I held back tears as I left the chiropractor’s office. I willed myself not to indulge in a good cry. I’ve already cried about all this. Get over it and move on, I told myself. I should have seen the tears coming–I was already feeling fragile when I walked in. As I left the doctor confirmed: I shouldn’t be running. My attempt at getting healthy was hurting me.
Last week, pretty suddenly, I started having shooting pain in my lower back and right hip. It’s almost exactly where I had intense, immobilizing muscle spasms during pregnancy, and what led to me getting regular chiropractic treatment from then until we moved five months after my son was born. Worried the pain would escalate, I reluctantly made an appointment.
I dread doctor’s offices now because I am tired of rehashing the ways my body is not functioning properly. I’m tired of having to rate my pain. I would much rather keep ignoring it so I can do more important things, thankyouverymuch. I am also tired of the breezy advice to take better care of myself by just doing this one simple thing. Which I add to my list of One Simple Things that I wind up not doing because the list is so long. I have always been an A student and, likewise, strive to be a good patient. But since I became a mother, all my self care has been de-prioritized.
It’s not something I consciously do. It’s just that the inner voice telling me to take care of myself is a polite, quiet, hand-raising girl saying, Hey, um, maybe you should have a glass of water? And, um, maybe sit down a minute? Icing your back would probably feel good, right? And the voice she’s competing with is my son wailing “EEEEEEEHHHHHHHH!!!” and banging his head into the baby gate.
If it’s not my son, it’s someone else on my mind. It’s like my energy is controlled by a switch that says ME and OTHERS and it’s usually stuck on OTHERS.
Remember when I put taking care of myself on my THINGS I DO list? Yeah, I told you that was pretty aspirational.
I feel like a bad person whatever I do. If I take more time for myself, I feel selfish for it. Last weekend I wanted to pass on going to the park with my husband because I was tired and I hurt and I felt drained, but I felt like a bad wife and mother for saying, “No, I’d rather not go to the park with you and our boy on this beautiful sunny day.” So I went. And it was good. But it was not what I needed. I needed quiet, isolation, and focus to recharge.
But the biggest reason my current physical condition has me so frustrated is that it is a microphone to the inner voice sneering, YOU ARE WEAK.
I spent all of my childhood and teen life being out of shape. By middle school I decided gym class was just something to suffer through. I was, decidedly, not an athlete. I spent my entire adolescence just trying to ignore the fact that I hated my body by thinking at least I was kind of smart and kind of a good friend.
Something changed in college, when I met a cadre of amazing young women who were smart and beautiful and also took care of their bodies. They weren’t health nuts, we could make cookies together or eat ice cream, but they also tried to consciously make healthy food choices to nourish their bodies. And even though they weren’t athletes in the sign-me-up-coach sense, they were enthusiastic about honoring their bodies’ need for movement and activity. It was an awakening for me. At the end of my time at college, I was beginning to think, Hey, maybe I could do this too.
The summer after graduation, I began running a 3 mile walking path along the waterfront with one of my friends who was an avid runner. I began to feel stronger and more comfortable in my skin. By the end of the summer, I had a boyfriend, who turned into my fiance and then husband. I was comfortable in my skin and went to the gym or worked out at home occasionally, but little by little I spent even less time working out and more time learning how to cook and watching movies on the couch with my new husband.
Life went on (un)comfortably like that for a while as he and I got flabbier and unhappier and couldn’t shake the stress of my drawn-out job search and his long, unpredictable work hours and the thousand little unforseen conflicts of new marriage. About a year and a half into our marriage, I decided enough was enough, we needed to manage the mounting stress in our home. So I told Matt we were going to start working out. Every day.
Matt, a former cross country runner, was soon bounding ahead of me along the waterfront while I gasped for air and pressed my palm to the stitch in my side. It was downright annoying.
Yet as time went on, the pounds slipped off and we became fit together. I was strong and proud of the things my body could do, proud of the way it felt and the control I had over it. Proud of myself for finding the determination to work out, even after years of telling myself I wasn’t the kind of person who works out. Even on days when I still believed that. I was re-writing my story, changing what I believed about my character.
And then I got pregnant. And things were glorious for a while. I had no morning sickness, so aside from the first trimester fatigue, I felt pretty good. I ran my first 10k in my first trimester and ran a Thanksgiving Turkey Trot in the second. But that’s when my body started to send some signals that I needed to slow down. That’s when the hip pain started and I need to stop doing my regular workouts and start going to the chiropractor regularly and getting massages.
Although being slowed down in pregnancy was kind of a bummer, it’s also kind of expected, so not really a big deal. I figured I would birth my baby and then get back on the road to optimal health. Easy peasy.
Not so much.
That year after my son was born was the worst health-wise of my life. Not only was I blindsided by an appendectomy just two weeks after giving birth and concurrent with discovering my son wasn’t gaining enough weight, after all that was addressed and resolved, I got unexplainable fevers that wiped me out after every attempt at increasing my activity. Even just a busy day of housework could affect me. For months. After recovering from surgery, I slipped on our stairs and banged up my lower back. Nothing was broken, but I was hurting so badly that I crawled around on the floor during the day for weeks because the mandatory bending and lifting that naturally comes with having an infant was just too painful.
I so naively thought that after my son was born, my body would start getting back into better shape. I didn’t expect it to happen on its own, of course. I thought I would just work out when I could, like I had when I first got into shape.
I went from feeling weak all my life to finally feeling strong. When I completed a 10k while pregnant. When I overcame the pains of pregnancy. And, most dramatically, when I gave birth naturally to my son. I felt like a champion. I had finally silenced those voices telling me I was weak. I looked at my baby boy and thought, I am not weak. Look what I just did.
That mentality slowly chipped away with each doctor appointment and ER visit over the following months. Every attempt at exercise I paid for later, every admonition to walk instead of run, beat down my spirit. You are weak.
After my son turned a year old I started doing a 20 minute workout here or some gentle yoga there, but I tried not to think anything while doing it: not You are strong or You are weak. Just do it. But every pain my body felt as I stretched it and challenged it reminded me how far I am from where I started. I lost the optimism you need when you start working out: It will get better. The lesson I learned over the previous year was, instead, This will make you sick.
I’m the type of person who wants things done quickly. I have to consciously slow down when I’m walking alongside someone to make sure I’m not walking too fast for them. I want to know where I’m going and get from A to B as efficiently as possible. But this journey is teaching me that this is not just my story. My story is part of the bigger story of humanity, of life on Earth. That story belongs to God. And God’s stories don’t go directly from A to B. Like the story of Joseph, who starts out as a favored son, then gets sold into slavery by his brothers, then is placed in charge of a large estate, then is put in jail, then is put in charge of a kingdom, God’s stories are full of ups and downs, but ultimately ups.
God’s trying to meet me in this part of my story and teach me something I don’t want to be taught. I wanted the euphoric, mountaintop feeling after giving birth to just carry through the rest the year, or the rest of my life. I wanted my story of overcoming to be over. Big stamp: SUCCESS.
That’s not how it works. We are always overcoming something. We are works in progress. Sometimes things we are overcoming look like the same things we’ve overcome before because there is always deeper work to be done.
I thought by conditioning my body I was getting rid of the voice telling me I am weak, but it was there all along. I just decided to build evidence to the contrary, to drown it out for a while. My self doubt and fear don’t go away. There will never be a point at which I can accurately say, Hoorah! I am completely confident. I will never doubt again. That would be inhuman. But what I thought was failure and regression is an opportunity to dig deeper, to notice parts of myself I couldn’t see before and fine-tune them.
I have to give up the idea that I can control what God uses my challenges for. I want everything laid out for me. I want to read the book and take the test and get the A and move on. There’s no lesson plan or study guide tailored to my life and the twists and turns it will take. There are general life guidelines, like put love first, take time to be quiet, cry when you need to, smile whenever you can, trust that God is good, and always, always press on. These are the simple things that sometimes seem so complicated, scary and even heartbreaking. There are times when my spirit wants to shout to the heavens I don’t want to! or I don’t know how!
But I need to surrender. And when I think about surrender, I need to think about giving birth. When I was in labor, every time the intensity ramped up, I focused on trusting the process. I closed my eyes, relaxed my body and chanted, “Peace, peace, peace.” That is probably the first time in my entire life I have done that. My entire modus operandi is to resist change and maintain control. In life, I tend to believe that I can get around hardship. That if I just research enough and follow the recommended protocols, I can sidestep being uncomfortable. But there’s a lot of research on birth indicating the best way for mom and baby to get through it, in normal circumstances, is the uncomfortable way. So, for once, I subscribed to the kind of hokey rah-rah, woo-woo, don’t-worry-be-happy approach and meditated on letting go and thinking positively. The ironic thing is, when the time came, I felt so much more powerful for letting go, because there was a stronger power coursing through me than I could ever muster on my own and I was working with it.
So when I’m anxious, frustrated, or depressed and not sure what it looks like or feels like to relax and trust a higher power to get me through, I need to remember what it felt like to surrender to birth. Change isn’t always comfortable because it is the birth of something new, and I need to surrender to it in the same way. Focus on the present moment and chant, “Peace, peace, peace.”