Nothing struck her as wrong, not until she was around 6 years old and wore shorts to a local Walmart. Another young girl, a stranger, asked:
What’s wrong with you?
Betsy Bolick’s mother, a nurse, took her home and sat her down to explain — not what was wrong, but what had happened. Bolick had been born with sacral agenesis, a rare congenital spinal disorder. She was missing three parts of her lower spine, which left her feet paralyzed, her legs without calf muscles and her bladder uncontrollable.
As time passed, she underwent numerous surgeries. She wore diapers until she was 13. And she endured great pain — pain caused by her body, and the pain of feeling different, abnormal, somehow wrong.
A word darkened over her life, forming a seemingly permanent label: disabled.
For so long, too long, she heard people’s comments. And she believed them.
However, she also grew up in the small town of Boone, N.C., with good friends and a loving family, including a fraternal twin sister. Together, they instilled a strong Christian faith in her.
Bolick accepted Christ at 13. But even after, she struggled with creation, with the idea that God created her, that he molded her body. Because how could a perfect God make such an awful mistake?
Stuck in a box
When she was 13, a boy in class asked why she smelled like diapers, why when she walked by he could hear a diaper’s distinct swish-swoosh sound.
She went to bed that night to sob. And to pray. The next morning, she woke to a dry diaper. And a new ability, on most days, to control her bladder.
She accepted Christ that year. “The Lord knew how desperately I’d need him,” she said.
Because the rest continued. There was a guy who, around prom time, said, “I’d never go out with a deformed little girl.” And the constant comments like, “You’re short!” Or, “Are you a midget?”
“I felt like it was putting me in a box, defining me, like I’m just a short little girl,” she recalled.
Bolick credits the nurture of good friends and supportive family for showing she was more than that. They encouraged her to be a cheerleader, to go sledding, to be active in their Baptist church, to live her life as simply Betsy Bolick.
“They didn’t see sacral agenesis,” Bolick said.
Her twin sister, Brittany, was a talented athlete who became a teacher and coach. Her older sister, Blair, was a bulldogged protector. Older brother Ben showed how Scripture could answer her questions. And provide answers.
None of them let her wallow.
“It’s a pity party of one,” her mom would say.
But it wasn’t enough.
“I was loved,” Bolick recalled. “I just couldn’t see it. People would say, ‘You’ve overcome!’ But inside, I was dying.”
Then came senior year, that cusp of freedom and new adventures. Bolick was finishing a three-year series of surgeries to insert calf implants.
She was at a basketball game when one leg ripped open, blood flowing, the implant pushing out from an incision at the bend behind her knee. She was rushed to the emergency room. The ordeal left her with emotional and physical scars — and a new dent in one leg.
“My journey to look normal didn’t work,” she said.
After, she sat one day looking at all the things she saw wrong with herself. She called herself all of those names other people had called her. She prayed angrily, threatening: “If you don’t call me home, I will.” Looking back, she doubts she meant it. But it reflected the depth of her pain.
“It was a cry for help from a broken little girl,” she said.
Then the song “Beautiful” came on, and she opened her Bible to a passage about Jesus, through whose “stripes we are healed.” She looked at the stripes of her own scars, inside and out.
Something struck her. God had big plans, big work to do, a big message of hope to spread through her suffering.
“This is why!” she realized.
Now 26, Bolick has long dark hair, hazel eyes and a stunning smile that greets people warmly in the president’s dining room at Charleston Southern University.
When asked about her favorite Scripture, she pulls out a pocket Bible, its leather cover worn, its pages adorned with every color of highlighter.
She arrived at the Christian school in August after praying for an adventure. She got a call from Jon Davis, CSU’s campus pastor. Would she consider applying for the school’s director of women’s ministry post?
Davis had met Bolick through her twin sister, who had been a star soccer player and leader at CSU. Bolick had shared her story on campus before. Davis had seen her captivate a crowd of college students with her vision of how God works through people’s brokenness, including her own.
“A great speaker can move someone to applause. But a phenomenal speaker moves someone to tears,” Davis said. “That’s what she did.”
By then, Bolick had left the security of her small hometown to earn a women’s ministry degree at Liberty University and then a master’s in church leadership and ethics from John Brown University.
Then CSU leaders offered her their women’s ministry post.
Today, she works directly with Davis, organizing campus worship and missions, hosting Bible studies and mentoring students. Many are young women struggling with the demands of school, peers, dating and their own expectations.
“They often have no idea who they are,” Bolick said. Some feel alone, overwhelmed by their shortcomings or problems. Some are hurt over breakups, others by a lack of relationships.
Bolick can relate. She, too, wants to marry and have children. She knows their loneliness.
“Let me tell you what God is going to do through your brokenness,” she tells them.
And they listen, Davis said.
“She’s showing them that you are defined by how much God is using you compared to how much you use God,” Davis said. “She has had more impact on the study body as an employee than anybody else in my tenure here. She draws a following because she refuses to be defined by what people see,” he said.
He knows it isn’t easy. He’s seen her feet bleed. He’s watched her struggle up the stairs. He’s seen people stare.
Indeed, she still struggles. Many
days, her feet hurt. She’s often in pain. She still urinates on herself without warning.
And she still wallows at times. But then she transforms her thoughts to feel God working through her, working through her brokenness and imperfections.
“It’s a daily decision for me to choose joy,” she said. “This is who I am. I can’t change it, and I wouldn’t change it. I’ve seen the good outweigh the struggles.”
Now, she looks forward. Bolick wants to pursue a doctorate. And she’s building an already busy speaking schedule that takes her around the country to share her message, to show that she is more than a label or the pain and that God didn’t make any mistakes in creating her.
— This story was originally published by the Charleston Post & Courier and is reprinted with permission.