Carrie, brown hair pulled back wearing a facemask. Asian flower and swirls in blue and orange. Title Font Teach, Reach, and Advocate, Carrie Kellenberger on Life in Asia with Chronic Illness

Teach, Reach, and Advocate: Carrie Kellenberger on Life in Asia with Chronic Illness

Carrie, brown hair pulled back wearing a facemask. Asian flower and swirls in blue and orange. Title Font Teach, Reach, and Advocate, Carrie Kellenberger on Life in Asia with Chronic Illness

Interview with Carrie Kellenberger on Life in Asia with Chronic Illness

Along this path of the last 3-years, working to figure out my life with Fibromyalgia and other chronic conditions, I’ve met some amazing people. Carrie Kellenberger is one friend who I’ve connected with on many levels. The first level was through our shared experience with Fibromyalgia and chronic illness. I have learned how to live more FULLY through her sharing of her own journey. Although I’m her senior in age, she has lived with chronic illness and shared her story for much longer than I have.

As we began to connect more personally, I found out that she is a teacher at heart. She understood my deep sadness at having to retire before I had planned due to developing Fibromyalgia. Also, she is a lover of books. As a 6th grade English teacher, I am well versed in adolescent literature. However, Carrie is my new source of book recommendations in adult reads.

Carrie’s website My Several Worlds is a nod to the famous author, Pearl S. Buck and her namesake novel about her life in China. When Carrie started MSW in 2007, she focused on writing about her life as an expat and her adventures in Taiwan. At 34-years old in 2009, she began writing about her journey with chronic illnesses: fibromyalgia, ME/CFS, and ankylosing spondylitis.

“My illnesses have shaped my worlds and have inspired me to support other patients,” Carrie explains. This past year, after 12 years of being a patient advocate through bringing awareness, resources, and support, Carrie was nominated as a WEGO Health Finalist for Life Time Achievement.

This year has been crazy, but meeting you has been a bright spot. Although you’re on the other side of the world and a good 10+ years younger, I have quickly found a special friendship with you, one of mutual understanding and respect. I’m looking forward to sharing your story with the PFL readers. Thank you for joining us.

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Life in Asia: What brought you to Taipei, Taiwan?

Hi Katie. Thanks so much for featuring me on Pain FULLY Living. 

My journey to Asia is a rather long one that spans close to 18 years. The condensed version is that at age 27, I decided I wanted to travel and see the world before settling down. I quit my job and moved to northeast China to teach English. That was back in 2003, and I really enjoyed my time in China. I moved to Taiwan in 2006 after my husband. At the time, salaries were better in Taiwan and we felt that island life might be a better fit for us. We moved from wintery northeast China to subtropical Taiwan and have never regretted it.

I taught in Taiwan for three years before moving into publishing. Most people are surprised to learn that I still write textbooks and reading comprehension books for middle school and high school students. There is an unusual fact for you that most people don’t know about me.

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You run a business in Taiwan using your teaching background. Tell us what all is involved.

Carrie Kellenberger, wearing a mask, hair pulled back, eyes looking pained, sitting in a full waiting room in a hospital. Life with Chronic Illness
Carrie waits to be seen at Taiwanese Hospital.

READ: The Cost of Chronic Illness

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When I was finishing up college with French and English majors and a teaching degree, I was considering going into the Peace Corp. I’ve always been drawn to learning about other cultures. Your business with Reach to Teach sounds like such a wonderful program. How did that get started?

An opportunity came along with Reach To Teach that placed me at my school in Taiwan. I moved into their Global Director of Recruiting position, and it eventually led to me becoming the new owner of Reach To Teach Recruiting LTD in June 2012.

Today, my official job is President of Reach To Teach Recruiting, which is one of America’s largest ESL placement agencies. We place English teachers at schools all over the world, but most of our positions are in Taiwan, South Korea, and China.

Link to REACH TO TEACH IN TAIWN

Daily

My day to day business with Reach To Teach is pretty busy, and I have to pack it into shortened work hours due to chronic illness. I can get 2-3 hours of work in before I need to lay down. As the owner, I wear a lot of different hats because I’m running our business. I manage our website and Applicant Tracking System. I also liaise with our schools in China and Taiwan, and I have to manage my teachers here in Taiwan, while prepping new teachers to make their move to Taiwan. 

Managing Work and Chronic Illness

Healthwise, it takes a lot out of me. There are days I have to push through and when I hit weekends, I don’t want to see or speak to anyone else. I just want to rest and recover. But I also count myself lucky that I have my own businesses and that I’m still able to work from home and earn money. I know many people in my situation do not have this kind of opportunity.

Healthwise, it takes a lot out of me. There are days I have to push through and when I hit weekends, I don’t want to see or speak to anyone else. I just want to rest and recover. But I also count myself lucky that I have my own businesses and that I’m still able to work from home and earn money. I know many people in my situation do not have this kind of opportunity.

Women of Many Talents

My mornings consist of phone calls to North America to interview teachers. I’m not a huge fan of being on the phone because they trigger cognitive issues and migraines pretty quickly. I try to space my calls out and include frequent breaks so I don’t hit overload. If I have morning calls, I simply don’t answer my phone at all the rest of the day, and especially at night. (Unless my mom is calling. Always answer your mom when she calls.)

The website and our Job Board are the biggest aspects of my business because our website is old. It was coded in 2005, and as we both know, websites have grown immensely since then, so I feel it’s like a house of cards waiting to collapse. (It’s not that bad, but when I compare it to recent sites I’ve built, there is a huge difference.) I’m also responsible for our search engine optimization, which is why Reach To Teach is so highly ranked in Google and other search engines, and I take care of our social media campaigns and newsletters, while managing my staff for Taiwan and China.

Additionally, running my own business for so long and having such a wide skill set has opened many other doors for me, so I get a lot of freelance business from folks in Asia who want a new website or want to know how to integrate a Job Board or a shop into their website. My knowledge of WordPress is pretty extensive, so I’m always happy to take on extra work. I guess that’s one huge benefit to being with WordPress since 2007! 

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Why have you chosen to stay in Taiwan?

It’s hard to say what I love about Taiwan because there are so many things to mention. Today, I’m grateful to this island for keeping me safe and having a proper pandemic response. There is no pandemic here. I adore the people here. I love the food and the blend of cultures, and for such a tiny little island, there is a lot to see and do here. Plus, Taiwan is very modern. There is always something happening here. Taiwan is a very forward-thinking, free and progressive society. It’s exciting to be a part of it. Life seems slow in North America when I go home to visit, although I’m always amazed by the staggering choice and range of products that North Americans have access to. I experience reverse culture shock every time I go home.

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If someone was wanting to visit Taiwan, what advice would you give?

Taroko Gorge in Hualien

READ: 30 Authentic Taiwanese Experiences

For anyone thinking of moving to Taiwan, first off, please feel free to get in touch with me!

Second, be sure to do your research and learn as much as you can. You need to keep an open mind. People here are very kind and understanding, but in my line of work, I often see people show up here and they have very little understanding of cultural differences. 

An example I see over and over again is people coming and saying, “This isn’t how we do this back home.” My reply to that is that they didn’t come here to do things like they do them back home. 

Recently, and especially with COVID-19, I’ve noticed that North American cultures are focused on individuals, while Asian cultures tend to be focused on the group as a whole. That is always a big adjustment for people to get used to.

The point of moving abroad and immersing yourself in a different culture is to learn and grow as a person. You don’t move abroad to do things the same way you’ve always done them at home. You move abroad to learn about different cultures and ways of doing things, and this eventually leads to global citizenship, which is a wider understanding of the world. The individual starts to discover their own place in the world as a world citizen and begins to learn more about valuing diverse cultures.

Every country is different and as global citizens, we need to recognize this and be respectful. If you’re interested in learning about life in Asia or life in Taiwan, please visit My Several Worlds. I have hundreds of travel articles on MSW mixed in with articles about my journey with chronic illness. There’s something for everyone to enjoy on My Several Worlds.

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Tell us about your home life and family growing up. 

Katie, I can’t believe you found this photo! I’m number 15 and played point guard.
My dad is in the beige sweater standing to the right of this photo.
He’s wearing glasses and we were celebrating our first big championship win that year!

My parents are both teachers, so I’m sure you can imagine that I moved into teaching naturally. As a child, I’d help my mom prep her kindergarten classroom with decorations and when I was old enough, I volunteered in her classroom to get some experience before moving to China.

My dad was Head of the PE department at our local high school, so I had the pleasure (and experienced the dismay) of being taught by both parents. My dad coached me in everything – basketball, track and field, downhill racing, skating, gymnastics, badminton, you name it, we did it. (You can see him to the right of the photo above wearing a beige sweater and glasses.)

We grew up thriving on sports, so I was very athletic up until I got sick. Some of the injuries I sustained in high school now make sense. Most people don’t dislocate their shoulder in volleyball or basketball. (I dislocated both shoulders.) I also dislocated my knee coming out of racing blocks in the 100 meter dash at age 21. That was a sign of things to come.

READ: The Lunar New Year and its Impact on Chronically Ill Patients Like Me

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How is it you and your husband met? Being he’s an American and you’re a Canadian, how is it you both chose to stay in Taiwan?

This is the gala event Carrie organized for several years for sick kids at MacKay Memorial Hospital in Taipei before she got too sick to do continue organizing it.

I met my husband in China a year into my teaching contract, and we’ve been together ever since. He is from America, but we met while he was in China for a work internship program. We decided to move to Taiwan together in 2005 and we got married in 2008. I got my diagnosis two months after our wedding ceremony. We had no idea what it meant back then and were really unprepared for what happened and how it progressed so quickly afterwards.

It has been a tough adjustment for both of us. We were able to keep traveling for the first three years after my diagnosis until I got too sick to keep up with it. We are on our own here in Taiwan and like most expats, we do not have family nearby, so he’s my primary means of support and has to handle all the tough stuff that I can’t help him with anymore. He doesn’t talk much about what has happened, so I can’t speak for him or say how this has affected him. All I know is he’s in my corner 100% and he moves heaven and earth to make things easier on me. It has been wonderful to travel the world and see so much of the world (over 35 countries) with my best friend.

READ: LETTING GO WITH CHRONIC ILLNESS DOESN’T MEAN GIVING UP: HOW TO SIMPLIFY LIFE WITH CHRONIC ILLNESS

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Where did you teach?  Why did you go into teaching?  When/Why did you leave? 

I’ve taught informally in Canada. At age 26, I introduced a kinder-beading program into senior kindergarten classes that was a fun activity for five-year-olds. Beading taught them pattern-making and math skills. I’ve taught art classes since I was in my early 20s across many mediums with students of all ages.

I was an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in Changchun China for three years. Then, I taught ESL in Taiwan for three years, and when I moved into publishing, I had to travel to schools to teach teachers how to use our textbooks and ESL magazines. I have continued teaching art classes now, so I’ve never really left teaching behind.

Working with teachers over the past decade and also having taught myself, I see the stress and burnout and lack of self care that happens with teachers. I can tell you plenty about that, but that would require another article. 

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As a teacher who retired due to difficulties with Fibromyalgia, I have felt strongly that the teaching profession needs help to lessen the stress that is innate to the job. I’d love to help educators learn many of the stress management techniques that I have learned since retiring. What have you experienced as far as stress and teaching?

Part of my job with Reach To Teach is prepping teachers for what they are entering into in Taiwan with a teaching position. I’m amazed at how many people think teaching is supposed to be easy. It’s never easy. Not in any capacity. There is a lot of work that goes into planning and presenting your classes, and there’s follow up work and work involved with assisting your students. I’m surprised when teachers expect that there is no take-home work with teaching. 

Having grown up in a teaching household, I can say that my parents brought home plenty of work outside of school. That’s just part and parcel of working in education. 

If anything, teaching is one profession that will really separate the wheat from the chaff. You’ll either do really well with it or you’ll discover it’s not for you. Teaching is a rewarding profession, but it’s also a profession that requires discipline, excellent time management skills, a willingness to take on challenges that come up at the last minute, and a desire to work with your students. It takes time to learn all of this. I’d say that most teachers even out about six months into their new teaching positions, but those first six months are tough because you’re learning as much as your students are. The best teachers are the teachers who learn as much as they are teaching.

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Carrie Kellenberger, smiling and long dark hair, surrounded by young children who are in her REACH TO TEACH program in Taiwan.
Carrie with her students in the
REACH TO TEACH program.

Life in the day of a teacher;)

My last teaching job was a real disaster and it was a very stressful job because the school was not organized and didn’t communicate properly with their teachers. I was teaching in a kindergarten and had 25 five-year-olds in that class. The school had me teaching in the kitchen! 

Teachers would come into my classroom on my lunch to do their cooking classes. It was very disorganized and chaotic. 

One day, a teacher was using my classroom for her cooking class and left her muffins in the industrial oven in my classroom. We came back from PE and everyone got settled at their desks, and then one of my students asked if something was burning. I never clued into the oven being on because who would do that knowing there is a group of 25 five-year-olds coming in at 2pm?

Anyways, the muffins were on fire and the kids were freaking out. I got all the kids out of the classroom, somehow managed to call the secretary and tell her what was going on in Chinese, and then wouldn’t you know it? I didn’t have the strength to get that darn muffin tray out of the oven. At that time, AS had already hit my shoulders and knees hard, so I had no strength to get that tray out. 

So the tray was in flames, the fire department came, and I left the school immediately and said ‘never again’. That school is famously known as ‘The Zoo’ in Taipei and for good reason.

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When did you start to really notice something was off physically? How did it affect your life?

That last classroom incident was in 2008, and that’s when I started noticing a landslide of joint pain everywhere. I had days when I couldn’t lift my arm or days when I couldn’t put weight on my foot or my legs. Some days I’d stand up, and it felt like I was standing on broken glass in bare feet. 

But it came and went, so I put it down to working out, just like my doctors had told me in Canada. My doctors thought I was too young to be experiencing serious pain, so I heard ‘hypochondriac’ a lot in my late teens and 20s. 

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That is so discouraging that doctors don’t take young people seriously when they have complaints. Certainly, having a doctor mention hypochondriac (even if not in those words) just fans the doubt we already have with what is going on in our bodies.


Yes, it does!

Clearly, I’m not a hypochondriac, so my point here with any new patient is to trust your gut and always get a second opinion. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t look sick, or you’re too young or let them dismiss your pain!

By mid-2008, the pain was constant and within six months, the doctors here in Taiwan gave me my axial spondyloarthritis diagnosis. I received my diagnosis two months after my husband and I were married in Mexico.

There was a trail of symptoms leading up to my diagnosis. I suffered close to 15 years before I got an actual name for what I was living with, and I had symptoms in Canada, China, and Taiwan. I was showing more severe symptoms of illness in China between 2003 and 2006, but there was no sudden onset of illness with me until 2008.

READ: My Ankylosing Spondylitis Story

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Wow, what a difficult diagnosis to hear just months after your wedding. It’s amazing that the doctors in Taiwan diagnosed it so quickly after so many had ignored it.

I’m very grateful to my doctors in Taiwan who never dismissed me and took me seriously from the get-go. I still find it strange that I had to get my diagnosis in a foreign country because no one would listen to me in my home country! After my diagnosis, AS hit hard and fast and there was nothing we could do about it. AS is a very progressive and serious disease and it had gone undetected for over a decade.

I received my Fibromyalgia and MECFS diagnoses in December 2014 and that was a whole different level of pain that I was dealing with. 

Since then my health has snowballed into a string of diagnoses, and I seem to be adding something new to my list of things to deal with each year. My most recent diagnosis is Psoriatic Arthritis, which is what I thought I had back in 2009! 

READ: Fibromyalgia-What You Need to Know

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What do you do to manage your pain? 

Everyone handles pain differently. My primary med is a biologic called Enbrel, so that has helped immensely in taking away some of the spinal pain I deal with. I also rely heavily on daily painkillers. That’s just part and parcel of living with AS and fibro. I use many different natural coping techniques to get those feel-good endorphins going, though. 

Having good coping techniques is a huge part of living with pain and it’s an essential part of self-care. 

  • Hot magnesium baths, three times a week is a must. I soak for 30 minutes at a time in a Japanese tub, and I make my own spa mix:
    *1 cup Epsom salts, ¼ cup magnesium chloride flakes, a squirt of almond oil for soft skin and a few drops of my favorite essential oil. (I love jasmine and lavender.)
  • Art is a huge coping technique for me and I spend a few hours each day creating art. I practice floral arranging and indoor gardening. I’m also an Ikebana master. (The art of Japanese floral arranging.) I make jewelry, color, paint, and I’ve taken many photography classes. Basically if it’s art, I’ll happily give it a try.
  • I’m a huge reader, as you know. Losing myself in books is a great distraction technique for me.
  • Blogging and writing is a great form of therapy that I genuinely enjoy. If I’m able to sit up, writing is a joy and I love building on my site and also assisting others with their sites. 
  • My advocacy work involves lots of volunteer work, and I find that giving back to organizations that have helped me, whether it’s by sharing my story or writing content for them, always leaves me feeling good.
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Do you have any advice to others who live with chronic pain?

For anyone who is living with chronic pain, I’ll leave you with these words of wisdom as someone who has suffered from debilitating pain for over a decade. 

Pain changes you, but it makes you stronger and more compassionate. Remember that you’re not alone.  

It’s okay to talk about your pain. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others, whether it’s via a support group or to other patients directly. Knowing that other people are experiencing some of the same things you’re going through makes it easier to get through. 

Never be afraid to use your voice and advocate for yourself. As someone who has been advocating for awareness for 12 years, I’m happy to speak with anyone who wants to chat and I’m always here to lend a listening ear.

READ: Let’s Talk About Pain

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Wow, Carrie! Such amazing adventures you’ve led. Yet, I know we’ve just scratched the surface. I sure appreciate you spending this time with us. I know that many PFL readers will find encouragement in your sharing.

Thanks so much for having me, Katie! You’re an amazing friend and advocate, and I’m so glad that 2020 brought us together.

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Carrie is a phenomenal patient advocate, teacher, and friend. I highly recommend checking out her site for great travel articles, book reviews, and chronic illness information. Oh, and if you’re looking to teach in Asia, contact her through her Reach to Teach program. I sure would do it if I were starting all over again.



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An image of Kelley and I in the woods to the left corner on a pink background. The title in Burgandy font. Abstract heart lines behind the image in the left corner and right corner. A quote by Lao Tzo in Burgandy font under the image.

A Love Story: Stronger Together

The quote in pink text sits within a Burgandy lopsided oval.  This is on a pink square background with heart lines abstractly placed behind the oval.

Waking up this morning with pain, I cried. Pure frustration. My poor husband asks, “What do you want for me to do?” At first, I asked for a massage. When he asked where, I just whimpered, “Never mind.” Reality is, he can’t possibly help. The pain seems to have no spot to massage. It’s just everywhere.

So, I ask for my Yogu myofascial release therapy ball, hot pad, and water, and medicine. That helped me to calm down. Then, he drew me a hot bath with Epsom salts. And, as I soaked, he brought me some tea.

This is love.

Related Reading:

A photo of a young man and woman smiling.  The man, wearing a red baseball cap backwards and blue sweatshirt has his arm around her waist.  She is wearing a blue/green flannel shirt and has short brown hair framing her face.
Our first summer together 1983 in Chelsea, MI at Camp MUCC.

Our Love Story

I met Kelley when I was 19. He was 22. I was the waterfront director at a fairly unusual summer camp for kids. Camp MUCC, Michigan United Conservation Club, which for those of you who might not know, is a hunting club. Being I had never even thought about hunting before, this was an odd place for me to land a job. But I was there for the water. Kelley, on-the-other-hand, having studied Wildlife Management at MSU, was hired as a riflery and hunting instructor.

This was to be my home for the summer before going off to college. I had just left my foster family’s home never to be a dependent again. I knew I was now on my own. Kelley was on his own, too. Everything he owned was in two luggage boxes. This was to be his home before he ventured out to find his “real” job.

The week of training, before the campers arrived, we hit it off right away. And from there, on the weekends, once the campers had left after breakfast on Saturday, we often were the only ones left at camp. We were poor as college-students, but we had food and shelter on a small lake in the quaint town of Chelsea, MI. Life was good.

Related Reading:

A collage of our week trip to northern Michigan and to meet Kelley's family.  Images of our canoe, swimming in the river, our tent... on a pink background with Burgandy hearts behind.
Kelley was from Manton, MI, so he brought me to meet his family before our week’s journey.
His older sister was shocked
when he showed up at her door with a girl!

An Engaging Time

At the end of the summer, before I headed to college and Kelley off to Arizona to try to get a ranger job at any national park, we went on a week-long canoe trip, just us two, down the beautiful Manistee River. It was probably the most wonderful week of my life. At the beginning of the trip, Kelley asked, “What if I asked you to marry me?” I snorted, “I’m too young for marriage.” Nothing more was said about that all week. However, at the end of the week, as Kelley was taking me back home to Grand Rapids, his car broke down near the Cedar Springs exit.

We stayed the night at the campground just off from 131, Kelley covered in grease as he worked on the car to get it going. I remember him looking up from the engine as I stood there talking to him and handing him tools as he requested. And that was when he decided it was the perfect time to ask, “Will you marry me?” I didn’t hesitate, not even recalling what I had said one week earlier, “Yes, I will.”

We were engaged, no ring or anything at that point. We didn’t tell anyone we were for at least half a year. Kelley was leaving for AZ in the coming week, and I would be at UofM, forging a new life. Not sure we knew how things would work out, but I know for sure that we both knew we were going to be together through it.

This was before the Internet and e-mail were a thing in your average person’s life. Kelley and I were poor. I was living off my savings from the $1000 that I had made over the summer, Pell Grants, and student loans. Kel was living with his mom and step-dad (both very supportive of him finding a National Park job) and odd jobs he found in Phoenix. We could not afford long-distance calls, and so we wrote.

Related Reading

An image of a hodge-podge of handwritten letters and cards set in an oval.  Behind that a pink background with abstract heart-shape lines placed at the top left corner and bottom right corner.
I’ve kept all of our correspondence in a binder from that time.
There are over 100 letters, notes, and cards.

Long-distance Love

Kelley was and is a guy who shows his love through what he does and generally doesn’t say lovey-dovey stuff. Surprisingly, when given a pen and paper and no way else for us to connect, he poured everything out. I, too, found that writing allowed me to fully express my thoughts and emotions, much more so than when we were goose-bumped, love-struck-dumb in the presence of each other. (Ah, new love!) And so the letters (long, long letters) flowed.

After six-months apart, Kel did not find a park job and I was really struggling at school, so he decided to drive back to Michigan. The red Pacer he was driving was glued and tied together for the most part. But he was determined to get back to me. He drove straight through on what would be the equivalent of several Monster caffeinated drinks (instead black capsules caffeine). By the time he got to Ann Arbor, his eyes were buggy and bloodshot and his hair a greasy mess. He called me at my dorm, letting me know that his car had conked-out on the highway just outside of town.

Being I didn’t have a car, my good friend, Mindy drove me to get him. She was ever so kind to let this wild-eyed, unsavory looking man in her car. She had really only heard my stories and saw me writing him letters and making him mixed-tapes of love songs, but she really had no idea who he was at this time.

We laugh now (she and her husband have been good friends all these years later) at how she, out of pure love and concern said, “Katie, are you sure you want to marry this guy?” I was sure. I loved that scruffy, red-bearded man, and I knew he loved me.

Related Reading:

An image of young Kelley and me wearing our green Camp MUCC staff shirts on the pink background with abstract Burgandy heart lines.
Our second summer as camp counselors.
These green Camp MUCC shirts lasted long enough to be PJ shirts for our two children!

Together Longer Than Not

It was that February (Groundhog’s day) that we bought my engagement ring and our wedding rings. That next summer, we did one more stint as camp counselors at Camp MUCC and then the next spring, 5/25/1985, we were married, surrounded by our family and friends.

We’ve been married 35 years. Down days like the past few, make me appreciate the love we share. We’ve had so many twists, turns, ups, and downs on this journey together. We’ve grown so much from those homeless babies back when we first met. The life that we’ve built together gives me strength, courage, and purpose.

Image of my family: Kelley on a park bench in the woods is sitting next to me, holding our granddaughter.  My son sitting next to me.  Behind us is my daughter and daughter-in-law.  The background is pink with  abstract heart lines in burgandy.
Being parents of two amazing children, and then, being blessed to bring in our daughter-in-law and granddaughter, makes everything make sense, you know?

We continue to journey together. This year finds us with more twists and turns as I was diagnosed with Fibromuscular Dysplasia, a rare vascular disease that is affecting both of my carotid arteries. Yet, we are ever stronger together, and because of him, I am more courageous than I ever thought I could be.

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I almost didn’t write a post this week. The first two paragraphs were written on Monday. I was too out-of-it and down to write after that. Until today.  The direction of the post took a totally different turn as I thought about how much my guy means to me and just how much he supports me and has from the very beginning. Who in your life do you depend on that gives you the extra strength and courage you need to live FULLY despite pain?



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Red background with a pink and white heart in top right corner; a ragged edged photo of a young woman sitting on the floor watching her one year old daughter play.

Families are Complicated: Using DNA Tests to Discover Your History

Red background with a pink and white heart in top right corner; a ragged edged photo of a young woman sitting on the floor watching her one year old daughter play.

Not Who I Thought

It was the summer of 1976, between my 6th and 7th grade years, that my mom sat me down to tell me about my birth father. Up until that time, I had considered my sister’s dad, my dad. In fact, in school, I was using his last name. My mom and he had been divorced for several years, yet I didn’t know that this was never my legal last name.

One evening, I overheard an argument over the phone between the man I had thought of as a dad and my mom. He was upset that a friend had told him that I was using his last name. He had been teased about the large number of children he had. He already had several children from his first marriage, and he and my mom had only been together for a turbulent three years. My sister was born a year into their marriage. I was young enough never to question my connection to this man. He was our dad. Even after their divorce, we would visit him fairly regularly. I always felt a fondness for this warm, funny, handsome man. It hurt to hear his anger at me being connected to him by his last name.

From that day forward I determined not to use his name. It wasn’t until my senior year (after my mom was hospitalized at a regional mental health facility) that I officially changed my name to the one on my birth certificate: Sherwood. This was my mother’s maiden name. There was not mention of a father.

A 6 month old baby (me) sitting the lap of an older woman (my grandmother).  Background red with two hearts in the top right corner.
This is my grandmother holding me.
I know that we lived with them for at least a year before my mom got her own place.

Family is Complicated

I can still remember the sunny, spring day and the park with the river running along side it. We sat on a bench as my mom shared with me about my birth father and my soon to be born little brother. I was old enough to grasp what I was told and through the years have kept some of the information in my head, but being I didn’t write anything down, I had totally forgotten the name she gave me.

What I remember is how they had met at an Arthur Murray Dance studio. She was 27, working at a high-end fashion store downtown. Malls were not yet a thing. I remember feeling a sense of pride when she said that my father was the architect of the first mall in our area, and that is what he was doing when she met him. He was traveling from his home to the area for work, so I believe he had a temporary residence in the city. She told me that he was fully Irish. Ever since then, I have had an infinity for Ireland. From the way she spoke, I could tell she knew he had a family. So, whether she was fooling herself, naive, or trying to force his hand into marrying her, she didn’t do anything to prevent becoming pregnant.

When she told him that she was pregnant, she said he gave her $1500 and asked that he be left out of it. She must have known then that she was going to go ahead and have me. I’m fortunate that my mother’s parents, while I’m sure devastated that their oldest daughter was pregnant out of wedlock, did support her keeping me, and for that first year, they provided a home and away for her to get back to work. My grandmother and I became very close. She was my guiding light throughout my childhood and into my adult choices.

During that same sit down, my mom confided that she was going to have a baby the coming fall. We (my mom, sister, and I) would be traveling around Michigan for the whole summer. She didn’t explain that she was avoiding family and friends so that they wouldn’t find out about the baby, but I later came to understand that. She also didn’t tell me who the father was, but I knew. There had been a Native American man that she had met through her work at a soup kitchen and had been trying to help get off the streets. He was into drugs (using and selling), and she felt that she could save him. We left for our tour of the state, never to see or hear from him again. At the end of the summer, I’m pretty certain in August, she had the baby, just before I started my 7th grade year; she did let me know she had given birth to a boy. She gave him up for adoption and went on as if nothing had happened, none of our family or friends being aware.

Related Readings:

Red background with white and pink hearts to the top right corner and the black quote text in a white jagged edged shape
I felt that I knew my heritage by fully identifying with my mother’s side of the family.i m piaiipi

Something is Missing

It wasn’t until I had my own two children that I even thought of my birth father and brother. Being I knew the hospital my mom delivered our brother, I did go there once asking if I could talk to someone about birth records. It was a feeble attempt as no one contacted me, and I didn’t push any further. As far as my birth father was concerned, I did remember enough information to actually do any type of search.

I will say that I didn’t have any type of noticeable longing to know about either of my lost family. I have heard how some feel like a part of themselves is missing. That never registered for me. Physically, I look a lot like my mom and even her mom. Also, I had some elements of my maternal grandfather that made me unique. He had completely white hair by age 17, and I had a big blotch of white hair that developed in 4th grade. It was a stark difference from my dark brown hair. For me, and the fact that I was so close to my maternal grandmother and that whole side of the family, I really didn’t feel like anything was missing.

Red back ground with white and pink hearts to the top right corner and in a jagged edged image, a photo of the 23andMe testing kit box.
23andMe testing kit sent directly to your home.

Medical History, Mystery

That feeling changed when my husband had a heart attack at the age of 50. The doctors were surprised by his numbers: cholesterol (better than average) and his blood pressure (excellent). He was running marathons up until then and had never smoked. He did lean a bit heavy on eating cheese, cookies, and tacos, but overall he was not a candidate for a heart attack-except for his family history. His sister had a heart attack at age 40. His dad had had a few heart attacks (culminating at a quadruple-bypass in his later years). His paternal grandfather died of a sudden heart attack as he worked on his land. His maternal uncle’s had heart attacks. The doctor’s told him that he had a slight defect in his arteries leading to the heart that made him susceptible to heart problems. This was also found in both of his sisters. The doctor said to make sure that our children put this into their own medical reporting for future monitoring.

This made me think how little I knew of my own family’s medical history. I did try to collect as much as I could about my mom’s side of the family, but when it came to my dad’s side, I had to say I had no idea. It felt that this legacy of not knowing my birth father impacted not just me, but now my own children and grandchildren.

Related Readings:

Yesterday afternoon, I went down a rabbit hole watching several stories like this that are about connecting estranged family through the use of DNA testing.
You may want a box of Kleenex if you do the same:)

Efficacy of DNA Testing Kits

In recent years, DNA Testing Companies have become pretty popular. I remember watching those PBS shows about people finding their ancestors (especially, famous ones). In an article in Medical Daily the writer points out, “Genealogy tracking has become big business, with many companies charging up to $300 to trace your DNA to specific historical figures or ethnic groups in the distant past by analyzing ancestry tests.” The article goes on to say that if you’re looking to find relatives from long ago, these tests really aren’t of any help.

However, they do seem to work if you’re looking for someone that is closely related like a parent, sibling, aunt, or cousin. I know this because after receiving my DNA results from 23andMe.com just before Christmas, I found my half-sister and through her the name of my father. About a month later, I had the same results from ancestry.com.

Related Reading:

A clip of the message that was sent in reply by my half-sister: Hi Katie again...sure sound like my Dad. Please call me.  (Names and # is blacked out).  Red background with two hearts angled in the top right corner.
Reply to my initial message in the 23andMe online website to a possible relative.

Filling in the Holes

My story is similar to many of the ones I viewed on YouTube. After spitting into a tube, sending in the prepaid package, and then receiving my online results, I sent a message to the woman who by the percentage of DNA could be my aunt or half-sister. Being she was born 24 years before me, I assumed that she would be my aunt. I sent a message via the 23andMe online program to this possible relative: “This is a long-shot..,” I started out, going on to explain the few details I knew about my father.

Two days later, I received a message that shocked me and made my heart leap: “That sounds like my Dad. Call me…”

We spoke that night and while some of the details I had were slightly off, she could verify that her dad was indeed mine. She was his first child. We are still in contact and hope to talk again soon to share more about our lives and get to know each other better. Her full siblings (my half) aren’t open to connecting with me, which I understand. I’m not looking to develop a new family branch at the age of 56. However, knowing my background through this connection and the information I’ve found via the family tree search tool on ancestry.com, I feel like I’ve filled something in me that I didn’t know was empty.

I’m still hoping that I will find my half-brother. He’d be about 44 years old, and being he was adopted, I wonder if he’ll try one of these DNA tests. This is why I went on to two different sites, hoping to improve our chances of connecting.

Red background with pink and white hearts in the top right corner.  In the center is a jagged edged image of a ancestry.com family tree with green leaf icon "hint's.
This is what a family tree on ancestry.com might look like.
The green leaf off from a person’s label means there are hints as to their history.
I found this very helpful and addictive.
In my Clark/Sherwood tree, I have over 7,000 hints yet to open check out.

Developing a Family Genealogy and Medical Health History

Through my connection with my half-sister, I’m now getting some information about family health from that side of the family. Also, I did pay for the medical DNA reports through 23andMe as well. I had two noted issues to watch out for: Celiac Disease (which I found out AFTER I had good results going gluten-free) and Type 2 Diabetes.

Through Ancestry.com, I have spent hours and hours following the clues to develop a very complete family tree in several directions. I’ve always loved the thought of history, especially when it comes to family, so I have become the keeper of photos and information for my husband’s dad and mom and my grandmother. This means I had a lot of information already that helped to develop the tree. Through the unique clues option in the program, I have also been able to trace my father’s side of the family all the way back to Ireland.

However, what I’m especially excited to work on is found in 23andMe’s online tools. There is a place to collect my family medical health information in a tree format and then print out in an easy to use format to share with my children and doctors.

It has surprised me just how impacting this experience has been. I truly never thought I’d ever know this information, nor did I think I needed to. But, now that I do, I feel just a bit more complete and if I dare say, more valid. It’s hard to explain.

How aware are you about your heritage? Do you know much about your family medical history? Have you any experience with the DNA testing? I find these stories so fascinating!


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