Over the years I have wished that I could to be a professional athlete, I’ve tried to imagine myself as a runner, a ballerina, a rock-climber, a swimmer, a baseball player – that type of person who is dedicated to employing all the skills and strength of their body in in passionate competition. There’s something amazing in how people can channel energy through their muscles and have it burst forth in accomplishment. I’m not even talking about winning things, just the amazing beauty and power that their efforts and training can manifest.
Sadly, actually being such an person has always seemed beyond me. Alot of that was due to me being fat, but I also picked up a shit-tonne of discouragement of women in sports from as early as elementary school (with the exception of dancing, but it wasn’t ever considered “athletic” though it really is). After alot of soul searching and involvement in the Body Positive and Fat Positive movements I have come to understand on an intellectual level at least, that I be fat or thin, or whatever and run or swim or even dance. Its my heart that still doesn’t see *me* as an athlete.
After a conversation today that mirrored back to me just how much I’ve been doing, not just dealing with the stuff coming at me, but actively *working* to heal and cope with illness, it hit me that this work is me being an athlete. This healing process that I am involved in and all my efforts at not allowing chronic illness and chronic pain to run my life, is its own race and dance and work out. It takes amazing strength to do this and not give up when I have no fucking idea where the finish line is.
So many times people with chronic illness and chronic pain are told, directly or indirectly, that we are lazy, lacking in will power, that we just need to try a little harder, eat a little less, or exercise more. That’s bullshit. Living with chronic illness and chronic pain takes more work than I ever imagined. Every day is filled with physical, emotional and mental challenges. Just getting out of bed can be the hardest thing when you live with the “lying liar who lies” that is depression. Fighting back against its insidious words and the shadows it tosses around *inside* your head, is a tremendous effort. it can take every spoon (unit of energy – see the Spoon Theory for more info) you have and leave you breathless and exhausted at 9 am. Living day in and day out with pain, even low level say a 3 or 4 out of 10, is draining. You don’t think it will be until day five or ten and you cant remember the last time it wasn’t there buzzing in the background requiring that you work upstream against its drag and pull. And that’s on a good day. On days when the pain spikes beyond a 4 it can become all encompassing. If the meds work, you will get some relief for a time. if they don’t, you are on your own. Imagine having a broken leg for a year, three years. Imagine not knowing if it will ever heal enough to stop hurting? to allow you to walk without pain, sit without discomfort. Now try to make lunch for the kids or go into the office for a meeting.
Chronic illnesses like Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Lyme, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Fibromyalgia, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Diabetes, and oh-so-many-more come with their own intrinsic symptoms in combination with depression and pain. When you have a chronic illness you get it all for the price of one or, often three or four, diagnoses. We work out every day, we train and compete and negotiate contracts (with doctors and family and employers) every single day. There are no days off with chronic illness. There are no vacations. There are no slick workout videos showing how much we sweat while we move through a “normal” day. There are no glowing write ups describing our workouts and our training regime. There is no finish line and there are no medals to hang on our walls telling the world, but more importantly telling ourselves, that we did good. And we did do good. We made it out of bed, we got the kids off to school, completed that report for work, got that paper written for school, made through another doctor’s appointment; we made it through another day.
What does an athlete do? They focus all their efforts on their craft. A rock climber climbs, a swimmer swims, a dancer dances, a baseball play plays baseball. For almost nine years I have focused all my efforts on my health, on learning the craft and tools of living with chronic illness. I’ve trained myself to breathe through the pain, to plan my trips out into the world so as to minimize my exposure to toxins that will kick my ass, mediate my stress to limit what triggers pain flare ups, and to understand what medications, synthetic or otherwise, will benefit my life and which will wont. I’ve learned the language of my illness and how to discuss it with doctors, family and friends. I’ve cried when it got tough, been hospitalized when it got really bad, and I’ve kept going. This is not what I dreampt of when I imagined being any kind of athlete, but it is what I have learned to do and the fact that I am still here, still training and working out, means I finally understand that I *am* an athlete.