Expectant. That’s the word that comes to mind when I think of women like Coretta J. Gray; women who approach life with a kind of pragmatic confidence that is grounded in faith and bolstered by a willingness to put in the work and do whatever it takes to get there. Like most of us, Coretta had a specific idea of what “there” would look like, and by every practical measure she had arrived. With an undergraduate degree from Tuskegee University and a law degree from Vanderbilt, she began her career as an attorney with the United States Air Force. By the time she reached her late twenties, she had married the man of her dreams and was thriving both professionally and personally. Life was shaping up just as expected, until it wasn’t.
How do you respond when you do everything right, and somehow it all goes wrong?
What do you do when life mangles your expectations? How do you maintain when every day brings a new set of crippling challenges? These are just a few of the questions that Coretta has confronted over the past few years as she faced the end of her marriage, the onset of a severe diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, and the unplanned career pivot that resulted. Coretta sat down with MsXFactor for a candid conversation on faith, loss, and adapting to her new normal.
“My journey started in 2009. One morning I woke up, and it was just extremely painful to get out of bed,” she said. “When I put my feet on the ground, I had all this stiffness and soreness, particularly in my feet and hands. I couldn’t bend my joints; I couldn’t make a fist. It was just very hard to move.” Shortly thereafter, Coretta saw her physician, and was diagnosed, on-the-spot, with rheumatoid arthritis. “I was taken aback initially,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘wait a minute, I’ve barely told you all my symptoms, and you’re already so sure with this diagnosis?’” A 31-years-old, physically fit, active duty Air Force JAG with no previous health conditions, her defensiveness was warranted. She did not seem like a candidate for such a diagnosis.
“It took a while for me to accept it. I don’t think I started to come to terms with it until I began talking with other people,” she recalls. “As I began meeting people online and hearing their stories, I found that a lot of them were diagnosed after some major negative life circumstance like the loss of a job or death in the family, divorce-that type of thing. It was just anecdotal, but it was a consistent thread in a lot of these stories.” Having just gone through a divorce the previous year, Coretta began to connect the dots between her diagnosis and the recent trauma of loosing her marriage.
“It [divorce] was very painful, and I went through probably a year of depression where I was just existing. It was ‘walk the dog, go to work, come home,’ but I was not Coretta. I wasn’t myself,” she said. “I loved my husband, and I wanted that marriage. I am an overachiever, and my marriage was really the first thing I had failed at. So, even more than the loss of this individual, I felt like I couldn’t hold my head up because I had failed and I didn’t understand how that could have happened.”
We were adults, both college educated, we had lots of family support, we were Christians. I just thought, ‘Why can’t we make this work? This [divorce] should not be happening.’
And then for this [rheumatoid arthritis] diagnosis to show up, I thought, maybe I brought it on myself. ‘Did I waste a year feeling down in the dumps? Did I doom myself to this outcome?’ I was so angry at myself.”
With one issue conflating the other, and no real solution for either, Coretta struggled to move forward. “I was in denial about my diagnosis for a long time, and so initially I wasn’t as aggressive as I should have been when it came to treatment,” she said. “I told myself, ‘you thought your way into this diagnosis, and you can will yourself out of it. I had to accept the fact that eating vegetables and exercising and trying to feel good was not making this thing disappear. I was having trouble getting up and down stairs. I needed help, and so ultimately, I had to come to terms with the fact that this diagnosis is real, and I couldn’t think my way out of it.”
As a person of faith, it can be tough to differentiate between which issues should be managed practically and which should be handled spiritually. Coretta has found a healthy balance between the two. “My faith is strong. I’m all about ‘by his stripes; I am healed,'” she said.
“I know that the Lord knows everything about my body. I have prayed for complete healing, and I still have faith for the manifestation of that, but in the meantime, I’ve learned to be practical about my treatment.”
With her marriage dissolved, and a new diagnosis to contend with, Coretta made another major life change. After 13 years of service, she decided in 2014 to leave the military. “I was very happy with that decision. It made sense for me,” she says. “Thankfully they were offering these wonderful severance packages for people who voluntarily wanted to exit the service at that time.”
She has since moved home to Baton Rouge where she lives with her parents, runs an event planning business, and also works as a stylist and sales person for Stella & Dot. When it comes to managing her rheumatoid arthritis, Coretta takes it one day at a time. “I’m in pain every day. It’s constant discomfort, but at this stage in my journey it’s about managing that discomfort,” she says. “Everyday I wake up, and I have to prioritize my to-do list according to how I’m feeling and what I’m going to have enough energy to put forth for that day.” For an ambitious woman who once wielded full autonomy over her life, it has taken time for Coretta to get used to her new normal, but with extraordinary grace and an exceptional outlook, she embraces all the blessings and lessons she is learning along the way.
“I had so much pride. I didn’t want anyone to know my day-to-day struggles. I didn’t want to have to depend on anyone for anything. I wanted to be able to do it all myself,” she said. Coretta’s parents happily welcomed her home. The have altered their house, their schedules, and their lives to accommodate her needs. “They’ve been great. My mom is an RN by training, and she administers my shots now. I underestimated how good it feels to wake up and be surrounded by people who love me that much, and want to keep me so close and be able to love on me and hug me and help me,” Coretta said. “All of this has made me more humble about accepting help where I need it. If you had told me that at the age of 38-years-old I’d be here, I wouldn’t have believed it, but
some things are outside of my control and I’m learning to be okay with that.
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