Pacesetter - Winter 2010 - Perspectives

Wreckage to restoration:

A nursing student’s journey to new life, new hope
by Susan Knouff, nursing student

I’m the youngest of 4 daughters. When I was 5, we moved into a new house my dad helped build — in the country, right across the field from my grandparents. Our home was surrounded by 20 acres of fields, streams and woods I loved to explore. I rode my bike down the hill behind our house, through the pasture field and back to the woods. I had a vivid imagination and got lost in my land of make believe. I loved being outdoors, playing ball, playing with my dogs or following my dad around as he watered trees or fed our horses.

Our family was close. We were well-disciplined kids with chores and set bedtimes; we ate supper together. Some evenings, Dad would turn on the television to Little House on the Prairie. We went on family vacations to Montana, Colorado, and Utah. My favorite was hiking down into Fable Valley, Utah — a two-hour drive up a mountain and an hour hike down. We stayed there a week, hiking and finding cliff dwellings, pieces of clay pots, arrowheads and even hieroglyphics.

Every day of every summer, my cousin Maggie and I met up on our bikes at Classic Treats, the Dairy Queen of our small town. We would eat and then ride to the pool. Maggie is only 9 months younger, and we’d been inseparable. We spent the night at each other’s home any chance we could. Unlike at our house, she and her siblings were allowed to watch scary movies and stay up late. We each envied the other. Once, we convinced our parents to allow us to switch homes for a week. We both came from the experience with a greater appreciation of our own lives and families.

My family went to church on occasion but not regularly. I was baptized as a baby, and I was
confirmed when I was 12. I remember asking my mom questions about stories in the Bible, but she said she didn’t know, and it was left at that. There were occasions my parents made an effort to get us all to go to church, but eventually we would be back to sleeping in, though both sets of grandparents — Heft and Roll — were churchgoers. Religion was not part of the conversation on the Heft side, but when we stayed with them, we always said prayers with Grandma before bed. Grandmom Roll talked to us about Jesus often. It made my mom uncomfortable, and that discomfort rubbed off on all of us. I found her a little weird — I suppose I correlated weirdness with Jesus since she was the only one I knew who talked about Him. I was raised with Christian values, but I didn’t understand God, Jesus, prayer or religion.

I felt I was living the Brady Bunch life. Then, when I was 15, my uncle Jim, Maggie’s dad, was diagnosed with colon cancer. I quickly snapped out of the fairy-tale world. My mom, a home health nurse, moved in with Jim and his family for the last three months of his life. I started experimenting in risky behaviors — smoking, drinking and drugs. Life was in such a state of chaos that I don’t think my parents had the strength or ability to recognize that I was drifting down the wrong path.

Jim died March 24, 1998 — a week before I turned 16. I ran wild with independence. At the end of April, my sister’s best friend Chris drowned. Two weeks later, my classmate Doug was killed by a train. In January 1999 my dad moved out of the house, leaving just my mom and me. It seemed that in the blink of an eye, I went from exploring my world with awe to a world fallen apart. Later that year, my dad lost his job. He started driving a semi-truck and was gone all through the week and home on weekends. I didn’t see him much at all.

That same year, my mom started having falls, lost part of her vision and struggled to write her own name. She had an MRI and was diagnosed with metastatic brain cancer. I don’t know how long it was before they corrected the diagnosis from cancer to multiple sclerosis. In my mind, she was the next person I would lose, and I was already lost myself. I turned to friends, drugs and alcohol to ignore the mess. Most days when I came home from school, my mom would still be in her pajamas and in bed crying. I stopped coming home after school. Somehow, I managed to graduate from high school in 2000.

I attempted college, but my lifestyle was not conducive to college, and I moved back home with my mom. Thankfully, she forced me to get a job, so I began working at the local bank. At work, I was a seemingly innocent, smiling girl. My coworkers had no idea what my lifestyle was like. I started to wish I could be that “together” girl all the time. I made
multiple attempts to change my lifestyle, but I failed.

Over the years subtle changes happened within me. I got straight A’s at Sinclair Community College; I studied frequently and seldom drank. In time, I began work toward an associate’s in nursing at Edison Community College. I became an STNA in a long-term care facility, and caring for others made me realize the person I wanted to be.

In November 2005, a life-changing event took place at the kitchen table with my Grandma Heft. She looked at me and said, “Susan’s sad.”

I broke down crying. I told her how bad my relationship was with my fiancé. I told her about his drinking and mine. She listened and then she talked to me for the first time about her father, an alcoholic. I broke off my engagement.

The next month, my sister Angie, a Christian, gave me the book How to Find a Man worth Keeping. It was written by a Christian woman. I didn’t want anything to do with religion, but I read it because I liked her writing style, and I figured I could skim over the “churchy stuff.” Looking back, that was when God began softening my heart to Him. I was interested in finding a nice man who would treat me well.

In January 2006, Angie and her husband Eric invited me to church. The sermon that day was about being lost. I listened as the pastor explained how God would go to any length to find just one of his lost sheep. God was speaking directly to me, and I wanted to believe that I was loved by God — by someone. After church, I wanted to know more about God, faith and religion. I found a Christian website that explained that all a person needed to do was open his/her heart to God and invite Him in. They even provided a prayer for anyone wishing to do so right then and there. Tears rolling down my face, I read the prayer out loud and begged God to save me. That day I did find a “man worth keeping.” I finally knew God.

God has healed layer after layer of brokenness within me. In July 2006, as part of my clinical rotation for the nursing program, I acted as a companion at Camp Courageous — a hospice program for kids 5-18 who had suffered the death of a loved one. I was a companion for a 12 year-old girl whose dad had died of cancer. That girl reminded me so much of myself. As I helped her through her grief, God healed the unreconciled grief within me.

Angie once told me, “I’m really proud of you for taking this so seriously.” It was serious. God had saved my life from certain destruction.

I’m now married to my best friend, Joel. He’s one of those people who are inherently good —a Christian who always follows the rules. He knows of my past and thinks no different of me because of it. He taught me that it’s okay to forgive myself; he’s shown me what it means to love unconditionally. There’s no doubt in my mind that we have a marriage arranged by God.

I am grateful for God’s guidance to Kettering College. Through the RN-to-BSN completion program, my passion and zeal for nursing have been restored. The love and caring of the program’s instructors and students has promoted my true transformation into a “wounded healer.”

I think back to the girl before I knew God. I don’t even know her. My faith journey has been relatively short from my perspective, but it’s obvious to me now that God has been with me all along. He was just waiting for me to turn to Him. By the grace of God, I am the person He created me to be.