When the Final Exams Are The Least Of Your Worries…

By Esther Karpets

A case of complex PTSD, an unexpected pregnancy and a chronically ill husband are not the average worries of an undergrad student. But for Joanna Gregg-Phillips, these challenges are as real as her final exams.

Joanna first arrived at Wheaton College as a sophomore student in the fall of 2013. She transferred from a community college branch of Arkansas State, where her family lived on a 2,000-acre cattle farm. The local town had a population of 250 people and 8 of them were Joanna’s siblings. Growing up in a large family, Joanna was the second to youngest, with most of her siblings already having families of their own.

Going off to college wasn’t easy for Joanna. The cultural norms and academic expectations were things she felt unprepared for by her family upbringing. To begin with, Joanna describes her experience as astounding—a realization that something went terribly wrong.

Fear and Abuse

When her parents first moved to Arkansas, they got involved in a church that was cult-like in the technical sense of the word. The community was led by a charismatic, poorly educated, fundamentalist farmer, and its members were involved in certain hate groups that shaped their traditional beliefs and their religious practices. Joanna saw women in this society treated as lesser than men, filled with fear and even abused.

The most impactful childhood memory that Joanna remembers was at the age of 14 when her mother was forcibly hospitalized after going haywire from a mental illness. Even though she went a long time without medication and a proper diagnosis, Joanna believes her mother suffered from schizophrenia and/or bipolar disorder. After this specific event Joanna realized: “If I wanted to make something of my life, I was going to have to work my ass off to get there.”

It was Joanna’s inquisitive personality and extroverted character that pushed her to step out of her community and apply to Wheaton. These traits that set her apart from her siblings, however, were also the ones that got her into trouble. Joanna felt that her mother isolated her from the other children, dealing with her more harshly as she saw her as  “rebellious.” During the worst years of her mother’s illness, Joanna experienced psychological and emotional abuse that lead to a complex case of PTSD in college.

Marriage And A Baby

Although her difficult childhood experiences were painful, Joanna does have a source of joy: her husband Gareth and her daughter Elayne Grace.

Joanna and Gareth met their junior year when they studied abroad together in Japan. Gareth writes that when he first met Joanna,  “She found value in my passion, giving validation to my interests, and I did not feel a fool for expressing and explaining them.”

During this season, however, Joanna was struggling with complex PTSD from her abusive upbringing and Gareth was also facing his own serious mental health issues. At the end of that school year, they decided to put their education on hold and focus on getting the proper treatment towards recovery. Shortly thereafter, the couple learned that they were expecting a child. As a result, they dedicated the next couple of years to starting a family and seeking a healthy lifestyle.

Joanna and Gareth’s now 18-month-old daughter is delightful, overflowing with energy and full-faced grins. During her pregnancy, Joanna prayed that the child would be an “overwhelming joy to everyone” and that she is. Amidst the couple’s struggle with mental health, Elayne is frequently the one reason that makes them get up in the mornings. Having a baby and getting married has only resulted in positive changes and a stronger bond between the couple. Joanna comments that: “When we found out we were having Elayne, it was more like an affirmation and declaration of our commitment to each other. She has only strengthened our resolve to be an example of a loving, caring, strong, supporting, faithful family.”

This past fall, Joanna and Gareth began auditing a philosophy course together as they felt ready to make the slow transition back to school.

Moving Forward

Joanna aspires to be like people with a strong work ethic, people like her dad, who work 80 to 90 hours a week to provide for the family. As I visited her home, I experienced her hospitable spirit and saw the way she cares for the health and comfort of both her child and her husband.

However, if Joanna is to properly provide for her loved ones, she has to take her own health into consideration first. One of her coping mechanisms is to care for her emotional, spiritual and physical needs; this may include time in prayer, a daily run, taking a shower, putting on makeup and picking out a nice outfit. Although this routine seems very simple, for Joanna the deeply ingrained rhythm makes it easier to follow through even on her worst day.

Being a verbal processor, Joanna also finds that having a close friend and a therapist is essential for her to be able to vent, scream and cry. These venues allow her to acknowledge any presence of anger or bitterness and give her a space to let go of the negative emotions.

Over the past few years, her mother has improved greatly and Joanna says that “I feel like I have a mom who genuinely cares for me and who can talk to me.” The process of reconciliation from past abuse finds Joanna in the state forgiveness and her parent’s acknowledgment that  “something went terribly wrong.” Today, her parent’s allowance enables Joanna to be a caregiver to the people she loves most—her daughter and her husband.

Joanna recognizes that her experiences allow her to empathize with people who suffer from mental illness. She has a deep desire to help young women especially, providing them with a safe space to grieve and be real.

Spending an afternoon in Joanna’s home, seeing her weekly in class and crossing paths at the local coffee shop, you would never guess that this undergrad struggles with her own complex case of PTSD while caring for a small child and her chronically ill husband.

Her friendly demeanor coupled with her room-filling laughter makes her appearance very life-giving and approachable. Aside from her difficult past and her challenges at home, Joanna still chooses to make the best of her life and cope by moving forward. And on top of all of that, she may even have a final exam to worry about too.

Photo Credit: Kayla Brooke