Sunday, November 11, 2018

Learning to Love My Broken Body

Years ago, long before my current 3-year exile in bed with POTS (Postural OrthostaticTachycardia Syndrome), I was casually chatting with some friends. I don’t remember our exact thread of conversation, but something spurred me to blurt out "I hate my body!"  The statement came out with such force and vehemence that I startled myself as well my friends, who looked at me with shock and concern and perhaps that "I think she's lost a few loose screws" look. 

My comment of self-loathing wasn't referring to my body image, my short stocky legs, my desire for a flatter stomach, or anything like that.  I was talking about the feelings of utter betrayal I felt for my body.  At the time I was dealing with severe endometriosis.  Not only was I coping with horrible pain, but I was also struggling with infertility as a result.  Anyone who has gone through that, knows what a deep, dark hole it can create.

Growing up I had been taught that my body was a temple- a gift from God and something I needed to respect.  I had listened and obeyed.  I graduated from college with a degree in health education.  I exercised regularly, ate well, and avoided alcohol, drugs, and other harmful substances.  I had done my part to respect and take care of my body, yet where was the reciprocity that should have insisted that my body take care of me in return?

I truly felt forsaken by this body of mine.  My strongly worded opinion that day revealed the feelings of anger and loss that were brewing underneath what looked, by all outward appearances, to be a perfectly healthy body. 

Though I'm a bit ashamed at my frequent lack of faith at the time, I am happy to report that after years of struggling with that painful disease, we witnessed a miracle.  Our beautiful twins arrived to complete our family, and I was able to have a hysterectomy to rid myself of the endometriosis and pain that had been plaguing me for so long.

Only a few years went by, however, before I started to experience regular bouts of pervasive pain that sent me to bed for days or weeks at a time.  Once again, I felt the sting of betrayal.  What was going on and why was my body not cooperating?  Though we suspected autoimmune issues, I had a hard time finding answers and treatments.

It was in the midst of dealing with these sporadic flares that I was asked to speak on health to a group of women from my church.  This was nothing new-- as a health educator and fitness instructor I had given many such presentations before.  Instead of turning to my standard spiel on the topic, however, I felt compelled to take this presentation in a slightly different direction.  Though I still incorporated some of the typical information on fitness and nutrition, I also wanted to focus on the mental and spiritual aspect of caring for our bodies.  I spent extra time doing research and scouring conference talks for ideas and quotes I could use in my talk.

Here are a couple of the poignant quotes that really stuck out to me.

  • “Our spirit and our body are combined in such a way that our body becomes an instrument of our mind and the foundation of our character."  - Elder Boyd K. Packer

  • "Our physical bodies are a blessing from God.  We received them for the purposes of fulfilling Heavenly Father’s work….. The body is the means by which we can attain our divine potential."  -Elder Joseph W. Sitati

My cutie patootie twins!
As I pondered the role of our bodies, my mindset began to shift.  I was reminded of an experience I had not long after my mom  passed away.  My twins were young toddlers at the time-- still so also easily excited by the simple thrills of life.  On this particular evening they were playing and squealing with that full-of-joy, contagious laughter that can't help but tug at your heart strings.  As I sat on their bedroom floor, grinning at their excitement, I had the sudden impression that my mom was there with us, and I could sense how badly she wanted to give them a hug.

I love this picture of my mom and son.
She was such a kissy grandma!
As I thought of this experience, I felt immediately humbled.  My body didn't always have the stamina I needed to do everything I wanted to do, but there were still a lot of things I could do that I took for granted-- hugging and snuggling my sweet babies being at the top of my list!

It was the very week after I gave this talk that my health took an even more dramatic turn for the worse.  My body collapsed on family vacation, and I have been mostly homebound and often bed bound ever since.

I've thought about this lesson a lot the last three years as my previously fit muscles have turned to flab with disuse.  My body has betrayed me over and over again.  It has failed to function at the most inopportune times.  It has denied me the time upright that I need to physically care for my house and family.  It has refused to see me through so many of my kids' concerts and recitals.  I have run the full gamete of emotions-- loss, sadness, anger, humility… and even gratitude-- not for this trial, necessarily (I'm not that pious, unfortunately), but for the things I CAN still do. 

It's always a huge win when I feel good enough to leave the house.
Happy day to have made it to the pumpkin patch with my kiddos this year!

  • I can work on my computer.
  • I can write this blog post. 
  • I can listen to and advise my kids.
  • I can see and feel the warmth of the sun.
  • I can read good books.
  • I can care for my own basic needs (most days).
  • I can hear inspirational talks and beautiful music and welcome their power on my soul.
  • I can empathize and share my love and appreciation for others.
  • At times, I can sit and chat with friends or play games with my family.
  • Though I now share a lot in common with the physical prowess of my 95-year-old grandpa, I can still, on good days, even scale a flight of stairs.
  • And, as previously noted, this broken body of mine can give and receive hugs with those I love.

I made it outside with my ear plugs to watch the fireworks on the 4th with my fam.
I know that God is well aware of my situation.  If my body is an instrument for Heavenly Father's work, as Elder Sitati declared, then I have to believe that, even in my broken state, God still has a purpose for me and a means for me to fulfill that work.  Though I may not be able to be the physically active mom, wife, sibling, friend, kind stranger, etc that I idealistically WANT to be, I can still be the person I NEED to be for myself and those around me as I actively seek direction and listen to that still small guiding voice.   

Yes, I still have times of mourning, anger, and discontentment.  I'm not even sure, at this point, that I can honestly say that I love my body-- but I am working on it.  And I do have a newfound respect and appreciation for it.  I know that as I continue to creatively seek to help others in the ways I am able and focus on all the things I CAN do and everything I have to be grateful for, I will learn to love this broken body.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Flecks of Gold: Finding Joy

I noticed a trend in New Year's resolutions this year-- rather than just setting goals, I saw many people also deciding on themes for the year.  One of my friend's posted that her theme was to "Strive." Rather than feeling like she had to achieve a set number of goals, she wanted to simply work on "striving" to be better and improve in many areas of her life.  I love that idea! 

I've thought a lot about what my goals and life's theme are for this year.  (I know, it's June- I'm a bit behind as usual).  Goal setting is especially hard for me right now-- not because I don't have goals or ambitions (recovering overachiever here!), but because my body has so many physical limitations.  It's honestly pretty soul-crushing to put my hopes into something that may never come to fruition or easily slip from my grasp due to circumstances out my control.  Though my POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) symptoms have improved a bit over the last few years, there are still many days I can't get out of bed, and a good 3-6 days a week that I am rendered useless when my chronic headaches turn into debilitating migraines. 
Photo credit: Sean Peck. This was after a late spring snow storm.
 I think it's a beautiful depiction of blooming despite hardship.
My daily goals are usually pretty simple-- make it through my inbox of work emails and projects, get some very "light" exercise in when possible, enjoy dinner with my family, read to and sing songs with my kids before bedtime.  Some days, even those goals are a little too lofty for me though.  But it's really the failed plans like, "attend my daughter's concert" or "make it to my twins' school program" that are especially hard to swallow. For some reason, after 2.5 years of dealing with the repercussions of this chronic illness, it's still hard for me to grasp the concept that just because I felt good enough to do something yesterday, doesn't mean I will be able to do it again today (in fact, because I did something yesterday, I will probably won't be able to do much today!)

But as I've thought about goals and themes, the word that keeps chasing me down and poking me in the ribs (or sometimes just taunting me) is JOY.  Joy is what I have been looking for the past few years as I've tried to come to grips with my crippled life.  It's what we all seek, right?  It's the seemingly intangible holy grail.  I'm not just talking about the thrill you get on a roller coaster ride, but that deep down warm, happy, content feeling in your heart. 

Photo credit: Sara Young
This chronic illness journey has given me a lot of and ups and downs… and downs and ups and downs and downs. It's hard not to get depressed or lose hope when you feel so cruddy all the time. It can be hard to feel happiness and joy when there's sludge running through your veins and an ice pick chipping away at your brain. 

Not long ago, after a particularly rough string of bad days, I happened upon a talk by M. Russell Ballard.  It was exactly what I needed to hear. 

He told the story of a young man who sold all his possessions and left his home in Boston in 1849 in search of gold in California.  He worked tirelessly, day after day, dipping his pan into the river and coming up empty.  After many fruitless days he became discouraged and distraught. He had spent all his money, put in so much time and effort, and was seeing no reward.  The young man was just about ready to give up when he came upon an old prospector with a bulging pouch of gold.  He ask the old man how he had found so much gold. 

Photo credit: Sara Young
The prospector replied that you just need to know where to look for it.  He then picked up a rock from the young man's discarded pile and smashed it to reveal the flecks of gold within. 

"But," the young man protested, "I want to find  large nuggets of gold like you have in your pouch, not just tiny flecks!"

The old prospector took the bulging pouch from his waist and opened it so the boy could see that it did not hold large nuggets, but thousands of tiny flecks of gold.  He said, "It seems to me that you have been so busy searching for nuggets of gold that, you have been missing out on all the precious flecks along the way."

Sometimes my life feels like it has gaping holes.  I'm sad about missing out on those large nuggets of gold.  I am incredibly wanderlust- I love to travel and have adventures, but anymore I just feel confined in my home and claustrophobic from cabin fever.  I want to  vacation with my husband and family.  I want to go hiking or ride my bike around the lake like I used to.  I want to get in the car and drive myself to a store, spend an hour shopping, and drive home.  I want to make it to all my kids activities and events and help at their schools.  I want to have the energy to go to an exercise class or run around with my kids in the back yard.  I want to see my mom again and feel her hug and hear her tell me everything is going to be alright.  I want to not be light-headed every time I stand up or have anxiety about passing out every time I'm in public.  I want to be able to better serve my family and friends.

But I know that when focusing on those elusive nuggets, I am missing out on all the precious flecks of gold around me.  These are just a few of those flecks that bring me joy:

  • I find joy in being a rock star in my own home. (I love when my twins shout "Mom!" and run to hug me every time I emerge from my room.)
  • I find joy in getting and giving hugs to my kids.
  • I find joy in reading stories to my kids and our nightly bedtime ritual when everyone piles on my bed and we sing songs and say prayer together.
  • I find joy in days with blue skies and sunshine.
  • I find joy from floating in the pool and staring up into a cloudy sky at sunset.

Photo credit: Sara Young (Sarah's pictures always bring me joy!)
  • I find joy in watching my kids make good choices or show kindness to others.
  • I find joy in family game night.
  • I find joy in hanging out or joking around with my teenagers.
  • I find joy in visiting with thoughtful friends.
  • I find joy in the days I'm able to feel productive.
  • I find joy in the times I can leave the house and return home without incident.

Oh happy day! I made it to the Tulip festival with my family last month.
  • I find joy in the matching little electric scooters that my daughter and I got to cruise around the neighborhood. (I can't go often or for long, but it gives me a sense of freedom I haven't had for a long time.)
  • I find joy in my amazing husband-- how much he does to make our family and house run, for comforting me constantly, and for making me laugh every day.
  • I find joy in the small acts of service I'm able to do or when I can occasionally feeling like I have helped someone else.
  • I find joy in my faith and testimony of Christ.

Photo credit: Sara Young
 Russell M. Nelson said, "When the focus of our lives is on Jesus Christ and His gospel, we can feel joy regardless of what is happening—or not happening—in our lives…. We can feel joy even while having a bad day, a bad week, or even a bad year!  The joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the focus of our lives."

I testify that this statement is true.  My illness is horrible, but that does not mean that my life is horrible.  I can find joy and peace in my life, despite my circumstance.  I may not be happy every single day, but I can choose to rely on my Savior, have hope, and appreciate the small miracles, amazing people, and tender mercies He places in my life.  I can find joy.