In 2001, my older sister came home from Guatemala.
In 2003, my older brother – her biological brother – followed suit. My parents didn’t know that he had autism and down syndrome. That wouldn’t be discovered for another few years. Closer to the time I was born, in April 2006.
Because of my brother’s special needs, he was non-verbal and uncontrollably impulsive from the beginning – and because of that, didn’t know how to communicate with people. My little brother and I were long objects of interest to him, which often meant a combination of avoiding flying objects, keeping an arm’s-length radius from him so he wouldn’t grab at us, and wiping thrown food off of our clothes.
My sister and I, on the other hand, were friends when I was young. She loved Hannah Montana, and I loved Cars. We shared a room with bunkbeds and everything.
As she grew up, however, mental struggles slowly took over. Both grappling with deep-rooted questions surrounding her adoption and biological chemical imbalances led her to become a wrecking ball to our entire family – a ticking time bomb that any little tap triggered.
Needless to say, I no longer shared a room with her.
When arguments and meltdowns grew loud and traumatic, something in my instincts automatically assumed the role of ‘mini-mom’ for my little brother – who was the typical baby of the family. We clung to each other, my brother and me.
My sister grew up even more, as did my older brother, and the issues escalated. I was flipped off. Belittled. Forced to listen to screaming and tantrums that lasted far longer than any tantrum should. Unintentionally ignored, and as the ‘perfect’, self-sufficient, independent child… last on the pecking order.
Most of elementary school years were spent dealing with my siblings’ problems – most of which I didn’t fully understand. In the midst of my confusion, I started a journal – retreating into words. I wrote very short entries, heart-wrenching in their cores. Sometimes I look back at years past and tears sting my eyes.
The things that I used to accept as normal absolutely break me.
In fourth grade, I underwent a paradigm shift. After a Wednesday evening program at my church, I accepted Christ my Savior into my heart.
For days, even weeks, afterwards I was uncertain if my acceptance of Christ had ‘worked’ so to speak. Things hadn’t seemed to change at all. Why, God? I wondered. Why are you silent? I probably accepted Him at least 20 times over that first week, if not more. But, even in my doubts, I know now that He was here.
And He was moving.
As my parents grasped for any thread of control, our family spiraled into a perpetual cycle of survival. We searched between counselors and caregivers, heads spinning. It was easy to get lost in the shuffle.
But, by God’s grace, that didn’t stop me from spreading my wings.
In fourth and fifth grade, I went on two short-term mission trips to Wenatchee – and a desire to serve others was planted in me. After those trips, I was approached by my pastor with the opportunity to go on another short-term missions trip to Chile – and I decided to do probably the most ambitious and scary thing one can do.
That trip was huge for me. It began the season of my life in which I tested the waters and discovered what I really could do.
And then came middle school.
Middle school honestly housed some of the most life-changing and beautiful experiences of my life… because it was in those years that I truly began to heal.
In 2018, my parents and sister began to search for places she could go to receive intensive therapeutic care. They found Reflections Academy of Thompson Falls, Montana, and my sister left – completely changing the game.
For the first time, I was free from so much heartache. Finally, at 12 years old, I began putting back together the broken pieces of my heart and discovering the truth beyond the lies I’d believed my whole life. I began sifting through my personal anger, guilt, and the conflicting emotions that come naturally with growing up.
At first, I was really angry at my sister. I didn’t want her to come home. Why should I continue to love someone who only ever thrusts hate back in return? As time went on, however, the Lord softened my heart. I began to view my situation with greater compassion. And that has given me a deeper understanding of the pain that not only I lived through, but that other people go through as well. I’ve become more compassionate as a result.
Another big change that happened for me in middle school was beginning online public school (two and a half years before COVID). Brick-and-mortar school, for me, was a difficult experience. The combination of friendship struggles and home drama heightened my already emotional tendencies, making it even harder than before for me to address God and my relationship with Him. Online school gave me space to grow in other areas of my life, and to truly consider what it means to be a Christian.
Also, I joined the middle school program at my church and – as a result – my faith in Christ grew exponentially. I connected into a small group, which led to encouragement from other Christian friends. I gobbled up the wisdom in the Sunday morning messages, developing spiritual habits and growing closer to God and meanwhile – to my own surprise – took voice lessons, auditioned and joined the student worship team. At the climax of my middle school experience, I was baptized in 8th grade, at church summer camp.
God is so faithful.
Over the years, through middle school, the beginning of high school, and multiple short term mission trips and church events within, healing has occurred in my severed heart little by little. It’s still a process that isn’t over, for sure, but with the help of God and the people He’s given me for support and encouragement, I’ve grown so much in dependence on my Savior and the way I view the world.
And, as I have grown, so has my sister. She graduated from Reflections Academy in 2020 with new tools and a new outlook on life; and is now stepping into her adult life leaving the burning ships of the past behind her. We’ve made peace with one another over time, mourning our painful childhoods together – our relationship grown in ways I never would’ve fathomed before she attended her program. I am so proud of her.
Her life and mine are blaring examples of how, truly, the lands we visit are not who we are. The valleys we walk through do not define us. Our broken hearts won’t last forever. The cycles can be broken.
We can burn the ships and move on.
Now, I’m a sophomore in high school – and I thank God for everything I’ve gone through. Because, in the end, it was a gift.
Having been put down for having a ‘bad voice’ makes every time I serve as a vocalist onstage even sweeter. Living my whole life out of my comfort zone has given me eyes and feet that are open to go where the Lord leads me, regardless of my preferences. Spending my childhood behind the scenes gave me eyes to see and unique opportunities to minister to others in similar positions today. All of the bad, mean words I heard as a child spur me on to write good ones. And on top of all that, my God brought me through the fire with a deeper reliance on Him than I ever thought possible.
My life story gives me a unique window into the dark parts of the world, and the Way to the light. I’m nearly sixteen, and I’m still constantly flabbergasted every time I recount the ways in which the Lord moved in me through my childhood. The Lord has moved mountains in my life, and I have faith that He will do so again, again, and again.
That, my friend, is my story. Very few people I know have actually heard it in its entirety, as I’m sure is the same for your most traumatic, difficult portions of life and heart.
But that’s not the end of what I have to say today. Putting myself aside, hear this: everyone has a story.
The barista at Starbucks has a story. The person who changes lanes without a blinker has a story. The neighbor that you’ve never met has a story. The quiet girl in your church small group has a story.
When will we take the time to hear them?
Everything I’ve gone through has opened my eyes to the fact that there are so many people silently suffering. So many people who struggle behind closed doors. So many who feel like nobody will understand if they break down and tell the truth.
But that’s not true.
For those of you for which life is good at the moment… open your eyes. Take the time to see, hear and ask questions of those around you for the sake of others out there who are like I was. Take the time to gently correct the lies they believe. We underestimate the power of a kind word.
And on the other end of the spectrum… if any of you feel like you are currently in the thick of the battle with no escape or support, know you are never alone. Don’t be afraid to reach out. You are loved and seen more than you’ll ever know. Hold on. The best is yet to come.
My story, a gift of God, is proof.