The end of May gave me pneumonia. The end of June gave me raspberries, stuff growing from the ground we could actually eat, ducklings, and a broody hen. Everything that happened in between? Let’s just put it behind us and move on.
I came across this blessed gift of an article this morning and wanted to share it with anyone (everyone) wrestling with sadness. It reminded me immediately of that list of Life Rules I scribbled down a while ago and made me curious if I have been faithful in following them.
Please do read the article (here’s the link again), as it’s far more eloquent, comprehensive, and smart than my list, because…well…it’s written by a saint. But here’s what resonated with me the most, especially in light of everything this blog — and my whole life — has ever been about:
Our bodies, brains and hands and eyes and stomachs and quads and intervertebral discs, are essential to the purpose of our lives. They are not in the way of our spirits, some temporary torture chamber from which we must be liberated or some hideous distraction that we are tasked to ignore.
When I was coaching, I would always ask, “If your body were not an obstacle, what would you do with it?” The answers that would come on the first day were typically harsh. There was this view that being fat, sick, depressed, exhausted or broken in any way disqualified the body from serving any purpose. The body needed to be punished, pushed out of the way, so that the “real person” could finally break out and grab hold of their true destiny. But every single time, without fail, as I saw people care for their bodies (often through the the sneaky trick of calling it a “challenge”, discipline words) — feed them good food, give them good rest, soak them in sunshine, expose them to beauty — their answers changed.
The question was never, “If your body (pain, weakness, depression) didn’t exist, what would you do with your ‘real life’?” It was always, “If your body were not an obstacle, but an integral part of the story, an asset, what would you do?”
I still set my body up as an enemy all the time. I shout at my body, curse my brain, slap myself with rules and challenges and strict discipline. Sometimes, a little discipline is what I need, but more often than not, I just need a shower or a poem or a very long time in the garden. Maybe a pot roast?
And all of it is prayer. All of it is setting my face like flint before the Lord.
I don’t pay attention. I am hard headed, heavy headed, neck bent, eyes on the ground right in front of me. The mess being made, the battle being fought.
I keep a record of of my wrongs, this swirling, non-chronological mass of mistakes, things done and left undone, and call it my True Story. I go over it every day, all the times I should have died, all the wounds that I’ve been given, all the wounds I gave: the monster of depression and mania that never stays dead, the decades of medication gnawing at my brain and liver and thyroid, the father who crushed my heart, the weapon of my words against my mother, my silence, my absence, my refusal to love others, the shame of obesity, the absolute impossibility of motherhood, the deadliness of my temper, my razor sharp tongue, the pounding disappointment of pain in my body, the unending tangle of marriage, and the persistent drip of my daily failure.
But what of the victory all around me? What of the vast landscape of victory behind me, the impassable mountains climbed, hideous dragons slain, opposing armies crushed and swept out to sea? What of the children, sitting at the breakfast table, sewing doll clothes as the sun comes up?
I’ve spent so much time pretending to be happy with the body that I’m in. I think my back injury is the first time I have ever admitted in real time that I think something is wrong with my body while I am actively trying to change it. I have no problem talking about my efforts after the fact, once the 160 pounds have been lost, the certifications achieved, the coaching practices opened, and the expert levels thoroughly dominated. No problem at all then.
But in the meantime, when things are iffy, when experiments are running and I don’t even have a clear hypothesis, when I don’t even like my own hashtag*, I do not like to put myself out there. Historically, I do not like to talk about weight, unless we’re talking about total weight lost or how much weight I’m lifting. Those numbers are finished, indisputable, on the books. They fall in the extremities, on the unusual ends of the spectrum. We’ve discussed how I feel about that.
For whatever reason, perhaps sheer exhaustion, perhaps post-surgical narcotics induced, uncharacteristic vulnerability, I opened the door to talking about my body as it was broken, the problem of my back before it was solved. That step led to sharing about my unruly brain, even as it fumed in it’s manic fit.
As hermit, writing here is a much needed connection to like minded (ha!) people and those who love them. But even so, it is a frightening thing to share a story that has no clear ending, one in which I may end up looking like a fool.
That was quite the prologue to tell you that I saw my surgeon yesterday. He was brusk, cold and quick. He pretended to be nice to my children who really should not have been with me for this conversation, so I should give him more credit. I did not even pretend to be nice to my children.
“We’ve done all we can. The next step is more surgery. I go in with screws and an implant, remove all the remaining material and scar tissue and fuse your spine. If you do not do surgery now, your only choice is to manage the pain until you just can’t stand it anymore.”
Well that sounds familiar, doesn’t it, bipolar friends?
Doesn’t that sound like something in which I have some expertise?
So I said no to screws. I said no to surgery. I said yes to the experiment and doing the plans. I said yes to #powerrehab and however involved it may need to become in order to manage the pain.
That means more roses and less sugar. It means ketosis and myofascial release (*tears*). It means staying in the green and telling you about it, regardless of how I feel about that.
*Why? Why did you let me commit to a hashtag, friends! Now I’m in too deep! I can’t turn back now!
I run on a liturgical rhythm. I like to think it prophetic, but it’s probably psychosomatic. Just as day four, Maundy Thursday, ended on a fairly dark note, day five and six, Good Friday and Holy Saturday were equally quiet, agitated, and somewhat cranky. The word is disappointed.
I was disappointed that after a string of such good, bright days, that my leg hurt so bad, that after swallowing all those pills, I felt so sad for no good reason. Disappointed that even though I was being given all of these roses, my first response every time was to mock them.
Today is day eight of #powerrehab and it is Eastertide. I woke up without a voice, with a headache, with a hip that burns, and a mind that absolutely refuses to focus, but with a bright green egg on my desk. “It’s your favorite color,” my redhead did not whisper as she scampered out of my room, fully re-dressed in her Easter garb, all the way to her pink sparkling Mary Janes. Today I am wondering what will happen if I just choose to take what is given to me for the gift that it is, not the gift that it isn’t.
The walk, the roses, the steady line in the green boxes are what I am given. And I swear to you, as I sit here and type this, as I get to the point in the post where I am supposed to have the pithy closing statement I realize I do not know what these things are. I do not know what this gift is. I do not understand gentleness, steadiness, flowers of the fieldness.
Good thing, as my equally liturgically minded seven year old informed me this morning, as she counted her jelly beans, I have the 48 days till Pentecost to figure it out.
I tried to put on a backpack.
Yes, yes, I know. I KNOW.
That was not smart. But we could almost see a stupid move like that coming, couldn’t we? Even with all of my fear-nots and promises of gentleness, there was bound to be something ridiculous and beyond the bounds of reason thrown in early on.
So, yes. I tried to put on a back pack yesterday morning and it hurt so bad. Scared me bad. Froze me and turned me silent bad.
I stood there for a moment, the electric current running white hot from the incision in my back down to my ice cold foot until my brain turned back on and I dropped the pack onto the floor. All the power in my rehab, crushed on day one.
I scrambled to find another solution but the babysitter was here, the sand was pouring rapidly through the hourglass, and I couldn’t risk losing #powerrehab and my sanity saving kid-free time. I loaded my bag into the car and drove the half mile to the coffee shop, defeated. I sat in my sunny window seat, notebooks spread out in front of me, but I couldn’t focus.
I was agitated, angry, sad. I tried to write, tried to paint, tried to talk to my best friend and decide if I should use an empty stroller to push my bag to the coffee shop, beginning my career as the neighborhood eccentric a few years earlier than I had originally planned.
I pulled out my exquisitely planned #powerrehab training log, and fondled the sparkling golden stars. I may need to discuss this with my psychiatrist at our med check tomorrow, but the Rocky IV soundtrack began to swell in my head, and I marched my half drunk decaf Americano to the bus tub, loaded up my eighty thousand pounds of gear and marched out the door.
I parked two houses down from my house so my kids wouldn’t see me, left all my stuff in the car, and gingerly, but triumphantly, marched myself to the damn coffee shop and back, like a CHAMPION. GOLD STAR FOR ME.
I quit meds eight years ago. I did not go cold turkey, run wild and squeal, “Nanny nanny boo boo! Psych meds are a joke!” No, I titrated down with the help of a psychiatrist, a tiny baby in my belly, and a year of stability under my mental health belt.
I spent the years that followed perfecting a formula to replace the lithium I had faithfully swallowed everyday the decade before. Like all great discoveries, I found ketosis by accident. In an attempt to change my weight, I changed my brain. Ketosis worked better than lithium ever had and it lifted the haze I had been swatting at my whole life. Then came exercise, at first just a way to push the babies round and round to sleep, then a way to run straight up hills, then a way to pick my weight up off the ground until I found myself unreasonably calm. And with both came deep, solid sleep, the kind that wakes you up in the morning all by itself, full.
Ketosis was my anti-depressant. Powerlifting was my mood stabilizer. Sleep was my anti-psychotic.
This formula worked so well, I bottled it. I was my own pharmacist, measuring precise doses each day.
So it should be no surprise that when my formula fell apart, when my spine crumbled and I lost exercise, when stress knocked me out of ketosis and head first into cupcakes, when post-surgical narcotics had a paradoxical effect and stole whole weeks of sleep, that my brain would come tumbling down.
The good news is that nothing catastrophic happened outside of my head. I was able to stay out of the hospital with the help of quick doctors, a good husband, lots of babysitters, friends, and an excellent therapist. I didn’t drain the bank account or fly off the roof. My kids got the truly fun parts of mania: fantastic tea parties, Bulild- A – Bear, the Lego store, and all the Muppet movies (except that creepy Treasure Island one. Yikes!) and several amazing babysitters who will stay with us for a season.
And in the end, we are all okay.
This is the brilliance of fighting mental illness out loud, with a crowd. Mine is not a secret battle. This is not a secret blog. I have help beyond fountain pens. My kids have help beyond Sesame Street. My husband has help beyond Bluebell Homemade Vanilla. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, visible and invisible and they are quick to swoop in, despite my comfort level, to intercede. I am not alone, out in the field.
My precise formula may have failed, but this one holds firm. And while these new medicines I’ve swallowed work their chemical magic (and yes, they are working!) I grow increasingly thankful that I have this skilled team fighting for me while I go back to just dealing with a bad back. Just a bad back. Which doesn’t seem as hard a pill to swallow.