“Five years ago, I contracted a very rare disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome while 18 weeks pregnant. It left me physically paralyzed for several months. It was a dark scary place and has been some of the toughest years of my life and I will always be in recovery. Every single day is a struggle to function, but through that journey I found painting. I can’t imagine where I’d be without this experience.”
Meet Amber Zakahi—her story is powerful. Her struggle, pain and bravery will speak to you, as will her determination, joy and resilient spirit! Enjoy reading her story and connecting with her on social media. You will be inspired by her insight!
• • •
Amber Zakahi (AZ):
I got married to the love of my life in 2011 and found out two months later that we needed to try to have children right away because I needed to have a partial hysterectomy. Due to my Endometriosis, the doctors couldn’t define if I needed a partial or full until the surgery process and although chances to become pregnant were low for me, we decided to try—and I became pregnant.
Right around 16 weeks I started coming down with a really high fever, soreness in my body and was hospitalized. The medical staff ended up diagnosing me with a mild case of Meningitis and sent me home after having some rounds of medication.
A few weeks went by and it became hard to function. I was not able to walk on my own without assistance and my health began to go downhill from there. I continued to go back to doctors and no one could give us answers. (I was even told that I had hypochondria related to my first pregnancy).
One morning I tried getting out of bed and collapsed to the ground—I lost complete control of my body. We ended up back at the hospital for more testing and I was hospitalized, because I started having difficulty breathing. The doctors couldn’t understand my situation, because my airways were clear, but at that time we also didn’t understand that it was Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Your body essentially attacks your muscles and your nerves, which can include losing function of your lungs. Some people who endure this have to go on life-support.
At that point, I was still not diagnosed and we began to feel abandoned by the healthcare world. I was in excruciating pain and I remember feeling as though I wanted to die. I didn’t know if I was going to be paralyzed forever. I thought, ‘Was I going to be able to ever function again? Was I ever going to be able to hold my baby?’
(Amber and I begin to cry as she continued to share her story with me).
I recall being sent back home and having various people from our church over, to simply help me function—clean, prepare meals, use the bathroom, etc. It was a very humbling time for me. I felt embarrassed because I had to completely be vulnerable and allow everyone do everything for me. I lived this way for several months.
And so I requested a walker from my husband and every day for two weeks, I would stand up on that walker and give everything I could to be able to function again. And slowly, over the next couple of months I began to get better.
During this time, I began researching online and discovered Guillain-Barré syndrome. I shared the information with a neurologist and after his research, he was able to confirm my diagnosis. Research showed that some people ended up living somewhat normal lives with this disease and others didn’t. I had no idea what my future was going to look like.
Be You and Thrive (BY&T):
I can’t imagine the emotional roller-coaster that you endured, Amber. The power of choice and the will inside you to not be limited by your health, is so inspiring. Can you share more insight in regards to moving beyond our individual difficulties and pushing forward?
First, it starts with your mind. You are making a choice to say, ‘Yes!’ or you are making the choice to allow whatever ailment or whatever it is that’s holding you back, to take control of you.
Anything that you want to do, you can do. But you have to get your mind there—whether you believe that you can do it or if you have to blindly trust that you can.
Secondly, having faith was also a big part of my healing. I made a decision to jump blindly, and I really felt God catch me. He carried me when I had no strength and felt anger and bitterness overtaking me. I picture life as a door. Every morning when the door opens—I just keep walking through them. There are still days that I wake up and I don’t want to walk through that door because it feels literally impossible. But I make the decision to and ask God to help me, and then I do—and He does.
After finding out about my diagnosis I had to give birth to my daughter and was induced at 36 weeks, because my entire body began shutting down—my kidneys and liver. It was a very traumatic birth. Four months later I was told I had postpartum Psychosis, which resulted from PTSD and anxiety from the disease as well as giving birth. I became depressed, felt disconnected from life and from to my colic baby and honestly didn’t want to live any more. I feared waking up and being paralyzed again. We also had to make a decision to get pregnant with our second child around this time, if we wanted to have more children, before I was scheduled for surgery again. Very heavy and scary decisions.
But I had this will inside me to fight, and I believe it’s because I grew up in a very broken and unstable home. I was the eldest of five siblings and I took care of them and helped raise them. So I had this strong part that was deep down inside of me from growing up that way. I lived on my own and supported myself from the time I was seventeen until I met my husband at twenty-four.
So powerful! Our difficulties breed strength. And you were able to use your strength gained from your hardship growing up. Will you share with us how you found painting through this journey?
One afternoon my sister Tiffany called and asked if I had heard of Pinterest. She suggested I could get some decorating ideas for my new house and that perhaps it would be a good distraction and help make me feel better. I’ve never really had a desire to decorate, but knew we needed some furniture. We couldn’t afford much due to paying off medical bills, and so this is how I found painting!
I read some blogs on how to paint and started painting furniture that I would go and find for our home. And I started falling in love with it! It became therapy for my body, because I had to move my arms and my legs every day just to get them to work again. And it was also good mentally, as I began bringing life, beauty and character back to forgotten, abused and mistreated vintage and antique furniture.
And now I see the tie between your past and your passion for your work! We don’t realize the beauty that is happening within our lives, until it actually occurs. The pain, the suffering, the things that we may have endured in childhood or even as an adult—there is something remarkable to become of it. There is a story to be made from it!
I love that each piece of furniture has its quirks and character. Not one piece is ever the same. The blemishes and the dings, tell us what makes each piece so special on its own, which is why I enjoy leaving some of those original marks once they’ve been made beautiful again, it tells a story.
I love the heart that you put into your work and the deeper meaning of it all. Amber, Mother’s Day weekend is upon us, and I feel it’s a perfect time to talk about your role as a mother. In a recent social media post you shared, ‘I’ll be the first to tell you that my life is chaos sometimes—well because kids! But you need to stop and just rest. You need to breathe. And that’s what I’m doing right now—remembering to just be.’
The day I gave birth to my children, I signed up to be at the hand of raising someone and putting my priorities aside and my priorities became my children. Oh how I love my children—they’re so sweet and so precious. Motherhood is messy, you’re constantly cleaning, feeding someone, depleted of energy, questioning yourself. Oh man, and guilt—with a fat ‘G’! There isn’t a ‘How to be a mom handbook’ and it can be very hard!
Sometimes, in the middle of chaos, I realize that I just have to sit (or hide in the bathroom). I have to take time to ground myself. Really being there physically and emotionally for my kids is something that I don’t want to lose sight of. It’s how you love through the ups and downs. The dishes, picking up the toys and laundry can wait. When you take time to regroup, and fill up your tank, it’s a great moment to remember what it means to be a mother. Meet your children’s needs and take care of yourself!
And to wrap up our incredible talk today Amber, how has the difficulty that you went through in your life changed your perspective? When we began this interview you mentioned, ‘I can’t imagine where I would be without this experience.’
First of all, my husband and I have become closer than we ever thought possible, having faced this challenge so early in our marriage. I can’t thank him enough for his selflessness in everything he’s done for me during a time that some husbands might have left being given that kind of responsibility—a caretaker. It has changed my perspective on life and how incredibly precious it is. My experience changed my views on the way I see people and the way that I view life in general. Your life can be taken from you at any moment and so everything that you say and everything that you do—it really does matter! It has changed my perspective about my friendships and my family and my priorities. It doesn’t matter if my life looks perfect from the outside. It doesn’t matter what people think about me.
Grieving and supporting others who have gone through extremely hard times. There is a different part of life that I’ve seen. I can now live deeper.
And oh what joy and freedom there is, in intentionally living a deeper life. Thanks for sharing your story with us, Amber. You are amazing!
Amber Zakahi is a Designer, Purveyor, Curator & Finisher Of High End & Quality Vintage & Antique Furniture and Owner at The Teal Cottage. Amber lives right outside of Portland Oregon and is wife to her best friend and mama to Irish twins. Together they are finding peace and contentment in their ordinary life and believe that humor, faith and gratefulness are a wonderful recipe in this ever changing life we live. Amber grew up in a military family and has moved all over the country, lived in and traveled all over Europe which is where she began learning to appreciate furniture and its historical roots. You’ll find Amber juggling motherhood, and her passion, refinishing furniture which also doubles as therapy for her neuromuscular disease as she conquers through the daily challenges that come along with limitations, pain management and pushing herself. Amber has lived a life fighting and surviving through extreme challenges and believes strength, growth and character are built through brokenness and despair if only you choose to allow yourself to be honest, humble, vulnerable and conquer fear.
Powered by Facebook Comments