ME has left me unable to leave my house for the past 12 years, says Ballymoney woman Joanne Peden
Ballymoney woman Joanne Peden (36) had just graduated from university when illness struck. But she is still using her talents to help others and says her deep faith sustains her. Here, in her own words, she tells her remarkable story to Judith Cole
I was a really healthy girl, full of life and energy and passion. I loved to run and swim. I was extremely active in church and hadn't long completed my theology degree. I had great plans.
My dreams for the future that I held dear in my heart were to go into the mission organisation Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) as a full-time worker. I adore children and wanted to serve my Lord in that way. I also had every young lady's dream of marrying and having my own children.
But my body started to get ill and none of these things has come to pass.
I was diagnosed with severe ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) 12 years ago as a young girl in my 20s fresh out of Queen's University.
ME is a disease of the brain and of the immune system. It affects every system in the body leaving a sufferer with no energy, immense weakness, pain, constant exhaustion, flu-like symptoms, dizziness, palpitations... the list goes on. I used to have spells in between the totally bedbound ones where I could get out once a week. If I rested in bed all week I could make it to a church service, but I've been totally bedridden for almost four years now.
I didn't know what was happening to me at first and it took doctors a long time to pinpoint what disease I had. For the most part of 12 years I've been bed and housebound, and for the past four years I've been bedridden and dependent on care.
At first, I grieved sore. I thought, 'What can I possibly accomplish in this broken body?'. My dreams started to die until I realised I was only limited if I gave up. I had to find new ways to reach out and encourage others and make others' lives better. I started writing a lot of letters and encouragement cards and sending gifts to other sick people.
Then, in 2010, I wrote my first book, A Myrtle Tree For Life's Briars, to bring encouragement to others. Seeing it published was a dream come true. I shared in it my experiences with suffering, God in the midst of it and my journal entries. I wanted through it to bring hope to the hurting, both saved and unsaved, who were also suffering and I desired that many would find my Saviour through it.
Through sales of the book, I raised £3,500 for an orphanage in Romania, Deborah House. I got really good feedback on the book and I'm really thankful that it helped so many people.
After that, I became determined to contribute even more and I found an organisation called Beauty For Ashes that rescues young girls who have been sold into prostitution. From my bed I sold the jewellery that they produce and raised £1,000.
Then, in 2014, I read about the Little Princess Trust, a charity that provides real hair wigs to children who have lost their hair due to the effects of cancer treatment and other illnesses. I was determined to do something for these children to make their lives brighter, so I had my pride and joy, my beloved hair, chopped off and raised £1,500.
In the years that followed, my body was deteriorating more and I was in and out of hospital constantly, but I had a dream to write another book from my bed to bring encouragement and daily strength to others. I saw that vision come to pass last week and I now hold in my hands Jewels of Jabbok, a devotional and poetry book.
The title comes from the Bible, in Genesis chapter 32, where Jacob wrestles with God near the river Jabbok. His struggle gave way to great blessing in that God gave him a new name. The river Jabbok is now called Zerka, which means jewel. I gave my book this title because there are jewels of blessing in the Lord to be found even in the midst of hard trials as He blesses us with His comfort, strength, love and more of Himself.
I have dedicated the book to my grandfather and written a special poem in his memory (he passed away in 2011). My Granda Hunter meant the world to me. He encouraged me in everything I did to be the best I could be in whatever I set my heart on. He encouraged me in my faith too. We spent a great deal of time together and when I was a child he would take me to feed the swans, then to the park and for ice cream. As I grew older, I wanted to spend any time I had with him, just drinking tea and talking, and I always left his presence feeling so encouraged. I would even practise the solos on him I used to sing in church! He loved to hear me sing and loved reading the Scriptures with me.
I have one younger brother, David, and I have the happiest of childhood memories of playing outdoors with him.
We adored all the times we spent with both sets of grandparents. Our father's parents had a farm and we loved going for rides in the tractor with Granda Tommie and spending time with our granny.
And Granny Hunter liked to spoil us and give us too many sweets! We had brilliant times at their house playing with our cousins.
Since I became ill, life has been very different. I am exhausted throughout the day and spend until lunchtime asleep. Mum is my carer and has been a great support to me and always makes me laugh.
She and I spend time watching films together. She's just an amazing person and great company for me.
My father and brother work full-time together in their own joinery business, so that keeps them pretty busy.
I also spend time reading and writing daily devotions for my Facebook page, writing letters to people, doing some cross stitch, and reading my Bible and praying. By the evening I'm no longer alert and just listen to church services online the rest of the evening.
It's been extremely difficult for my family to see me so ill. People forget that the carers also suffer along with the person. It's been a hard road for them, especially since there is no cure for ME.
But my mother, father and brother have been more than good to me and I wouldn't get through this without them.
People question why God allows suffering in the world, and I've addressed this in my book. In the Garden of Eden, He gave man freewill. He doesn't force us to love Him like puppets on a string. Adam and Eve chose sin over God's perfect beauty. They wilfully chose to go against God and the aftermath of their choice brought with it sorrow, sickness, suffering and pain. But God in His perfect love made a way to free us from sin's chains by sending the Lord Jesus Christ to die on a cruel cross.
I accepted the Lord's gift of salvation when I gave Him my life when I was six in a Good News Club meeting.
Throughout all my illness I've never asked 'why me?'. I have wondered, 'Will I always suffer? Will I get better? Will I get a chance to really live again?', but in times of great discouragement I lie here in bed and start to sing praises to God and the discouragement lifts.
I know that my Saviour is totally good, faithful and true. Indeed, it is the Lord's comfort and presence that keeps me looking forward.
I know that not everyone receives their healing this side of heaven, but as long as I have breath I'll never stop praying that some day I'll be full of life and energy like I once was.
I don't know if this will come through a breakthrough in medical research where a drug will be discovered, or as a direct healing touch from God, but I can't ever let myself lose the hope that one day my body will be free, for that's what keeps me going.
In the meantime, I hope my new book will also bring hope, encouragement and blessing to all who read it.
I want it to build Christians up in their faith, to motivate Christians to reach out to the lost while they are still able-bodied and also I pray that many a hurting soul will find my beloved Saviour through the pages of the book.
Through sales of my own copies of the book, I'm raising money for Helping Hands Healing Hearts Ministries in the Philippines, which is a relief mission for orphans. My goal is to raise £4,000 to £5,000. It's my faith in God and my determination that "if I can stop one heart from breaking I shall not live in vain" that keeps me going. I also run a support group on Facebook called Beautifully Broken Women of God, given that name because my friend and I, who run it, are both very ill. But we aim to make other people's lives much brighter through our daily posts.
I'm also working on book number three. I always loved to write, but when I was healthy I was always so busy with so many different church and CEF activities that I was never sitting down long enough to write. I'm determined from my bed and weak state to make my life count. I have ME - but it doesn't have me!
Jewels of Jabbok is published by Ambassador International, priced £10. The entire proceeds from Joanne's copies (excluding postage) go towards Helping Hands Healing Hearts Ministries in the Philippines. To order from Joanne by post (£11.36 including postage) you can send a cheque: email her at firstname.lastname@example.org for details. If you have a Paypal account you can order via Paypal: type 'Joanne Peden' and her email address. Or you can buy via Amazon.co.uk