My house still looks like Christmas. Decorations adorn the mantel, the lighted trees still bring a smile to my face, and the nativity sets remind me why I celebrate Christmas. I bask in the joy of the season until January 6, the feast of the Epiphany when my faith remembers the three wise who came bearing gifts for the infant, Jesus.
I remember a past Christmas as I look to the new year ahead. Now, I see it with clarity. I understand why things happened the way it did. I can see how my actions affected the situation. Let me explain.
Fourteen years ago, the joy of the Christmas season eluded me. Our daughter lived in the clutches of schizophrenia as her brain betrayed her. She lived in a world of paranoia, fear, and confusion. We’d moved her back home with us, but we didn’t understand what she faced. Our Christmas celebrations teetered between explosive and devastating as her brain disorder caused her to fling unfounded accusations at family members. Fears of a disjointed family unit swirled in my thoughts. Would our family unit survive? How do we survive?
We sought help from others who’d walked a similar path before us. We didn’t turn against each other. Instead, we worked together to find her the treatment and support she needed. Friends and family lifted our spirits as they assured us of their prayers as they visited us and Amber when she spent weeks in a hospital, brought her small gifts, and someone even brought a casserole to lighten our load.
As I look back, I know God worked through them and we weren’t alone, even though I felt like it. Over the next few years, Amber learned about her illness, accepted it, and the treatment she needed for long-term recovery. Fourteen years later, and I continue to thank God for the miracle of her recovery. She works full-time, has a social life, and makes me proud with her determination to give back to the world around her.
Because of my experience, I developed a new purpose. I want to reach out to other families caught in the snares of mental illness. I want to walk beside them and give them hope. This month, support groups resume in our area and I plan to attend the sessions. Together, we can learn more about the brain and how to help our loved ones – and ourselves in the process.
In a quest to grow as a person, I set some goals for 2019:
I continue to write a daily devotional book where I deal with mental illness. In it, I think about Bible verses and the lessons I’ve learned about faith as I struggle with the messiness of life. I strive to steady my gaze on the Lord and invite readers to join me. I don’t know if a publisher will pick it up. I hope it happens. Plan B and Plan C bounce around in my head if it doesn’t.
Last year, I started my first novel. I vowed to finish it this year. I’m excited to see how the story ends.
My TBR (To Be Read) pile looms above me on my bookshelf by my chair. My list to read this year includes biographies, fiction, and spiritual enrichment. Nonfiction/Biographies: Crazy by Pete Early; Fiction: a couple of novels by Lisa Wingate that I picked up at a yard sale, Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Relly, Orphan Train, and Last Girl Seen by Nina Laurin; Spiritual Enrichment: Thomas Merton, Miracles in Our Midst, Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World, Having a Mary Spirit in a Martha World, and several books of prayer reflections. When I read a variety of authors, I learn more about the craft.
Last month, I started on an organization spree for my house. It’s something that no one else notices, but it sure makes me feel wonderful to have nooks and crannies in a neat order. I plan to continue until I make it through each closet. It may take more than this year, but I’ll stay calm and carry on.
I want to improve my stamina. My children gave me a wrist device to check my steps, etc. I get up and walk when it tells me I’ve sat too long. My last goal for 2019 is to meet the daily challenge it gives me in steps and stairs. So far, so good. Only 361 days to go.
But recently, I’ve been called upon to do this. Two friends stopped – both of them needed someone to listen, and I think both of them wanted a different way to look at the situation that surrounds them.
Before I spoke, I said a quick prayer for guidance. I wanted to use the correct words -conversations to build up, not to tear down. Or to just listen, if that was my role.
As I listened, I heard a plea for an idea – something, anything that each of them could do to lift their spirits on a daily basis. Now, lest you think I used the cliché, look for the roses among the thorns – take a deep breath. I didn’t. First, I had to exam my own attitude. How do I react to the hard things in my life?
Sometimes my mind wants to dwell on the past. The circumstances that destroyed my vision for the future. And then doubt and discouragement swoop in and try to take roost. Was it my fault? What did I do wrong? Could I have prevented it? Could I have done something different? Why didn’t I see it before it was too late? Nag, nag, nag until the feeling of inadequacy tries to overshadow any feeling of confidence.
So how do I handle those memories? How did I handle it twelve years ago? A conversation last night during our evening meal solidified it for me. We talked about an incident from our past.
After supper, I went back through old e-mails in search of a piece of history. I didn’t find the note in question, but I did find e-mails that I’d sent during the worst part of Amber’s mental illness. I read the pleas I made to family and friends for prayers for Amber as we tried to get her help. I relived the discouragement that consumed me as I watched her brain break from our reality.
But tucked in among my words of desolation, I found snippets of hope: she signed the needed paperwork during a few seconds of coherency; we got her transferred to a different hospital; she began to accept medication for her mental illness.
When I looked back, I saw that I HAD found the positive things that happened along with the unthinkable. My faith tells me that this was the Holy Spirit at work in my life. I had begged for help and it came through those around me. When my family and friends did little things, such as send me a note that brightened my day, they became the hands of God for me. As I read the words I wrote twelve years ago, I understood that I had recognized it at the time it happened.
Somehow, during my pain-filled days as schizophrenia unleashed many of the nasty symptoms on Amber, I felt the velvety petals, and inhaled the fragrance of the proverbial rose in spite of the thorns that pricked me in the most tender areas of my life. The more I concentrated on the positives, the easier it became to find them. And in turn, I offered praise and thanksgiving.
As I read my reactions twelve years ago, I understood the words that I gave my friends earlier this week came from a source beyond me.
I had encouraged my friends to look for the positive things that are tucked in with the negative devastation. Don’t let discouragement or doubt win, I said. I had even quoted Mr. Rogers, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.
I had also shared my way of finding the helpers. I confided to both of my friends that I try to stifle discouragement and doubt with prayer. Each morning, I begin my day with a cup of coffee and a couple of my favorite devotional books. I also use an app on my phone to listen to prayers as I walk, as I wash dishes, or while I drive. These things help me stay focused and look for the positive things, the people, the helpers who reach out to others in their time of need – for I want to continue to find the roses among the thorns.
From the website for the SOA: “The purpose of the Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval is to help Catholic bookstores and venues in their determination of the Catholicity of a work. This reassurance from a professional organization can assist authors in marketing and promoting their works. Books are also judged by their editorial integrity as well.
Readers can be assured that SoA books will not offend their faith and have a certain level of editorial quality.”
At the end of March I received notice that Broken Brain, Fortified Faith had received the SOA. I did a happy dance!
On May 2, I received an email that Broken Brain, Fortified Faith had made the finalists list for The Selah Award. From their Facebook page: “The Selah Awards, which are awarded annually at BRMCWC, are awarded to books within Christian publishing that are considered excellent within their genre.”
Talk about excited!
Last night, the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference (BRMCWC) announced the Selah awards for the top books in each genre. Since I couldn’t go, I tuned in via twitter which posted as they were announced. I’m glad I was alone during the awards. As I read my name in the twitter feed, “Winner, Memoir, Virginia Pillars — Broken Brain, Fortified Faith (Familius) #brmcwc#selah contd,” I cried tears of gratitude – and no one watched.
If you’ve read this blog, you may understand that I didn’t think of myself as a author. I didn’t write much until I hit my 50’s. (Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks.) Even as I met with success, I didn’t consider myself in the same category with the award-winning authors. I just didn’t. I’m too new in the world of writing and publishing.
This morning, after I calmed down a bit I picked up one of my daily devotionals. I sat stunned as I read yesterday’s reflection. (I hadn’t taken the time yesterday – shame on me.)
“When I work in tandem with the Holy Spirit, powerful things happen. My mouth moves, and messages come out that I didn’t even have in my head. And those messages impact lives. It’s so much fun! Thank you for giving me stories to tell and for the power to get them said.”
“It IS fun!”
Don’t get me wrong, the story I wrote was NOT fun. Anything, but, and I’d never wish the situation on anyone. But happen it did, and to our family. But the second installment of my story is fun. The writing, the publishing, the awards! Now, I truly believe even when I didn’t feel capable to write and share our story, the Holy Spirit guided me. I asked, listened and then moved forward.
If reading our story, or my thoughts in this blog helps another person, then I feel it gives the journey I took meaning.
Rejoice with me. It can happen. And to top it off, the award came during Mental Health Awareness month. Broken Brain, Fortified Faith shares my struggles as my daughter battled schizophrenia. Now, I hope, countless people are aware! Plus, as a final bonus, I get to put award stickers on my book and my press release reads: “Award-winning author.”
“Virginia Pillars’ memoir of a mother navigating the world of parenting a young adult with a brand-new diagnosis schizophrenia is at once heart-wrenching, informative and inspiring. In Broken Brain, Fortified Faith, Pillars honestly describes her day-by-day experience with her daughter’s illness and recovery, with a view toward helping other families whose lives are touched by a frustrating disease.
“The author’s conversational style make a book with challenging subject matter easy to read. Pillars takes a day-by-day approach through the difficult months of diagnosis and a search for appropriate treatment, bringing the reader along for the ride to hospitals, waiting rooms, and therapists’ offices. Her first impulse, when hearing of any kind of setback, is to place her daughter in God’s hands, asking Him to be with her in that time of crisis.”
I appreciate the time other people give me when they read my book and write a review. We’re all busy people and most everyone I know puts too much on their plate each day. So I am grateful to other authors who take time for my project!
Earlier this month, I promised to give a review for this book in exchange for the chance to read it. Sometimes I wonder, who gets the most benefit for this opportunity – the author or the reader? After exploring Jeannie’s book, A Sea Without a Shore, I’ll wager that it is the reader.
Jeannie writes from the heart, pouring out her love and devotion to God throughout her book. I felt that she recorded her thoughts and prayers for us, the readers, so we may grow in love and devotion, too. As I read, I found myself recording phrases that stood out to me. Reflections I wanted to plant deep within my heart and soul.
One of my favorites quotes was “Material acquisition is no longer our goal. It is replaced by the practice of simplicity, engaging in matters seemingly small, but staggeringly significant.” This idea resonated with me as a way to live in peace and joy.
A few other nuggets I tucked deep in my heart include the idea of “self-examination with pointing a finger” – in other words, forgive myself. And “that all holy innocents are God’s beloved” gave me peace as I thought about my own grandson’s death years ago.
Because this book has reflections for the liturgical year, I will read each section during the appropriate season to deepen my appreciation and love for my Savior.
I’ll be honest, when I first began reading this, I had a difficult time. I’m more of a “learn from the parable” kind of gal. I think I understand why Jesus taught his followers through stories. Some of us grasp concepts and lessons more quickly through examples. As I started this book,, I found it a bit difficult to concentrate on the words. But, I realized I had the opportunity to read her thoughts and reflections. I decided I wanted to challenge myself to focus on Jeannie’s prayerful thoughts as I read. Plus, I wanted to learn a new style of spiritual growth. I willed my brain to slow down so I could embrace the reflections. I read in small bites so I could indulge myself with the prayerful thoughts. It worked. I did indeed a learn a fresh way to keep me on my spiritual journey.
If you’re looking for a book to deepen your love and devotion to God, I recommend this book. Read it slowly and savor the morsels.
But don’t just take my word for it. Snag your own copy and fall in love with your Savior.
Jeannie Ewing believes the world focuses too much on superficial happiness and then crumbles when sorrow strikes. Because life is about more than what makes us feel fuzzy inside, she writes about the hidden value of suffering and even discovering joy in the midst of grief. Jeannie shares her heart as a mom of two girls with special needs in Navigating Deep Waters: Meditations for Caregivers and is the author of From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph. Jeannie was featured on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition and dozens of other radio shows and podcasts.
Describe a typical writing day. Are you a morning, afternoon, or night-owl writer?I am an “anytime writer.” You see, my life does not neatly fit into a box (unfortunately for me). I have two young daughters and another baby on the way. Both of our girls have different special needs that require a lot of extra time spent with various specialists, special education programs, surgeries, and counselors. I spent a good portion of my time at the disposal of a doctor’s availability, rather than what is convenient for my family. Because of this, I write when I have time. That might sound like a cop-out, but I don’t waste time. If I have 10 minutes of a lull in my day, I will write for 10 minutes. When the girls are having quiet time and I can snag an extra 20 to 30 minutes, I will write. Most of my best writing happens right after breakfast on a weekend when my husband is gracious enough to watch the girls for me. But most of what I produce is in the evenings after the girls have gone to bed.
Can you tell us about your current work-in-progress?I have 3 of them actually. The first is a book that answers common questions about what to do in specific social or religious situations – a sort of etiquette question and answer book. That proposal has been submitted to a publisher, who is in the process of checking it out. The second manuscript is one I am co-authoring with my husband, Ben. It is a parenting book about using the beatitudes as our beacon for what we do and teach our children on a daily basis. That, too, is in the process of consideration from a different publishing house. The third work-in-progress is my favorite to date. It is a book about the value of waiting and what that looks like from a cultural attitude, as well as a spiritual one. It includes various points of philosophy, but mainly I’m trying to encourage people in their tough times of waiting, especially when it is prolonged. I plan to complete that manuscript before I submit it to a potential publisher.
What inspires you when you’re writing?Prayer – Scriptures, silence, reading reflections and the lives of the saints; music – especially classical or some type of soothing instrumental music; sometimes nature inspires me, and sometimes it could be a conversation with a friend or something I observe while I’m out and about.
What’s your favorite item on your writing desk?Hmmm, probably my perpetual cup of tea!
What’s your favorite genre and why?Memoir, because I love reading about other people’s journeys in life through their own eyes.
Any advice you have for a blossoming author?Just begin. Don’t worry about the details or even the process itself. Just start somewhere and keep moving forward. Your first draft won’t be perfect, so don’t expect it to be. Don’t write with censorship; get into your own flow and let it happen naturally. Our best muse is God, so I always pray before I write.
What is your writing process like?I guess the best word I can use is ‘inspired.’ Just when I think I’ve completed a book, a new idea pops into my head and becomes more developed over time. That’s been the case for this book on waiting. When I write, it could be jotting down ideas on scraps of paper like a typical creative type, or it could mean I actually sit down and type up a chapter on my laptop. But I always, always write down inspired ideas, regardless of where I am or what I’m doing.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? Why?I don’t write fiction, so ?
When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time? Reading, taking care of my girls (homeschooling the eldest), chatting with my husband or watching movies with him, taking walks with my dog through our neighborhood.
What or who inspired you to become a writer?I’ve always been a writer, since I first learned to put words together creatively and articulately. It’s a natural talent and also a spiritual charism. I’ve enjoyed creating ideas through writing – whether fiction when I was a kid or poetry as a young adult or original research papers in college – and now non-fiction seems to be where God wants me right now.
How long have you been writing?I started journaling when I was about 9 years old. I received a Hello Kitty diary from a friend for my birthday and wrote in a journal every day ever since!
Are you Self-published or Traditional Published? Why did you choose this type of publishing?I’m a hybrid author, which means I have some books that are self-published and some that are traditionally published. I’ll be speaking more on the advantages and disadvantages of this at the Catholic Writers Conference Online in February. Essentially, I didn’t “choose” this type of publishing. It just worked out that my first book was self-published, because each step of the process I had someone offer to help me through it professionally! My second book ended up being traditionally published, because my editor at Catholic Exchange asked me if I had considered writing a book.
Anything else you’d like to share with your readers? Writing can be daunting, so don’t think it’s some romantic way of life. Most of us don’t make a grand living as writers, but we love what we do. If you are called to write, you will want to share your ideas with others in order to inspire, encourage, entertain, or teach them – maybe a combination of these, or something else.
Just for fun:
Do you have any pets? Yes! A 9-year-old pit bull mix, Lily. She’s a character! We love her as one of our family members.
Who’s your favorite musician/band? Well, I love music and a variety of genres of music. I’d say it depends, but my favorite genre of music is Renaissance or Baroque. I especially love Michael Praetorius and Tomasso Albonini.
What’s your favorite vacation spot? The mountains. It’s my dream to live in the Smokies one day.
Do you like coffee or tea? Never liked coffee, but I love tea and drink it daily with a bit of honey.
Did you go to college? If so, what was your major? Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a minor in Religious Studies and Master of Science in Education for School Counseling
Are you a full-time writer or do you also work in another field? If so, what field?My “full-time” job is a stay-at-home mom.
Favorite Season? Fall/Winter/Spring/Summer? I like the changing seasons for different reasons. When I was a kid, my favorite season was summer, but now it’s probably fall. I love the cooler weather and gorgeous colors. Plus, there are so many fun things to do in the fall – hay rides, jumping in leaf piles, visiting pumpkin patches and carving them, apple picking and making homemade applesauce, etc.