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Don't Give Up

I have a thing for nostalgia.. boxes filled with old photographs (all labeled and placed in specific places depending on type), journals filled to the brim with stories and dreams of my past, video tapes from my old camcorder all packed and labeled neatly for me to watch and remember. Today, I started to clean off my hard drive and got sucked into the vortex of my past and my memories.. which is where this post stems from. I saw clearly the pattern of my life and how my dreams have always been evident, but as things got in the way I continued to fight for what my heart longed for. 

I'm not sure how this is going to go, or how it will resonate with you.. the reader.. but I am writing and sharing a piece of my story to hopefully instill encouragement into your heart and a fire in your belly. Life never goes as planned. We all have insurmountable fences we have to jump over and rivers we have to cross. I believe in you and the passions in your heart. I know those things were put in your spirit for a reason. I believe you are precious and are beyond worthy of the things deep inside you that stir you, and you are enough to make those things come true. 

As a child, my heart beat for creativity.. for painting, for acting, for imagination.. it also beat for people. You can probably look back on your childhood and remember the things that made you happiest.. I imagine those things still make you happiest today.  I recall seeing people who had casts or braces on their body in public, and crying deep tears of grief for their pain. My heart aches for people's aches, it still does.  Those two things have always been at the core of who I am as a person : creativity and empathy. 

As I grew up, I began to love sports and excelled in them. So.Much.Fun. Soccer and basketball became a huge part of my life from elementary school to early high school. When middle school sports started to pick up, I had my first two knee surgeries.. tearing my medial meniscus in both knees about a year apart from each other. After my first year of playing sports in High School, I tore my knee again that lead to another knee surgery. I remember after the surgery sitting down with the orthopedic physician and him telling me that I could no longer play sports. With being so young, there was no way my knees could take another three years of competitive sports in high school. 

My heart was broken. Everything I knew and loved..the community of friends that I had made through sports.. seemed to have been taken away from me in an instant. Neither my doctors or my family could understand what had caused my knees to continue to tear the ways they had.. but it was the reality and I knew I could either give into it or I could make the best of my situation. Looking back, the heartache seems so trivial.. but I guess most of us would say that during that stage of our lives any minor set back or hurdle seemed life-shattering. Thanks to encouragement from my friends and family, I turned again to the thing I had loved so much as a kid.. art and creating. I began to feel alive again in the most wonderful way. I spent several years of High School in Advanced Placement art : creating backdrops for photos, decorating for events, painting floors of our art room, designing t shirts for school and church events, and learning how to develop film in a dark room. I made amazing friends during that time of my life who are still so very dear to me now. As hard as it was to give up sports, I am so grateful to have been pushed into the thing that had and will always make me feel alive. 

After high school, I entered into college with a passion for art, but also aware that I may not be able to make a career out of studio art like had always dreamed. Unsure of what I wanted to major and find a career in, I quickly decided on Elementary Education.. it was a way I could still use art in my daily life and a way I could influence kids and their families.  During the first semester of my sophomore year of college, my jaw locked up.

A rare photo from an event I put on with Campus Ministry during the period of time my jaw was locked before my first jaw surgery. Notice I couldn't open my mouth to smile. 

A rare photo from an event I put on with Campus Ministry during the period of time my jaw was locked before my first jaw surgery. Notice I couldn't open my mouth to smile. 

This was taken a month after my first jaw surgery, the sides of my mouth were still wired shut.

This was taken a month after my first jaw surgery, the sides of my mouth were still wired shut.

I couldn't eat solid food for several months, couldn't walk or talk much, and spent most days quietly eating baked potatoes in my dorm room. (I was so cool) Physical therapists couldn't help, so I entered into my first jaw surgery. I slowly recovered from being wired shut for several months and things slowly seemed to return back to normal.

Sophomore year summer after my first jaw surgery. I was well enough to preform "High School Musical" with my Dad and cousin with a local theatre league. 

Sophomore year summer after my first jaw surgery. I was well enough to preform "High School Musical" with my Dad and cousin with a local theatre league. 

Spring semester of my Junior year of college.. when my jaw started to recede and things started to go bad again. 

Spring semester of my Junior year of college.. when my jaw started to recede and things started to go bad again. 

Fall semester my junior year of college  with Sarah Clayton at a Campus Ministry conference, this was taken before my jaw bones started to fall apart (so technical). 

Fall semester my junior year of college  with Sarah Clayton at a Campus Ministry conference, this was taken before my jaw bones started to fall apart (so technical). 

A year later, my jaw started hurting again with no apparent injury or onset. This time worse than before. After consulting several doctors, it was determined that the first jaw surgery I had undergone was causing my facial bones to lose their mass and recede. My jaw-line quickly became much different than it once was, and I soon returned to eating baked potatoes alone in my room again.

Summer before reconstructive facial surgery rocking my second set of braces. The Braces would later be used to stabilize my jaw post surgery.

Summer before reconstructive facial surgery rocking my second set of braces. The Braces would later be used to stabilize my jaw post surgery.

The summer before my jaw surgery I tore my medial meniscus again while interning with a youth group in Indiana. 

The summer before my jaw surgery I tore my medial meniscus again while interning with a youth group in Indiana. 

I received a second set of braces to help straighten things out before I underwent the reconstructive surgery. The braces would later serve as a way to make sure my jaw stayed in place as it healed. During this time I also underwent a 5th knee surgery and was lucky enough to be able to intern with an amazing youth group in Indiana. Upon returning back to school for my senior year, I made the decision to give up elementary education as a career due to the continued nature of my TMJ. I knew I couldn't talk for long amounts of time, and that education was a career my body couldn't take.  Spring semester of my senior year I moved back home and underwent a crazy reconstructive facial surgery. 

several months after my second jaw surgery

several months after my second jaw surgery

an x-ray of my jaw after my reconstructive facial surgery 

an x-ray of my jaw after my reconstructive facial surgery 

Post my reconstructive facial surgery, I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism which lead to a host of uncertain outcomes and possibilities for me. Thankfully, my mass was benign, but I've continued to have thyroid problems since. From that point forward David and I got married, and quickly did whatever I could do for work. I worked for a preschool which was short lived because I continued to catch whatever sickness the kids had.. I next worked as a nanny for several different families and decided I'd try my hand at being an esthetician....so I worked two jobs for families and went to school at night, thinking that the calm and serenity of an esthetics career would be beneficial to me.  

Taken in 2010 while working for preschool

Taken in 2010 while working for preschool

Taken summer of 2011 while working as a nanny and going to esthetician school. 

Taken summer of 2011 while working as a nanny and going to esthetician school. 

After six month of juggling two different jobs with children, and working long nights and weekends in school, my body again decided it was done and couldn't keep up with the high demand and busy lifestyle I was putting it through. I was diagnosed with endometriosis after several months of intensive testing, went through an endometrial ablation surgery whose recovery took about six months. Because of the extent of my recovery, I had to quit school along with the several jobs I was juggling. It was evident my body didn't want to work a 9-5 like normal people could, but it was impossible financially to work part time. 

Summer of 2012 while working in Alabama for NMP's office

Summer of 2012 while working in Alabama for NMP's office

First wedding I second Shot for while I was working at NMP's office

First wedding I second Shot for while I was working at NMP's office

Fast forward a couple of years.. David and I relocated to Alabama and I landed a job at a Naturopathic physician's office as the front desk/admin assistant. The job seemed ideal due to the little amount of time I'd have to talk and the healthy nature of the environment I was working in. Upon our relocation to Alabama, I also decided I'd go for it and try my hand at photography. I'd always loved the medium (re: boxes of photos in my closet and high school photo class), but was always intimidated by the business side of things. I worked for the NMP for a year, and 6 months out of that year I was sick with a viral infection that wouldn't go away. Doctors in Alabama didn't know what was going on, and I knew I had to once again quit a job because my body couldn't seem to get better. It was at this point where I knew I had to take my photography business full time and try to make as much money as I could to support us while David was in Nursing School. It was a huge leap of faith, but I didn't have another option. 

January 2013- taken right after I quit the job at the doctor's office.. still sick with virus. 

January 2013- taken right after I quit the job at the doctor's office.. still sick with virus. 

Taken in Chattanooga in March of 2013.. two weeks before my parents flew me out to Mayo Clinic for testing. 

Taken in Chattanooga in March of 2013.. two weeks before my parents flew me out to Mayo Clinic for testing. 

In January of 2013 I took a part time nanny position for a family in Huntsville to supplement my income while I really tried to make my photography business work. In my spare time I'd read and listen to podcasts to gleam whatever I could about running my own business and taking decent photos. Most of my "spare" time was spent in bed sick, so it gave me the perfect opportunity to digest as much as I could about photography (HUGE shout out here to Creative Live). I offered free sessions to families who were willing to let me take their photos, and used our dog Dakota as practice when I started learning about ISO, aperture and metering. By March of 2013, I was still sick with "flu like symptoms" and nothing I did could kick it. In April I was going to be off my parent's insurance, so they decided to try to take as much advantage of it as they could while I was still on their policy. One Thursday afternoon my mom called and told me to pack my bags because she had just secured me an appointment at Mayo Clinic on the following Monday. I quit my nanny position (quitting a job NEVER gets easier) that Friday, and we flew to Minnesota on Sunday.  

At Mayo Clinic in MN for diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and Fibromyalgia 

At Mayo Clinic in MN for diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and Fibromyalgia 

More testing at Mayo Clinic

More testing at Mayo Clinic

I went into testing at Mayo thinking they would possibly find some sort of viral infection, autoimmune disease or even something like cancer that was causing my body to not heal. Little did we know that all the set backs and surgeries and crazy joint problems were all connected. From genetic sequencing, elimination of other various diseases, and my medical history it was determined that I own a rare genetic disease called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I've owned this gene my whole life as evident with all of my previous surgeries and hypermobility problems. Now I had a name for it.. no cure, but my journey since my diagnosis has been much more illuminated than it was before. 

Returning from Mayo Clinic with the knowledge that my "condition" was a lifelong journey that would forever be apart of who I was gave me a lot of power. I think, looking back, I could have let that truth wreck me.. but instead it made me more determined to fight for a life that I wanted. A life where I could not only have a career, but also thrive. Working from home was an ideal career choice for me: I could work odd hours whenever I felt up for it (like editing on the couch or in bed all day), take days off when my body and pain flared up, leave enough room in my daily energy schedule where I'd have time to help out around the house and run errands AND save up energy for days I'd be shooting sessions and/or weddings. I had already been planting the seeds to become a self-employed photographer, now I just knew it was the only option I had. Photography was the only way I could take care of my body and make money. When I started the journey into learning about photography two years before , I didn't realize that it would also meet the deepest needs of my heart: creating art and beautiful things AND loving and serving people. 

While my "condition" doesn't define who I am, it has shaped my life in ways I could have never known or predicted. From an early age it has continually directed me down the path I wouldn't have chosen on my own, but I needed to take. It has given me the most amazing opportunity to run my own (kind of successful!) business, to travel around the country taking photos of amazing people and to learn the beauty of peace and stillness.  The dream I had of becoming a mother was replaced by a dream to love my friend's children like they were my own. The dream I had to become a teacher was replaced by the dream to create beautiful photographs of beautiful people and walk beside them and learn their story. The dream I had of mentoring children was replaced by mentoring other people who are looking to start their own business, and live a healthy life for themselves and their families. 

My journey in my career of photography is just beginning, just as my journey with EDS isn't even half way through.. but I am able to tell you that I won't give up on either of them. I've been given amazing people who believe in me, amazing clients who have continued to put food on our table ( yeah, that's you Andrea), and a family who has my back on good and bad days. I am able to have surgery when I need it because I make my own schedule, I can go to doctors appointments whenever they have an opening, I can travel to see friends, sit on the beach with no agenda and take long phone calls when someone needs to talk. I can do all of this because the career I have made for myself allows it.  

The hurdles you have to jump and the paths you have to choose may seem small compared to my hurdles, or as you are reading this you may be lying in a hospital bed undergoing yet another round of radiation and it feels like no one will ever understand the pain you endure. We all have battles we have to fight, we all have setbacks and rocky roads and dark pathways that never seem to see the light. Your dream may be to simply wake up tomorrow and get out of bed. I believe in you, and I know you can do it. I also believe thatyou can breathe deeply knowing that the talents and desires you have been given are not something you need to ignore. Whether you dream of becoming a tight rope walker, a rap artist, a doctor or a painter.. you are equipped with everything you need to make it happen. The road to get there will not be easy and it will not happen quickly. You will face doubts and fears and road blocks and people who don't believe in your dream. I want you to know that I believe in you. I believe that you are capable of greatness.. and some days greatness looks like being able to get out of bed and take your dog on a walk. You should celebrate the little battles you win just as you should celebrate the big ones. You are worthy of the things deep inside that stir you. You don't have to ignore them, and you are enough to make those things come true.