She’s been through it all — illness so bad it left her homebound, a crime so horrifying it’s the stuff of nightmares, an allergic reaction that led to another devastating bout of illness — but she keeps on trying: writing, taking photographs, filling the world with art.
Lauren Jonik was born and raised in Pottstown, a town of about 20,000 in Pennsylvania, where she grew to love being outdoors.
“Sitting under a weeping willow tree by a stream reading as many Nancy Drew mysteries as I could get my hands on was my idea of perfection,” Lauren said.
Despite her contentment, Lauren always dreamed of bigger things; in fact, when she was six or seven years old, she tried to run away to New York City to become a part of this bigger world.
“I only got as far as the front yard,” she said. “My mom told me I could run away, but not cross the street alone, so my plans were thwarted!”
[Aside: If all this sounds like the setup to an idyll life, remember the first paragraph and know that a twist is coming.]
When she was about five, Lauren discovered writing. She says the knowledge of her future as a writer came from somewhere deep within, a certainty she can’t explain but believes in.
“I had a sense that I was destined to be a writer very early on,” she said. “As I grew older, it became more apparent that I had an aptitude for writing. A turning point came in 6th grade when one of my teachers had us do weekly ‘creative assignments.’ I discovered that I could use writing for self-expression and could access another part of me — I was hooked!”
Meanwhile, she fell in love with photography on a cross-country road trip with her family. She said she took 26 photos of the Badlands “that almost all look alike.”
But the certainty that photography would be her future wasn’t there when she was a child, overshadowed by her passion for writing.
“It was a lovely discovery that contrasted with my strong, certain sense about writing,” Lauren said of her realization. “It was nice to be surprised as an adult by discovering a passion I hadn’t realized I had had.”
But now for the aforementioned twist: at 14, Lauren was diagnosed with Lyme disease, “an extremely difficult, painful illness that is challenging to diagnose and even more challenging to treat,” she said.
She spent the next 12 years homebound, unable to attend high school or continue life as the straight-A student she was. Her life was solitary, isolated from the majority of her peers despite a few good friends who stood by her.
Lauren described some of the struggles of living with Lyme disease: “When I was at my sickest as a teen, I recall having to look down at myself after I had stepped into the shower to make sure I had taken my clothes off. I couldn’t remember from moments before.”
Her recovery was slow, but eventually she regained her health. Then, a few years later, she was in a Brooklyn elevator when a man entered after her. He dragged her to the ground and began hitting her, preparing to rape her. After being repeatedly hit in the face, Lauren was able to hit the buzzer in the elevator and scare the man away.
Two women from the building came to her rescue after her attacker escaped, and Lauren has always remembered their help.
“Their kindness taught me to pay it forward and be aware of opportunities to be someone else’s guardian angel,” Lauren said. “We all have the power to help others and no one gets through life without needing the help of other people. If there is one message I could give women, though, it is to discard notions of when and where crimes occur. In extreme situations like these, anything you have to do to stay alive is the right thing.”
One of Lauren’s good friends, Faith Pineo, said Lauren’s attitude and worldview despite her troubles is inspiring.
“Lauren has faced ordeals that would cause many of us to shrink away from life and people,” Faith said. “After nearly being raped and murdered by a stranger in an elevator, Lauren did not become bitter. She didn’t close herself off to others. She embraced life and people even more. When dealing with life-threatening and debilitating health issues, Lauren has remained determined to always try her best each day and find answers.”
Another friend, Erin Khar, met Lauren while they were both in an independent writing workshop at The New School. Erin and Lauren were both working on memoirs and, in Erin’s words, “forged a friendship and working relationship, in that we workshop new pieces together, help each other out with edits, etc.”
Erin said that she is most impressed, like Faith, with Lauren’s ability to push through despite health issues, which resurfaced seven years after recovering from Lyme disease.
“Lauren’s tenacity in pursuing her career while dealing with chronic illness is inspiring,” Erin said. “[I also] love the voice she has on the page. It always draws me in.”
In addition, friends described Lauren as thoughtful and caring.
“My favorite things about Lauren as a friend – can anyone count that high?” Faith said. “Lauren is an encourager and a good listener. She is not quick to judge and always does her best to understand things from every perspective. She has a heart that is filled with deep love and appreciation for everything around her.”
In friendship, as in life, it’s the little things that matter. Lauren has a friend, Cynthia Sillitoe, whom she has never met in person; they have been pen pals for nearly twenty years, though, and have been able to relate to each other because of their respective chronic illnesses. Cynthia said Lauren is thoughtful in the little things as well as the big ones.
“I don’t think she’s ever missed sending me a birthday card,” Cynthia said. “I know I can count on her to be supportive and not judgmental. She makes me feel like our friendship is valuable to her.”
Cynthia, who said she has been able to witness Lauren’s artistic growth through the years, said her friend’s art is “evocative.”
“She excels at focusing on an image and not letting anything extra distract from it,” Cynthia said. “I think she writes in much the same way. She sees what she’s writing about as if through a lens and that allows her to write skilled and detailed narratives.”
Lauren is currently working on a memoir, and recently had a piece published by The Manifest-Station on advice for healing from chronic illness.
In it, she said, “I experimented and found my voice in a new way.”
You should eat meat. You should stop eating meat. You should avoid sugar. Completely. For seven years. You should exercise. You should make sure you don’t overexert yourself. You should sleep only when it’s dark outside. You can’t? Okay, then don’t sleep at all.
— excerpt from Advice: How to Heal from Chronic Illness