"Pain is weakness leaving the body."
I used to repeat that to myself on a constant loop as a teen. Hours of grueling manual labor on my family's dairy farm each day starting at 4:30am, plus hours of training for sports- miles of hills run on country dirt roads so I was never far from the next round of barn chores, plus ladders, drills, and scrimmages for 2 hours of formal practice during basketball season, open gyms, summer league, and team camps in the off season. I was usually the tallest, but always the toughest, strongest, and most determined. Always the strongest. The boys asked to come work on the farm to be strong like me. Always the strongest.
Through college and early motherhood I kept running, kept training, stayed strong. As life's curveballs piled up- desperate financial straits requiring I work 3 jobs at a time to barely scrape by, then a special needs baby who literally never slept and screamed for hours on a good day, the dark pit of postpartum depression that barely ever lifted from the gift of three incredible children- born to me who wasn't supposed to be able to have children- in 4 years. Life took over. Survival took over. The years of abusing my body won over all else, because it's easier to put me on the back burner when bills need to be paid but the account is overdrawn, babies are screaming and the house is a mess but the nob-verbal toddler's occupational therapist will arrive in an hour, and countless situations. Here I am, 12 years later paying for the self abuse. I don't feel strong anymore.
I look at my arms and legs, cushioned with years of six pregnancies that never had a chance to burn off, my six-pack long gone replaced by a core soft, stretched, dimpled, and split open from years of neglect and big babies. Let's not even mention the number on the scale. I'm down 30 lbs. Yay 36 lbs! But knowing I have 70 more to go? I don't feel strong. The years of self abuse, eating what was quick and easy, and nearly a decade of 3-4 hours of broken sleep at night have caught up with me. They call it Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. That means, "Your body's a flippin' mess and we know what it's NOT, so here's this label. There's no treatment. Best of luck." I don't feel strong. Eating WELL, doing what my body can, and forsaking my 5am wake-up several days a week in favor of a couple more hours until the kids' noises reach me from the living room have done a lot to heal my body. I don't feel strong. In fact, I feel very, very weak. Pain is no longer weakness leaving the body. It's not burning lungs as I train through asthma, leg cramps as I take on that last hill, or pushing that last ladder as hard as possible knowing the next time I sprint the court I could be stopping a point guard half my size on a break-away to win the game and I wanted to be ready. My pain now is swollen elbows that make lifting my coffee cup for a sip painful. Swollen knees and hips so simply walking is something I need to 'power through.' Headaches complete with a memory-zapping 'brain fog' that last for days with no apparent trigger. And those are the GOOD days. When I'm in a "flare" my neck is swollen and stiff so holding my head up is painful, my arms hurt too much to knit, my feet are too swollen to fit into shoes even if I DID want to walk, and fatigue so deep to the bone I physically CANNOT wake up, so my children simply pile on my bed with fruits and hard-boiled eggs to watch TV until I can wake up. I don't feel strong.
I struggle with pushing through. Should I? I'm tired and sore. Is it THAT kind of sore, or can I do more? If I choose incorrectly I could pay for days. With this mysterious "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome," pushing through at the wrong time means your body responds to basic movement and exercise with inflammation like a sprained ankle. This weekend we went on a road trip. Part of it involved me pushing(and pulling) a jogging stroller with a 30-pound toddler up some steep hills and down some intense inclines. I felt good. I felt strong. The next day I was sore, but not bad sore. It made me happy. I pushed through, and in the evening did some yard work. Mowed the lawn, mulched the garden with the clippings, pulled some weeds, and did some minor landscaping. At the end of the day, I was paying for it with a fever and screaming headache- both signs my body was flipping on its, "EMERGENCY! WE'VE BEEN INJURED!" switch. I woke up this morning and literally(I weigh in to start each week so it was exact) gained 2 lbs with inflammation. My wedding rings choking my swollen fingers and sore hands from pulling weeds were my first clue. All because I did yard work for a couple hours after I spent a beautiful weekend enjoying nature with my family. I don't feel strong.
Most of the time I won't say anything about this to anyone. I try really hard not to complain, but I'm dealing with this all the time. Every minute of every day. This is not a big, "Woe is me," whinge. Just a peek at what's in my head that I don't say every day. My husband sees me moving slowly, rubbing spots with pain cream, or trying to stretch a particular area and asks how I'm feeling. My answer is usually, "Fine," or, "Sore." But he knows. When I say, "I'm just tired," he asks if I'm physically tired or mentally tired. He knows the difference. Physically means my brain is awake and ready to go but my body is limiting me. Mentally tired means I just need to go to bed. He is such a gift to me. He is strong for me when I don't feel strong.
So here I sit, tired, weak, swollen, aching while I lift my coffee cup, willing myself to not freak out. I can do this. I'm listening to my children play and I want to just get up and get stuff done, but I can't. I have to make the choice between clean the kitchen right now, or have the strength to make lunch in an hour. Making lunch is not optional because I must eat very clean, nutrient-rich food in order for my body to recover right now. So I sit. I mindlessly scroll. Sometimes anxiety gets the best of me as I sit and become more and more terrified I won't recover. I won't get better. I won't lose the weight compounding the effects of the pain on my joints. I will never be strong again.
People often ask, "If you could say one thing to your younger self, what would it be?" I would tell her to take care of herself. That she matters. That the screaming baby she's holding is still going to be screaming when he's almost ten, but that he's okay. Screaming for a couple minutes not in your arms while you eat a decent meal, take a shower, or stretch is not going to hurt him(and truth be told, he's going to scream the whole time you hold him and neglect yourself, too), but having a broken Mama in ten years will affect you all. You matter. Take care of you.