Friday, May 24, 2013

My Not-So-Brave Bravery

Often before going on a trip overseas, people tell me, "You're so brave for traveling and going so far away from home!!" When people tell me this, I think, "Me?  Brave?  If only they knew what was taking place inside of my head right now!"

Traveling is exciting.  Adventures are fun.  But...I find them to be completely nerve-wrecking before I leave and my mind goes into hyper-active mode.  In fact, it's in hyper-active mode right now as I write this blog entry at 2:30 in the morning.  I can't sleep, even though I know that I have plans to meet two friends at Starbucks in the morning.

Usually, at some point before a trip, I think to myself, "Am I crazy?  What am I doing?"  But - this is normal for me.  My mind freaks out.  The stress of leaving home invades my brain.

If I come across as brave to some of you, here's a secret fact:  I don't feel brave.  At least, not to today.  Not tonight.  Tonight I am thinking of all that I have left to do...Go to physical therapy, email or call certain friends, call the bank to tell them I'm leaving the country, do my laundry, pack, clean my room, say goodbye to friends and family....etc, etc, etc.

Out of that list, I think the "goodbyes" are what I find most stressful.  I know I'll be back.  In fact, I'm only going to be gone for 6 months...Just half a year!  Skype will be available so I can talk to my family and friends - while looking them straight into their pixelated faces.  But saying "goodbye" and "see you later"?  It's always the worst and hardest part of leaving...Especially when a two-year-old is involved.  It is also hard when I know that there are people close to me who are struggling with the idea with me leaving...Again.  This part is the part that I haven't gotten use to yet.  A lot can happen in 6 months, and I will miss spending time with people in person - especially my family.

Then I think about things that may come up.   Issues range from something (that is technically not-as-major in life) like my fear of forgetting the all of the ASL I've learned in the last year.  Maybe it's not a major thing in the average life, but retaining what I have learned in ASL is more important to me than I can explain.

The list then continues in more serious issues.  What if I leave, and dad gets really sick again and has to be hospitalized?  Or his life is threatened by another illness?  What if something else happens to my family while I am gone??  What if I injure my ankle (even more) while I am away, or end up hospitalized again like I did in Norway?

Behind my "brave face" is a nervous mind.

However...Did I ever tell you all that I almost dropped out of going to London??  (I guess that's a blog entry for another day.)  I almost dropped out, but I didn't.  I went.  I had fears, stressors, and a hyper-active brain before I went there too.  And you know what?  My time in London turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life - if not the very best!

As prepare to leave for Germany, I have to reroute my brain and my thought patterns.

If I leave without accomplishing my to do list, it'll be okay.  What's done is done, and what's not isn't.  If I didn't get to something on my list before leaving, it probably wasn't that important.

When it comes to ASL??  ASL is something I have become deeply passionate about and want to continue to pursue learning.  It's going to take a lot of dedication retain what I currently know while I'm in another country, but I can do it!  Just because I'm leaving doesn't mean I can't practice on my own and with friends on Skype.

My dad may get really sick again.  He may not.  His health has been a concern for a while now, and at least I am somewhat mentally prepared if he does get ill.  Some family emergency may come up, but we haven't had one in a while.  I may get injured or get sick while I'm overseas but that's okay too.  There are well-trained doctors for situations like that - and interpreters if needed.  And my Norway situation?  That was a one time, weird illness, that is unrelated to my overall health.

Nervousness might be invading my mind...but I think that's normal.  I think it's expected - at least for me.  There's a lot of unknown territory in life - especially when going overseas.  I'm about to go for an adventure...An adventure full of unfamiliar people, cultures, experiences, and language....Not to mention the unfamiliar sights, tastes, and sounds.  It will also be an adventure filled with fun, new friends, laughter, learning, and great, life-changing, memories.

God taught me a lot when I was in London.  He's taught me a lot when I've gone to Japan, Spain, and when I went to Welch College in Nashville, TN, for a year.  I'm eager to see what I can learn while in Germany!

When my mind goes into the nervous, hyper-active, mindset I remind myself of how excited I am.  I'm excited to see what God has to show me and teach me while I am away.  It will be fun learning about a new culture and meeting new friends.  Also?  I remind myself that the unknown is okay!  That's what makes life fun.  Life would be way too boring if I knew everything that was to come my way.

I also realize people are praying for me around the world - and this is more encouraging than I can fully express!

I'm blessed to have such a great opportunity to go to Germany.  I know God has this as a part of my life's story for a reason - there's no doubt about it!  My excitement, love for adventure, and knowing God has it all under control completely outweighs any stressors, freak-out moments, and fears I may have.

While my mind may be in hyper-active mode and may be all over the place, I know God has a plan.  He is calm, He is strong.  He is confident.  He knows things that I don't know and I'm never alone.  I'm glad that no matter where my brain and emotions are, God is stable.

When I lack the feeling of bravery, I trust God.

The Travelin' Chick,

Friday, May 10, 2013

Germany: The Next Adventure!

Yesterday I came to a surprising realization.  In one month's time, I would be boarding a plane to Germany!  And today?  One month from today, I'll be arriving to my destination!  

So, why am I going to Germany, and how did I get the opportunity to go?  A little over a year ago, while I was still living in London, a friend of mine forwarded me an email from a family that shared their desire to host an American nanny for a couple of months.  My friend wrote to me, "...since you are quite the world traveler. Any interest in living in Germany for a couple months this fall?"

Before I responded, I prayed about it and talked to my parents about the possibility.  While I am an adult who can make my own decisions, it is still very important to me to have my parent's "okay" in doing something like this - and I am blessed to be able to go to them for input and advice.  They gave me their "okay" and told me, "If we were your age and the opportunity came up -  we would probably do it too."

After that, I emailed with the family and we traded questions and answers that we had for one another.  Shortly after, they told me that I was welcome to join their family and I told them that I was interested in coming.  It was just a matter of finding a date and time period that worked for all of us.  A little over a year later of receiving the first email, I have my ticket and departure date.  I'll be leaving June 9th, and will be staying until December 18th.

While I am going as a nanny, a bigger part of what I'll be doing is teaching the children English.  In fact, I've already sent some books on ahead to the family.  (Thank you, once again, to those of you who gave books for me to take!!  You rock!)   The children are two little boys, one being almost 3-years-old, and the brother is younger.  Their mom teaches English to other children in Germany, so she has already been teaching them English too.  However, she also wants someone that she can practice her English with as well.

Most of my traveling has been with a mission organization and "official" mission trips.  This going to be a different experience in comparison to what I have done in the past.  I've never lived in a country where the native language is completely foreign to my own.  I've never lived with another family - only with flat-mates and college roommates.

While this isn't an "official" mission trip with a specific organization that requires fundraising, I still believe that God has opened this door for me to go....and no matter where I go, no matter where any Christian goes, we are all suppose to be "missionaries" - no matter our surroundings....Whether we are surrounded in our native cultures or one of which we find to be unfamiliar; if we're at our workplace, on a bus, or on a plane...It is our job to show others through our actions and words that there is a God who cares and loves the people we meet...or even the people we may not officially meet, but see us in a bookstore or doctor's office. 

I believe - and know - that God has a purpose for this upcoming adventure, although I don't really know what it is.  Maybe I can make friends with someone there who needs to know of God's love, or what it is to have a true friend who cares about them.  Maybe I'm suppose to share of past mission trip experiences with people who might have a passion to do something different for God...and maybe they can catch the flame of my passion to reach those locally and abroad.  Maybe I'm suppose to impact someone who will go out an make a difference in their neighborhood, or a difference that can impact the world.  

Again - I don't know why I'm meant to go to Germany.  (In fact, I never know why I'm suppose to go anywhere that I've ever gone.)  What I do know - the doors have opened and I've seen God in every step of the journey in preparing to go.

I hope that you'll travel with me me during this journey, as I have every intention to write blog updates while I am there.

If you would like to pray for me - that would be greatly appreciated!!  Here are some current prayer requests for the upcoming adventure:

  • Please pray for my family, friends, and I as we start saying our goodbye and "see you later".  Some of these farewells will be easier than others, but this is always the hardest part for me.
  • Pray for good health and safety!  Pray for my health and safety, but also my family's as well.
  • Language!  I don't speak Germany...At all.  I've been listening to "German for Dummies" (provided by my dad) to get use to the sound of the language.  Please pray my brain can pick up the language easily and quickly.
  • Another request about language...I've been taking American Sign Language courses during the last two semesters.  When I return to the USA and to college, I plan to continue learning the language.  While I plan to take my text book, watch ASL videos, and Skype with classmates, my big concern is that I might lose what I've already learnt because I won't be in any ASL settings, such as a class.  Please pray I can retain what I have learned during the last year and can jump back in with ease when I return.  This is very important to me, as I am planning to do a double major with journalism and ASL.
  • Pray for good relationships to be built between the family I'll be living with.  We've emailed, Skyped, and have many mutual friends, but have never met in person.  The family has already accepted me as a family member and friend, and for this I am grateful!
  • While I am there I would also like to make other friends that I can connect with.  I'd really like to make the most of my experience, and I feel as though friendships are a big part of this!
  • Last but not least - Pray for my relationship with my little cousin, Rayna.  She'll be turning 3-years-old in September.  When I was in London, we were able to maintain our good relationship via Skype.  Our close relationship is something I also don't want to lose.  Please pray that we can keep as much closeness that we already have - even thousands of miles away from one another.
Thank you for your prayers, support, and for reading my blog in the past, present, and future!  I hope you continue to read my blog and travel with me through my writing and photos.

The Travelin' Chick,

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Stain

Due to the interest and high volume of readers in my blog  post "Birthmarks and Laser Treatments", I asked my mom (Rhonda Hodges) if she would be willing to share her perspective of having a child with a physical difference.  Her story is below.

The Travelin' Chick,

PS: If it looks familiar to some of you, a shorter version was published in the Free Will Baptist "ONE" Magazine several years ago.  This is the longer and updated version that rooted from an English assignment while she was in college.


Crystal's newborn photo.
She’s here!  She’s finally here!  As the doctor hands her to me for the first time, I am filled with emotion.  As I count her fingers and toes, I count my blessing also.  She is a gift from God and she is beautiful!  No one will ever change my mind about that fact!

My attention is drawn quickly to the color of her face.  Something is different, but I am too tired to figure it out right now.  Her daddy takes her and gives her to the nurse so she can weigh, measure and clean her up.  He, too, notices something different but is not sure if it is because she is a newborn.
After a pediatrician examined her, he comes in to talk to my husband, Jim and me.  Crystal has a port-wine stain (vascular birthmark) on the left side of her face.  As the name suggests, the birthmark is a deep red, almost purplish color.  He is so blunt and doesn’t seem to care about what we may be feeling and thinking at the time.  We were expecting a healthy, “flawless” baby.  We bombarded him with questions:  Will the birthmark go away?  Are there other side affects?  What caused it?  What did I do wrong during my pregnancy?

The fact is that more than 10 babies in 100 are born with a port wine stain birthmark.  Only a small percentage of these are located on the face.  This type of birthmark is formed from extra blood vessels under the skin and it does not go away on its own.  In fact, the birthmark will probably get darker as the person grows older.  While there are different types of laser treatments to lighten the stain, they are not always effective.

The birthmark goes deeper than the skin you see.  In the case such as Crystal’s, it can also go into the brain.  When the doctor talked with us after Crystal was born, we learned that if the birthmark went too far into the brain, she would suffer a seizure within 24 hours of her birth.  Sometimes, the child has brain damage from the birthmark as well.  As the first 24 hours of her life came and went, we were relieved that no seizure came.  This meant the news was good – it was not very deep into her brain.

Since the location of Crystal’s birthmark is over her eye, there is also a concern about her eyesight.  In most cases, glaucoma is diagnosed later in life.  For Crystal, this meant she would be diagnosed with glaucoma at the age of nine.  While others look at her differently because of the outward stain, her view of life is different from what most people realize.  The slight loss of vision she experiences at such a young age makes her keenly aware of the importance of seeing what’s really important – the inside of a person.

The causes of this birth defect are unknown.  However, it is certain that the mother did not do anything wrong during the pregnancy, but this documented fact does not prevent her from feeling the guilt that she somehow caused this on her child.  I spent many, many nights wondering what I could have done differently to prevent this from happening.  It has taken years for me to accept my innocence.

This look didn't help with the
stares of others any. ;-)
Another question that arises is how society will accept this child that looks different.  How will they treat her?  This question was answered for me just a few days after her birth.

As soon as I was able, I went to church to show off our wonderful daughter.  A well-meaning older man of the church whispered to his wife, “Did you see her face?”  As an older gentleman, his whispers are much louder than he realized, and I heard the remark.

Several weeks after this, I went to the mall with my family.  My sister, Felicia, was holding Crystal.While we were in a toy store, a man came up to my sister and said, “How did you burn your baby?”  She did not correct the fact that she was the baby’s aunt, but rather explained that it was a birthmark – she wasn’t burned.  This was the most offensive and brutal comment that I remember hearing.  How could someone go up to a complete stranger and ask such a personal and horrifying question?  Why did he focus on her imperfection rather than the gift we received from God – our baby!

During this same visit to the mall, my other sister, Joanna, was holding her.  A lady seemed to have come from nowhere, came within a foot of Joanna’s face and said, “What’s wrong with your baby?”  Joanna was surprised at this woman’s boldness.  She stepped away from the woman and promptly told her that nothing was wrong with her baby, she just had a birthmark.  She wanted to ask the woman what was wrong with her, but restrained from being as rude as the woman had been.

Amanda and Crystal - The two sisters together.
As can be expected, our family has always tried to protect Crystal from these cruel and thoughtless questions and comments.  Even her sister, Amanda, has tried to protect her from the stares and comments.  Amanda is seven years older than Crystal.  I never realized that she was so worried about how people perceived Crystal until the day when our family went to a hardware store.  We were standing in the checkout line, and Amanda noticed the clerk staring at Crystal.  Without the clerk saying anything, Amanda blurted out, “It’s a birthmark – only a birthmark!”  When I asked her why she did that, she said that she gets tired of people staring at her sister because she looks a little different.

As mentioned earlier, there are many different types of laser treatments that have been successful in lightening the stain.  During the first seven or eight years of her life, Crystal had approximately 14 laser treatment surgeries - we lost count.  While the surgeries lightened the birthmark some, it did not remove it.  When the surgery is done, the skin is discolored even more and darkened immediately.  The job of the laser is to go below the skin and cause the blood vessels to be cauterized.  This process causes the area to be swollen and appear bruised.  The additional discoloration will last about two weeks, and when that is gone, the birthmark should be lighter.

If you think my child looks tough,
you should see her father.
As one can imagine, we were even more protective of our young daughter after she had the laser treatments.  When she was just a baby, she had surgery in San Francisco.  On our way home after the surgery, my husband and I decided to stop for dinner.  As we entered the restaurant, my husband said, “If someone says anything about her, can I hit them?”  Even though I chuckled at his comment and told him “no”, I secretly wished we could do just that whenever anyone made rude comments about her.

As Crystal got older, the surgeries became less effective.  When she was 11, we decided to let Crystal decide if she wanted to continue the treatments.  She decided she did not want to go through them anymore. Just recently, she decided to start the treatments again. Over the past ten years, technology has improved the laser machine and after her first treatment, her birthmark is already lighter.  Even though she is a young adult, I still feel the need to try to shield her from the stares of strangers after her treatments.  I even find myself “staring them down” or even trying to block their view if I see that someone is staring at her. I realize that’s a bit silly and maybe even funny, but I suppose it’s because I don’t want her to be hurt.

* * *

When the world looks at Crystal, they see a young lady with a mark that cannot be hidden.  Even though our society is supposed to be more learning about those with physical differences and disabilities, the stares continue. 

Crystal and some of her friends at school.

Most of the time, it’s adults that are the most inconsiderate.  Usually, children will look at her for a minute and continue on their original mission.  Occasionally, one will ask her a question about her face.  She will tell them it is a birthmark, and their curiosity is satisfied.  When she was in grade school, the children in her class asked many questions.  When she explained that it was a birthmark, the children either showed or told everyone about their own birthmark.  Life continues for them as if nothing is different.

Those that look different – whether caused by an accident or at birth – are often perceived as not mentally bright.  The thought is if someone doesn’t fit the typical mold, they must not be as smart as others.  This simply is not true.

I always teased my children about having eyes in the back of my head.  They often tried to find them, but I told them that they were only used when they were needed.  When Crystal was about five or six, I was in the kitchen preparing dinner.  She came into the kitchen behind me and wanted me to look at something she had in her hands.  I told her that if I turned around right then, I’d cut my fingers.  She said, “See, Mommy, I knew you didn’t have eyes in the back of your head.”  While her response was comical, it also showed her ability to analyze things at a young age.

* * *

Her dramatic side started at
a young age.
Our friends from church or those that are around her a lot no longer see Crystal’s birthmark.  They see Crystal.  They even forget she has one until we ask them to pray for her during an upcoming surgery.  When surgery is mentioned, they have to stop and remember why she is having surgery.

This forgetfulness doesn’t happen because the birthmark is too light to see, but rather because they know Crystal personally and are focused on her personality.  At times she can be shy, but most of the time, she is an outgoing young lady.  She can be very dramatic and grew up loving to be the center of attention!  Even as her mother, there are many times, that I can’t remember what side her birthmark is on.  When I would call to schedule a doctor’s appointment for her, I have to look at her picture to remember where it is located.

I criticize others for their lack of acceptance of my daughter as she is, but I also have had to reprimand myself.  There were times I needed to reevaluate my reasons for scheduling her laser treatments.  Is it because I want what is best for her, or am I pursuing it so I will no longer have to explain her appearance to others? 

Her strength and positive self-esteem can often be
shown  through her style of humor.
In order to help those that have this type of abnormality or those that have been burn victims, a special makeup has been developed.  We purchased some of the makeup for her when she was 11.  Normally, I don't encourage kids that young to wear makeup.  However, due to this different situation, we decided to let her try it to see if it made her more comfortable around others. The texture and thickness of the makeup is very different from regular makeup and after trying it a couple of times, she decided it wasn’t worth the work.  I’m actually really glad she decided not to wear it.  Her decision just shows the strength she has and her positive self-esteem.  In fact, she didn't even start wearing "normal" makeup until she 17-years-old and was a senior in high school.

* * *

Most people judge others by what they look at rather than who they are.  There are many other types of prejudices in this area rather than the port wine stain like my daughter has.

Let’s look at those that are too heavy.  If someone is too heavy, we typically think that they are lazy and sit around all day doing nothing.  While this may be the case, it is not always true.  Many of these people have tried one thing after another to lose the extra weight, but nothing has helped them.  While they may never be happy about the extra weight, they learn to accept themselves the way they are and be happy, successful people.

On the other end of the spectrum, we think that those that are too thin must be sick or have an eating disorder.  After all, how else can they stay that skinny?  Just as those that try to lose weight without success, many thin people try to gain weight without success.  Their experiences in purchasing clothes can be as frustrating to them as to the overweight person.  It’s no fun for a businesswoman to have to look for business attire in the junior section of the clothing store.  Those clothes are made for teens – not successful women.

In addition to weight perceptions, we look at those that have acne.  When we see someone that has severe acne, our minds tend to think that they don’t take care of themselves the way they should.  We forget about all of the medicines or overactive glands that can cause this condition.

* * *

Unfortunately, there are many other “stains” in life that cause us to judge others by their looks.  By limiting ourselves to those that appear to be “stain” free, we miss many blessings.

At one time in our church, we had two young ladies that are mentally challenged.  One is a Down’s Syndrome child, and the other one has other mental disabilities.  When I was younger, I would steer away from these girls because they are “different”.  I even remember a time before Crystal was born when I saw someone at a store that had a birthmark and was thankful that Amanda did not have their abnormality.  I remember feeling sorry for that woman and wondering what caused her condition.  No, I didn’t go up to her and ask her these questions, but I still looked at her as someone with a “stain”.

This is a photo of Crystal and
I together on Easter, 2013.
My attitude has changed dramatically.  Maybe it's because I have a daughter who has a birthmark that everyone can see or maybe it’s because I’ve matured.  The reason seems unimportant.  The important thing is that I have learned a tremendous lesson.  By judging people by what they look like, we are limiting their abilities and importance.  If we keep ourselves from getting to know these beautiful people, we are missing out on receiving blessings in store for us.

We all have “stains” in our lives that are not attractive.  How do we use those?  Do we try to hide them from others and try to forget we have them, or do we learn from them and try to help others?  That is the question we must each ask ourselves.  Be sure to answer it honestly.