Telling It: Amanda || Part One

The following is the first in a two-part series of an undocumented story being given debut;
bringing the inside to the outside, in courage and with grit.
To be an onlooker of this testament is privilege.
To be a companion in it, even more so.
Whether or not you find your own self laced within these words, we recognize that humanity, after all it’s differences,
has common blood running through its veins.
We each have a story.

There’s room for all of it.
And it’s a beautiful justice to finally say it.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” // Maya Angelou

Here is Amanda, telling it:

Even today, my first thought is still, ‘Where’s the pill?

I was sick pretty much from the moment I was born. I was born prematurely so, like, eight weeks early. I was a tiny little kid and my first memories are hospitals and doctors. When I was four I was diagnosed with a disease called pancreatitis. Essentially your body is just digesting itself. It’s really rare in kids – most of the time you get it because you have gallstones or you’re an alcoholic. So it’s really weird a kid got it. The first time I got diagnosed they said, “Oh, you’re never going to have it again.” Six months later, I had it again. And that became the pattern.

I’d get really sick, go to the hospital, couldn’t eat, go on pain medication for a week and then it was done for six months or so and I got to have a decently normal childhood. That was how it worked until I was in about 6th grade. My life was pretty normal, just every six months I’d be in the hospital for a week.

Things changed the night before I went into 6th grade. I got sicker than I had ever been.

I went into the hospital for 8 weeks that time. Looking back now, that time chunk I missed was really significant. In the town I grew up in, 6th grade is when the nine elementary schools in the town merge together and I missed literally the first 8 weeks of the 6th grade. So this merging process, this new school for all intensive purposes, I missed. It was the first time that being sick really affected my life and it’s the first time that I like, I don’t know, that I can mark when things started really shifting.

My liver shut down. I got life-flighted to another hospital. And it was weird and crazy and that was the first time I had ever realized it was affecting anyone else. It was the first time I had ever seen my mom cry in that situation.

It got serious.

From that point on, the disease got worse. It went from something I dealt with once or twice a year to having to be hospitalized every few weeks. When that would happen, the whole world would shut down. I couldn’t do sports. I couldn’t do tae-kwon-do anymore. My friends, it was hard to explain to them. I felt isolated. I felt different. I knew that my life functioned different than theirs did. Junior high was weird.

I have a little brother. He is 2 1/2 years younger than me, and I’m starting to see the affects of this on my family. He’s starting to make these comments like, “I hate that Amanda is sick” and “I get treated differently because Amanda is sick.” And so my family starts to pull apart and in my head it’s all around my illness.

For me, the ‘why’ question was always attached to my little brother. “Why am I sick and he’s not?”  Because everyone always said it had to be some sort of weird genetic thing, I had it in my head that it was genetics. But he didn’t have it and none of my other family members have it. Except, I do. It wasn’t an existential question. I was mostly just angry. And confused. There was this angry part of me that was like, “Why is this happening?” I would wonder if I’d done something wrong. I’d ask, “What have I done to deserve this? Am I more broken than everybody else? What is it?”

Today, I’m working through the fact that it isn’t my fault. Like, me getting sick isn’t my fault.

My freshman year I started to get sick every single day. I start to make friends and I join clubs at school and everything felt pretty normal. I make this big declaration to the doctors that I can’t do this if I’m in the hospital all the time. I can’t have a normal life like everyone is telling me I need to have if I’m in the hospital all the time. So the doctors and my family and I make the decision that we’re going to make pain medication available to me at home, which is a huge huge shift.

Pain medication my freshman year becomes really easy for me to get access to. Looking back now, I can see that the start of that summer, the end of freshman year, that’s really where my use of the drugs went from, “Wow I’m in pain” to “Wow I’m really nervous” or “Wow I’m feeling any kind of emotion so that means I need to take something to take my mind off of it.

And I think you could argue that it started before the drugs became available to me at home. Even now, when anything happens, and I’m like “How am I going to handle this situation?” My first thought is still “Where is the pill?” So I think that had been such an easy out, an easy answer, to all of the health problems – which had been my biggest questions in life up to that point. It was like this makes sense. This makes me feel better and nobody was telling me, “no.” In fact people were saying, “This is great, this is helping. We need to up the dosage? Let’s up the dosage. Whatever we need to do, let’s do it. To keep you normal.” So it was easy and everyone was praising the fact that I was living a normal life and people are like, “Wow, you’re doing this, Amanda! You have this disease but ahhhh! You’re living!” And I’m like, “Okay, we can do this. This is fine.”

And then things get crazy.

The next few years are the biggest blur. I don’t know what happened. Pretty much from that summer until senior year, I don’t have a lot of actual memories of things that happened. I know the wild stories, I’ve seen pictures. I listen to my brother – he tells me what happened. There were a lot of adult things that happened. Even now I think about it and I’m like “Man – that happened to a 15 year old kid? What were we doing? What were we thinking? I wouldn’t even know how to handle that situation now.

High school was crazy, from what I hear. The mental high didn’t do it anymore. You just reach for what is next. The doctors kept upping the dosages. I was getting sicker; I was in a lot of pain. But it’s hard for me now to say that it was as bad as I was claiming. I don’t know if it was. [Sigh … ] Yea. It was just a blur and a lot of drugs.

Everything revolved around drugs. Everything revolved around getting more, feeling high. My friendships, my family relationships, my reasons for going to church – every single thing I did during the day revolved around getting high.

Hardly anyone asked any questions. Most people didn’t question if I really needed the medication. I knew how to manipulate the situation in order to get medication from both the medical industry and my parents. It’s been hard because I watch so many of my friends get trapped in this life of addiction and some of them aren’t here now. Like, two weeks ago … I lost one. [Tears up.] It’s crazy to me. I get really frustrated when I think about the medical industry in this. I think addiction is a choice. I made the choice to take those pills. One-hundred percent. But it was really easy to get access to them. It was easy for all of us to have access to them. Yea. Nobody asked any good questions.

I went to church a lot, mostly to appease my parents, but it was actually a really easy place to take pills and have nobody say anything. Nobody was looking for that there.

What is significant, though, is at that point, several people started to take a special interest in me in youth group. The youth minister there would always make sure I was on trips or at youth group. If I wasn’t there, he’d call and ask why. And I know now that he knew the whole time – that I was doing all of this stuff. The church opened their doors and said, “Alright, you’re going to be stupid. You’re going to be crazy. But do it here.” It’s interesting now. There’s part of me that gets angry and thinks “Why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you intervene if you thought there was a problem or you thought that was happening? Why wouldn’t somebody step in or somebody say something?” I still don’t really know what to do with that, because I wish somebody really would have. I wish somebody at church would have said “What are you doing?

I felt isolated. And I didn’t know how to verbalize that. Anytime I would ever get close to having an emotional breakthrough, I would just take pills and it would cycle back down. I mean, I have good memories. I do. I mean, my cousin got married when I was in high school and I remember I was clean during the weekend of her wedding and I remember that being an exciting time. I remember thinking, “Chrissy is getting married! Maybe there is a world where I can do this someday.” But then I was like “No, you’re sick. This is your life. This is who you’re going to be.” There was a hopelessness.

I remember my senior year I went to a doctors appointment because the pain medication I was on wasn’t working anymore. He gave me Fentanyl and the dosage he gave me was so high he looked at me and said, “We usually only give this to people who are dying from cancer, who we’re just trying to make comfortable. But we’re going to give this to you.” So I was like, “Okay. This is how life is going to be. Just making me comfortable until I die.”

It was scary. I mean, the nice part about it is that I was so high that I didn’t, at the time, really take it all in. I don’t think there was ever a point I was suicidal, but I didn’t care if I lived or died. If there was a situation where I died, I would have been like, “Okay cool.” I didn’t attach myself to anybody. I was so careful about letting people be attached to me. There were rules I had, like “We can only hang out this many times a month.” And once I felt uncomfortable with how attached you were to me, you were out for a while. Because I didn’t think there was a point to anyone getting to know me or anyone becoming friends with me. Which is really sad. And it’s still playing out now.

Like, this situation. This interview. I was telling my friend today, “I don’t tell people this story. I run. This is where the walls go up.” And she said “You’re stopping. And you’re unpacking it and you’re being vulnerable.” Yea, no. I don’t let people get close. I let them get close enough to let them think they are close, and then I stop and put up the wall.

This is the first time in my life that I’ve really stopped to unpack the grief of all it and to unpack what all of that means for my life now. It is really hard. Because I’m starting to realize how much of my identity I have wrapped in that time of my life. This illness and the word ‘addict’ have become such a part of my identity in ways I still don’t completely understand.

Senior year I overdosed twice. The first time, nobody really knew about. I remember I was driving my car to school and I was getting really hot and, in the mind of a drugged person, I just took my shirt off. I’m in the parking lot of the school standing there with my shirt off, vomiting everywhere. That was normal to me. But I remember this time, I got scared. That I was really going to … you know. And I remember that I woke up in my car later on and I was fine. So, did I actually overdose? It was close. I remember that it scared me. But it didn’t scare me enough to tell anyone at the time that it had happened.

I remember that morning how many drugs I had taken. I knew the dosage I put in my body. And I remember thinking, “Okay, I gotta knock it down one.” And that was it. Easy enough. Moved on. And I went to calculus. With my shirt on.

People would always tell me, “You’re the strongest person I know. You’re so strong!” and I just wanted to punch them in the face – like, “You don’t know.” Being strong wasn’t a choice. Literally the only choices were “Kill yourself. Or do this.” And killing myself wasn’t an option, so here I was doing this. I always would struggle when people would say that. Even now I struggle with that statement. It wasn’t a choice. And the stuff I could have chosen? Well, I chose to take more pills. I didn’t feel strong. I felt weak. I was frustrated and I didn’t know what to do.

I was exhausted with the way things were. I didn’t see an end. There wasn’t anything I could hold on to like, “If you could just make it to this point, then there will be relief.” It was never that. It was just, “Keep going.”

The second time [I overdosed] was senior year. It’s a big year, and everyone is making plans for college. Everyone’s looking forward to the future and I couldn’t get myself there. I couldn’t get my brain to have a dream. To have a plan. To have anything. I couldn’t think of anything. And so first semester rolls around and it’s not a big deal that you haven’t applied to schools yet. But by Christmas break everyone’s asking, “Where are you going? What are you doing?”

I remember I would make up answers to the questions. This is funny. I was like, “I’m going to go to Hawaii to study dolphin training.” I actually applied because I was telling everyone I was going. I got in. Should have gone. But even that, I couldn’t get there. Why would I go to college if I don’t have a future? When you’re that hopeless, life is so minute to minute. Part of the reason I was so hopeless was because I couldn’t see past the minute, let alone the year, or maybe in a couple of years there would be answers. My brain wouldn’t function like that. It was just like, “This is miserable and this is now” and that was everything there was to know. So the thought of college didn’t excite me because sickness was my future. This is everything you need to know about me: I’m an addict, who’s sick.

It was really tense in the house that Christmas. So the night before second semester of my senior year, I overdosed for real. It wasn’t suicidal. It wasn’t like I was trying to die at all. I knew I was taking more than I had ever taken. But it was to not feel, not to die.

I remember waking up after and I was in an ambulance. I remember the guy standing over me, really clearly. The guy in the ambulance was yelling, “Amanda, Amanda!” and he asked me if I had done this on purpose and I said, “No.”  The next thing I know I was in the ER, in the trauma room, and I was vomiting blood and they were trying to stick a tube down my throat and I can remember that being the very first moment that I wanted to live. I didn’t want to die.

I looked at them and said, “Am I going to die?” and they said they didn’t know and I remember being really scared because I was like, “This is it. This is the end of it.”  They asked if I wanted my parents in the room and I said no because I think I didn’t want them to see that. I don’t really remember why I said no.

Even though all of my life, death had been a thought, this was truly the first moment I had really opened that door. It’s so weird because my mom never came into my room at that point in the morning. But on this morning, the day I OD’d, my mom felt weird. So she came into my room and found me passed out, naked, and she called 911. They said if it had been 10 minutes later, if it had been any other chain of events, it would have been too late. That was the first moment that I realized, even though death had always been an option or possibility, I was choosing it. Me choosing to do these things the way I was doing it, was choosing death. That was the inevitable outcome of what was happening, where I was going. Like, I didn’t need college plans because I wasn’t going to make it anyway.

I’m in the ICU and I have a tube down my throat and I can’t speak. I have a lot of angry family members. My extended family came and I remember that making me angry that my parents called my extended family. They were saying things like, “You need to get help.” But I can’t talk. I can see them, I can feel, but I couldn’t breathe on my own. They were just hovering.

All of these things are happening and all I can do is cry. It took a long time for my parents to have a real conversation with me. There was a lot of them protecting me like, “We’re not angry, blah blah blah.” But finally my dad in his dadness said, “You have a choice, but you don’t really have a choice. You’re going to get help. And you’re going to go where we tell you you’re going to go. And if you don’t, then your world is about to completely change because we’re not doing this. We’re not going to extend this for years. We’re not going to play these games. You have a choice. Take it or leave it. But if you leave it, you’re just here with a tube down your throat.”

I didn’t know what that world would look like; a world without medication. I didn’t think help was possible because this had always been my life. I knew what the pain would feel like without the drugs and that wasn’t a life I wanted either. I was like, “What are you asking me to do?! I don’t understand.”

[    Part Two   ]

Parade.

You’ve made tenderly sharp sacrifices in your life, I know you have. I know because I’ve made my own and the more I learn about people and engage in honest relationship, I see we are more alike and bonded than we realize.

You’ve done some hard things, and sometimes you’ve been recognized for it. Then you’ve done some hard things that no-one saw and no-one may ever see. You’ve made sacrifices that nobody will know to honor or celebrate. Sacrifices that are hard on the body, hard on the spirit, hard on the faith.

At times, the challenge is lonely because while we’re doing the courage-work and showing up, still we are spending our humanity on behalf of something other. It’s not glamorous. It’s draining. And it’s good. Really, truly, worth it. But nobody throws the confetti for us. Not a soul parades around our moment with sheets of gold-star stickers, dousing us with praise and recognition for doing this hard thing so dang well.

It’s invisible. And if we’re honest, that’s scary.

I rub up against that scary invisibility feeling and I want to tantrum. Bring the whole ship down because I’m so afraid that my identity will equate to nothingness if I don’t somehow display what I do, get validated, and become thought-well-of. “I just want to be okay” ripples in my head. Good Lord, I just want to be okay. And somehow that profound foundation of identity, of okay-ness, got misplaced and mis-entrusted into the hands of other people. Somewhere along, I learned that a good way to know if I was alright in the world was to look for what others thought, and to rely on opinions, standards, vague vibes. I thought that was the safest, fastest way to know about my place here. (Learning: Opinions change and the standards are weird and consistently evaporating. Such a vital thing does not belong in the well-intended but always shifting hands of others.)

I was thick with longing for easier days when I noticed it. The invisibility of the work. It’s been a long day, a long year, (sometimes these feel one-in-the-same), and I let the hot water run over my hands, splashing around the forks and plates and old tupperware and new sippy cups. A chore I used to avoid engaging in, I now look forward to; because sometimes old hard things are given new faces and old inexperience is replaced with new hard, character-shifting things.

I cried over my sink. Not because washing dishes was hard. No, no. Getting honest with yourself is hard. Getting out of your own way and giving your life to another is hard. The clanky chore I once avoided has now become a safe space to think all the things and feel all the feelings. Catharsis. I cried stingy tears over my sink because, no matter how thoroughly I could ever explain to another, no matter how much someone may listen or try to understand, nobody will ever really know to what extent I engaged in the hard of life. I cried because there were no sparklers or confetti and I felt invisible, questioning myself because nobody could see the work. Not a good look, but an honest look regardless.

And then I thought of you.

And my tears grew like a stream expanding into a river because nobody was ever going to see what you’re bravely doing. Nobody sees how you show up and give it your absolute best try. You’re doing the hard thing.

And shivers scattered across my skin because in that moment I realized: An invisible moment does not equate to an invisible you. Once more:

An invisible moment does not equate
to an invisible you.

Jesus was crazy. He was a wild man who did most things opposite of what seemed natural for a human being. He would perform these incredible miracles, and human nature tells me that he was wracked with all kinds of desires; like wanting to be seen. Because he was human like you and me, he likely had the impulse to find belonging, to measure and compare and earn and produce and to even let those things grow out of control. But he somehow found the ability to deny his reactions for a different and better way, a quiet way of humble service. He would touch a person’s skin and make deaf ears open and slurred words eloquent. Then he would blow minds by turning to anyone who witnessed this wild miracle and say, “Ssshh. Don’t say a word about this.” He would enter villages, trying to tip-toe his way into hopeless homes, ready to help but desperately wanting an invisibility cloak to keep his service in-between-the-lines. Quiet, and unrecognizable, yet never lacking in richness and power.

I have no idea what challenges you’re engaging in that nobody sees, the moments you’re taking the most humble road. I may never ever know. But I know that you are a beautiful human soul with a smart mind and a strong body and a complex life and I know you are showing up in scary ways, setting aside your comfort for the wild unreward. I don’t know your hard, I don’t see your work. But I know you and I see you, because I’m here doing the same. And we are not so different, us people. We carry the same travel-stamps of life, imprinted on our bones the rhythms of learning and shaping, hills and valleys.

So today, I’m lighting the sparklers for you. I’m throwing the confetti and clanging the lids of pans for you. Welcome to your parade, not of recognition because you need it. Gracious, no. You don’t need it. Your secret is brave and beautiful. But I shake the tambourine for you out of respect. Because I honor what can’t be seen, what’s humbling you, what’s courageously done in quiet service, the invisible victories.

The sparks are flying for you, friend.

For the time you celebrated your friend’s good news, even when your insides were balled in pain, suffering through a season of waiting.

For the time you noticed the state of your own spirit and decided to humbly receive help from a counselor, powerfully walking through the fire of learning.

For the time you went to work dark-early, collecting extra hours so you can get home in time to see your child for those sacred few minutes.

For the time you wiped your fragile mother’s wrinkled mouth because she had some mashed potato still in the corner.

For the time you fought the intensely strong temptation to relapse and you bravely gave a very shaky and hesitant, “No.”

For the time you quietly scraped the floor beneath the high-chair, hands and knees achey from the drowning day, pulling up tantrum-flung food in a perfect 360 degree radius.

For the time you saw a hungry man, purchased him a sandwich, and then dignified his humanity by asking him his name.

For the time you didn’t walk away from the fight, and you stayed, and you talked and you asked the questions and you listened and grabbed any hope you could find.

For the time you went with your gut, though unpopular by others who don’t understand, and made your best decision; completely healing and true and good, finally.

For the time you slowed your pace, quieted the noise around you, turned off the devices, threw away the hustle and productivity, and you were present; newly awake and listening.

I see you and I’m tilting my hat to you, you crazy wild humble achingly victorious soul.

{snapped photographs by Andy Olsen, my panda and my best}

It Grew Anyway

I witnessed a miracle. And it came in the form of a golden tomato.

tomato-1-of-1

Sometimes I’m so ridiculously tired. So over-done. So weighed down that my head ostriches into the sand. I wince an eye barely open to take a peak around and somehow the coarsely darkened grit feels perfectly appropriate. Just bury. And then muddle out a sandy prayer, “Help. Please. Just ……. help.”

The language of it all was poor, tired, little. The prayer. It was slumped over, tight-shouldered, dusty and quiet. Some would say I just couldn’t even. Exactly. So tired, the sentence couldn’t even finish.

I had a life-pivot a few months ago. You know, when something around you completely shifts and changes and moves and you have to move with it. You’re rearranging and learning new skills and trying on new roles and getting tired in new ways. Maybe you’re more tender and lonely than before or maybe you’re more zoom-zoom busy-busy buzz than before. Maybe you’re being transformed. Maybe healing has begun. The circumstances could be brand new, or they could be completely the same, but something has shifted – and you have to shift with it. We find ourselves in constant pivots all throughout life. At the time, mine just happened to look a little bit like motherhood, and a lot a bit like learning true love. A little bit like wrestling with cultural standards, and a lot a bit like learning to love myself. A little bit like grieving something gone, and a lot a bit like embracing open-handed posture, okay with the uncontrolled.

I became destitute in my pivoting season, undone by the demands and afraid of the unknown. My prayer lost energy and found scarce words, complete fatigue.

Here’s the thing: Our incredibly big, generously kind God doesn’t high-brow our tired prayers. He’s not some kind of vending machine that pops out a packet of Mini-Oreos if you punch in C3, answering prayers to your liking if you utter out the right code, a code that fits His demands. The kingdom of heaven doesn’t operate on reward systems like that. Full of gifts, full of Life, He tells us to bring Him our faint and fractionated selves. And that’s it. Nothing else to be done, but to let Him nourish you. You who are wobbly. You who has nothing left to offer.

So you’re at the end of all things, chest tight from the exhaustion, and you pray all that you can. “Help. Please. Just … help.” It’s all chaos around you, but what-the-hell-ever. You throw that prayer up into the atmosphere anyway, barely able to breathe, hoping just a taste of water might drip from the sky and soothe your over-worked, over-scratched, over-done throat.

“He, who keeps you, will not slumber.”
The Psalms, Chapter 121

I woke up some mornings ago and my soul uttered the same tired, small, worn-out prayer. It all looked the same. The house, the wardrobe, the fridge, the car, the job, the friends, the sidewalk, the barista, the sink, the garden. It all looked the same. Except that day – that day there was a single yellow tomato growing on the vine out back that I passed by just a week before. I stopped. I stopped because I realized there was no probable reason for that tomato to have turned yellow. Maybe I watered it last week? And maybe once again a few weeks before that? But the pivot-season was, and is, exhausting … so I had little room to tend to a garden, let alone keep myself and my family alive.

And yet, even still, it grew anyway.

Here it is. Here’s a glimpse into the workings of Heaven: Sometimes He ripens things for us. Sometimes when it’s hard to breath and you throw your tired prayers up into the atmosphere, waiting for a single drip of living water, you end up with color and flavor and the straight up magic of a miracle. Because the wrinkled prayer of destitution was met with compassion, and even more, understood. And the drop came down and landed there on that mound of soil, and with stardust in its chemistry and together with the light, it grew a single tomato. And turned it into gold. He’ll work tirelessly in the night, never resting His head in slumber. He will grow and shape and color some fruit just to show you He sees you, knows you, hears you, loves you.

Sometimes we have nothing left to give. Sometimes we are at the end of our own selves. Sometimes we are angry and burnt out and weepy and confused. Sometimes we grieve and we pray and we beg and we lay ourselves flat, waiting and waiting and waiting for movement. Sometimes we take it on ourselves, wanting so badly to get organized enough to remember to water that one tomato plant outside, for love’s sake. Sometimes we can’t remember to brush our teeth before bed or drink a glass of water in the day or bring a jacket. And then, sometimes, we are barely awake, zombie-dazed in our life, and a tomato turns yellow during a thick and foggy season and you realize there might be a thread of hope after all. Because somehow against all odds, it grew anyway.

Throwing those prayers into the atmosphere for you, friend. Asking for yellow fruit, or red, or blue, or orange, or brown. Whatever hue it comes, I pray it finds you in your hobble, in your worn-out space and encourages you brightly. This isn’t the end. This is a moment. He may be working magic. He may be taking the tired for you and turning it into something you didn’t expect. Something rather beautiful. Something rather good.

Thank you, Emmanuel. You are golden, and so surprising.

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