Finding Your Purpose in Life

For over two decades I was an electrical and software engineer in the high tech automated manufacturing industry. How did I go from engineering mega-million dollar systems to teaching WordPress-enabled web development? My journey is not for the faint-of-heart, but one of miracles, hope, humility, and happiness. This is my story.

The First 22 Years of My Career

My world before 2007 was one of pushing the boundaries of software for the big manufacturers of the world. We built some fun, innovative, and cool stuff, like visual-guided robotic systems to predictive modeling and monitoring systems that alerted staff when a production process was possibly going out of specification or might fail. I was blessed to work with amazingly talented and bright engineers who, over the years, invested in me.

I even stepped out on my own in 2001, starting an engineering consulting firm. We helped solve complex problems, fine-tuned technical teams, and shared our expertise with our clients. I started training apprentices to help the next generation get started. Business was booming and our staff kept growing.

My first exposure to WordPress came with the company’s website. I put it on the front-end and then had an intranet that worked with our business servers, to connect our staff and clients. That was in the early days of WordPress. I knew very little about WordPress in those days.

My Life’s Ugly Twist

My world changed forever in 2007. And here is where my story takes an ugly twist. In 2007 I woke up to go to a client’s facility as we were building another robotic system. As I headed for the door, I fell to my knees, as this wave of pain crushed down on my chest. I was becoming the stereotypical over-achieving, Type-A engineer and entrepreneur. This is not a club anyone wants to join.

That moment set me on a course that ripped our lives apart. The next seven years were devastating to my family and me.

The results were inconclusive for heart-attack, as they diagnosed with a very rare heart disease that caused my blood vessels to spasm, cutting off blood to whatever was downstream. Doctors loaded me up with medicines and told me to change everything. There was little they could do.

A few months later, our lives went from bad to worse.

I woke up in the hospital after having a seizure at home. For five days the medical team poked, prodded, and hooked me up to machines. I was diagnosed with second rare disease, i.e. a very rare migraine disease. This one was worse than the heart one.

Migraines are awful, as any migraineur knows. I had suffered with them for 16 years. But this new form I had, combined with my heart, made every migraine attack life-threatening. These migraines caused stroke-like symptoms with profound confusion, left-side paralysis, seizures, and temporary coma. They typically triggered my heart at the same time, meaning I was unable to respond or seek help to get the medicines I needed. The attacks came on without warning. One moment I was fine and next I fell to the floor unconscious. I often injured myself from the falls.

Any migraineur will tell you of their triggers, those things which set off their migraines such as smells, lights, sounds, and weather. Mine were all of those, but highly magnified.

I couldn’t watch a bird in flight, go to any public place, go to family’s when there were more than a couple of people in the room, or eat anything but raw, unprocessed foods. For nearly seven years I was mostly homebound. I had to be monitored 24 hours a day, everyday. My attacks came frequently. And when they did, I needed someone to keep me safe.

I Lost Me

I was forced to leave engineering because my body failed me.

I lost my engineering company, had to let go of my staff, say goodbye to my clients, and leave the world behind as I locked myself away. My career defined me. It was my canvas and art. When it was gone, I was lost. I didn’t recognize myself. I had no purpose in life.

Bankruptcy came. We watched them take everything, all of the things we built together. We went from living in a luxurious lifestyle to being on food stamps in a tiny one room apartment supported by my father. Our daily lives were consumed by managing my health and keeping me safe.

I was lost for a couple of years, trying to fight my way back and regain that which was taken from us.

Turning it Around

One day, I had enough of feeling sorry for myself. I made a decision to smile and laugh again, even when half my face was paralyzed. Let me tell you that when you are at rock bottom, you have to make a decision or else it will consume you.

I chose to be happy.

I knew that I would never again work in my profession. I accepted our new life and its limitations. But now it was time to carve out a new path and find something to give me a purpose. I refused to be cast aside. Maybe I would never to be able to join the physical world again, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t do something virtually.

I had always enjoyed teaching and helping others. My dream was to become a professor of math or physics. Teaching had always been a huge part of my career.

I started small, reaching out into migraine communities to help others find peace in spite of their pain, fear, and anger. That led me to start a blog, where I shared my insights on how to find peace and joy in any situation. I wrote about kindness and helping one another. Eventually it led me to start a non-profit, whose website was powered by WordPress and BuddyPress. Building those websites sparked my thirst for programming. As both sites ran on WordPress, I began reverse engineering it. I wanted to really know the code and understand what made it tick.

Then I stepped into the WordPress software community. I was amazed to see people sharing so much information freely with one another. Everyone reached out and gave of themselves. In my former engineering world, it was proprietary. People guarded their silos of knowledge, locking it away for only a select few. Throughout my career, I worked to break down those silos and help anyone to understand complex systems. I was drawn to this open community. I felt connected and right at home.

Maybe it sounds dramatic or a bit over the top, but honestly, finding WordPress helped me to find myself again.

Here in this community, I was able to feel like a person again, not a sick one, but a professional with something to offer.

Over the years, I donated my time to build some sites and plugins. I couldn’t charge anyone anything for my time, as they couldn’t count on me to be reliable or deliver on-time. But by donating, I was able to do something other than sit in isolation. As I spent more time in the community reading forums and posts, I noticed a trend: developers in this space asked a lot of fundamental programming and engineering questions. I thought maybe I could give back and share the knowledge and expertise others built in me over the decades.

I started drafting up plans for WP Developers Club and how I could teach. I was turning my life around and all thanks to WordPress.

My Miracle

In the fall of 2013, my health declined rapidly. The doctors added more medicines in an effort to stabilize me. That effort failed. In December, my body gave up as my respiratory system failed. I spent 32 days in the hospital, most of it in Intensive Care Unit (ICU) on life support. The doctors diagnosed me with yet another rare disease, this one autoimmune. They pumped me full of medications and donated antibodies. Then they filtered my blood with this awful machine that was hooked up to the arteries in my neck.

On New Year’s Day in the early hours of the morning, while everyone else was toasting the new year and what might be ahead of them, I passed away. My body had enough of this torture and pain.

I remember the chaos, the flurry of noise and activity, the loud beeping of the life support machines alerting them I was failing. I remember the “Code Blue” call. And then it was quiet, oh so quiet. An amazing feeling of utter peace and no pain swept through me.

I heard a voice. His voice filled my body with strength and such joy. I never felt so peaceful and calm. He told me I was safe. He told me it was ok to let go and come Home. The choice was mine if I wanted to stay or go.

I remember thinking of my family. I asked Him if I could stay, as I just wanted to do more and help make a difference.

A few days later, I was off of life support, breathing fully on my own. My migraines stopped. No seizures. No headaches. My tests were normal. The doctors were dumbfounded and had no answers as to why I went from death to on my way to a full recovery. I received a miracle. I even worked on a WordPress site while I was in ICU. (See WordPress keeps my mind alive.) The nurses would smile and laugh.

It took several more months for me to regain my strength in physical therapy. But in time, the feeding tube was removed from my stomach, my wheelchair was put away, and finally my walker was put into the closet.

By summer I got to experience many firsts in over seven years. I walked into my first store, went to a family reunion, and sat outside and watched the birds fly around. In the fall, my partner of 28 years and I were finally allowed to legally marry.

The Third Chapter in My Life – Giving Back

I’ve already had two different chapters in my life. Now I’m in my third. I’m a very different person from the engineer I used to know. Material things have no value for me. I don’t care about climbing corporate ladders anymore.

What really matters in this world is when you reach out and make a difference in someone’s life. That’s all I want to do.

I wouldn’t change anything about the journey I’ve been through, as it broke me down. I learned humility and the power of hope, joy, and kindness. I found my purpose in this life. I believe my purpose is teaching. Somehow over the first chapter of my life I diverted from my dreams by going into engineering. It took dying to get me back to where I belong, to wipe away the old and bring a fresh start.

In this third chapter of my life, I’m on a mission to give back and make a difference. Teaching is how I will do it.

I’ve found my professional home here in the WordPress software community. I have all this software knowledge that I want to share. If this community will have me, I’d like to fulfill my mission here.

In this third chapter, I want to spend the rest of my days here, with all of you, teaching and helping each developer to further his/her programming skills.

Finding Your Purpose

My story is heavy, I know. It shakes your core, because you know how fragile life really is. We all know that we shouldn’t take life for granted or squander its many moments. But then we get busy. We morph ourselves into this flurry of daily activity and routine. Somewhere along the way, you may lose yourself or even your dreams.

Mine is not a story of tragedy or sorrow. No, it’s a story of shedding all of the things that just don’t matter to finally find one’s true mission and purpose in life.

And this is a tip, from me to you, all those material things don’t matter. At any moment, it can all be taken away. But your purpose and dreams, the true essence of you, no one can take it away.

Be true to yourself. Find your purpose.

26 comments

  1. Julie Kuehl says:

    Tonya – I’ve known you’re amazing for a while now, but I had no idea of your story. It sounds like it’s been a rough road, but I’m so glad you’ve found a home in WordPress and are offering up your talents to those of us who can benefit from them. I hope the darkest days are behind you and you can continue to go forth and do good things for a long time to come. You are such a valuable resource!

    Topher – The stories that you bring to us remind us that there is so much more to WordPress than code. Thank you!

    • Tonya Mork says:

      Julie,

      Thank you. I was nervous to share my story. But it needed to be shared in order to reach out to those who may be struggling. I want everyone to know that, yes, life is very fragile and precious, but you can choose to be happy regardless of what is thrown at you. There is always hope. Plus it’s never too late to stop, re-evaluate, and make adjustments in your life and the path you on.

      I also shared it because I want this community to know what you’ve done for me. I’m humbled by the response.

  2. Robert Gadon says:

    Dear Tonya,

    By happy coincidence, I was introduced to you _virtually_ by Carrie Dils when I listened to your interview with her on ‘OfficeHours.fm’ podcast last August. It was a revelation to finally hear someone who understood WordPress deeply and who passionately wanted to transmit that knowledge and build community around that effort. I appreciate your leadership, cheerfulness, humor, encouragement, keen intellect, and enthusiasm as you share your knowledge and help us become true WordPress developers.

    The arc of your life experience from 2007 onward is compelling. I’ve known family and friends in my life who’ve experienced health crises. Each crisis was and is particular and unique to that person. I’m glad that you survived, and are with us today so that we can receive your gifts.

    In the 8 months since I was introduced to you, your voice and presence resonate in my mind each day from my involvement with the WP Developers Club and KnowTheCode.io Ironically, we have _never_ met, nor spoken directly. An artifact of life in the internet age and the process of virtual learning.

    I am grateful that our paths crossed when they did. I look forward to studying with you in the months and years to come.

    • Tonya Mork says:

      Hello Robert,

      Thank you. I am honored by your kind and eloquent words.

      In today’s world, we have the ability to reach out, past the limitations and boundaries of our own local worlds, and to share, influence, and help one another. We are all linked together by our common threads and interests. Though we may never met in person, we are forever changed by each person we physically or virtually met.

      I’m thankful that our paths crossed too, Robert. I appreciate your continued support. I will be here to continue helping you, as well as every developer who wants to really know the craft of programming.

  3. Ahmad Awais says:

    Hey, Tonya!
    I am at loss of words in a good way. I am very to have made your acquaintance. I wish good luck with everything. I am also very happy that you love WP now. Considering I am an EE convertes to CS coz of WP, that change I do understand.

    • Tonya Mork says:

      Hello Ahmad,

      I’m thankful to have met you too. You’re one of the only other EE+SE that I’ve met in this space (though I’m sure there are many others).

      I’m here because of this community. There are many platforms, frameworks, software applications, etc and many different ways to build cool things in software. But the WordPress community is unlike any I’ve ever known. I feel at home here because of the openness, kindness, and sharing to help one another. It’s the culture and people that make it very special.

      And through this community, we are all blessed to meet people from every corner of the world. Though we may all live every different lives, we are bound together by our love for software and this profession.

  4. Whenever I watch your videos, the combination of a smiling face and profound knowledge is too hard to ignore. On the surface, I would have never imagined: the pain and suffering that you have gone through health-wise.

    In-spite of all that, you are one shining gem of the WordPress ecosystem. Your perspective of looking at the code is so refreshing.

    And no wonder you “know the code” 😉

    • Tonya Mork says:

      Wow, Davinder, let me just say thank you for your kindness.

      Everyone has pain and struggles. We all have stories. But we can choose to rise above it all, have hope, and be happy. We always have a choice in how we respond in the face of what life throws at us.

      You just never know where your current journey will take you. Mine led me here. I’m thankful for that.

      My perspective on code and how I think about it comes from those who invested themselves in me over the decades. It comes from the cool stuff I used to build and seeing what you can really do with those ones and zeros. It comes from breaking down very complex, sometimes abstract, components into discernible, relatable, and adaptable morsels that anyone can understand and contribute to regardless of their technology knowledge.

      There are many who know the code. My background gives me a different view of it beyond websites. I’m honored to share it.

  5. Marcy Diaz says:

    You have an amazing story, Tonya. Thanks for sharing it with all of us.

    And as Davinder pointed out, your smiling face and upbeat attitude is a plus to your knowledge of code. It all helps so much with your courses.

    And thank you, Topher, for sharing all of the stories; people are pretty amazing, in spite of all the life brings.

    • Tonya Mork says:

      Hello Marcy,

      Thank you. A smile rarely ever leaves my face. I think one must choose how s/he will walk in this world. I choose to be happy, “upbeat”, and ready to lend a helping hand.

      Life throws some pretty cruddy things at all of us. Pain, sorrow, and worry surround all of us at various points in our lives. It’s how we choose to face it that determines how we will experience it and the toll it will take on us.

      Besides, the journey I went through led me here….to be here with all of you. I’m so thankful for that.

  6. Marjorie Ray says:

    Tonya,
    I’m so grateful that you shared your story. I met you in the genesis slack group when you were first starting WP Developer’s Club. I remember a conversation we had about learning to code and I felt such encouragement from you. Since then you have created so many helpful tutorials and I am studying your knowthecode.io program now. You are someone I admire greatly. Your humble, caring attitude is a blessing. Thanks for all you do for the WordPress community. Wishing you much health and happiness. ~Marjorie

    • Tonya Mork says:

      Ah Marjorie, thank you. Your words mean a lot to me.

      It’s been so wonderful getting to you and all of the other awesome people in WordPress. I’m truly honored that you are here with me on KnowTheCode.io and letting me help you to level up.

      Keep smiling! I wish nothing but the best for you too.

  7. Patrick says:

    I found Tonya (or Tonya found me) last summer.

    I was a keen newbie with lots of interest, but very little understanding or direction.

    Tonya really went out of her way to encourage me, guide and challenge me without me even asking for it. I would spend hours and hours pouring over her assignments, and just when I would feel myself getting a bit overwhelmed and discouraged, she would send me a very encouraging message.

    /***

    Tonya, I want you to know that those out-of-the-blue messages made all the difference.

    ***/

    Spending time with Tonya was pivotal in helping me grow into a developer.

    Though there is still so much to learn, I am now very comfortable with a lot of tech that used to be very intimidating.

    Because of Tonya’s advice, I focused on the elementaries and I’ve enjoyed my work so much more; I’ve developed my own WordPress plugins and starter theme for an agency, which are now used in dozens of sites. I’m working on a large team building a web app using Angular and Laravel. I’m also quite comfortable working with Node.js, Angular, Express, MongoDB, Firebase, etc… the list goes on.

    The point is, Tonya’s guidance gave me the tools and the confidence to tackle any tech.

    Code is code.

    Thank you, Tonya!

    • Tonya Mork says:

      Hello Patrick,

      First of all, thank you for your kind words.

      I am very proud of you! You have come so far in this past year. You focused yourself, absorbed everything, asked when you needed a nudge, and just kept coming back for more. You have a bright future in web development in and out of WordPress.

      Wishing you the very best,
      Tonya

    • Tonya Mork says:

      And for those who do not know my saying, code is code, let me explain. It doesn’t matter what platform, technology, or language that you write it in. It’s all code. Once you learn the fundamentals and elementaries, you are able to assemble those building blocks into anything.

  8. Paul says:

    Since meeting you last year – speaking with you both by video and text, I have had the honor of hearing your abbreviated story and now a more detailed account. I admit that my own story resonates and I totally understand being humbled and the humility of having a ‘handicap’ –

    Tonya, you are a unique individual and it has been a great joy learning under your direction. In fact, I have all of my browsers set to open to knowthecode.io so that I do not go a day without learning, relearning or refreshing this craft.

    WordPress has been a huge blessing my family and I as I continue to grow in a career in web development. First understanding the difference between and implementer and a coder.

    I know I can count on you to fight the good fight, share your vast & proven knowledge and wisdom. Know that you are fulfilling your mission in phase three.

    May the Lord bless you with all that you ask for.

    • Tonya Mork says:

      Hello Paul,

      Thank you for your kindness.

      We both know the challenges that life can toss in our paths. But challenges are what shape and mold our character. And even in our darkest hour, we have choices. We can choose to rise above it all. Right there, in spite of the pain, we can be happy and smile again. We can also step outside of ourselves and reach out to help someone else.

      I’m honored to help you in your quest to become a more awesome WordPress developer. Remember that it’s an incremental process of continuous learning and growth. It’s not a race. So many people forget that point. We build our skills step-by-step, layer-by-layer.

      I wish your family and you much joy and happiness,
      Tonya

    • Tonya Mork says:

      Ah, thank you.

      I hope that it inspires you to stop and evaluate your life. Are you living your purpose? Life is so precious. In a flash, everything you know could change or it could just be over. The clock keeps ticking off the seconds. It’s important for all of us to be happy… right now.

      I wish you much joy and happiness,
      Tonya

  9. Vincent says:

    I am pretty touched by what you have been through. I strongly believe that with an engineering background, you could have a really different perspective for software dev.

    I am looking into the tutorial on knowthecode.io. Great work.

    • Tonya Mork says:

      Hello Vicent,

      Thank you. We all have challenges and trials in our lives, obstacles to overcome and decisions to make. Life will test you.

      My background is very different. I hope to share it with all of you.

      Cheers,
      Tonya

    • Tonya Mork says:

      Hello Carl,

      Never give up! Life will turn and twist. It will test you and toss trials in your path. At times, you are triumphant and soar. Other times, you are thrown deep into a crevasse. But there is always hope and you have choices….even if the only choice is to smile.

      Cheers,
      Tonya

  10. What a tremendously inspiring story, Tonya. I have tweeted this page and shared it on LinkedIn as it has really inspired me to buckle down and get back to work after suffering poor health due to a work injury and subsequent failed back surgery in 2008.
    You have given me new hope that I will be able to find my niche in the workplace again, whatever that may be. I am also really looking forward to starting your classes on knowthecode.io and reading your “Refactoring Tweaks” book and workbook. And congratulations to you and your partner on your nuptials!

    • Tonya Mork says:

      Wow, thank you, Vickie.

      Health, pain, and limitations affect our everyday lives. There is always hope. And even in the face of something that looks impossible, you have choices. You can decide to overcome it and smile again.

      Not everyone will get a miracle. I don’t know why I did. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a life and be happy. You can. I did. Even when my body failed me, I choose to laugh and smile.

      Life is not fair. It will twist and turn. It will challenge you. Sometimes you soar. Other times you fall. But you can retain you. And you can contribute in this world. You do not have to feel insignificant, isolated, or alone.

      I wish you health and happiness.

      Cheers,
      Tonya

      • Vickie Comrie says:

        Hi Tonya: I believe I owe you an apology–I spelled your last name wrong in a Tweet.
        My eyesight is not what is used to be, so my bad 😉

        I just wanted to let you know that I do intend upon buying your books and starting your WordPress class but right now I’m up to my eyeballs in books and classes I’ve already purchased or am currently enrolled in. And with my health being what it is, I hope it’s not overly optimistic to think I will have cleared my plate in 6 months and will be ready for you and KnowTheCode.io 🙂

        Thanks for writing me back. That was very kind of you.

        Stay well and strong,

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