Vulnerability is easy when you’re happy. I thought I was comfortable sharing—I’ve been writing this blog for over a year and have been on the Internet since Xanga, ya know?—but apparently not. Not when I thought my life was really trending up. Or whatever stock market term makes sense.
One of the difficult things I’ve learned in therapy, and well, all my fucking appointments, is how hard we hold on to identity. This month, I’m taking the time social distancing to reflect on identity and mental health.
Athletics help me feel normal. It’s been a part of my identify since I was a child, I cannot remember otherwise. Even though it could just as well be otherwise. (A bit of an aside, I got really into existentialism when I had a blood clot at 19.)
Lindsey Vonn’s documentary, The Final Season, was illuminating when I watched it a few months ago while I was flattened on the couch by endometriosis symptoms. The film came to a climax during the press conference before her final race. She’s sparing with a male journalist about her career. Vonn is unrelenting and gives everything, despite the physical pain that is living the life of a serious athlete in your 30s. She feels isolated.
Though different, chronic injury is on a similar plane as chronic illness. I was chronically injured as a Division I swimmer since my freshman year. I started at Rutgers as a distance swimmer. When my shoulders failed me (or rather, the 10,000 yards a day wore down the cartilage), I was able to transition to middle distance backstroke and butterfly with a strong underwater kick that had already been a major part of my distance success. A group of us were in a similar situation, which created a special bond. We spent extra time with trainers, extra time with doctors, but we were still isolated from teammates that thought we weren’t trying hard enough. Similarly, when you have a chronic illness, it’s hard not to notice when friends and family are frustrated that new treatments, new diets, additional surgery, don’t seem to help enough. Then you have people slide into your life with: Meditation changed so-and-so’s life. Yoga healed my friend’s fibromyalgia. Etc, etc.
So what’s identity? I think about impression management and have so many questions: Am I communicating I’m an athlete? Am I communicating I’m an artist? Can I be a jock poet? If I can run and practice circus, am I really sick enough to have a chronic illness?
When I was an athlete, I would train through pain, which lead to severe chronic injuries. I’d downplay it with doctors, I’d trust I could keep going because a coach said I should. Because they said it was a sign of toughness. I don’t always talk about my doctor-anxiety in therapy, but all the work I’ve been doing with my therapist has made me realize that if something feels wrong, it probably is. This has made me smarter in running. It has made me comfortable speaking up at work. It has helped me realize I’m not crazy or hysterical if I’m upset when I’m dismissed by a doctor.
Here’s an example. Last summer, I went to my primary care physician because my energy was unusually low. I read her the list of symptoms I tracked in the months leading up to the appointment. Rather than ordering a blood test, she countered every symptom with the response, It’s probably anxiety and depression. After her forth response, I spat out, You’d be depressed to if no one believed the pain you have been in for years. She ended up relenting and ordering bloodwork, but only ordered one very basic thyroid test. Another doctor ordered a better panel, but in the end, I knew I needed a holistic approach. I saved money to see a highly recommended out-of-network doctor that practices naturopathic medicine, therefore looks at the full picture of what is happening inside a patient’s body coupled with their lifestyle. The results were a surprise to no one that listens to the length and heaviness of my periods during an intake: my iron WAS low. Off I went to a hematologist that immediately recommended an iron infusion.
The two-part infusion was a few weeks ago. I have noticed some significant changes. Although my period this month was bring-me-to-my-knees painful, I didn’t have the brain fog that usually comes with severe fatigue. It’s a relief, I have been really concerned about that symptom. I also coped with the pain better than I have for the past few years. No emotional breakdowns this month. I’ll keep track of this in my spreadsheet, but the anxiety and depression that would normally come with my period barely registered. It seems that because I was not bone-tired, I could hold on to the fact that the pain was temporary, another surgery is on the schedule, I could keep going even though the state of the world is precarious. Nurse and endometriosis advocate, Nancy Petersen, referenced a study at the Endometriosis Summit that supports this: for many chronic illness patients, their depression lifts when (and only when) their significant symptoms are properly treated. I keep thinking about my PCP, who does not seem to understand that.
I deserve to be healthy. You deserve to be healthy. We are all worth a second opinion. We all deserve access to quality healthcare. Our system needs a serious look at the accessibility of long-term care for chronic patients.
The books I was thinking about while writing this:
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
- She Said, Jodie Kantor and Megan Twohey
- The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut
Stay sweaty and glittery.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Month. National Alliance on Mental Illness has resources year round, locally NAMI Metro Baltimore is there for anyone that needs help.