Vulnerability & Identity

I deserve to be healthy. You deserve to be healthy. We are all worth a second opinion.

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 documentaryThe 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.

Health in the Time of Coronavirus

The staff member that answered confirmed the appointment was moving forward. She said, “Essential appointments are not cancelled.”

How is everyone doing? I had other writing planned…and then COVID-19.

Baltimore businesses and other nonessential services have been closed for a week. I’m not alone in my anxiety about missing appointments that help me function, help me participate in society. My social media presence looks pretty rosy—I know. That’s curation. When the endometriosis pain is overwhelming, I can look at what I’ve done and remind myself that how I feel is not forever.

Reminding myself that it is not forever does not minimize the impact. The pain is real. I’ve lost an unreasonable amount of time. Previous symptoms have escalated, and new ones have been consistent for quite a few months. After the recommendation of Nancy Petersen (The legend!!—I introduced myself at the Endometriosis Summit which I will write a bit more about shortly, but I have to say that her in-person energy is warm and hopeful. She’s always trying to problem solve with the best information), I made an appointment with a new surgeon in the Baltimore area. The appointment was earlier this week. I worried and worried that it would be cancelled, so I called the day before. The staff member that answered confirmed the appointment was moving forward. She said, “Essential appointments are not cancelled.”

I thanked her profusely for staying open before hanging up to cry. Even with the incredible practitioners I work with, I haven’t acknowledged that endometriosis care is essential. I’ll bring this up in therapy tomorrow…probably. Honoring that endometriosis has brought life-altering pain is an ongoing and difficult place for me to go. For now, I want to say that I’m hopeful about my current care plan. Because even with some dear healthcare providers closed, I still have the support and knowledge they shared. In the pandemic, please remember to deep breathe and do healthy things to move. That’s the best advice I can give, I’m not a doctor! I’m a master of words.

I did want to share a bit more about the Endometriosis Summit earlier this month, especially because it’s a reminder that community continues to work hard. Go if you are able to attend, or watch the live-stream. I learned more in six hours than I had in the two years since my diagnosis. The pelvic floor PT, acupuncture, therapy were all validated. Another big development from the conference: Endo What? launched the School Nurse Initiative. They will send a free education toolkit to the school nurse of your choice. Even with schools closed, the organization announced today that nurses working from home can still receive the kits. Participate to help educators learn so the next generation doesn’t have to spend years suffering silently.

The book I was thinking about while writing this:

  • Beating Endo: How to Reclaim Your Life from Endometriosis by Dr. Iris Kerin Orbuch and Amy Stein DPT
  • Dear Girlsby Ali Wong
  • The Crying Bookby Heather Christle

Stay sweaty and glittery.

Changing Pain

I’m more than work and physical pain. There is movement and creativity—all experiences better when shared.

I’ve been looking back at my blog this year and notice how often I work to mention joy. I can’t deny the impact of Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights on my perspective. I think about his work, and many others I’ve read this year, while reflecting on what I’ve attempted to do in 2019. Which has turned out to be a lot. One of the difficult things I’ve learned in therapy, and well, all my fucking appointments, is how hard it is to undo thought patterns. 

Much of my time this year has been spent at doctors: pelvic floor physical therapy, gynecologist, acupuncture, therapy, orthopedic physical therapy, general practitioner…I’m exhausted. In November, I was at multiple doctors a week. I burned out, cancelled a bunch to get back to some basics and have social time. Trying to pack all the appointments for my health ended up becoming more stressful than helpful.

I’ll echo what many have said about chronic illness: it’s isolating and exhausting. Managing your health feels like a full-time job. You’re always calculating your time. You look at other people and feel resentment that they haven’t been to a doctor weeks, or even years (that’s probably a bad move on the opposite side of the spectrum). Every social interaction and choice become loaded with the question will I make my symptoms worseWhat will I have to do to undo this event?

Talia Hibbert puts the isolating feeling in perspective in Get A Life Chloe Brown, “Her body was vulnerable enough without her heart following suit.” Chloe Brown has fibromyalgia, and after her friends and fiancé have left her, she’s convinced herself she’s better alone. Que her writing a list to be more adventurous. Relationships are already vulnerable. Add constant pain, unpredictable energy levels, and a social life feels more like a let-down. But like Chloe, that’s not what I want. I’m more than work and physical pain. There is movement and creativity—all experiences better when shared.

The shift I’m feeling isn’t only from the books I’ve read. I can’t tell if it’s the annoying phrase, getting older, or the perspective change with time. Or therapy. After writing a book about not wanting to be vulnerable, maybe now it’s easier to see the importance of relationships. My partner is incredibly supportive, I’ve had a chance to collaborate with all sorts of creatives and change-makers at work, I can make time for friends, my family sticks around—maybe it all will be okay. I can change how I react to pain.

In order to intentionally find more joy and spend time with loved ones, I’ve decided 2020 will be The Year of the French Fry. I LOVE potatoes (ask friends that went to The Woods writing retreat about my 2018 potato poem). I also love exploring different parts of Baltimore with people. So in the comments, please suggest your favorite fries, from Royal Farms to upscale restaurant. French fries have diverse pleasures. Just like Baltimore. 

The book I was thinking about while writing this (obviously, perhaps):

Stay sweaty and glittery.

Something to Know

One of these times, if I get the words in the correct order, if I retrace more precisely the lines of history, I am convinced I will learn something I need to know.
– Rebecca Makkai

There is no better time to write than during a two hour wait for my tires to be replaced, am I right? Eleven months into blogging about endometriosis, and I have more frustrations than answers. I’ve heard countless authors talk about this, read countless essays about this—there is an idea that you can write your way out of something. I should say something about obsession here.

What else don’t we know? The universe may be one billion years younger than projected. This is the ultimate I thought it was Friday, but it’s only Wednesdaymoment. I white knuckle through the day and feel the thrill of bronzer tricking people about my health. It’s the sinking thrill of the phrase you don’t look sick

Memories are a haunting. I feel the ache start to grow in my pelvis and panic, then try to breathe. What have I done wrong this month to trigger symptoms? Why did my surgeon say there was nothing else he could do? Is my mood at this point in the cycle because of medical trauma? Why can’t I deflect with some jokes right now?

Still, I’m not interested in the theory that endometriosis is caused by trauma. The theory allows doctors to dismiss pain as all in your head, or even with the best intentions, make the pain some part of an individual suffering narrative, rather than an illness to be treated with medical intervention. I’m interested in how we (general public, doctors, researchers) will cling to any vague theory that may provide a reason. Then I remember—I don’t want to shake from exhaustion and pain any more. I want a reason, or an answer.

Here’s something to know—the holidays are difficult. I think about limitations as I drive to visit friends and family, yet end up distracted and in pain during the visits from these drives. Yet I spoke up recently. My parents drove, and I slept under a blanket with the heat in the car blasting. Small steps.

Some books that explore trauma in different ways which I was thinking about while writing this:

  • The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
  • Music for Wartime, Rebecca Makkai
  • Felon, Reginald Dwayne Betts
  • Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams

Stay sweaty and glittery.

Curious Potential

Beating Endo: How to Reclaim Your Life from Endometriosis and ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life arrived earlier this month. As I continue to work toward a sub-20 minute 5k, I’m also working on taking to heart the advice from my acupuncturist and pelvic floor physical therapist: running easy (or not at all) while I have my cycle. I’ll write more about my experience with those books and a virtual running coach after the Baltimore Running Festival 5k. I’m so curious about potential.

Why is not running so hard? I spent a decade being told my pain was normal. I was treated as if I was lying, weak, or hysterical. I needed to take the pill or suck it up. The message was that it was my fault I couldn’t stomach the pain. I was already practicing this kind of self-talk anyway–I swam on a team where the coach said that you’re recovering while sitting in class in between morning practice and evening practice. Unlearning those beliefs will take time. I’ve been repeating the phrase that Sonya Renee Taylor created an organization around: the body is not an apology.

I’m curious to see how radical self-love and athletics interact as I face the unknown. I’d like to think they’re not mutually exclusive if the movement is about exploring the unknown and internalized expectations. Taylor recounts an encounter with a free-diver as description of the journey of radical self-love: “learning the difference between fear and danger.”

As I read Taylor, my thoughts wander to Leslie Heywood and Shari Dworkin’s Built to Win: The Female Athlete as Cultural Icon: “Serious athletic training paradoxically produces a profound (and only partially mistaken) sense of the self-authorship of one’s body. This sense is one of the benefits of sport—you get beyond a culturally mediated sense of your body…And you feel that, through your labor, you’ve made yourself.” Have I used athletics to make myself? As much as I want to PR at 31, I run for the endo warriors who can’t. The ones whose kidneys and diaphragms are compromised by the disease, the ones whose healthcare won’t cover excision surgery. I see your fight and this is where I am in mine.

I’ve run with two Baltimore running groups this month: Faster Bastards and Riot Squad Running. Both groups are open and supportive and use positive self-talk when talking about new races. I love this, and plan to continue running with them while remembering that ultra-marathons may not be for me, though I have the joy of spending a Saturday morning running around the waterfront for 10 miles. It’s not lazy that I prefer 5k and 10k races. As my health changes, I’m going to continue to explore potential. 

Some books I was thinking about while writing this:

  • The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love, Sonya Renee Taylor
  • Built to Win: The Female Athlete as Cultural Icon byLeslie Heywood and Shari Dworkin

Welcome

Welcome to #poetsthatsweat.

On this blog, I’m bringing together my two loves: language and movement. I started using the hashtag, #poetsthatsweat, facetiously a few years ago to get over my embarrassment of being a jock and artist. I’m no longer concerned about being embarrassed.

I’ve also spent a long time pretending to be fine. Since officially diagnosed with stage IV endometriosis in April 2018 (after over a decade of pain, more in a later post), I’ve been looking for ways to express joy. Casual clothes, hard work, and coffee fuel me, but I’ve had to be more strategic if I’m being honest about the chronic fatigue that comes with endometriosis. I’m always thinking about how I will feel in the coming days, trying to ration my energy while still participating in things I love.

On this blog you’ll find my thoughts on running, circus arts (find a solo of me losing myself in a Kesha song here), writing, and reading in the context of health. All things that lead to joy in some way. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, right?

Most recent reading pleasure: I finished Station Eleven yesterday morning. What an intricate, masterfully written book. Emily St. John Mandel weaves multiple lives together in a society nearly decimated by the Georgia Flu. As you read, you find out how Station Eleven has touched each character. The world is so big, yet so small in the energies of lives that bind us. This line stuck with me:

“If nothing else, it’s pleasant to consider the possibility.”

I want possibilities to look better for future generations of women, womyn. Treatment in the healthcare system is a piece of equal opportunity. Endometriosis hasn’t been studied on a broad scale, only recently receiving major funding.  Medicine’s history is full of patriarchal treatment. I can look back at the rage in my poetry and say “I see why you feel that way.” I am not the first to say this either. Read Dora Malech’s The Kenyon Review blog post CLIFTON, PAIN, AND POETRY. There is finally federal funding to research endometriosis, which will hopefully mean something.

For now, here are some quick resources that have helped me:

Thanks for reading. Stay sweaty and glittery.