It’s a Wonderful Life . . .

So, I have been pretty homesick lately . . . I think it started when my parents’ time in Cambodia came and went in the blink of an eye. Then it progressed to all out crying at the drop of a hat as the Christmas holiday came nearer and nearer. There have been several triggers, like missing snow at Christmas time. Here it is just consistently hot. There is no drastic change in seasons, so things like holidays can sneak up on you and then come and go without you realizing it . . . like thanksgiving did.

I have also missed the “season” of Christmas! I don’t know how it happens in Ohio, it just does, Christmas is in the air. It’s a feeling in the heart. It’s a special time of year. Here, it is one, not very widely acknowledged day, and a program at church.

Also the fact that this is the first Christmas in my entire 30 years that I have not been in Ohio with my family has made that feeling of homesickness extra fresh.

But despite all that or maybe in response to it. Bibi and I have made the absolute most of this season! We had our tree up on December 1st. It has been Christmas in the Leang household for practically a month now. The warm glow of the Christmas lights have reminded me of God’s faithfulness as I have done as I would normally do in the States- woken up before the sun with my glass of hot tea and sat before the warm glow of the tree and thought about all this season truly means- each time God has met me there.

The Lord has drastically turned the temperature down for us here in Cambodia. Most nights Bibi and I have had to boil water for hot showers, close all the windows and turn off the fans. I have had to sleep in long sleeves and pants. I have also worn cardigans and three layers for the last 2-3 weeks! . . . . It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!! . . . .

I was not able to spend Christmas with my family in Ohio, but I have absolutely felt surrounded and loved this Christmas season! My housemate Beth and I spent all day cooking on Christmas Eve, then we sat together with our husbands and shared a meal with our landlord and her daughter. Then we went to a Christmas Eve service kind of like the Methodist services I grew up going to. It was a new experience for Bibi as he has never been exposed to liturgical readings and prayers. The next morning Beth and Brian, Bibi and I shared Christmas brunch together. Then Bibi and I spent the whole day preparing the house and a feast! We received his entire immediate family into our home that night; his siblings and their families, his mother- we were all there! 14 people packed into our little 3rd floor apartment! It was such hard work to prepare, but it was so worth it once we were all gathered on the floor with a delicious meal in front of us.

This Christmas season has also been filled with receiving carolers, teaching a Christmas lesson for our Sunday school kids, hot cocoa, dinner with friends, Christmas cocktails, and desserts with wine, classic Christmas movies, and quiet moments with Jesus.

Last night we were at a friends’ house and we watched It’s a Wonderful Life. This is first time I have ever seen the film, and Bibi’s first time too. I can relate to the main character George Bailey, especially in my 20’s. I was going to conquer the world. I wanted to travel, I wanted to get out and DO things and GO places. I had so much spirit, and so much adventure just wanting to bust out of me. The idea of being “tied” to Ohio and just having a “normal” job made me cringe. But in the film, George sets aside his spirit and his desires to travel and go to school in order to take over the family business, and eventually one thing leads to the next and he is married, with four kids, and starts to feel “stuck”. He is discouraged and needs a new perspective. So an angel is sent to help give him that perspective and he does it by showing George what life in that little town would be like if George Bailey would have never been born.

George realizes his life is not wasted even though it didn’t turn out how he wanted it to, and in fact, not just that it is not wasted, but the life he has is actually A WONDERFUL LIFE!!

As I watched that movie, I began thinking of my own life . . . my life in Cambodia . . . maybe I was not exactly where I wanted to be this Christmas season. Maybe I have felt a little “out to sea” these last two years as things have not turned out exactly how I had thought or planned. Maybe there have been times that I have wanted to throw my hands up, pack it all up and go back to the States. . . .

But last night, as I laid on my bed, I just opened my heart and let the Lord fill it with his truth. In fact, my life here in Cambodia is not wasted. I began thinking of all the relationships I have made, the lives I have come in contact with, the friends here who I hold dear, the family I have here. Nothing is wasted. I am a difference-maker. I am a light. I am His child. I am not a disappointment to Him or anyone. This life here in Cambodia is in fact, A Wonderful Life!!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!
From Kristen and Bibi Leang.

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Before logging onto my blog this morning, I couldn’t remember the last time I had entered this sacred space. It’s been nearly half a year; that coupled with the fact that I haven’t stopped biting my nails (I know, gross right, especially in this country) since June are probably telling me something. I am hiding and I am holding within. Sure my newsletters have gone out with all the joy, “Christian experience” and “God moments” I could scrape together; and while those stories are true and the feelings are true, they are such a small sliver of life in Cambodia. And so they have gone out, but the real me that has the freedom to be me in this sacred space has long since been neglected.

Since my last blog was written:

I have been homesick;

I turned 30;
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I started birth control; which has absolutely wrecked havoc on my body and emotions;

After countless hours, Bibi and I completely translated a whole sermon into Khmer!!! Such a cool project to be a part of;

Bibi and I made two exhausting trips to Goh Kong to get a land deed transferred over to Bibi’s name and were rejected twice because apparently we didn’t have enough money to pay the corrupt mayor under the table.

After months of fighting fatigue, I finally motivated myself to get back on my bike! It has been exhilarating riding all over PP again;

I stopped volunteering with one2one Cambodia;

Bibi and I planned and sometimes argued over the details of our wedding;

The door was closed on something that I was convinced was a promise from the Lord;

My paoun’s family in the slum had to move into an even dirtier, smaller house with only one latrine for all the families on that block because they could no longer afford the $40 rent per month at their old place.

I have stopped going to Khmer school;

My ceiling began to sag under heavy rainfall (my neighbor’s ceilings caved in completely) and the landlord didn’t really care, so that incited my 7th move in 24 months . . . one week before my wedding.
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My paoun Vantha started and stopped working with our wood craftsman friend; it has felt like it’s been one step forward half step back, two steps forward, one step back with him in all areas: spiritual life, school, work, family and respecting his parents.

Bibi and I spent a major Khmer holiday in Goh Kong with all his extended family! It was such a sweet special time. We ate LOTS of food; went fishing; and visited places that were special to Bibi growing up as child!
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My closest friend, confidant, and sister in Christ here was in several motorbike accidents and had to return home to NZ to rest and heal.

My parents and some friends came to Cambodia, which was the most incredible time! I am only sad I did not get to take them to church!!
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I got married!!!! It was truly the best, most perfect day of my entire life!
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Our honeymoon phase lasted only as long as the honeymoon, as I- the independent, self-sufficient, 30 year old- have had to completely redefine what “me” is now that I am one with this other human being who has his own thoughts and ideas and feelings.- hardest yet best journey of my life so far.

I finished a leadership course, our final project being an intentional development plan, in which I stated I would start writing again.

I started a new job as a Nursing professor at a university here in PP;

Bibi and I started going to a Bible study for newly married couples;

I have been homesick again.

I bought a Christmas tree- which made me homesick for Christmas in Ohio.

and I have been recently diagnosed with lupus.

So much good.
So much that is exciting.
So much that is challenging.
So much that is hard.

It’s hard to know what or how to feel on any given day. It’s hard to know how to process all that positively and negatively impacts/assaults the heart and mind here. And even harder to know how to express it in a way that is REAL and not overly glitzed with pomp and circumstance because that is what my self-imposed pressure says those in the States want to hear about my fantastic-winning-souls-for-Jesus-supra-human-missionary-life-in-Cambodia.

But I feel like from my leadership course I have been given some really great tools in my back pack from which to draw on in the future when it comes to processing, self-care, and working through transitions . . . which I feel like has defined my life here in Cambodia, one major transition after another. One major event to process and work through right after another, after another. Thankfully I do know I am not here in Cambodia alone. I have my husband, my best friend. I have my friends and family who are only a Skype call or Viber message away. I have my Khmer family here. My church family. And of course I have the Lord, the one who holds it all in his hands and sees and knows and is not surprised by anything that has happened in the last nearly half a year.

I just need to stop hiding. Stop biting my fingernails. Stop trying to hold it all in. Stop fearing what people are going to think if I am having a hard time working through something- I need to let people in more.

And maybe most importantly, I just need to keep writing. Keep allowing myself the freedom to be me in this place and put it all down, release it here and let it go.

The Mosts of My 20’s- Happy Memories.

1. My 29th birthday. The whole day was fantastic with sweet friends that showered me with love. The children at the safe house threw me the BEST birthday party I could have ever possibly hoped for. And I remember giddy excitement and hopefulness begin to stir in my belly for the first time in years when Bibi showed up with 2kg of my favorite fruit and a hand-made card.
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2. The time Keet and I walked to the pub within our Kenyan subdivision to watch the world cup and eat dinner. Thinking we had ordered 1/2 chicken to share- we were so caught up in conversation and the game that it wasn’t until after the bird was wholly consumed that we realized we were looking at two legs bones, two thigh bones, two wings etc etc- we had eaten a WHOLE chicken!! We laughed so hard and had to practically be rolled back to the house we were so full.

3. Tramping the Hillary Trail around Auckland, New Zealand with some really amazing people. We saw some of the most beautiful sites, drank in God’s creation, experienced “rainbow moments” of God’s promise, had some incredible laughs, and not to mention ate some incredible food . . . CRAISIN!!!!!
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4. Experiencing God’s majesty and power first hand as I and 50 other One80-ers worshipped the Lord in midst of pouring rain and thunderstorms on an open field in TX in 2003.

5. Coming home from Cambodia for Christmas (now I can’t remember if it was 2011 or 2012!) and being surprised by my sister and brother-in-law with tickets to see Wicked! We dressed fancy, we had delicious food and drink in one of the most eclectic restaurants I have ever been in, in Cincinnati and enjoyed a beautiful evening at the theater!
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6. The night Heather and I went out on the town in Cincinnati in our little black cocktail dresses. We were celebrating grand life changes and accomplishments- a finished audit-a huge project- for her, and a move to Cincinnati, graduation and a new job for me. We went to the nicest steak house in Cincinnati and spent over $100 each on the most beautiful meal I have ever eaten still to this day. It was a night of celebration and class- we felt like queens, we acted like queens and we were treated like queens for a night!- I mean the waiters were all handsome, dressed in tuxes and escorted us to the bathrooms even!!!

7. Mother-Daughter road trip through GA to see Alisha and on to FL to see Brandi after I came home from the WR. My mom has always been my very best friend, but that trip was really special for me as she helped me process the last 11 months of my crazy existence. She just did a lot of loving and listening during that week.
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8. The night in Romania that my dear friend, who will remain nameless (SonnyAnne) hid behind my bed to scare me and my reaction made her laugh so hard she peed her pants! And then I laughed so hard I almost peed my pants!

9. The day Alison arrived in Cambodia in Jan 2011. I was also there and I went looking for her, but she wasn’t at her guest house and I had no way of contacting her so I prayed and asked the Lord to lead me to her. I then went to City Mall and from a distance I saw a girl from behind who could have been her. As I got closer I saw her leg tattoo and knew it was her. I then took off in a dead sprint running up behind her and hugged her from behind! She jumped so high! And we both freaked out that we were actually standing face to face in Cambodia!
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10. The day I came home from Cambodia in 2011. My sister picked me up from the airport. I spent the night with her, and we drove to my grandmother’s house to pick her up for breakfast- only she didn’t know I was home. When she saw me she screamed and threw her arms up in the air! Then squeezed me tight! “I’d cry,” she said, “if I had any tears!” (She has an autoimmune disorder called Schogren’s which has dried out all her mucous membranes).

11. The night at the bus station when we were leaving Kisumu Kenya for the second time. All our brothers saw us off and as we waiting for the bus we had dance parties, made ourselves dizzy and laughed ourselves silly on the playground equipment at the bus station, particularly a merry-go-round.
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12. I always cherished the walks my dad and I would take in the evenings, but on one particular walk I remember; it was before the WR and I had asked him what his feelings were about me leaving for 11 months. He said, “I believe God has called you to do this, so I trust God. . . “ (long silence) “But I am sad too because I know if you go, you are not coming back.” His words hung thickly over my head, and then the realization of my Daddy’s love for me began to settle deep in my heart and mind. In that moment I realized what a treasure living with my parents again had been for that 1.5 years. I would never get that time with them back.

13. Every single trip to Nicaragua was unique and special. There are so many people in Bethel with whom I share incredibly happy memories, it would be impossible to name them all. But one family in particular, my family, I hold incredibly dear to my heart- The Gustavo family. I have been adopted in. I have the three most beautiful little sisters in the world, and my warm summer days spent with them will always and forever be my favorites. It’s been almost 4 years since I was last able to visit Nicaragua, pero les llevo en mi corazon siempre.
the three most BEAUTIFUL little sisters on this planet.

the three most BEAUTIFUL little sisters on this planet.

 

 

14. It was April 2013. Bibi and I were spending time together. We were just talking about ordinary stuff and he was teaching me Khmer slang. We had laughed so much our guts hurt, and then out of the blue he hugged me tightly and whispered, “you are my best friend.” I will never forget that moment as long as I live.

15. The day I met this wee one for the very first time.
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16. I remember very vividly sitting on the floor of my new dining room in Oakley, Cincinnati when my friend from nursing school, Becky, called me to tell me she had checked the status of our licenses and we were officially nurses. We had passed the NCLEX!! My mom and I were painting the apartment and getting me moved in. It seemed like everything was new and exciting at that time in my life. I loved my place in Oakley; I loved living in Cincinnati, and now I was finally a licensed nurse getting ready to start my dream job at Shriner’s Hospital for Children.

17. This was a pretty happy day.
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Some Things I Just Don’t Get.

Every mother I have ever talked to has said that their children have different cries and they can distinguish whether this is a “hunger” cry or a “poop” cry or an “unhappy” cry. I am not a mother yet, but unfortunately, I believe I am growing increasingly more and more aware of the “abandoned” cry and the “completely frustrated” cry here in Cambodia. And it is growing increasingly hard to cope with the lack of parenting and love that I witness day in and day out. This week has been especially difficult. I feel like I have reached this point where I am waiving my white flag. “I just don’t get it, Jesus.” 

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I was in one of the poor communities on Tuesday as part of a clinic with my organization. I was cleaning wounds for the children in that neighborhood. There were two boys sitting near me on the wooden bench where I was cleaning and bandaging. One boy is about 12 years old, and his younger brother who was next to him is about 7 or 8. The 12 year old had a deep open gash above his elbow that I had just finished cleaning and bandaging. I was working on the 7 year old’s foot wound, and not too far from us was a little little guy about a year or so sitting completely naked on the ground crying. It was the “abandoned” cry. I could tell he just wanted someone to come, pick him up, and cuddle him, which I had planned to do as soon as I was finished with the 7 year old’s wound. As I was cleaning, the boys’ mother approached us, and I soon learned that the crying little one was their littlest brother. She demanded that the 12 year old get up and go get some pants for the baby. The 12 year old stared straight ahead and didn’t say a word; didn’t even acknowledge that she had spoken. His eyes were hollow and his expression- complete numbness. She made a passive aggressive remark and then turned to the 7 year old and demanded the same. The 7 year old just turned to the older brother for advice or approval, but he continued to look forward expressionless. And the 7 year old didn’t answer; didn’t move. The woman then proceeded to hit the 12 year old hard on the shoulder and the 7 year old just as hard across the back of the head. She turned to go, and I looked back down to the wound that was half dressed, thinking the storm had passed. But then I was startled; my heart rate instantly jumped at the sound of the loudest crack as the mother’s hand landed hardest on the back of the littlest guy sitting on the ground. His cries turned to full on sobs as tears flooded from his eyes, and she walked away indifferently. I was frozen, my heart racing. Soon the older sister came with pants and dressed the little one and picked him up, and he stopped crying. But for those two or three frozen moments his screams broke the air and shattered my heart.

Then on Wednesday we were in a different poor neighborhood. I was at the pharmacy table giving medication to those who had just been evaluated by our doctors. When I heard the cries of a little one about 4 or 5 years old. She was holding three balloons before, and now I could see only two- one must have burst; the reason for her tears. One of the older women of the community, about 60 or so, thought it was funny to laugh at the child’s misfortune and when the child would not stop crying she picked up a brick and started chasing the child, grabbing onto her should and pretending like she was going to whack her on the back of the head with the brick if she didn’t stop crying; chiding and laughing at the child the whole time. Panic, fear, and shock hit my system all at once and with a racing heart, I yelled at her in Khmer, “Auntie, stop it, put the brick down. PUT IT DOWN. THIS IS NOT FUNNY. YOU DO NOT TEASE  A CHILD LIKE THAT. THAT IS NOT PLAYING!! IT IS NOT FUNNY! STOP IT!” I sat trying to compose myself and trying to understand what I had just witnessed. How is this seen as funny or okay?! This is not okay!! How is it that my team members and colleagues didn’t even think this was odd or shocking?!  The shock lingered in my heart and over my head. Several minutes passed before my heart rate steadily began to slow down.

I sit here writing this just to get my emotions and thoughts on paper, but I still have no answers. I still feel shocked. I have no idea what to think. I am dumbfounded. The shock still lingers. I have no idea what to do with what I have seen. I have no idea how to process it further or what the solution is. There are some mindsets which are so depraved yet so deeply rooted. . .

I have never been so deeply dependent on Jesus for everything- my hope, my sanity, my peace- as I am here in Cambodia. Outside of Him I have no answers . . . nothing makes sense.

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How do we protect and preserve the innocence of these precious little ones?

The “Mosts” of my 20’s: Difficult Things I have Walked Through

1. The death of my grandfather- Still to this day, the greatest tragedy of my short 30 years. My grandfather was one of my very best friends.

So many of my favorite childhood memories include him-

Waking up on Sunday mornings to find that a box of one dozen donuts had magically and mysteriously appeared on our door step . . . every Sunday without fail. (my grandfather lived 25 minutes away and woke up early just to make the delivery);

He would hook up this thick belt to the boom of his crane, which sat in the back yard (he was a construction worker) and we would then sit in the belt and he would raise us up, and swing us around and we would pretend we were flying;

He would pull us into the living room floor with a small orange foam ball in his hand. He would make us get down “nose to nose,” and then, “One, two, hut, hut, hike!” He would throw it up in the air to himself, once caught he would charge forward. We would have to tackle him and get the “football” and run it back to the other end, aka the entertainment center before he reached his goal line, aka the piano bench;

Driving lessons in the parking lot of my middle school on Sunday afternoons started when I was about 5 or 6 years old; I learned to drive lots of things at a young age: cars, tractors, motorcycles, golf-carts.
It was just part of going to Pa’s house in the summer;

Pancho and Lefty; Cracker Barrel breakfasts; watermelon seed spitting contests and homemade ice cream;
rolling oranges on the countertop until they were soft and squishy, then shoving straws in the center and sucking all the juice out of them; 

Sunday afternoons at the play ground and then ice cream runs to Caroline’s Dairy stop- my grandfather’s favorite was a pineapple milkshake, and I remember one day he tried my “Nerds” blizzard. He made the most horrific face and complained- something about “breaking your teeth on those things!” 

The memories go on and on. I also remember the day when I got the early morning phone call. At that point everything was still so ambiguous, but I needed to pack a bag to come home. My father arrived at my college in TN at about noon. I was already sitting on the front steps of my residence hall waiting for him when the van pulled up. He sat with me on the steps as he told me about the events of the last 24 hours. His words hit my ears and fell to the ground lifeless. I couldn’t make any sense of what he was saying, “Dad, what are you saying?!” . . . long pause. Tears welled up in his own eyes, “I am so sorry Kristen, but your Pa is going to die today.” Nothing but sobs escaped my lips as I melted into his ready arms. Silent tears dripped continuously from my eyes as we made the five hour journey back to Ohio. My Pa didn’t die that day, but rather held on for three more days as my family camped out in the ICU waiting room. It wasn’t until 2am on Friday morning August 27th, 2004 that we were all gathered around his bed singing Amazing Grace and ushering him into eternity.

Even writing this the tears are flowing and there is so much about that day and the years spent with my Pa that seem just like yesterday. It’s hard to believe it has almost been 10 years since he left us to be with the Lord. I don’t know if the loss felt ever lessens . . . it doesn’t seem that way.

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2. My resignation from Shriners and feeling like I had failed as a nurse. 

3. Rape- All I can say about this is that thankfully, I was drugged, so I only remember glimpses, flashes, bits and pieces. I remember sounds and voices, but see no faces. Physical pain registered, but gracefully all other senses and emotions were deadened.

4. Moving to Cambodia and the year 2012- period- I don’t know how to even begin describing my first year in Cambodia except to say it was the hardest year of my life. God allowed me to be stripped completely of all things that my identity could have been hidden in. I learned dependence on him and him alone in a whole new, painfully beautiful way. I learned that he is my justifier, and he will fight for me. I learned the power of silence- silencing myself before the Lord, and keeping silent in the presence of others too. Even through all the trials that could have made me throw my hands up, and send me packing- a sense that Cambodia is home settled deep in my heart (even long before I met Bibi) and made it possible to persevere.

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5. Doubting the goodness of my own heart and who I am as a person- As I said in a previous post- who I am today (who we all are today) is a result of three things: 1. The words we speak about ourselves; 2. The words others speak about us; 3. The words we speak about others. Part of the reason that 2012/ my first year in Cambodia was so difficult was because of the WORDS others spoke about me. The power of life or death are in the tongue and there were some words from 2012 that produced death in me like: Doubt- I began to doubt the goodness of my heart, my purpose, my gifts, and my relationship with the Holy Spirit. Anxiety- I grew dysfunctionally anxious in situations where I met new people. I felt that I couldn’t be myself because who I was was not good. Fear- I was constantly fearful of how people were perceiving and receiving me, I was walking on eggshells ALL THE TIME with EVERYONE, constantly second guessing myself. A lack of self-confidence loomed over my head like my own personal rain cloud that followed me everywhere. That is a very difficult place to be in. But thankfully the Lord is faithful, and for every wrong word spoken, God brought others alongside me with true authority to speak the right words into my life, truth words.

6. Doubting that I actually hear the voice of the Lord- In John 6:63 Jesus says, “The words I speak to you are spirit and life. . . ” If the words Jesus speaks are truly life, then I cannot think of anything more death-producing in our lives than believing that you cannot hear those words of life- and that is where I was in 2012. I had to relearn that I do hear the Lord’s voice. I had to relearn how to trust the things that I hear him speaking.

7. Getting my heart broken by the first guy I ever fell in love with- I remember his words so clearly resonating in my ears, “One day I am just going to be this little blip on the road map of your life . . . ” he said as he so flippantly dismissed the season of life that we shared together. For me, for years down the road, it was more than that, much more. I have no doubt in my mind that when we parted ways, he kept moving forward without looking back. I was indeed a blip. But for me it took years to get over the heartache I felt and the loss of a dream that seemed like it was becoming such a reality.

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8. The night of my college graduation with Heather and Brandi and the morning after when reality sunk in . . . 

9. Distorted body image and the disordered thinking/eating that followed- When I was in the very thick of this season in life, it didn’t matter what anyone told me- “You’re so skinny.” “You’re beautiful.” “You are this,”  “You are that,”- I believed what I believed. I was never outside a normal weight for my height, but I believed I was unattractive. When I was a size 4, I believed I was beautiful. When I started gaining weight, I no longer believed this. Fitting back into my $300 designer size 4s became my life’s obsession. Looking back on this season now from a place of freedom, I see how distorted my thinking truly was. I was a slave. Living that way was difficult and life-sucking. Breaking free of that thinking was a very long and difficult process; one that was only accomplished through a work of the Holy Spirit renewing my mind. I never want to go back to that place; that place where I believe the lies of Satan over the Truth of God; that place where my outer attributes become a god exalted on the altar of my life instead of the One True God. That sort of idolatry only leads to death.

10. Losing some very important friendships as a result of foolish and immature decisions I made.