IMPACT – Jennie Lillis

**Jennie has been participating in IM ABLE Foundation’s adaptive fitness program since autumn, 2018. She reluctantly agreed to share her story. What follows is her unedited, uninterrupted response to one question: “What brought you to IM ABLE?” 

Warning: this story contains graphic content that some may find disturbing. 

I had a stroke on March 10th, 2014.

I get the question a lot: why did you have your stroke. I know why. I did it. Really bad habits, I was a functioning raging alcoholic, a functioning drug addict. My childhood was traumatizing, tragic, difficult. Challenging. My biological mother committed armed robbery and was sentenced to jail. I was put in foster care. My first memories of childhood were of abuse. You name any kind of abuse, I had it. I was in foster homes until 16 and said to hell with you all. I was a drug dealer, still going to high school. I never graduated, but did get my GED in May of 1988. I quit school and became a major drug dealer. And then I had my son. He was born disabled because my boyfriend beat me up when I was 2 ½ months pregnant. I almost lost him then. I got tipped off that the police were going to raid my house and we cleaned that house out. They ripped that place apart and couldn’t even find a seed. At that point, I realized I didn’t want to become my mother. I went legit. I was trained to be a sous chef. That’s my passion, cooking. Well that, reading, and my dog, Snickers. She passed this past May.

My life has always been a battle and there’s nothing I can do about that. I keep moving forward.

The way I was raised, I am not mother material. I still to this day apologize to my kids. You can’t pick and choose your family. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. They both turned out awesome and tell me all the time to stop being so hard on myself. They were taught values, they were taught morals, they were taught respect. They were taught all the things I wasn’t. At the age of nine, I knew my life was f***ed and I remember thinking that my kids will not know this. Someone has to break the chain. I broke the chain. I didn’t want them to live my life and they haven’t. I gave them everything I had and it’s not money, it’s love. We never had much money anyway, but they know they are loved.

It’s true, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. There were points where I was yelling at God, “how strong do you think I am??”

I got married to Sean. He asked me, “do you want a life, or do you want a dusty dream?” and I quit drugs. Just like that.  I didn’t want to get married, but he had cancer and he said he’d only get chemo if we got married. We were together for 7 years, married for 4. He died on June 3, 2000. He was only 27. I was the one who found him and I went into shock and don’t remember anything until the next year. I was there, but I wasn’t there. I went into survival mode. I originally didn’t want to get married but I reveled in it. I had a family. When I lost him, I said f**k it. I started using drugs hard. I was drinking a fifth of vodka a day. But I was functioning. Every day, I’d get up and go to work. But it was no life.

When I had my stroke, everything came out in the open. I’ve been sober since but I tried to commit suicide at one point. I didn’t want to do it anymore. Death is easy. For me, living was hard. I lived obviously. They 302’d me. That brought everything to the table. At first, I was in denial but over the 4 weeks, I began to admit it. The first step was admitting, yes. From that point on, you can start to heal, start to change, start to fix. My son was the one who said to me, ‘I need you.’ And that hit. With his disability, I don’t think he’ll ever be able to live independently. I used to push him, and after my stroke, I was in a worse point than him. So how could I not walk the walk. Now we’re a team. I’m so blessed. My kids are my everything. I don’t know what I did to raise such beautiful people.

My life was s**t. But I realized I had to endure. I still have my kids and they need me. I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD and that stuff never goes away. I still struggle to get dressed sometimes, even that’s hard.

For the most part, as long as I take my meds, I’m leveled. I go to therapy every week. My week starts out with that and then I come here three days a week. It takes me two hours to get here [to IM ABLE] on the bus, I’m here for an hour and a half, then two hours to get back home.

When I first started with Jo [IM ABLE’s Adaptive Fitness Trainer], I had to wrap my hand with an ace bandage to be able to hold on to the row machine. Now, a year later, I can do it on my own. It still slips out of my hands every once in a while, but quitters never win, winners never quit. I keep at it.

I gotta say, I owe Chris [Kaag, IM ABLE Founder and Executive Director] my life. When I first came in here, I saw him in his chair, read the articles about him. When you come in here, you can’t say no. you can’t look at him and tell him no. I’m on a fixed income and couldn’t afford to come.  I quit smoking cigarettes because I couldn’t afford the pack, pack and a half a day and the gym. I’d rather pay to come here because coming here, every time I see Chris, he’s my inspiration. He’s saving my life. This is a second chance at life for me. I’m more determined now.

The man’s in a wheelchair and he still loves life. He’s there. I remember he pulled up on his motorcycle with Riley in the sidecar and I was like, “this guy is off the chain.”

When I’m working out with Jo, I’m watching her work out and I’m like damn, I want to be able to do that. I can’t now, but I will. It gives me goals. Jo knows my goals and is helping me adapt workouts so I can achieve them. I have a three month goal, a six month goal, a one year goal. I’ve never kayaked in my life, but I want to. It’s something I know I would enjoy with my leg. I‘ve made more progress in one year than I did in 5 years of physical therapy. I visibly see the improvement. It gives me the drive to do more. And I feel it, I was cleaning last night and I could feel the muscles. I love the feeling that I’ve accomplished something. At one point, when I was in a good foster home, I was an athlete. I was part of team and I liked that time. Being here, being this happy, it reminds me of that time.

I’m working on me, for me. For the first time in my life, I’m doing it for myself. Not for anyone else, but for me. I have to find my happiness in me. A lot of times, I feel broken. But broken crayons still color.

When I lost my dog, it was a trigger for me. Snickers was a West Highland Terrier. She was only 9 and it went so fast. She used to get me out of the house; she loved to walk.

It’s salvation. By watching them, it gives me the drive. There’s people here who have opened up to me and tell me that they get it, that they’ve been through it too. For the first time I’m finding me.

Honestly, I’m scared for when this comes out. Yeah, I’ve had a shi**ty life. But I don’t want anyone to pity me. Look out there, he’s working out and he’s missing both his legs. He doesn’t want pity. I feel in the depth of my soul, not just my heart but my soul, that I can do this.

Being here, everything’s possible. There’s so much possibility here. The logo, the I, the M. To me, it’s I’m possible. This is part of my soul. I don’t want to say it’s my reason to go on, but it kind of is. All I have to do is just get here. Then I’m here and I’m like ‘ok, you’re here now, bi**h, do something.’ It gives me that drive to do something. No excuses, just keep moving. There’s not a day that I’m here that I’m not inspired by someone. I want to be here 5 days a week if I can. I have my monthly bus pass so I’m good. Being here by myself, I feel more pain. I seem to do better when I’m solo because I’m doing it for me.

If this can help just one person, it was all worth it. I don’t think I’ve ever told Chris how much he’s meant to me. I’m so grateful to each and everyone here. Every morning, I start out by lighting a candle and thinking about all the people who I’m grateful for. Chris allowing me to come here whenever I want, it gives me purpose. I’m so grateful for this place, for these people, for Chris. I’m finding my purpose and this has helped me.

My story is not over yet. If I can save one person to avoid falling into that trap, to inspire someone to change, it’s all worth it.

Our generous donors and volunteers made this possible and we can’t thank them enough.