Sometimes people ask me, “Carrie Ann, you’re always smiling that big smile on TV. Where does all that positivity come from?” I’ll let you in on a little secret. I pray before work.
Backstage, getting ready to be a judge on the TV show Dancing With the Stars, while I get my makeup on and make final adjustments to my gown, I always say the same prayer: God, thank you for all that is, was and will be.
There’s a reason my prayer never changes. It sums up what life is about. It’s my spiritual template, my foundation. And it has never let me down, especially these last few difficult years.
The way I look at it, you learn from everything that comes into your life—the good and the bad. Even illnesses. I have a few and I see them as gifts from God. They’ve brought me closer to him. I think of my prayer almost like a dance step with God, so let me break it down.
All That Is.
At first I had no idea why the Lord had put me on DWTS. I was a dancer, onstage and on TV and in movies. I never wanted to do anything else, and I felt blessed that my dreams had been realized. Then along came this job. It sounded fun. I didn’t think it would last 10 years and counting. I wasn’t sure it would last 10 weeks!
But it did. I loved seeing people trying to master what I loved. I loved the people I worked with. I even loved running into 7-Eleven after every show, still in my gown, and treating myself to nachos. Life was great!
Then, four years into the show, I was sitting at the judges’ table and turned to say something to my colleague Len. I couldn’t move my head. It was stuck. I couldn’t see Len without turning my whole torso, like I was a robot. It was scary, but I told myself, It’ll go away. No big deal.
Dancers are used to dealing with pain. You feel an ache and you just dance your way through it, like the athlete that you are. That night, though, every bump on the drive home sent a searing pain through my neck. A good night’s sleep and the healing presence of my pets (more on that later) would turn everything around, I hoped.
I was no better in the morning. My animals looked at me with concern when I winced while feeding them. I called my mom. “Go see a doctor now,” she said. Mom, as always, was right. The prospect of an exam or an MRI can be scary, but the results give you something to work with. You certainly know what to pray for.
I was diagnosed with spinal stenosis. My doctor performed a small surgery that helped. Even so I would have to be very careful. “Any sort of trauma to the neck,” he said, “any extreme movement, could paralyze you.” He didn’t have to tell me what that meant. No more dancing. He might as well have told me that the world was ending.
Except it wasn’t. Remember the “All that is” part of my prayer? God had been out ahead of me. Way ahead. He’d prepared me for this shock by putting me in the judge’s chair on DWTS. I didn’t know it at the time. I was just having fun. Yet if I hadn’t had my gig on the show at the time of my diagnosis, I don’t know what I would have done.
Not long after my neck became a problem my feet began to ache, worse than the usual pain dancers endure. Back to the doctor I went (this time Mom didn’t have to tell me). The diagnosis was arthritis, probably related to years of dancing.
There was no surgical option. Any secret hopes I had of someday miraculously returning to dancing were off the table. Again, though, I felt incredibly grateful for all that I had been given. Even my aching feet were a reminder of the blessings I’d received.
All That Was.
That’s the second part of my daily prayer. I was born and raised in Hawaii, and my parents sent me to a Christian school. Lots of kids acted bored or just plain acted out during chapel. But those services were the highlight of my week. The chaplain really communicated what it meant to believe in a loving God and how that could change your life.
I listened to his words like they were the most important instructions I would ever receive. And this idea that life was about love—it made more sense than anything I’d ever heard. It put the world totally in perspective for me. So that’s why we’re here….
Yes, I wanted to be a dancer, more than anything, but I was determined to find other ways to share God’s love, to be an instrument of his goodness. For me that meant animals. I loved animals, especially ones that were sick or mistreated or abandoned. I wished I could save them all. The very idea of someone abusing one of God’s creatures broke my heart.
Rescuing animals is not easy for someone in the entertainment industry, who has to work long hours, but when I came home to my pets, like Peanut, a little black Chihuahua-pug mix, or my cat Taz, a huge gray-and-white tabby, it was the best moment of my day. I could give love and feel God give his love back to me through them.
Here’s an example. I’d found Taz under the wheel of a semitruck. He was a scrawny kitten then but grew into a big boy—24 pounds! He had only one kidney and it was damaged. He survived one operation but then had a relapse. He needed another surgery, which was scheduled for the same day as the premiere of DWTS.
As soon as the show was over I rushed to his side. I didn’t even change out of my gown, just took off my heels and slipped on my Uggs. I spent all night praying for him. The vet had said Taz had only a slim chance of survival, so I told everyone on Facebook and Twitter: “My cat is having major surgery; please pray for him.”
All those prayers obviously helped, because Taz came home. I had to give him water three times a day through a feeding tube, but it was never a burden. Sitting with him became my God time.
Sometimes I wonder who rescued who. When the double whammy of stenosis and arthritis hit me, who do you think I turned to? Hint: they’re furry. Right. My animals. Steroid shots helped with the pain in my feet. I took up yoga to stay in shape and help my back, and being on the show kept my focus off of my problems.
Nothing helped more, though, than the love of my animals. They knew I was suffering. Every chance they got they snuggled close, returning all the love I had given them tenfold. They wanted me to know everything would be okay. And, really, it has been.
All That Will Be.
That might be the most important part of my prayer. For a lot of people, the scariest thing is the future. This is the part that helped me the most when my dad got throat cancer. I was dealing with a lot of that other stuff too, but I was able to be his caregiver.
His prognosis was never very good, even though he fought for five brave years, and I often found myself trying to imagine what the future would be like without Dad. It was so hard. Making him proud was the thing that made me the happiest.
How do you imagine an unimaginable future? My prayer tells me that no matter what, my heavenly Father is waiting to guide me, to love me, as much there as he is in the here and now. He fills those places in us that loss hollows out, shining a light on the path ahead.
There’s one more thing I want to tell you about. Around the time Dad died I felt a lump in my own throat the size of half a golf ball, exactly how his cancer started. I called Dad’s oncologist and got an appointment, searching online all the while for some clue to what was behind my other recent symptoms—fatigue, dry mouth and dry eyes.
Nothing attacks faith faster than fear, and it took everything for me to fight back.
The doctor gave me a scan. No, it wasn’t cancer. But what was it? He suspected an autoimmune disorder. I met with a rheumatologist and he had to do a lot more tests—autoimmune diseases can be tricky to diagnose. Afterward he had me meet him in his office to talk.
“You’ve got Sjögren’s syndrome,” he said, sitting at his desk.
“I knew it!” I said. “Thank you!”
He laughed and said, “That’s not usually the reaction I get to this sort of news.” But for me, the diagnosis was a relief. Here was information I could act on. I’d been researching my symptoms for some time, and I’d suspected Sjögren’s.
Now that I knew for sure, I could tackle the problem. And that’s what I’ve been doing. I make sure to get enough rest. I eat healthier and gave up my nachos. I’ve figured out an exercise regimen that works for me. I incorporate some dance, although I’m very careful with my movements. Sjögren’s has taught me how to take much better care of myself. See what I mean about illness being a gift?
Still, Sjögren’s is degenerative. My doctor couldn’t say how fast it would progress or if it would get worse. “There’s no telling, Carrie Ann.”
My prayer says otherwise. There is telling. There is the God of everywhere, past, present and future. It is the one thing I know I can predict, the one sure thing about life.
I still have questions. Will I be on a TV show in five, ten years? Will I be able to rescue all the animals I hope I can and give them the beautiful life they deserve? Will there be some medical breakthrough that relieves all that ails me, even gives me the chance to dance again?
It may be too much to hope for, but isn’t that what hope is about? That’s why I thank God every day for what was, is and will be. And that’s why when you watch DWTS, you’ll see that big smile on my face. I want my faith to shine through everything I do.
This story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Guideposts magazine.