2018 | The Hardest Year of My Life (a mini-novel)
Marriage is a lot like a garden. When tended to, it can grow to become something so beautiful that any passerby would have no choice but to stop and marvel in the beauty. Not only would people have to stop to take in the beauty, they might even find some nice fruit to pick to fill their empty bellies. When abandoned to its own demise, however, it becomes a nasty breeding ground for weeds and other hideous things that provide no benefit. Rot and disease can even overtake some of the plants, and it left untreated too long, the disease and weeds may even spread to the next garden bed and begin to poison that one as well.
Why do I write up that analogy? Because this year, I’ve been learning what it looks like to tend to the garden, and what it looks like when weeds start popping up. I’ve been learning what it means to guard your marriage in the way you might guard your garden from pests and weeds.
What does that even mean?
What does it even mean to guard your marriage, right? I don’t actually know a lot, I mean I’ve only been married a little over a year…But what I have learned from being married so far is that every garden needs a gardener - every garden needs to be tended to in order to flourish. At times, this means a gardener will have to shoo off a bunny or two, and relocate the snails. It means the gardener will have to get their hands dirty to dig out the roots of weeds and pull up rotted plants.
The image of the garden is cute and really quite a good example, but if we’re honest here, real life is not that cute and simple all the time.
I got married on August 26, 2017. It was an amazing year for me, not only because I got engaged and married to my love, but almost all of my close friends that year ALSO got married (yes, I actually attended 9 weddings including my own in 2017 alone!)
In the midst of my engagement and into newlywed-hood, I was finding it difficult to take joy in my marriage. Why? Because some of my closest friends were going through some of life’s hardest struggles in their own marriages.
Infidelity, emotional abuse, divorce, the list goes on.
Of course as someone close to them, I wanted to be there for them. I wanted to pray for them and I wanted them to feel like they can share with me what’s going on in their lives... but a few months into my marriage, I noticed I wasn’t opening up to Tim at all because of how terrified I was that we might go through those very things some day too. My heart was closed off to him because I was afraid. If I don’t really get vulnerable with him, there’s nothing to lose if those things DO go south, right?
Well, obviously no. God began to work in my heart, slowly but surely. The first “revelation” happened thanksgiving day of 2017 during our drive back to Austin after visiting my family. I was talking to Tim about something I wanted to do, and he said he didn’t think it was a good idea. I got overly hurt and assumed that he was only saying this to hold me back in life (dramatic, I know - I can be a drama queen at times). And then he said something that would break me in the best possible way. As I was being stubborn in the passenger seat, he softly and whole heartedly said, “the only reason I’m telling you this is because I care deeply for you. I’m on your side, and I want you to succeed, and the fact that you don’t see that really hurts me.”
I get teary-eyed even writing this. That whole time I thought Tim was just being mean, all the while, I was the one assuming the worst of him and hurting him. I didn’t say anything, I just looked out the window and cried for the remaining 2 hours of our drive. When we got home, I went straight to our room and cried for the rest of the night. Poor Tim probably didn’t know what to do with me, he tried giving me space, tried rubbing my back, and I think eventually we just both fell asleep.
Why did I cry so much after he said that?
Because I realized something. I realized that for the first 2 months of our marriage, I had a HUGE wall up and I didn’t want to let Tim in. When he said those words to me, that was the first time I saw the wall and it broke my heart. Up until that night, most nights we would go to bed at the same time, Tim would fall asleep peacefully and I would lie there for 1-2 hours feeling anxious, trapped, and most nights crying myself to sleep. I didn’t know why, I thought maybe I was just adjusting to the new life of being married, or maybe it was a mistake, or maybe I was just going through depression again, but I definitely didn’t want to tell anyone. No one wants to be the newlywed who is crying themselves to sleep every night.
But after that thanksgiving night when I cried myself to sleep, I woke up feeling a bit more free. I had identified the wall and I was determined to let Tim in and help me take down the wall. And then something almost magical happened. Every night after that, I kid you not - EVERY NIGHT - we fell asleep cracking up.
Every. Single. Night.
“THIS must be what marriage is supposed to be like.” I finally thought to myself. I thank God for those nights, and often times they still happen over a year later.
WHAT I’VE LEARNED ABOUT GUARDING MARRIAGE
Although I started letting Tim into my world a little more at that time, I still hadn’t really figured out why I was struggling in the first place. I mean, we dated for 3.5 years and I was never really afraid to be vulnerable up to that point, so what changed? Again, I’m not really sure but my theory is 1) we got married 2) Satan likes to attack marriages 3) I wasn’t guarding our marriage.
I didn’t realize that Satan would attack so hard, and I most definitely didn’t even know I was supposed to guard our marriage. I mean what does that even mean? Obviously I knew we should have boundaries with the opposite sex, be honest about struggles and so on, but guarding it?
Protect your marriage from other toxic marriages & relational influencers
Continuing on as a happy newlywed couple, a few weeks later I found myself afraid to be experiencing this happiness. Every day I would stop myself from feeling happy, and then one day whilst cleaning my kitchen, I was facing the garbage can when I had the realization that I was afraid of going through the hurt and pain that my close friends were going through in their own marriages, and that I wasn’t allowing myself to feel happy because I so hurt for their hurt.
It doesn’t seem fair to celebrate my marriage while theirs seemed to be falling apart. I cried again, but not as bad as the thanksgiving day, “cry yourself to sleep” time. More so a cry of sadness because I knew I had to set a boundary that was going to be hard for me and hard for them.
I had to guard mine and Tim’s marriage.
I had to ask them to limit how much detail they share with me and I opened up about how I was struggling to feel happy in my own marriage because I felt so much compassion for them. Understandingly, they respected my request and would be a little more vague and only ask me to simply “pray for them” or tell me they were struggling again, and that’s all. I honestly believe that me setting this boundary was harder on me than it was them, I just so longed to be there for them and realized I couldn’t do it without it burdening me and harming my marriage with Tim, at least until I learn how to set my own boundaries personally with the burdens I carry.
After a while, I began to learn how to experience joy in my marriage in the midst of others suffering. I’d like to think these days, I’ve learned how to set that emotional boundary in my own heart and let other’s marriages harm my own. Rather, I’ve learned to take joy in my marriage while hurting with my friends in their hurt.
I’ve learned that mine and Tim’s marriage isn’t destined to fail - that’s just a lie that Satan would like to taunt me with.
Protect your marriage from attacks from Satan
There could probably be a whole book written about the many ways Satan attacks, but I’ve only been married a short time, so my experience is by no means a comprehensive list of how he attacks; this is just our story.
1 - Bringing back the past
Oh gosh, I thought the skeletons in the closet had all been discovered, but lo, there were more. In the earlier part of 2018, I started having dreams about an ex of mine.
We dated for about 2 months in 2011 but had a great friendship before that, and a messed-up friendship after that. We should’ve stopped being friends after the breakup to avoid situations I’m about to tell you about, but I was 18 and naive and definitely not thinking about future Sierra and future Sierra’s husband.
The dreams came on so suddenly and so randomly. It was every night that I’d have these dreams. Some were normal, he’d just be there. Others, I’d be in his apartment or even some dreams I would be hiding from him. I didn’t know what they meant but I didn’t want to tell Tim and have him worry about me dreaming about an ex. I definitely didn’t have feelings for my ex and am confidently and happily married. The dreams, however, felt so real. I would wake up and think about my ex. How is he doing? How is his wife? How is his son? Are they going to church? Does he still own his business? Whatever the curiosities were, he’d be on my mind. It was random and out of the blue, as I hadn’t thought about him much after Tim and I got married.
Eventually, I told Tim because the dreams were bothering me to the point it would affect me throughout the day. He assured me that the dreams would stop eventually and to not worry about it. So I did and the dreams stopped.
And then all of the hell actually broke lose (lol - I can laugh now but then it was literally the worst). I could honestly write an entire book about this past relationship of mine and all the boundary-setting lessons I had to learn through it. The next several months that unraveled would make up the dramatic climax of the book, but I will try to keep it at short as possible. He ended up finding my number (which had long changed since we had broken up because of other history I’m not yet ready to share publicly), calling me, and telling me that he was going through a divorce and other things going on in his life.
Naturally, I was utterly overwhelmed.
How? How did he get my number? What happened in his marriage? What about his kid? Did I have anything to do with it? I had so many questions about everything but when it came down to it, I knew I had to block him and remove him from my life completely.
Suddenly, I wondered if all the dreams for the past six months had been emotional preparation to talk to him, or if the dreams were just making me so weak to the point that I would struggle when I did hear his voice again. I am not sure if the dreams made me stronger, or if they made me weaker.
It shouldn’t have been as hard as it was to block him, but as I said, we had a messed up friendship that I should’ve let go of when we broke up in 2011. I went through so many emotions again, I felt like I was losing a friend again, even though we hadn’t talked in years and there wasn’t really a friendship there anyway. I wondered why I even cared so much, and I realized he still had some control over my emotions because I hadn’t set emotional boundaries with him. There was so much I thought I had dealt with, but it was all coming out 7 years later. Except this time my husband had to watch me go through the painful emotions of losing someone I still care about, and maybe always will.
*As I’m writing this, it’s becoming clear to me that I carry relational and emotional burdens a lot. I guess I’ve always been not-so-great at setting boundaries in that way... but I'd like to think this year has taught me how to set boundaries.
There was a lot of pain during that season. But ultimately, I knew that when it came down to choosing a “friendship” with an ex or protecting my marriage, I’d choose my marriage over this any day, no matter the cost.
I’m so grateful for my older sister during this time because she lovingly called me out on my lack of setting healthy boundaries and literally yelled “IT’S SATAN” on the phone and told me “just block him sis - don’t even question it.” She helped me see how ridiculous my lack of boundaries was.
So I blocked him. It sucked. I wanted so much to give him an explanation but it was way too far past that. Again, there’s more of a history there that I’m not even getting into, but it led to this moment of me having to take these extreme measures.
In all of that, I went through another cry yourself to sleep, cry for days kind of revelation season. I was furious when I realized that Satan was attacking all along and furious that I didn’t catch it until now, and exhausted because I didn’t want to fight anymore but I knew attacks from Satan would be an on-going thing, probably for the rest of our lives.
2 - Attacking your spouse’s health
Eventually, I stopped crying myself to sleep. I stopped thinking about the whole blocking-my-ex ordeal, and Tim and I moved on. Life went back to normal, and I thought we were out of the clear of satan’s attacks. I thought that was his one and only attack to try and break us apart, and was kinda having the “throw it in your face” attitude like, “NOT TODAY SATAN - our marriage is stronger than that!”
And then more attacks came. This time, they weren’t so much against me. They were against TIm.
One day, Tim woke up and his foot was feeling agitated again. For the past couple years, he had been experiencing some pain in both of his feet; he had been to the doctor a couple times and never received a diagnosis, so resolved to wear orthopedic inserts. His feet had been relatively okay with the occasional days of needing to take a break from strenuous activities, but for the most part, we could still play tennis, go on runs together, and be active as we usually were.
This time was different.
He went to work as usual and came home with a very swollen, very painful foot. He had to rest the remainder of the evening and ice his foot. A couple days later, he woke up and both his feet and into his ankles were extremely swollen. It was so swollen and so painful that he couldn’t walk - he literally had to crawl to go to the bathroom and back to the bed. We were so concerned, and even had to call in-house doctors to check on him and do blood work.
We ran blood tests which showed nothing. We were ordered to get an ultrasound to check for blood-clots, as that became a concern very quickly. It showed nothing. As soon as he was able to walk, we went to a doctor and got an x-ray. It showed nothing.
Time passed and his feet were still swollen and painful. He had to take 2 full weeks off of work at that time and it got so bad during that time - he was bed-ridden and I became a full-time caretaker. This also happened to be the time when we were in the middle of buying a house and dealing with lenders. I think ordinarily buying a house might be a fun thing, but suddenly we began to have so many doubts. At that time, Tim couldn’t even walk and we were about to buy a two-story house. Tim couldn’t walk, we had zero answers, and were suddenly acquiring A LOT of medical bills - still with zero answers. And then the lenders wouldn’t leave me alone to give them document after document and respond to emails like there’s no tomorrow. My only concern was Tim’s health - how could I focus on anything else? Nothing else mattered to me.
Week after week, I would show up to church or the small group we lead, alone, and people would ask, “How’s Tim?”
They meant well and I was grateful for their support and care, but every time they asked I had to fight back having a melt down. I was so scared. Did he have a blood clot that they somehow missed? How long will he be bed-ridden? Will this be for the rest of our life?
I couldn’t think about the future anymore. I didn’t want to.
Our marriage USED to consist of evening walks, working out at the gym together, going on runs together, playing tennis together, spending weekends downtown Austin walking around the lake, or taking day-trips to explore other cities. Suddenly, we spent our nights and weekends at home. Tim couldn’t walk or move around much, so our marriage changed. We now spent our nights watching Netflix. Maybe we’d play a game here and there, or do a puzzle, but for the most part, it was just Netflix.
Would we ever be able to go on walks again? Were our days of playing tennis over forever? Will we ever get to travel again? How can we travel if he can’t walk? Will this be my duty for the rest of my life, to care for a disabled spouse?
Tim grew to be depressed at his condition. I tried to stay hopeful and positive but my heart was hurting so much. I cried A LOT when he wasn’t looking. I would cry in the shower. I would cry at night after he fell asleep. During the day, I needed to be strong, positive, and hopeful. At night or when I was in the shower was the times I would cry out to God for help and for strength.
I had seem Tim go from being a strong man to being humbly broken. There’s something about seeing the man you love in a state of such pain, both physical and mental, that really breaks your heart. It’s hard to smile and pretend like everything’s okay when you don’t know if it will be.
The way I viewed him shifted. Before, he was MY HUSBAND. My strength. My guardian. My strong tower. He was so strong he could easily sweep me off my feet - literally and figuratively. Now, he needed me. He needed my help. He needed me to get through the day, to get to the bathroom, to shower, to bring him food. I became a provider where he once was. My attraction towards him shifted, and I think that was the hardest part of everything.
I’m not going to lie, I find independence to be so incredibly attractive. A man who can take care of himself and has his own passions and goals, a man who can lead spiritually, WHEW.
That’s always been Tim, but through all of this struggle, that became hard to see. Suddenly, he couldn’t be independent. He needed my help - after all, we lived in an apartment with a flight of stairs - nothing was accessible for a wheel chair, and even if it was we definitely didn’t even own a wheel chair. He couldn’t take care of himself if I was gone for too lone. He grew weary of thinking about passions and goals - all he could think about was the goal of being able to walk. He grew spiritually dim; where was God in all of this?
I had to search deeper.
Was my attraction towards him purely superficial? I had to learn to love him truly. I had to learn to love him and accept the possibility that our future might indeed be this. This might be the rest of our lives. I had to accept the idea of giving up traveling for the rest of my life. I had to give playing tennis and working out together for the rest of our lives.
Of course, I was still hopeful and hoping for the best, but ultimately, I had to accept that regardless of the outcome of this health issue, I would have to choose to love him whether we spent our days out and about doing fun things, or at home doing nothing.
Months passed, the swelling eventually subsided enough for him to go back to work during the days, and we started seeing a specialist. We finally got one MRI done and learned in one of his feet, he had a torn ligament.FINALLY, the first answer after nearly 5 months. He was finally ordered to start physical therapy for his one foot. PT started helping, too!
In recent days, he’s been able to walk a little more. We can go out to dinner at night now, we can even go out on the weekends to do some light walking. Things have been looking up. I wouldn’t even say this “attack” from satan is over, but the brunt of it is past and we’ve both learned what it means to stay faithful in trial.
My trial first, Tim’s trial following and still on-going. But we’re still fighting. We’re staying strong.
HOW TO GUARD YOUR MARRIAGE
Surely after all these attacks from Satan, I’ve learned something; and that is that we need to guard our marriages, fight for them, and protect them. Like a gardener, we need to pull weeds before they overtake the good plants. We need to uproot the bad. We need to get our hands dirty. We need to constantly tend to the garden. Here’s how:
Be on guard always.
Stay in prayer.
Stay in Gods word.
Armor yourself with the armor of God as listed in Ephesians.
Find an accountability partner. Look for someone who loves you enough to tell you when you’re being dumb and loves you enough to give you godly wisdom.
“A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.
Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.” - Ephesians 6:10-18
THIS WAS THE HARDEST YEAR OF MY LIFE
Up to this year, the hardest year of my life was 2012; also known as the year that I was broken-hearted, living a lie, finally opened up about being raped after 2 years, had an identity crisis, moved to a foreign country alone, got stuck alone in another foreign country with a frozen bank card and no cash… Yep, I am saying 2018 was harder than that year. Why? Because this year was a reminder of all of that, and THEN some. It was watching the love of my life hurt; hurt at my doing, and hurt at no one’s doing… and sometimes having no-one to blame can be worse.
Yet, in struggle there is always growth, so I would never look back and say 2018 was the worst year of my life. Quite the opposite. It was HARD, and I probably cried 360 out of 365 days, but it was an amazing year. We learned a lot. We started leading a small group at church. We adopted a bunny. We bought a house. We grew closer to each other. We grew closer to the Lord.
In struggle, there is always growth.
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” - 2 Corinthians 12:9-11
WHAT I LEARNED IN 2018
To set boundaries with close friends.
To set emotional boundaries and cut ties with toxic people.
Fighting for marriage is truly impossible without God and community.
Sometimes life looks differently than you want, and that’s okay.
Health is a blessing, but it’s not promised. (and that’s okay!)
I’ve learned to let go of what I want and trust what God has for me - it’s always better.
Nothing brings satisfaction as much as obedience to God.
Your career won’t bring lasting joy - obedience to God will.
It is what it is.
Love is fun, but it’s also the most painful thing you will ever do.
True love requires sacrifice.
(and now for the funny things I learned)
What “escrow” means.
That lenders just suck in general, but it’s okay because you’ll never see them again after you buy your house.
Taxes still suck, even when you know what you’re doing.
Bunnies aren’t really that scary, and their bite doesn’t hurt that bad.
Choosing how to decorate a house is really hard… you gotta stay with this furniture for the next 10+ years!
Real Christmas trees smell nice, but they’re hard to keep alive… So we’ll probably go back to the fake tree next year.
I actually really like the color red.