Ten Years to Hope

Ten years ago today, I woke up hung over. I had been on a nearly forty day binge of drinking to numb my pain, confusion, shame, and heartbreak. As I sat up out of bed, I audibly heard the voice of God say, “Knock it off.” The fear of the Lord overtook me as I sobered immediately. I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew I’d never be the same.

I realized recently that I hadn’t yet written about this part of my testimony in depth. However, I have been overcome with thanksgiving this month as I have reflected on my ten year journey with the Lord and I know it is time to be released. Our God, the creator of the universe, is the most intimate and intentional person we could ever know or come to love. Jesus Christ changed my life forever and I am delighted to share.

In 2007, Brett and I were still in our first year of marriage. We both had some serious drinking problems and spent six of our first twelve months of marriage apart. In this time, we both got into mischief and our relationship was mostly non-existent. I worked hard to keep up a facade that everything was perfect. He’d signed a contract with the Jets and had moved to New York. I stayed behind in Utah to finish my degree. Brett was out living up the single life with the other rookie players and I was at home wrestling with jealousy, pride, control, anxiety, and much more. By the time I arrived in New York at the end of the summer, our marriage was a mess. I wanted to get into Law School as quickly as possible and needed to prove my worth to the world with my accomplishments, and Brett seemed to be in the way. Within weeks of my move, I was asking for a divorce. Then, I found out we were pregnant with our first child.

I was devastated. I cursed a God I didn’t believe in for giving me a child I didn’t want. I tried to show excitement on the exterior because that was the right thing to do, but on the inside, I felt like my life was over and that this tied me to Brett even further. God, in His Jehovah Sneaky way, began to plant seeds and water those He’d already been placing in my heart. We were connected with a married couples Bible study that was happening for players and their wives and even though I felt what they taught was crazy, I was willing to try something. As August, September, and October went by, I began to get excited about the baby and saw some small specks of hope for our marriage. We talked names and decided if it were a boy, we’d name him Nathan Darrell. (I knew it was a boy in my heart.)

Then, on November 8th, 2007, my whole world was rocked. The baby I had just started falling in love with was gone and so were the tiny bits of hope I had gotten excited about. The doctor told me not to worry, that this is far more common that people think. Problem was, I didn’t know ANYONE who had had a miscarriage like this and I felt completely alone. On the drive home, I clearly heard messages of shame in my mind. My own voice turned on me and told me lies about how it was probably my fault because I didn’t want the baby in the first place. As I started texting my family and friends to let them know I’d lost the baby, shame and fear consumed me. I couldn’t breathe and I certainly couldn’t face it all. As we pulled into our little neighborhood, I told Brett to stop at the liquor store. I purchased all the vodka I could and headed home to drown out the voices that were screaming of my failure.

Back then, I was a functioning drinker. I started the day with a vodka and orange juice (mostly vodka) and could continue through my day sipping to keep a solid buzz until about three or four in the afternoon. Then I would turn it on high and drink until I couldn’t stand straight. Typically, Brett was the only one who would see me this drunk. I was a master of hiding it. I kept a strong mask on for the world, then would fall apart and abuse Brett with my words. I would yell at him if he even dared mention my drinking. I hid a lot from him too, so it took him a while to figure out just how much I was drinking. The real issue was that I couldn’t handle the pain. I had no hope and needed to numb constantly. I drank non-stop every day from November 8th until December 15th, when I sat up out of bed and the Lord said, “Knock it off.”

Sobered and shaken, I started by walking downstairs and dumping every drop of alcohol I had down the drain. I had been learning about God from the other women at the Bible study Brett initially drug me to, but I didn’t know or trust Him. I was afraid He might strike me with a lightning bolt or something, and I didn’t want to risk it. Next, I called a friend from the Bible studies who had told me she had a drinking past. She came over and I outed myself. I told her about my drinking and she prayed with me. The next ten days I spent feeling pretty ill and wondering what was next. Then on Christmas morning, ten days later, I found out I was pregnant again, this time with our daughter, Elle.

I will never forget that morning. First, I had delight and relief. I could get pregnant again! Next, I felt fear of what would happen and what if I did damage to the baby with my drinking? Then the sobering reality hit me like a ton of bricks. God stopped me from drinking and ruining this baby’s life! I had no clue I was pregnant (nor how far along I was yet) and I was drinking myself away, thinking it only affected me. But here I was, carrying the life of another, and God in His incredible mercy intervened and got me to stop drinking! I had no clue what to do with that. At that time, I lived by the law of justice. You get what you deserve and you deserve what you get. You make choices and live with the consequences. I chose to drink heavily and should have had to deal with the consequences of possibly losing another child. Instead, He spoke to me, woke me up, and saved the life of this baby. I didn’t know yet that mercy is getting what you don’t deserve and not getting what you do deserve- but I was fully experiencing it! That day shook every paradigm I lived by at my core. I spent the next couple of months earnestly searching, trying to find this God that was clearly interested in my life.

In early January, we had our first ultrasound and found out the baby was healthy, growing perfectly and that it was due in August. We lived in constant fear of another miscarriage and never spoke of the child we’d lost. We didn’t know how. It felt best to simply move on, but neither Brett’s nor my heart actually could. In February, another couple sponsored us to attend a Christian conference for NFL players and their wives. At that conference, Erwin McManus spoke about a man named Jesus who came to save the lost. This Jesus spent His time with the sinners and rebuked the religious hypocrites of His day. It rocked my world, and my heart shifted. I knew this was the God I wanted to live my life for. So with urgency and excitement, I grabbed Erwin as he finished speaking and told him I wanted to give my life to Jesus! He prayed a prayer with me and encouraged me to get baptized when I got home. I told him I wanted to get baptized now and later that day he water baptized me in the hotel hot tub. I truly felt like a new person!

As my second pregnancy progressed, I found my heart struggling to attach for fear of losing the baby again, but I remained silent about it. In the spring, another wife on the team pulled me aside. In a small whisper she told me she was so sorry for my loss. She told me she knew my pain because she too had suffered a miscarriage before having her children. I thanked her quietly but inside, I raged. I was so angry that she waited so long to say this. I had spent months struggling with the lie that I was the only one who knew this pain. The shame of being the one defect woman in the world that lost a baby was swallowing me up, and here she could have said something, but waited for months.

I realized that day how important it is for us humans to know that someone else can relate to our experience, that we are not the isolated issue, but that someone else can truly empathize with our situation. I decided then that I would speak out loud about our loss.

Shortly after, I went in for the twenty week ultrasound. This is the one you find out the gender and ensure that growth and development is okay. I was nervous. What if they did find a defect of some kind due to my early drinking? Would I ever be able to live with myself? As the tech counted ten perfect fingers and toes, all the organs, and every other perfect little part of my beautiful daughter, my heart was overcome with relief, love, and gratitude. God truly had saved my baby and blessed me with a princess. That night, I had a dream of Elle. In the dream, I was holding her, nursing her, and protecting her. It was the first kiss of unconditional love I’d ever really understood, and I knew I’d never be the same.

That fall, on 8/8/2008, our precious Ellenor Shai was born on Brett’s birthday. It was truly the mark of New Beginnings. I’d given my life to Jesus, our daughter was born healthy and perfect, and our journey of coming to know the Father’s love was well on it’s way. In the years since, God gave us Johnny Brett, resurrected and redeemed our marriage, and took us on a wild adventure of six teams and six years in the NFL. Next, He introduced us to our greatest helper and friend- Holy Spirit, taught us about inner healing, called us to full-time ministry in Nashville, and invited us to have more children. Jesus walked us through two more miscarriages when Timothy Luke and Evelyn Ruth graduated to Heaven (which brought us full circle to actually addressing our loss of Nathan Darrell and healing our hearts fully from these losses) and eventually gave us our sweet rainbow baby, Esther Hope.

As I close, I sit here sobbing with thanksgiving and wonder. Ten years ago, I had no hope. I didn’t even understand what hope could be or mean in my life. Today, I have suffered more loss and endured pain beyond what I thought I could ever handle, yet I am fully alive, awake to the beauty of love and loss, and completely filled with a restored HOPE that I never thought possible. In a decade’s time, Jesus has saved me from myself and filled me with His love. He is my Rock, my Comforter, my Savior, and my Everything. There was a point in 2009 that I was faced with choosing my way or seeking after His (because I still didn’t really know what it was). It was time to make a decision and never turn back. I bought myself a wedding band for my right hand and had “I choose Him” inscribed on the inside. Hands down, seeking Jesus’ presence and His way is the best decision I’ve ever made. The past ten years have changed everything and brought a beauty to my world I never could have imagined. I cannot wait to see what He has in store for the next ten years, because I am truly filled with Hope: the confident expectation of good.

Yes, My Kids Still Like the Baby

Now that Esther is a month old, I have people asking me if our older kids are still doing well with her, or if they still like the baby. I understand the question, but it makes my heart sad. Not only are Elle and Johnny still head-over-heels in love with their baby sister, but their love for her is growing with each day. It’s been a beautiful thing to experience, and all of our hearts are overwhelmed with joy.

When we decided we were done having kids, one of my main reasonings was that I wanted Elle and Johnny to be able to be kids. I feared having more kids significantly later would push Elle into the mother role and I didn’t want that. I wanted her to be a kid with kid responsibilities. Another reasoning was that because we’d lost our first child, Nathan, in a miscarriage in 2007 (nine years ago today, in fact), Brett had the fear of possibly having to go through another loss. Also, he loved the dynamic of our family of four and was afraid of how another baby would upheave that simplicity.

When God started speaking to our hearts about having more children two years ago, one of the biggest points He made to us was that we made the decision to not have more kids partnered with fear, not partnered with Him. I didn’t feel like God was saying I had to have more kids, but rather that He was inviting me to make decision with Him instead of fear of what could happen. In the end, we repented for giving fear space in our decisions and invited God to speak truth and life into our hearts. Jesus reminded me that He is the author of LIFE and He can teach me how to have a family filled with goodness and life for each family member. With that, Brett and I were both filled with an incredible excitement to have more children!

When we told Elle and Johnny that we felt we wanted to have more children and asked what they thought, they were super excited. Elle was six and Johnny was five, but they had some great questions about how it would affect them and our family. We processed each question as they came honestly and sometimes with “I don’t know that yet.” The more we processed it together, the more excited they became and were thrilled to make the announcement once we had conceived our fourth child!

The day we went in for our little Timothy’s routine doctor appointment, Elle and Johnny were with us. They were looking forward to hearing the baby’s heartbeat for the first time, as mom and dad already had, and we were all devastated when there wasn’t one. The kids were confused, we were heartbroken, the whole thing was simply awful. After we left the office, the four of us went to the parking garage and bawled in our minivan, holding each other, and listening to worship music. The kids had questions this time that I couldn’t answer. All I knew to do was to process honestly with them and surrender them to Jesus for the healing their little hearts would need.

Six months later, we had conceived our fifth child, our sweet Evelyn. When it was time for our same appointment, I journaled and asked Jesus whether or not to take the kids. He reminded me He loves them far more than I do, He has them in His hands, and I have nothing to fear for He is still on the throne. So, we asked if they wanted to come, they said yes, and we all headed in declaring life. Sadly, Evelyn had already graduated to Heaven and we went through the exact same horror of the baby having no heartbeat with Elle and Johnny in the room. They had just turned seven and six. It wasn’t fair for their little hearts to endure another heartbreak of this magnitude! I trusted Jesus and now they were hurting and confused all over again. I was angry, hurting, and heartbroken- not only for me but especially for them. I realized quickly that I didn’t know what to do to walk them through it all well and held Jesus to His promises. In an honest prayer, I told Him, “You said you love them more than I do and you have them in Your hand so now it’s Your job to walk them through this. It’s Your job to show me what to do so they don’t end up bitter and distrusting.” Jesus wept with me for weeks and then kindly showed me over time, that declaring the truth that He is Lord over them was actually one of the best parenting moves I’ve made.

As their questions rolled in, I waited on Holy Spirit to give me the answers Elle and Johnny needed. I leaned more on Him in this season than ever before for parenting. I knew I wasn’t equipped to handle this, not to mention I was hurting so deeply myself. All the fears we’d had seemed to be coming true and we didn’t know what to do with that. As a family, we turned to the Prince of Peace for our processing and He was faithful. Elle and Johnny both had encounters with Jesus in their dreams that answered their little heart’s questions and healed their hurts. Holy Spirit showed them their siblings in Heaven and spoke incredible truths to give their minds peace. Elle would get up and paint with Jesus every morning for months and repeatedly see and paint Heaven and our entire family. Johnny would have “knowings” of Heaven that we’d never spoken about. Over time, I watch Jehovah Sneaky working in our family, healing our hearts with gentleness and faithfulness. He never rushed any of us but also never left any of us alone.

Then came the day that Elle and Johnny asked us to try for a baby one more time. I was completely shocked and had no idea how to answer. The two of them pulled us aside, intervention style, and asked me to please try to get pregnant one more time. These poor kids had been through hell and back with us. I couldn’t believe they were suggesting we all go through it again! I tried writing it off that they are just too young, or too naive to understand the ramifications. But I knew that was a lie. The world would tell me they’re just kids and don’t put too much weight on what they ask because it can change in five minutes. But I could sense this was bigger, much bigger. I knew this was a pivotal point in their lives in which they’d either see me shrink back and give up for (completely understandable and valid) fear of more pain OR they’d see me put my trust back in the Lord and allow His love to guide me in my weakness (Heb 10.39).  I knew in my spirit this was something they’d remember forever and I was refilled with a supernatural strength that only a mother can understand.

ratliffweb-51

Brett and I had many conversations, cried many tears, and prayed a LOT. Finally, we gathered our courage and decided to try one more time. We conceived right away, but the battle had just begun. My pregnancies are not easy, but this sixth pregnancy was a whole new level of difficulty. From day one, we endured hardships emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally. Without question, this was my hardest pregnancy and many times I wondered if I’d make it through. We had to call on loved ones to hold us up in prayer when we doubted we could go on. But we made it, she made it, and now we have this beautiful little gift straight from Heaven!

Elle and Johnny have been smitten all along. Even while I was pregnant, they would talk to and pray for the baby in my belly. This isn’t to say the hardship didn’t affect them, it did. While I was in bed day after day, they missed their mommy. We had to work through more waves of grief, confusion, and lots of questions. But Jesus was faithful with each day. By the time Esther was born, the delight in our family was off the charts. Elle and Johnny, like us, have waited for this baby with hope, heartbreak, patience, and long-suffering. I knew they might need some time to adjust to the new norm of having three children, but so far it’s only been delight and enjoyment. I feared they would feel overlooked, but they are overjoyed. Brett worried it would change the dynamics of our family, and it has in the best of ways. Esther arriving has NOT been a difficulty to endure but a long awaited blessing and gift to receive for ALL of us. So yes, my children are still liking having their baby sister. In fact, her arrival and their love for her has helped to heal all our hearts even more. Our family isn’t perfect, but we are abundantly blessed and thankful. We aren’t afraid to face or process hard things, and we don’t sweep issues under the rug, but we also don’t hesitate to genuinely celebrate. This season has been fought for and prayed for and nothing is going to stand in the way of our full immersion in the joy and delight.

img_1637

img_1560

img_1602

img_1627

**Maternity Photos by Michael Wessner Photography.

My Beautiful Scars

IMG_8499

Brett and I celebrated our 10 year anniversary last week on June 2nd. That day, a friend teasingly asked us to share all the wisdom we’ve gained from being married that long. I have been pondering on that question since, and one thing keeps coming up. I have learned to appreciate and embrace the trials of life as things that grow me into a more beautiful version of who God created me to be, rather than see them as a mark of shame that I cannot hide.

I know all personalities are different and many people probably read my statement above and think I’m stating the obvious. But this was a hard lesson for me. If I could go back twelve years and have a chat with my 18 year old self, I would love to let me know I do not need to fear mistakes or pain. When I was 19, I was carrying with loads of heavy pain that I didn’t have tools to deal with. In the midst of a drinking binge, finding out my boyfriend at the time had been cheating on me, and a tough day at school, I decided facing the pain and shame of it all was too much and tried to end my life. Waking up sober in the intensive care unit alive seemed even worse as the shame began to pour in from my small community. I remember reaching out to a God I didn’t know yet for three days and asking Him to let me rewind time. I begged him to let me go back two weeks and make different choices and erase the scarlet letter I’d just embroidered on my own chest- permanently engrained in my skin. I prayed this for three days, but on the third morning, I still woke up in the hospital bed and realized the big guy in the sky wasn’t going to cooperate with my plan to erase my mistake. I decided then that He didn’t exist and I would do it all on my own.

I look back now and see my greatest heart desire was not to learn and grow but to remain perfect, unmarked by life and to show only perfection to the world around me. I was filled with fear of man and controlled by other’s opinions of me. Thankfully, I started seeing a counselor at the time who helped me realize some of this and helped me gather the courage to pursue my dreams of a degree from the University of Utah. That fall, I packed my bags with my tail between my legs and headed back to Salt Lake City for another try. This time, I swore off boys and was determined to graduate with honors and get into law school as quickly as possible. I met Brett the night before our classes started.

When Brett and I were dating, one of our constant arguments was that he wanted to be the never ending class clown and I wanted to portray that we had it all together at all times. I would criticize what he wore, what he said, how he behaved, and it drove him crazy. Obviously, the choices he made to live a secret life are his responsibility, but I look back now and can understand part of what drove him to hide so much from me. Due to my own insecurities, I attempted to control his every move and he was dying for some freedom. This never leads to a healthy marriage. By our first anniversary, I wanted a divorce as he was driving me crazy. By our second anniversary, I had given my life to Christ and He was making some big changes in me. I was slowly morphing more into the version of me that I was created to be. By our third anniversary, Brett was beginning to come under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and shortly thereafter, he confessed to having lived a double life the past few years. He’d been lying to me about almost everything. As he sat in our home, pouring out the truth, walking in the light, and asking me to give Jesus the chance to save our marriage, I kept thinking of the “mark” this was tainting our marriage with. I knew we’d never be the same clean cut, picture perfect, adorable American family I dreamt of us always being. We had a real problem that could end it all if it wasn’t dealt with in truth and in the light. I was heartbroken to say the least.

We spent the next 18 months in intensive counseling with a Spirit filled psychologist who didn’t put up with my control issues. During that time, we began to choose Christ, His ways, and each other. I repented for wanting “perfection” more than the beautiful reality that was in front of me and began to slowly embrace the life I was living. I began to choose Brett as he is rather than trying to make him fit the mold I thought he should be. Our counselor nearly screamed at me one day telling me it wasn’t my job to define a man or who Brett should be as a man. That was Brett and Jesus’ job alone and I’d better get out of the way so they can work it out together. (Wives, this is a powerful truth that has changed my marriage. If you don’t yet know this, learn it and walk it out as soon as possible. I know it is opposite of what our American culture teaches today, but it is truth and life to your husband, marriage, and children.)

Fast forward a few years to 2012. Brett and I had been bouncing all overt the country for his NFL career. We hadn’t spoken publicly about our marriage issues yet but we weren’t keeping them secret either. At a conference at our church, the key speaker called us up to share our testimony then honored us in front of hundreds of people and invited them to “sow into our marriage if they wanted one like ours.” We lost count of the people who came up to honor us and give us money for a late honeymoon over the next couple of days. My heart was wrecked. What I had previously seen as our greatest failure was now being celebrated by complete strangers as a major triumph. You see, that is what a life with Jesus can be. Now matter our failure, our blunder or our mistake- Jesus can work it for good. It doesn’t matter what pain we endure, loss we experience or death we face, Jesus can redeem, restore, and reconcile everything and anything that we give to Him. He has no limit other than the things we choose to withhold from Him.

As a hurting and lost 19 year old girl, I begged Him to erase my mistake of a suicide attempt and never let anyone know about it. His plans were so much greater. He has since removed every drop of shame and filled me with a love and compassion that is from Him for the lost and broken. That scarlet letter I embroidered on my chest so many years ago is now a faded scar that reminds me of His kindness, His superior plan, and His sovereignty over my life and other’s lives. It reminds me I do not need to fear my failures, but look to Him for all my answers. He is a good Father who cares for us far more than we can imagine. No matter how many times we stumble and “mark” ourselves, He is the great physician who comes in to do surgery, make repairs, and renew everything to better than it started. Some might ask, “then why would there still be scars?” Because that is our proof that we’ve been there, done that and come out even better on the other side. I have a scar from birthing both my children via cesarean section. I do not look at that scar with disdain but with pride of knowing I helped birth life through my body. I partook in a beautiful and crazy experience called birth and no one can take that from me. And now, I look back at Brett and my first 10 years of marriage and marvel at the beauty of the scars we bear together. Some are more recent and still healing. Some are faded and only we know they ever existed really. But they are all beautiful. They mark our journey thus far and although I do not wish for more pain or heartache in our future, I no longer fear the mistakes, learning lessons, and journey I know is ahead of us- marks and all.