there.

There are things I'm good at. Saving seats. Remembering birthdays. Asking questions. Recognizing people's strengths. Praying desperate prayers. Telling stories over and over. Understanding feelings that aren't my own. Saying goodbye.

And I know there are things I am meant to do. Although, I couldn't tell you what they are yet.

I didn't know a year ago where I would stand today. Every year since I turned 18 I have been a different person by the time my birthday rolled back around again. Is it possible to be born again and again and again?

I think it's ok to not have all the answers and to leave some endings untied.

Purpose, maybe, isn't some cosmic, mystery to unfold. Maybe it's the questions we ask ourselves as we rub our eyes open every morning.

"Will you give it a go? Will you try your best? Will you speak the truth? Will you stumble? Will you learn? Wake up.”

I hope you don't feel that you have to figure yourself out, figure the future out, or figure God out, but trust all three.

You should do the things you want to do and discover the things you're good at, but there is also a level of accomplishment that is yours because you are trying. You're still here. Pain has come at you and found you undefeated time and time again. You're the reigning champ of living your one, horrifying, mistake-ridden, lonely, patched-up, breathtaking, miraculous, fast and short life.

My mom says she had a dream once in which she asked God, "why am I here?"
He told her "to wrinkle.”

God, give me the laugh lines to know I chose to live.

- -

Sometimes I feel like everything I write is a lie because I still pray to get better. I know it’s a selfish thing to do. I still pray I’ll wake up one day and my skin won't hurt. I close my eyes and picture Jesus in front of me, and I pull on his clothes, like that woman in scripture. I won’t let go until he heals me. I corner him maybe, and I don’t let him walk away without acknowledging that he made me like this when I just want to be like everyone else.

The guilt starts seeping in when I remember the messages in my inbox, the way people tell me that they didn’t know who else to talk to, the way—for whatever reason—strangers trust my face and tell me secrets. I am a chasm of otherwise unspoken truth.

I think of Jesus in the garden sweating blood, praying “let this cup pass before me,” but knowing that the will of God is better.

I figure, God can heal me, and he wouldn’t leave me this way if he didn’t have a reason for it.

That, of course, doesn’t stop the pain. I still cry at night. I rise in the morning to the thought of you. I wake and walk and breathe thinking of my inbox friends, those like me, who need to know that having a heart too heavy for your body doesn’t have to leave you lonely.

When we lived next to the train station, there was a wall across from our home with the worst spray-painted graffiti I have ever seen, if you could even call it that. It only said “get better.” in black, in someone’s everyday handwriting. I saw it every day for a year probably, before someone covered it over. And I appreciated the way it sounded like a command. You don’t just get better one day. You get better every day. You work at it. You wait in it.

Jesus isn’t your fix-it man. He’s not the maintenance you call when the door handle breaks and you can’t move forward to the next thing. He’s not your three-wishes-in-a-bottle or your twelve step plan. He doesn’t come with a twenty day meal list, essential oils prescription, and a promise to cure your ailments.

He’s just a man who was God.

I don’t mean “just,” like it’s any small thing. I mean that he’s all you get.

Anything that promises you Jesus and something else in order to make you happy is a lie. It is Jesus, and everything else counts for nothing. If you don’t want to hear it from me, there’s a book I’ll send you written by a handful of other people who were broken and buried, and that would’ve been the end of their story without him.

- - 

One day, someone important to you is going to tell you that you are not enough for them to stay, that your efforts aren’t good enough, or that you aren’t the right fit. You might beg, and you might want to try again. You’ll think that you should change, and if you change, there could be another ending. Don’t.

You are not everyone’s cup of tea. You are sweet tea. You are an acquired taste. Do not water yourself down for a person who will never love you as you come. To many, you are a reminder of home—not an earthly home, either. You are a living, breathing reminder of what’s to come. You are a piece of heaven. You are deeply steeped in love—full, and warm, and comforting.

Hear me. We do not change for those who will not love us no matter how we contort our lives to try and make them room.

Welcome heartbreak like a friend before you begin to believe you were made improperly. You are wired for greatness. You are imprinted with purpose. Open your hands. What comes, comes. What goes, let go.

You’ll learn this lesson applies to friendships, churches, leaders, jobs and places. You’ll learn you won’t be prepared for a lot of goodbyes. They’ll catch you off guard. They’ll leave you buzzing.

But Jesus’ last words in the bible are “Surely, I am with you always, until the very end of time.”

And I think there’s a reason He leaves us with that. It isn’t “be good” or “aim for perfection” or “get better.”

He leaves us with “I won’t walk away.” He promises us all of time. He says he is our everlasting friend.

Resting in those words, that non-goodbye farewell, every other heart-wrenching end just pales. I need those words to speak any others.

- -

My most cherished moments are when, in saying, “I believe I'm inadequate,” I’ve realized I’m not alone.

The most comforting thing, through every panic attack and every irregularly dark night, has always been a hand to hold.

We can't fix each other.

I'm sorry, my dear friend; I cannot make you better.

But I won't leave you when the lights go out.

To Have + To Hold

Scott’s vows to Laura:

“Laura, on the night that we first got to know each other, I was drawn in and insipred by your kindness, passion, beauty, and faith; but it was not those qualities that made me fall in love with you. While it was those qualities that assured me that you were a good choice  to be my partner in life, it was other things that made me fall in love. Your smile. Your laugh. How you love others. The way you look at me. It’s every thing that you do that makes me love you, because it is you doing them, and I can’t imagine loving someone more for who they are at their core. So I vow to have and to hold you as long as we both shall live, with love, patience, and caring. I vow to do my very best in leading you in a life that puts Jesus Christ before us, so that we may live in a way that pleases him. And I vow to always be someone you’re proud to call your husband and happy to have as your best friend.”

Laura’s vows to Scott:

”Scott, for as much as I love to write, putting my thoughts, feelings and vows for you into words was nearly impossible. When we first started dating, friends asked about you, and I would tell them ‘to say he’s my boyfriend or my best friend sounds stupid. He’s so much more. He’s my favorite color. He’s my favorite song. He’s just my very favorite of everything.’ To live a day without you is to be color blind—to go deaf. I could do it, but you are a gift that makes life so much more beautiful, that I will work to never have to. So, my vow to you is simple, and it is this: For as long as I can, insofar as I am able, by the power of Jesus, until death do us part, I will treasure you and put you first and serve you in a way that properly represents how thankful I am. And to reiterate just how thankful I am, you are the most tangible representation of the faithfulness of Christ that I have ever been given. You are immeasurably more than I could have hoped for or imagined. And you, Scott Kenneth Ulrich, are the person I choose, in every hardship and in every victory, to walk towards eternity and rejoice with. I’ll love you a little bit more each day forever.

A Letter To My Future Husband

Dated: 10/14/15 

Given to Scott, early, and far too boldly: May 22st, 2016

 

 “Hi.

I've written this out before and deleted it. Thoughts ranging from apologies to prayers to affection I can't even really feel yet.

I just want to tell you that I think about you and I hope for you.  I hope the very best—the very most.

I'm sorry that you're the clean one and that sometimes I'm impulsive.

I can't really be sorry for my story though.  My "baggage."   I hate when people say that. As if you can just set it down and walk off or open it up and shift the weight until your cases are permitted to be checked and loaded onto a plane and sent away.  I know we'll understand each other well enough to know even self-inflicted wounds heal.  Who we were once doesn't have to be anything like who we are now.  I want you to know, I love the story of how you came to Jesus.  All of it.  The winding and the ups and downs just make Him that much greater.

I can't wait to look at you in New England, to look at you in Southern California, to look at you in our home.  I'll take mental pictures of you in all my favorite places for as long as I live.

Sometimes, when I see baby shoes, I think of all the craziness we're going to take on one day.  It scares me less to know I get a partner for it all.  I'm excited to live life with you.

I want you to know that you're my teammate. I'm going to champion you and fight with and for you.  I want to be a wife who will sacrifice in order for her husband to glorify Jesus.  I want to honor you mightily and love you well.

I hope I know you soon, and I hope there is no one else between you and me.  I hope you love Jesus more than you love me.

I can't wait to choose you forever.”

 

I cried that night. I had moved back in with my parents and left school. I didn’t know many people in the city, and most of my friends had left our hometown years before. I was so lonely and also so fixated on the idea of marriage in the church. I wanted to be ready for it.

In November, there was a breakthrough in my counseling sessions in gaining a better understanding of my mental health. Things had been rocky since the passing of my grandfather, and it felt as though finally, things were looking up. 

I remembered Scott’s name—it landed right in the forefront of my mind in December of 2015. We met up on New Year’s Day. Sixteen days after we met, Scott started mentioning “eventually, if we get married.” And we touched lightly on the idea fairly often, until it wasn’t so lightly anymore. We were enthralled with talking about our life together. We were engaged September 18th of 2016 and married January 7th, the week of our one year anniversary together, 2017. 

 

And I realize, that’s quick. I don’t recommend always moving so quickly. I think the big things have to line up—family, faith, what you want in your future, how you treat other people, even how you fight, and spiritual and relational maturity.

Treat first dates like an interview. Ask the hard-hitters because you don’t have time to waste. Don’t ignore the warning signs. It doesn’t matter how funny or cute or charming someone is if they are going to steer you away from God.  

 But if the big things line up, and you know, (and you’ll know) please do not stress what other people think. Your timing is your timing. Your life is your life.