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Why I'm Thankful for the Lessons This Horrible Year Taught Me

2020 has been a horrific year. By whatever measure we use to gauge our 12-month journey around the sun, this year has been devastating with a heartbreaking toll on human life and immeasurable suffering that could have been prevented. But as the year draws to a close and I reflect on the last 365 days, I am searching for glimmers of light in the immense darkness and am trying my best to learn from and be thankful for the lessons of this difficult year.

My adventure with chronic illness has taught me that everything in life is a matter of perspective –when we are grateful fear disappears and abundance and opportunity appear. Our ability to show gratitude, even when challenging, can transform ordinary opportunities into unexpected blessings.

January: I rang in the new year in the hospital, admitted for treatment of meningitis because my doctors had failed to treat a year-long spinal fluid leak. After three days of in-patient care, the serious infection resolved, but my doctors still claimed my year-long pain and positional headache were imagined because leaks are notoriously difficult to locate. Family friends insisted “yoga will help” and asserted “this isn’t a major concern, you won’t die” since I had survived two life-threatening brain surgeries in the previous four years.

I have five chronic illnesses – four of them physical, three genetic, none my fault – and I have learned how to manage the symptoms and seek out help when necessary. I know that others generally mean well when they offer advice, but it is not helpful for others to minimize my concerns or tell me I am being overly dramatic.

Thank you, January, for reminding me that I know my body best and for pushing me to advocate for myself. I will be better able to counsel others and advocate for the needs of those traditionally on the margins of society.

February: The chaotic year continued with a raging global pandemic and far too many leaders who downplayed the threat, prioritizing capitalism over human life. Those of us with chronic illnesses were constantly under duress, concerned for our community while coping with being in the high-risk category and wondering if the strain on resources would prevent us from getting the care we regularly need, let alone what we would need if we caught the virus. We do our best to stay safe, are incredibly thankful for medical personnel and other essential workers, and pray that those who have the luxury of their health will not take it for granted and will do their part to protect the more vulnerable.

Thank you, February, for beginning to awaken more people to systemic inequities and for spurring the desire for a better, more just world for all God’s children.

March: The global pandemic of COVID-19 continued, disproportionately impacting our disinherited brothers and sisters in all aspects of life. Black, Indigenous, people of color, the unhoused, those without medical insurance and those who face food insecurity suffer while those in power do very little to help. We are all in the same boat, but we are not in the same storm. For some this time of social spaciousness is a pause, for others it is disruptive, for still others it is life-changing.

Thank you, March, for calling us to stand with our neighbors on the margins, acknowledging the storms others are in and never negating their realities simply because they are different than our own.

April: We struggle to do virtually that which we were already overstrained to accomplish. As a member of the disability community, I wonder why so many companies were willing and able to quickly shift to telecommuting when so many of us have been denied jobs or fired for not being able to be physically present. Employers rightly encourage this option because they know their staff are capable and want to keep everyone safe, with some even announcing the continuance of this policy in perpetuity, but I question the discrimination shown to our community when we are told our requests for accommodation are unreasonable. Our society is quick to acknowledge the challenge of prolonged isolation and the toll lack of physical contact can take on physical and mental health, but long-term mental health problems are still overtly stigmatized.

Thank you, April, for the progress toward compassionate understanding of the reality and importance of mental health and the signs that society is learning to uplift those who have historically been excluded and oppressed.

May: More than a year after a fall tore a hole in my spinal dura, a blood patch successfully fixes my spinal fluid leak. Of course, I would rather have not spent over a year in pain, not been forced to try 15 different alternative medicine techniques, and not been told by doctor after doctor I was “only experiencing phantom pain.”

Still, thank you, May, for the empowerment of this experience so I will never again allow anyone (even “experts”) to convince me that what I face is imaginary. While none of the alternative techniques helped my low-spinal fluid headache, I am thankful for this time of discovering new modalities for managing my other chronic illnesses.

June: I grew up in a household with significant mental illness and abuse, with my older brother physically, verbally and emotionally abusing me beginning around my fourth birthday. Throughout childhood and well into adulthood, my family tied my presence at home to the mental stability of a loved one, even when it meant enduring my brother’s abuse for decades. Health challenges in my family this month finally revealed the manipulation behind making me responsible for someone else’s health from such a young age, a dilemma that shook me to my core and challenged everything I was conditioned to believe.

Still, thank you, June, for being the time when I began to rewire my brain by confronting a history that would be easier to ignore. Thank you that I have started to gain control of my complex PTSD from decades of abuse, that I finally learned the truth and can recognize I am not responsible for holding everyone else’s world together. Thank you for showing me the importance of self-care and teaching me that my mental health is just as if not more important than my physical illnesses.

July and August: The summer is filled with calls for racial, social, and environmental justice as a record number of voices rally together to demand change through protests and preparing for the upcoming election. This chaotic year has been so devastating, but it has also given us the opportunity to pause and reevaluate what is most important to us.

Thank you, July and August, for the love shown to neighbors as we rally for actionable change. Thank you for new ways to safely connect with each other in this time of social spaciousness and for all the voices advocating for inclusion of the BIPOC, disabled, and LGBTQ communities and all those who face discrimination.

September: A year officially passed since my PCOS diagnosis, and with the help of my wonderful OB/GYN, I finally managed to gain some control of my menses for the first time in my life. I was able to pause and think about the future, facing my decade-old fear that my chronic illnesses would ultimately prevail and impede my dream of having children of my own.

Thank you, September, for the only doctor who has never told me I am “too complicated to help” and for restoring my hope that against all odds I will one day be blessed to become a mother, because there are many different ways to have a family.

October: My venture with therapy proceeds and as my engrained mindset shifts, I learn more about myself, the truth of my past and my resilience. Though painful at times, I am blessed to have a place to process my trauma and am thrilled to be witnessing positive growth.

Thank you, October, for helping me feel more sure about my vocational calling to be a Pastor. I know I will be able to use all I have experienced to relate to and advise others, turning to my Mother-Father God in all adversity and advocating for all who are oppressed.

November and December: I marked the ninth anniversary of the car crash which killed the one adult in my life who never hesitated to help, who worked tirelessly to keep me safe in a chaotic childhood and who always acknowledged my reality. I miss her smile, her gentle spirit, her wisdom, her courage – but most of all, with all that happened this year and all I have learned about myself, I miss her as the only person who always believed me and never tried to gaslight me. Grieving in the middle of a pandemic is incredibly different, and I pray for everyone who is having to do so when the loss is so fresh. May the memory of all those we have lost be a blessing.

And thank you, November and December for giving me the space for the first time to verbalize the magnitude of this loss, to recognize that there is no timeline for grief as everyone grieves differently, and to know that it is wonderful to miss and to honor our loved ones.

So, thank you, 2020, for quieting my soul enough to listen to that “still, small voice” and know God has big plans for my life and that God wants me to be happy, to live fully as my whole self. Thank you for times of respite through virtual fellowship and new hobbies in this time of social spaciousness. For shedding new light on systemic injustices that continue to harm our marginalized brothers and sisters, and which must be fought with everything we have. For teaching me to slow down and respect the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of my being so I do not burn out and can continue working to make the world a better place for all God’s children.

I will not miss you, 2020, but pray that all of my siblings will listen to the lessons you have taught us. Let’s all work together for a better, safer, more equitable 2021 and beyond.

Getty image by Dilok Klaisataporn.