I invited two friends to guest post for me during my vacation week. Brandee shared a raw, honest story of faith. Today, Kelley Llewelleyn offers a bit of her own story and her unique perspective on faith.
What you'll read here is the first part of Kelley's journey. She's posted "the rest of the story" here; I know you'll want to continue to read.
I appreciate both of these women, who carry the light in our community through their words and deeds. They are good people; they see things, and they share things, and they make a difference.
Here's Kelley's story.
How Could I Not?
For a little over the last decade, I have repeatedly been asked the same question time and time again:
“How? How after all you have been through do you still have faith in God?”
Usually, I just smile and say the obligatory, “Oh I am so blessed!”, or the “I have so many wonderful people around me,” and take comfort in knowing that the question itself are people’s way of saying they feel sympathy for you and know ‘it’ was tough. And, although both of those statements are facts, I never truly answered the question.
The weight of WHY they are asking the question is always so unbearably heavy, that I always consciously choose to focus on the meaning behind why they are asking, then the actual why they would have such an inquiry.
Because before I can completely answer the question, I have to face that heaviness, boulder by boulder, in order to supply the background that has led to the recurrent question.
My childhood was good, in the sense that I never was hungry, unsheltered, or without the latest toy, but it left emotional scars that shattered my self-esteem. My parents were divorced earlier than my memory recalls, and I lived with my mother in various apartments and rental homes. I spent most weekends, holidays, and summer weeks at my paternal grandparents, which became my sanctuary even at a young age. Sadly, I only saw my Dad when he would stop to see his parents on weekends and my mother worked a lot, so was consequently, absent or tired. So, when it came to my parents, I either felt unwanted or in the way.
My dad had remarried and my stepmother made it crystal clear that I was a leftover from a previous marriage. She was ashamed of me because of what I represented and because of the fact that I was overweight. More than once, I heard the statement, “If you could be normal like your cousins,” insinuating that it was my fault that I didn’t get to see them more often. Consequently, I was only welcomed into their home, twice yearly, and therefore, was permitted to see my two, new brothers very infrequently. The worst part was, for a few years they lived across the street from my grandparents. At 10 years old, I would be sitting on the porch with Grandma, knowing my Dad was right there, but not “allowed” to visit me. It hurt. Deeply. I loved being a big sister and I was being deprived the opportunity.
My mother eventually remarried, too, and although my stepfather and I did not always get along very well, I was thrilled when they had a son and then a daughter. I took the role, as sister, very seriously and my reward was a heart was filled to the brim, daily, because of sharing my life with them. Our family was happy and home life was good, most of the time.
Then, when I was twelve years old, my mother’s mother died of a heart attack.
From that very moment, my childhood ended, emotionally. My mother still provided for me and I never went hungry for food or lacked shelter, but her own mother’s death opened a Pandora’s Box to my mother’s past and consequently, emotional destruction. The impact on our family was dark and grave. My mom was sucked into a tornado of depression, and to this day, has never been the same. My stepfather, my mother, my two new siblings at 1 and 3, and I quickly re-located from Pennsylvania to Virginia in the hopes that a new surrounding would allow my mother a discharge from her history and loss. Unfortunately, that did not ease her internal ache, and I spent the next four years riding the roller coaster of loving someone with bi-polar depression. The confusion felt to a teenager when they watch their mother cook dinner and laugh one night and then throw bowls at your stepfather and lock herself in her bedroom the next cannot be explained. I spent the majority of my time at home between keeping the house from being revolting and entertaining my brother and sister, so that as to not “upset” my mother. There are nights I would lay in bed and pray to God to save her. I would tip toe down the steps to peek on the couch and pray I wasn’t going to find that she had taken her own life, as she had threatened.
Eventually, at 17, I could take no more, and I succumbed to the invitation to live with my father, stepmother, and two younger brothers back in Pennsylvania. It was a horrible departure and it was the first of the many, many times that my mother would impose the “silent treatment” punishment and not speak to me, nor allow me to speak to my brother or sister.
That part was hard and involved deep guilt, because I felt I had forsaken my young siblings. But, I tried to focus on what I hoped was going to be it: a new start. After all this time, my dad and his family wanted me! I was going to be part of a “normal” family, like my friends. But that normalcy was short-lived. Once the novelty wore off to my stepmother, life at my new home became just as difficult and assiduous. My younger brothers were clingy, which I loved, but this caused major complications as I attempted to live my teenage life, and that began to irritate and anger my stepmom. I was asked to get a job where I could work every day after school, so that I could be away from home as much as possible. Also, regardless of losing over 50 pounds and getting in shape, I was still that constant reminder that my father had a life before her and that fact, added with some of her own health issues, caused her to need a “break” from me. It was like I was living in another bad dream.
Within several months, I left and went to live at the one place where I always felt accepted, loved, wanted: Grandma and Grandpap Deep’s house.
The next several years were filled with college, marriage, moving to and fro Virginia, again, for employment, and finding my niche in life with my new husband. The relationships with my four parents and siblings continued to be rocky and haphazard, but I had found a very happy place amongst my husband’s parents and entire extended family. Ryan and I had Austin five years later, when I was 26, and we’re living like every, other poor, young couple in America…Add my constant struggle with my diagnosed depression. The dark, cloud of sadness was ever present, and I spent an abundance of emotional energy just facing the daily tasks of life.
I was struggling to embrace the joy of my son’s childhood, when I still had so many unresolved issues from my own. The fear of repeating my parent’s mistakes and hurting my son usually motivated me to hide the pain and smile through life. The problem with having this sweet child, that I loved so very much, is that it opened my heart and years of hidden feelings began to escape. Consequently, I felt unloved, undeserved, and weak.
But, I was in therapy, attempting medication, and feeling good about my work towards leaving the past in the past. I was married to my best friend, had a healthy baby boy, a supportive family of in-laws and was finally looking forward to the future with promise.
Little did I know, life was about to take twists and turns that even the greatest storyteller alive could not have written.
Within in one year, my infant son was hospitalized for meningitis, my father died at 57 from diabetes complications, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, my mother-in-law, whom I was very close with, died of cancer at 59, and my husband of over six years left me. For a man.
My life and emotional health took a long, eddying descent over this gruesome season of my life.
I remember asking over and over and over again, “Why did you pick me to do this to?” “Why?”
Even though I was usually asking my ex-husband-to-be this, I know I screamed it at God more than a few times, too… Why did all of this have to happen to me? Why can’t I get a break from the heartache? The anguish, sadness, and depression were quite literally eating me alive.
Within two months of my separation, I re-relocated back to Virginia to escape this man and his family, who had all become my family. The anguish was exceedingly horrific, and although leaving was painful, staying would have been torturous. I had to remove myself in order to survive for my son and for myself.
Thankfully, I did get a teaching job in Richmond and was eventually, living in an apartment with my young son. But regret and the constant voice in my head screaming at me for the failure as a wife and parent caused me to make some terrible choices with my life. Within six months of being ‘legally’ divorced, I was remarried. It was awful from the start; but somehow, my self-esteem thought this was the best this ‘damaged goods woman’ deserved. He was abusive and could not decide if his “lifestyle” could tolerate young children, including my son and his own daughter. Eventually, after a very brief marriage (which included the arrival of our beautiful daughter and a horrific pattern of reconciliation attempts) we finally divorced. I “luckily” was able to obtain my own mortgage and subsequently, was living with my two children and my $1500 mortgage.
Phew. Are you exhausted yet?
Because, I was.
I was 31 years old and had a plethora of life-crippling challenges, which deserved to be labeled as boulders, thrown at me. And every day I carried them with me, hidden under the smiles of the regular duties required to be a full-time teacher and single mom.
Thankfully, it is during this time that I knew began to fall in love with my God and define faith. I had always believed in Him and knew who Jesus was. I had heard the sweet sound of my grandma praying out to Jesus, in hope and thanksgiving, more times than I could count. And…when I was 13, I prayed and asked Him to forgive me and live within forever. But, as I began my life, again, I became a part of new community, a new church, and found a new relationship with Him. God became a spirit that I had a daily relationship with and whom I began to feverishly serve. Consequently, my heart began to overflow with so much love and appreciation for what I did have.
I had healthy children. I had a job. I had a roof over their heads, even if we did live paycheck to almost paycheck. I had a great co-workers that were like family. I had an incredible church to grow in. I had incredible neighbors. I had a plethora of amazing friends, therefore, having a strong support system. I continued to share life with my grandparents and the incredible family tree they both gave me. I had a best friend, whom I shared life with, including some wonderful vacations. Daily I was able to look over these blessings and my faith was strengthened, time and time again. The depression still reared its ugly head, but I fought back most days with the confidence that He was with me and a recollection of that list of blessings.
Now…If this were the common soap opera, then this is where I, the lead character, would fake cry and say, ‘And that is how I know my faith got me through. I just held on until all my problems were taken away. I met my knight in shining armor and we rode off into the sunset and lived happily ever after.”
But, life, of course, does not usually work that neatly.
Mine is no exception.
Four years ago, I did meet “the man of my dreams”, who I had a pretty good hunch was going to be the husband I longed for and the father figure my children so wanted and needed. And he was.
But the “happy” part was disrupted three months, before he asked me to be his wife, when my entire existence was deleted like I had never known before.
While attending a leadership conference with my church, we attended a local restaurant for lunch. During this meal, over a dozen of us obtained a food poisoning, known as camphylobacter jejuni. The suffering evoked upon our bodies from this contamination was beyond belief. It was like having the worst flu you ever had, times ten.
Week by week, I lay suffering and watched, as each person on the list got better. But after three entire months, I was still getting sicker and sicker and sicker. Imagine having the flu, the WORST FLU EVER, for three months! I tried to continue teaching, to no avail. Eventually, I had a feeding tube placed in my stomach and was hooked to a machine that pumped nutrition into my body as I lie in bed. I had to take half of the year off completely and consequently crumbled financially. I lost my house to foreclosure and my credit was demolished. My, now husband, then fiancé, took my children and I in, covering us financially. And although a blessing, I was judged harshly by some in my community. I even had someone tell me I had nerve coming to church, since you could smell the sin on me. My parents and siblings, eventually renounced their parts on our lives for one reason or another, and I was so incredibly sick, that the darkness threatened to eat me up once and for all.
The depression had now developed into full blown anxiety attacks and the guilt began to consume me. I knew that all the life I was missing out was not only hurting me, but was letting so many others down. The least of which, being my own two children. I missed out on most of Chloe’s kindergarten experience and Austin’s year that he was in my class. I had to halt my church duties, and my teaching abilities were impaired, as well. I lost precious time I cherished with my best friend, and I missed many life celebrations, like weddings, showers, and parties. My immediate family was zero support and had betrayed me to degrees that I cannot even speak of on paper. After suffering for over nine months, the tube was removed and I began to face the daunting task of rebuilding my life. Once again.
And this leads me to my life today. I am 39 years old. I am married to Brian, my incredibly, loving husband, and have two beautiful, healthy children, Austin and Chloe. I continue to teach 5th grade and participate in my community and church fellowships. Each month my health seems to improve and I even attended an out-of-state mission trip with my son, last month. I will most likely need medication indefinitely, for the destruction the poison did to my body is permanent. Yet, there is physical relief and I am slowly adding some of my favorite things back into my living. I have zero contact with any of my three living parents, nor my four siblings. Although sorrowful about this, I am proud of my need to put my own family first. My husband and I have had three miscarriages in the last year. I feel sorrowful about those losses and the fact that I am unable to give my husband his own child. However, I relish in his repeated words, “I choose you,” and his constant reminder that I did give him two children already.
This is my story.
In order for me to answer the question that so many have asked me, I first had to tell the reason, or should I say, reasons, why it is asked in the first place.
I have truly contemplated, prayed, antagonized, and deliberated over the answer to how I could continue to have faith. And I continually to come up with the same four, simple words:
“How could I not?”
Read the rest of Kelley's story here.