I get so excited at the beginning of each month because it means I get to introduce you to another phenomenal, inspirational woman.
For June, our Woman of the Month is my friend Christine Handy!
Christine has endured ten years of harrowing, heartbreaking medical issues, and despite many setbacks and many struggles that would’ve bowed a lesser person, she came through the other side stronger than ever. It started with a standard procedure on her colon, which was mishandled by her doctor. Next came a minor wrist injury that would also require a “standard procedure,” but afterward, her doctor wouldn’t listen to her when she told him there was too much pain. Christine underwent months of physical therapy, but when her wrist still wasn’t healing, she went to get a second opinion. This doctor discovered that she had an infection in the bones of her wrist and all those months of physical therapy actually broke every single bone she had. This led to a complete wrist fusion and years of wearing a cast. If that weren’t enough, in 2012, Christine was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a staggering twenty-eight rounds of chemo.
Through all of these travails, she fought fiercely for her life, battling one issue after another, but what got her through it all was a group of friends she referred to as her Angels. These women stood by her, came over in the middle of the night when she needed them, got down on the floor and held her when she sobbed, cleaned her vomit, and most importantly, reminded her of her own strength in the days she felt like she couldn’t go on.
Her experiences from the last ten years inspired her to write her first novel, Walk Beside Me, which is out now I’m still in the process of reading it (no spoilers, please!), but Courtney wasn’t able to put it down. Several times a day, she texted, “TEARS,” and I just knew that this book was something special. Which doesn’t surprise me one bit because Christine is something special. She recently was my Angel as I walked beside my friend Kelly through her heroic battle with breast cancer. Christine gave us strength and hope when others closed their doors. She was the reason Kelly was admitted into one of the leading cancer treatment facilities in the country.
Unfortunately, it was too late by the time Kelly was able to receive treatment. Christine was right there with us every day and every step of the way. In fact, she came to Kelly’s celebration of life to pay tribute to a woman whom she didn’t know. And the reason why I say all of this is because very few people would go as far as Christine did for someone they don’t know. Heck, let’s be honest, most people wouldn’t go as far, period! Christine is my Angel, and I will forever be touched by her unconditional love and strength.
Please welcome Christine Handy to Model Behaviors, and enjoy Courtney’s interview with her below!
MB: I know you as an author of the novel Walk Beside Me and as Toni’s incredibly strong and resilient friend who overcame seemingly insurmountable health obstacles. But I like each of our featured guests to have a chance to introduce themselves, exactly the way they want. So when you meet someone for the first time, how do you describe yourself?
CH: I would describe myself to someone now as a strong, independent, yet loving and gentle woman who is fiercely devoted to her beliefs. Five years ago, I would’ve maybe said that to someone but not have felt it inside. Meaning, my self-esteem took a big hit for many years until I battled breast cancer, but with the help of my friends, I regained my strength, courage, and will to live and fight.
Now, I may even come across as kind but distant. Not because I’m guarded or stuck up, but because I’m not as concerned with how others see me, as opposed to before. Today, I have an audience of one, and that is God.
MB: I’m so fascinated by the unique nature of each writer’s journey toward completing and then publishing a book. In the forward for Walk Beside Me, your husband says you’d always wanted to write a book, but when did you first know this about yourself? And can you give us an idea of when you first started writing seriously?
CH: I first started to feel a pull to write a book at the age of eleven, but at this same age, I started to model professionally. Quite a dichotomy, yet that’s how my career evolved. I became a model, and that was my career until the age of thirty.
I applied to a couple journalism schools for an undergraduate degree but decided to go to SMU and continue modeling. I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t writing something, though. For example, I’d write short stories as a teenager. I never showed people or published any of these, but I wrote a lot at night before bedtime.
As a young parent in my late twenties, I wrote a couple short children’s stories and have them in a special place today, but I never did anything with them. Writing was always this “tug” in my heart, but it wasn’t until I got breast cancer did I take it seriously. When faced with this real life-and-death situation, I decided that time was running out for me to fulfill my innermost dreams, and that’s why I wrote this novel.
Walk Beside Me is a fictionalized depiction of my life and my illnesses, but it’s in no way a true story. I was able to use my creativity and hopefully produce a novel that evokes real feelings in the reader. At least that’s my goal.
MB: The events in the book are obviously very close to what happened to you personally. What made you want to create a fictional version of these events? And how did you know where to draw the line between what actually happened and what happens in the novel?
CH: My book is fiction, yes, but it’s loosely based on my life. I didn’t want my book to be all fluff with the characters all coming to the rescue of Willow. I had to have some adversarial relationships as well. My book is truly about friendships and how we, as women, can carry each other, not for an afternoon at lunch but for a lifetime.
The course of my book spans ten years, and in those ten years I’ve had remarkable friendships with women who’ve never forsaken me. But that needed to be portrayed in my book. Had I written a novel without it, I don’t think it would’ve drawn a real emotional response out of the reader. The family life in the book has glimpses of truth, but nothing involving the children. My kids and my relationships with them are not in the book at all. I also changed the city. But my health issues in the book are quite exact, as are many of the friend characters. In fact, all the texts and emails were taken from my phone and computer.
MB: I think all of those things definitely come across, and I agree, our characters need some adversarial people in their lives to make their story that much richer and more interesting!
Your narrator’s voice is so very authentic. I actually had a hard time getting Willow’s voice out of my head after I put the book away! One thing that really resonates with a particular truth is Willow’s struggle with her belief that she isn’t worth all the love and support her friends give to her so freely. Throughout your health journey, did you also struggle with this? If so, how did you eventually conquer these doubts and fears?
CH: The self-esteem issues and self-doubt were a part of my life. And I hope that voice in my story can be inspirational to people. It’s a subject I don’t think people want to talk about or admit freely, but it’s so important to not feel ashamed about it.
I talk about suicide in my book and that part is true as well. After I’d been bullied by my arm doctor, my self-esteem was at an all-time low, so when I was diagnosed with cancer, I truly had plotted my suicide. It didn’t seem selfish or wrong. I’m certainly glad that I didn’t follow through with it, but there was a struggle for me then.
I eventually conquered that lack of self-worth through prayer and through people showing up. They talked the talk and walked the walk, and over time, I realized these women were never giving up on me. I thought to myself, well, if they weren’t giving up on me, why would I give up on me? They taught me to believe in myself and in God. They taught me scriptures, and my faith in God and my faith in human beings ultimately shifted after I was diagnosed with cancer.
Prior to that, I was ignoring my faith in God. But everything changed with cancer, and although cancer is life and death, I truly became ALIVE through it.
MB: That’s beautiful, and this amazing journey deserves a sequel! What’s up next for Willow?
CH: My next novel is a continuation of Walk Beside Me, and the opening scene is where Walk Beside Me ends. It’s very early in the process, but I have a vivid outline in my head. Willow is the main character and many questions that I leave open ended at the end of Walk Beside Me get answered. Characters remain mostly the same, but there are some additions.
MB: Exciting! I’m sending you all the positive writing vibes as you dig deeper into the new book! Speaking of new books…I’m continually fascinated by every writer’s creative process. What does your daily writing routine look like (if you have one)? And also, what does your overall process look like? Do you do a lot of plotting first or do you write by the seat of your pants? How many rounds of revisions did you have? Any other fun tidbits you can share about writing this book?
CH: I wrote Walk Beside Me last year while I was living in Miami full time. This year I’ve been living between Dallas and Miami, one week in Dallas and the next in Miami and so forth. So quite literally I live in two cities. I write daily in Miami. When I’m in Dallas, I write sporadically but not nearly as much as I would like. I often go to Miami just to write. I live in Miami Beach right on the ocean, and for me, that’s a perfect setting for my writing. In the craziness of my life in Dallas, it’s more difficult for me to focus on my writing. It’s probably not typical, but I’m not typical.
The only other tidbit about my writing I would add is that it feels like home to me. Writing is a safe and comforting outlet for me and doesn’t feel like a job. Writing brings me a lot of joy. I call myself an emotional writer. I like to let it all hang out, and it’s very real. There are no secrets in my writing.
And as for revising Walk Beside Me, I hired two separate editors after I wrote the first draft. My manuscirpt was 120,000 words when I was finished. After the editors, separate from each other, completed their editing, the book became about 100,000 words. I chose to edit this way for a few reasons. First, I had read and re-read my book so many times that I didn’t trust my editing on my own. With two editors, I had a clear consensus of what the final book should look like. Editors don’t write at all. They ask questions. And this was extremely helpful for me, especially in places where I wrote about my medical issues.
MB: One thing that struck me while reading the book, and which I feel comes across in your responses here, is that female friendship is a truly special thing. It’s powerful and it’s breathtaking. It can move mountains. What do you think makes friendship among women so powerful?
CH: The friendships that I describe in my book did move a mountain. They saved my life! And thus, they had residual effects. For one, I wrote a book that I hope will empower people to take pride in building up their friends instead of tearing them down. We are powerful women on our own, but we are more powerful as a team. These friendships are life-giving and life-sustaining.
I’d never known the true power of woman until the last ten years, but I’ve always known the power of friendships. Friends have been an important part of my life. So, I don’t understand why the shows on TV and the media love to portray women being so catty. I’ve been carried quite literally by my friends, and I hope they would say the same of me.
I think what makes my relationships with the women in my book so striking is the devotion they provide. They’ve been rocks in my crumbling foundation and they rebuilt me. That’s not just power. That’s true beauty.
MB: The friendship and beauty we see in your novel is almost beyond comprehension. I’m kind of curious to know what they thought when you told them you were writing a book about your experiences and that your Angels were going to be a huge part of the story.
CH: My Angels were so happy when I actually decided to write the book. These women have been close to me for a long time so most knew of my dream to write this novel. When I told them about the book, they were incredibly supportive. I suppose I had my worries that maybe they might not want to be involved, but that was my own self-doubt. They stood by me the whole way. It was a beautiful process actually. I hired an independent interview company that flew to four cities and sat with each person in my book and interviewed them with a recorder. They opened up very honestly about their roles in my life.. Then I took those transcripts, my personal experiences, and the notes I’d been taking through cancer, and used those tools to help me write. I didn’t allow any of the “characters” to read the book until it was completed. Once the book was complete, I sent a copy to my real-life “Amelia,” who is the main character other than myself, for her to read. She loved it!
MB: Earlier you mentioned that you’d always wanted to write a book, that it was a lifelong dream. What advice do you have for a woman who’s had a lifelong dream but hasn’t begun pursuing it yet?
CH: It’s hard to give advice for someone to pursue their lifelong dreams because I think as women we know “why” we should, but actually doing so is tough. But I would tell women to pursue their dreams at all costs. I had to learn to fight through that safety net and put myself out there. Writing this book had a cost to me. It was a full year of my time. Pursuing our dreams can come at a cost to our family, our relationships, our pride, our faith, and the list goes on, but deep down, we know it’s worth it. I would also tell anyone needing that nudge that it’s difficult to explain the pure joy of it all. It’s a type of joy I had never felt before. Priceless.
MB: To be on the other side, and to feel that pure joy of doing what your heart knew you wanted to do, since the age of eleven, must feel absolutely wonderful.
So, to close things off, each month at Model Behaviors, we have someone choose a theme word. This month our word is “courage.” As someone who’s been through such extraordinarily difficult health issues, what does courage mean to you?
CH: I remember so vividly the fear I had when I went to my first chemo. As I wrote in the book, I was so afraid to go that I had my face painted like a princess. That was NOT courage. That was fear. But I went, and that was bravery!
Courage. It’s a tough word because I’ve had to muster up a lot of courage in the last ten years of my life—longer actually—but we all have to be courageous. The biggest difficulty, is the true bravery of it…
Thank you so much to Christine for her bravery and honesty. Be sure to stay tuned when we’ll have her Day in the Life feature, which includes a very special giveaway!