Story

Madeline

If I were to ask you, “What gives you life?” what would come to mind? For me, I have always found sharing what brings me joy to be life-giving. Ever since I began pursuing one of my greatest joys, dance, I was fascinated by the way movement shares a story and conveys a message. Yet, I could not have predicted how my pursuit of dance would take shape in the future. As you sit there reading this, I’m sure we have unexpected life changes in common, and with that said, here’s how mine took a different turn. 

I’m sure we have unexpected life changes in common, and with that said, here’s how mine took a different turn.

In 2015 I moved to Florence, Italy to use my background in dance, art, and photography to connect with others and share about my faith in God. Italy was never a place I would have expected to live, but I loved it. Even more than the beauty of that country, I loved the deep connections that formed with others around me. Whether it was my roommates and I opening up our tiny apartment to large groups of college students until 1 o’clock in the morning, speaking about the day’s events with my neighbor and his children, or creating new choreography to surpass language barriers through dance, it was a rich season filled with incredible people. 

But only a few months after moving there, my energy seemed to be running low. My eyes started to grow dark while biking home. I would shake it off, thinking maybe I needed a better night’s sleep or should have had a little more to eat that day. I thought it was something I would get over and thought, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Then the worst came — chronic appendicitis. It’s a condition that seems rather simple to diagnose, yet I found myself going to doctor after doctor and feeling like I was never going to find an answer. Too sick to fly back to America, in too much pain to walk out of my apartment, and praying for relief, I was tired of trying to communicate to the doctors in English or Italian! Nonetheless, I did finally have surgery and have since been told it was a miracle I even made it to the operating table. Not knowing what was ahead, I thought the worst part was over and recovery would be just fine. But things only got worse when an infection put me back in the hospital more sick than before. I was far from my home, poorly treated by medical professionals to say the least, and left with scarring memories. Struggling to even stand up on my own, I started to question, was this my life now? Would I ever share dance with another person? Or explore a new place? Yet I knew I wasn’t on my own in the midst of that hospital. Even though my strength was completely depleted, I knew I still had a long way to go towards any kind of recovery and I wouldn’t get there on my own. 

Struggling to even stand up on my own, I started to question, was this my life now? Would I ever share dance with another person?

Within twenty-four hours I was back in America with very few answers. The immobilizing pain followed me home, as did the traumatic flashbacks and culture shock. Even struggling to breathe became a daily ritual. Test after test, appointment after appointment, there were no answers to be found, and no one to take on my case. I started to wonder if the pain was all in my head and maybe there was a reason no answers were being found. I felt like I had better learn to accept my situation or find another way to health and recovery. So with what little strength I had left, and through the strength from my faith, family, and friends, I began to speak up for myself to regain my life.

It’s been two years since my second surgery, and even though the emotional, traumatic, and physical effects still linger, I’ve learned to listen to and care for this vessel of mine. To be wise about whose advice I take, even from a doctor. And while it can be challenging to explain my lifestyle changes to others like how I eat or manage my energy, these new habits and rhythms allow me to share some of my greatest joys in a new way.

When your dream is on hold, can you learn to let it take a new shape?

When your dream is on hold, can you learn to let it take a new shape? I do not think I will be dancing a full length ballet in my future, but I can train up others who have a desire to dance. Someone I've been able to confide in during these challenging years once asked me, “What if plan B was actually supposed to be plan A?” What if, as indescribably hard as my season of pain was and yours may be now, we respect our limitations and explore our abilities that often went unnoticed before the struggle?

In the field of dance there can be a combination or step that is very challenging at first. These moves can take time, practice, and a lot of patience. As a former student myself, I know this can be a frustrating experience. When you don’t see a clear outcome or progress we can feel tempted to give up. Yet it’s often in these times that we grow the most. When I see a student press into the struggle and not give up I feel a deeper sense of compassion. And when the step or combination turns out differently than it originally looked, we can choose to learn from the change and process. Do I want to relive the past few years of navigating my health? Certainly not. Am I grateful for a new outlook on life, even in the simple things like helping a student accomplish a combination? Definitely. 

When you don’t see a clear outcome or progress we can feel tempted to give up. Yet it’s often in these times that we grow the most.

Sharing this part of my life is far from easy for me, but I know that there are others out there who are looking for an ounce of encouragement. So I share my story with you in full vulnerability, but I also want to share my strength with you as well. My story may resonate with you in some way, but this life-giving strength comes from my faith in God. The truth is I struggled, just as you’ve struggled, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without Jesus. He gave his life as the ultimate sacrifice because he loves us so deeply. And when you have a relationship with Jesus and you can anchor your faith in God, you really do have a new strength and life to share with others.

...when you have a relationship with Jesus and you can anchor your faith in God, you really do have a new strength and life to share with others.

So I leave you again with this; what gives you life? Who gives you life? What inspires you that could also inspire others? In your own capacity, open up and share it! It may just give you some life in return as well.

Reader Note: In hearing about Madeline’s passion for dance, it only seems appropriate to share the video below from her season in Italy, around the time that her health began to decline. Madeline is the dancer in the middle for most of the piece. We hope this energizes your hope, no matter what your dreams look like or how they’re changing shape over time.

We're proud and honored to have the opportunity to share this short film created by our friends at Practical. They specialize in sharing stories through concept, commercial, and narrative films that speak to the heart of an issue. They’re an intentional, ambitious company, with a streak of generosity to allow us to share their work in this way. Shoutout to our new friends!


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Bethany

Where is she now?

While she has learned a new rhythm of life without that "hustle" mentality, Bethany continues to navigate the same waters as so many of us - confusing symptoms, treatments, therapies, seemingly endless appointments with doctors, questions, relief, relapse, alleviation, flare. Many of the symptoms that were promised and hoped to be "cured" with a brain surgery, have not been remedied as she and her husband deeply hoped. While she experienced the miracle of removing her brain tumor that likely could have left her without vision or worse, she still battles a number of challenges, all while re-learning how to manage her business, marriage, and relationships through this new lens of illness. 

No one is more full of gratitude than this girl, and that choice is not an easy one when your recent "$15,000 haircut" (Bethany's nickname for her brain surgery) hasn't left you with the "sunshine and rainbows" results that you were promised. Gratitude gets real when you're left with little and you're choosing to see it as much.

Let's not only admire this beautiful, bold member of our Tribe, but let's take it a step further and learn from her. Let's join with her in letting go of the "hustle" mentality, and replace it with simply doing what we can and being proud of who we are. Let's stand with her and learn to let others help us, even when our independence screams otherwise. Let's take her by the hand and together find a way to scrounge up a whole lot of gratitude for the things in our lives that really matter.

Seasons come, seasons go. There’s growth; also withering. The withering isn’t the end, my dear. It’s making room for something more beautiful and strong and fitting for the new change of weather. Let yourself be pruned and changed, for it’s not the end. It’s the beginning.
— Bethany Schrock

We're proud and honored to have the opportunity to share this short film created by our friends at Moving Edge Media. Consider this our shoutout to a company that values the chronically ill community and understands the importance of sharing stories. If you haven't already seen their work or cried while watching one of their wildly compelling films, just click on their logo and check them out. 


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Mark

…I just made the assumption that there was something wrong with me.

About Mark

Mark Meier is the Founder of The Face It Foundation, an organization that exists for one simple reason: collectively, we need to do a better job of helping men who battle depression. For many reasons it’s difficult for men to acknowledge their struggle with depression. Many won’t seek the help of a mental health professional, leaving millions of men in pain, consumed by anger and fear. Far too often they try to cope with their depression by drinking, using drugs, having extramarital affairs, disconnecting from their families, and acting out in other reckless ways. The most recent data shows that in the U.S., we lose over 35,000 men to suicide annually, and this number is increasing every year. This has to change. Today, with his Master’s degree in social work, Mark spends his time teaching and lecturing on depression around the United States, and running weekly support groups at Face It to connect guys in their mutual fight against depression. There’s no doubt that his personal experience and passion to help others has specifically equipped and empowered him for the work he does today. We’re grateful for his life, and honored to share his story.

We can get better, and we can feel happy.
And we can feel sad, too, and not be overwhelmed by it.

You are not alone.

If you’ve spent much time at all around People Hope, you know we say this a lot because it’s true. If you’re struggling with a mental health issue, you’re not alone, friend. So many of us are standing with you as we also walk through our own challenges. Your feelings are valid and they matter. And it’s because we care about you that we’re telling you — don’t struggle on your own. Reach out and talk to a trusted friend, seek out professional counseling from people who are ready and waiting to walk with you through this, or even reach out to one of the resources below. Whatever you do, reach out for the help that you need.

If you’re in the United States and need help, call 1-800-273-8255, text the word CONNECT to 741741, or call 911 if you’re in immediate danger.

If you’re not in the United States and need help, talk to a trusted friend, reach out to a counselor, or call your country’s emergency telephone number if you’re in crisis.


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Mary

Preface: Few people are more invested or effected by our sicknesses than our mothers. The best of them journey with us, advocate for us, and comfort us. Our mothers have their own stories to tell, and I was immensely grateful when my mom agreed to share hers. Although we lived the same events, we view them through entirely different lenses, and neither of us walked away from this battle unscathed. We both now carry different but permanent scars of sorts, mine obvious and physical, but hers perhaps deeper still as only a mother can understand. I couldn’t be more humbled to share her voice and honor her story in the hopes that it will resonate, validate, and ultimately bring hope and comfort to so many other moms just like her, in the same way that she’s always brought hope and comfort to me.

— Anna Kowlessar, Founder of People Hope

From the moment a child is born, they are inexplicably knit to their mother’s heart. This doesn’t change, no matter how grown they become. Their joys are her joys. Their triumphs are her rejoicing. Their struggles are her reason to be on her knees. And their pain is her anguish.  Because when a child hurts, a mother bleeds. I was about to experience this on a whole new level.

...when a child hurts, a mother bleeds.

I had all but finished raising our youngest daughter, Anna. She was attending college a thousand miles from home, enjoying her new-found independence while I was constructing my now empty-nest reality. My husband Bill and I were proud of the woman our girl had become and were anxious to see the course her life would take. 

It was a mid-June afternoon. Bill and I were canoeing on Lake Superior when my cell phone rang. It was Anna. I quickly put my paddle down to answer the call and was immediately immersed in an all-too-familiar conversation about the strange and growing number of health problems she was experiencing. The onslaught of mysterious symptoms had started suddenly just a few months before. I thought she had developed food allergies. But, despite the dramatic changes to her diet, things were not improving. In fact, they were getting much worse. She and I talked and cried together for over an hour, as Bill prayed on the other end of the canoe. I had grown perplexed and frustrated by her persistent symptoms and felt completely helpless trying to problem-solve from such a distance. I needed to be with my girl and give her hands-on care. She agreed to the recommendation to return home, at least temporarily.  Four days later she was in my arms. Sick and exhausted, but at least she was home. I was certain now I could get her the help she needed.

I watched her eyes swell with tears as my sense of hope began to fill her tired places.

I remember sitting in a Barnes & Noble coffee shop with her, now with several doctor appointments already scheduled. I grabbed her hands, looked her squarely in the face and said with fierce conviction that we would get to the bottom of this thing. I watched her eyes swell with tears as my sense of hope began to fill her tired places. I was seeing a now 21-year-old woman on the threshold of her adult life. I was sure a few calculated medical tests would provide a diagnosis and treatment plan to get her well again quickly. There had to be a simple solution. I was wrong.  

Our first few visits to specialists proved to be our baptism into the sterile corridors and stuffy waiting rooms of the medical environment Anna and I would soon know like the back of our hands. The tests began to come back “normal,” one after another. So we looked deeper. Another hospital gown. Another paper-lined table and cold stethoscope. Another account of the baffling symptoms. Still no explanations. I felt a growing warrior mentality rising within me and solidifying my determination to to find a diagnosis.

I felt a growing warrior mentality rising within me and solidifying my determination to to find a diagnosis.

I watched my daughter become an unwitting professional patient of sorts, stoically sitting in one exam room after another. Never complaining, grateful for the opportunity to search for answers. But test results would teach her not to pin her hopes on a solid diagnosis. Often, she and I left appointments in complete silence, knowing that words would only give the disappointment more fire. Together we choked back despair and I tried to swallow her pain.  With every doctor visit I watched the hope drain from her spirit. It shattered my heart and galvanized my resolve to make her well. 

I tried everything I could think of. Doctors, specialists, chiropractors, physical therapists, wholistic and functional medicine. Blood tests, allergy tests, muscle tests, hormone tests.  Scans, ultra sounds, CT’s, MRI’s…you name it. I threw everything I had into this battle, desperate to give my girl a healthy future - wishing I could take on her illness myself.

The first time I rushed my daughter to the ER I saw her in excruciating pain I had never witnessed before. Her body writhed in agony while her face bore the weight of utter distress. I rubbed her back, her arms, her legs and offered words of calm reassurance. It was all I had to give. I instinctively assumed the role of her advocate and firmly pleaded with the medics to relieve her pain. Inwardly I screamed in desperation of my own. It wasn’t until we finally returned home that I removed my armor and let the experience flood my senses. It was powerful and overwhelming. I suddenly realized I was emotionally hemorrhaging from places I never knew existed. The image of my daughter in unspeakable pain, now forever etched in my memory, is still nearly too much to bear.

I was emotionally hemorrhaging from places I never knew existed.

Moms are supposed to guard their children from harm and shield them from pain and patch their wounds and love them so deeply that they cannot help but be strong and whole and ready to thrive. I had poured decades of my life nurturing her every step, celebrating each achievement, nudging her to new heights. This was the time she was supposed to be finding her wings. And I was not able to help her, nor able to make her painful reality less invisible to the medical world. I was powerless and in desperate need of strength and wisdom beyond myself. Day by day, and sometimes moment by moment, my empty hands reached out to God for the encouragement I needed…

“Do not fear, I am with you.  Do not be afraid; I am your God.  I will help you, I will strengthen you.  I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” - Isaiah 41:10

I was powerless and in desperate need of strength and wisdom beyond myself.

During the months that followed, I resolved to take on any role that might prove helpful. I was only too happy to be the cheerleader, the midnight nurse, the appointment keeper, the listener, the researcher, the prayer warrior. When countless doctor visits, tests, and procedures gave us no diagnosis or treatment plan, I developed broader shoulders to bear the looks of sympathy and those of disbelief. Above all else I became the torch bearer of hope, beating off the darkness of discouragement and the encroaching boundaries of chronic illness.  

At the time, I rarely allowed myself to think about how I was feeling. It was my daughter, after all, that was suffering. She was my sole focus. Even now it is difficult to shine a spotlight on my own experience. But, in all honesty, I know I suffered right along side my girl. It was a suffering of the heart and it was real.

Few people understood what we were going through. How could they, really, unless they had gone through it themselves? But the lack of understanding was isolating at times. Sure, well-meaning people offered medical tips and suggestions, many of which we had thought of or tried months earlier. Most challenging, however, were fellow Christians that sneered with judgement when my daughter was not miraculously healed following prayer. That cut me to the quick.

Of course I had prayed. Every day since the ordeal began. I prayed for healing. I prayed for insight and wisdom. I prayed for revelation. I prayed for a miracle. And I knew all the while I was praying to the God that had the power to provide all of it. Without so much as a full breath, my God could make my girl healthy once again. Yet, in His Sovereignty, He chose not to. At least not yet. This was hardest on Anna. I watched the knees of her faith buckle at times as she wrestled with this reality and asked the question, “Why? At the same time, God reinforced my faith with an understanding that as much as I loved my daughter, He loved her even more and she was always and forever on His mind. I would need to walk in total trust and faith…enough to carry me and enough to uplift Anna as well.  

And so she and I walked. One foot in front of the other. We walked through days with ups and downs and began to settle into what would become Anna’s new normal. Not the life I had dreamed of for my little girl, but the one that God was carefully laying before her. The one He was equipping her for. The one that I would continue to trust was in His faithful hands.  

Years have passed since Anna’s illness began. She has since stepped into a life on her own with a faith that is more tenacious than I ever dreamed possible. She has developed methods of dealing with most of her symptoms and she continues to learn ways to cope as new health issues arise.  She has poured out her life, her experiences at the feet of Jesus and He is using her in remarkable ways to touch the lives of others in need. That alone is enough to fill my heart with joy and immense gratitude.  

I am no longer Anna’s primary health advocate. I passed that baton to her loving husband, Randy, when they married last year. It was hard to let go though, having gripped it so tightly for so long. But I am comforted to know there is someone with my girl when she has a need - someone I trust completely to hold her hand and reassure her when symptoms flare.  

Wedding Photos courtesy of  Geneoh Photography .

Wedding Photos courtesy of Geneoh Photography.

My main task now is to pray. And prayer, I’ve learned, is no small thing. Every time I pray, God listens with intensity. Although He hasn’t healed my daughter yet, He’s far from finished writing her story. So my prayers continue and my hope is held high.

I feel so privileged to have been at my daughter’s side through some of the darkest days of her life. It deepened my relationship with her and greatly enriched my faith. God has been my lifeline of hope through every trial and disappointment. He has given me peace every time my circumstances gave me turmoil. I don’t fear for the future. God has patiently taught me to trust Him with the days ahead, even those that will undoubtedly be hard.

God has been my lifeline of hope through every trial and disappointment.

I have also learned that motherhood is a life-long journey of the heart. Though painful at times, it can be one of the greatest gifts on earth. For those who mother a child with chronic illness the venture is not easy. But with God, a mother is never alone. And with His faithfulness and promises to stand on, there will always and forever be hope. 


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Josiah

You see the core of who somebody is in their toughest moments.

What happens when you wrestle with illness from a young age? How does battling chronic illness challenge you specifically as a man? Josiah gives us an honest look at the things he's learned along his own journey. Through his experiences and an unwavering vulnerability, Josiah's story boldly challenges us with his perspective on who we're becoming throughout the process.

When you get frustrated with something,
you have a choice of how to respond.
This isn’t an end. This is a new beginning.
This is a new opportunity for you to live your life in a way that compels people more than maybe you could have before.

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People Hope is 100% donor-funded by people just like you, and we need your help to keep publishing hope-giving resources like this one! You can make a gift right now, or even sign up to join our Core Team of monthly supporters for as little as $10/month!