Showing Up

Playing by the Rules

Last night at work, I inhaled helium from a balloon and heard my squeaky voice, which was hilarious. I have never done that before. I was even afraid to do it when my coworker passed me the balloon. Afraid of it making me sick. Afraid of getting in trouble. Afraid of breaking some rule.

I tried to smoke marijuana once when John and I lived in Chicago, but unlike our former president Bill Clinton, I did not inhale. I couldn’t bring myself to do it because I was scared of what might happen if I got high. Scared, even in my 30s, of my parents finding out and being disappointed in me. I also tried a small piece of cake that a former friend said had weed in it, also in Chicago. I was so scared to try it, but I did it, and then I waited to see what happened and took hypervigilance of my body to a whole other level. Nothing happened. Nothing at all.

Just before John and I moved to Chicago, my anxiety had reached such a severity that I could barely eat or drink anything because my throat would close up and I’d nearly choke every time I tried. I had panic attacks in the bathroom at work and while running along the Silver Comet Trail and cried nearly every single day. It finally reached the point I asked my doctor for a prescription for Xanax, and he gave me 10 pills. Those 10 pills lasted me two years.

It took me about 2 months to take the first pill because I was so afraid of what it might do to me. Right before we moved, while John was in Dallas for training at the job he’d accepted that moved us to Chicago, I had a panic attack all alone in our nearly empty apartment in Smyrna. Missy and Louie were with their grandma in Savannah, where they stayed until July 2016, and at that point, we were sleeping on our air mattress in the living room. Or I was, since John was in Texas.

I had to try it and see what happened because the anxiety was unbearable. So I swallowed the pill, laid down, and just hoped it didn’t make me sick because I’m terrified of vomiting even though I haven’t done it since I was 6 years old.

I fell asleep, had the craziest dream about vampires, woke up groggy, but I felt like the cacophony of racing thoughts in my head had dimmed to a dull roar. I could actually have a single thought for once! Still, I didn’t want to become addicted to Xanax or anything so I saved the pills and only took them when my anxiety was at its worst.

I never wanted to smoke growing up or as an adult because I watched how it sickened June and later killed her. I hated how I smelled from being around her. I hated that living with her for so long meant every cold or flu I got turned into bronchitis or pneumonia, something that continues to happen today.

When I went to college, I avoided the parties and alcohol because I didn’t want to get drunk and not be in control of myself, but I also did not want to throw up, and I especially didn’t want my dad to somehow find out about me drinking because he is so against drinking because his father was an alcoholic and alcoholism runs in his family.

I also didn’t date or hook up or even kiss anyone though I wanted to, so much. I was so curious about sex and wanted sexual experiences with others, but I’d been raised that it was wrong to do anything sexual before marriage so I avoided anything romantic with men pretty much until I met John, minus a couple of attempts at dates with total duds.

And even with John, I was terrified and guilt-ridden. I barely slept the first night we slept in the bed together and only kissed, and I might as well have been wearing a chastity belt because I normally sleep in just a tank top and panties, but I had a sleeved shirt, bra, pants, and panties on and kept my arms in front of me because God forbid I touch John or he touch me. And when he spent the weekend with me a few weeks later, and we did everything short of sex, I was a mess. I’d never been in that situation before and I’d waited a long time for it, but I’d broken THE rule: no sex or anything sexual before marriage. It really fucked with my head until and even after we got married, and it bothered me so much on our honeymoon that I was physically unable to have sex and instead cried in John’s arms in our beautiful honeymoon suite in St. Augustine, Florida.

I have lived with a lot of rules in my head and been afraid of anything that might put me in situations I can’t be totally in control of. Some of it came from church and all of the rules of religion, but a lot of it came from my dad.

My dad was so overprotective when my brothers and I were growing up, but it’s only as an adult that I see it was because he lives with a lot of fear inside of him, which probably started with his mother who was afraid of everything herself.

I really didn’t get to be curious about much growing up. I was not left alone for even two seconds when my dad was around. On the weekends when he was off work, my brother Adam and I couldn’t go outside. We had to sit on the couch in the living room while he snored and watched the back of his eyelids (slept) with some dumb Western movie on TV. He had to know where we were at all times.

I never got to have sleepovers or go to sleepovers or birthday parties until I was a senior in high school. The only person I could spend time away from home with was my grandmother June, and my dad didn’t really like me being there with all the fighting that went on.

I didn’t go to school dances. Finally got to go to football games my last year of high school. Didn’t go to prom (not that anyone asked me but that was probably because no one ever saw me anywhere but in school and they never really got to know me).

I was so afraid to do anything wrong or bad. My dad’s hypervigilance became my self-hypervigilance. I went off to college and kept to myself and wound up severely depressed and suicidal by my senior year because I’d stifled my desire to explore, make mistakes, and learn from them during these four years and I’d isolated myself out of fear and shame.

I dreamed last night about the guy I had such a crush on in college, and in the dream, his wife told me he never got over me, was still upset that nothing ever happened between us because we had such a connection back then. I still think about him sometimes. Not in a way like I wish I was with him or anything like that, but that I wish I hadn’t been afraid to kiss him and see what happened. I feel like I trapped my sexuality behind a wall with a boulder and turned off the lights when that part of me so naturally and so desperately wanted out, and it appeared as if I was asexual or not as sexually or romantically interested as I was.

That part of me still wants out. I’ve moved the boulder back a few inches at times but then slammed it shut again. But is it really me though or is it just shame from purity culture and about my fatness?

I am terrified of being in any situation where I can’t be fully aware or have some sense of control. Getting drunk, high, having sex, trying foods outside of my comfort zone that might not settle well in my body, flying, etc. all terrify me.

As an aside though, flying is exhilarating for me. I always break out in a huge grin when I feel the plane tilt back and begin to ascend. I’ve even cried before, it is such a rush.

I thought about this when I went to Chicago to visit my brother Ben and sister-in-law Sarah last month. Once I’m in the plane, everything else is out of my hands. I’m at the mercy of fate, jet streams, the pilot, the airplane carrying me, and if the plane crashes, there’s nothing I can do but go down with it.

I’ve never been blackout drunk before, but when I’ve been drunk with John or friends, it feels so similar. I’m floating. I’m giggly. I’m less inhibited sexually. I’m in a great mood and then I’m sleepy. Sometimes I wish alcohol didn’t have such a dire effect on my stomach and digestive system so I could have those feelings more often. I also wonder sometimes if my own tight grip on the control of my body isn’t the reason my stomach aches anytime I have the chance to try something unfamiliar or that might loosen me up.

I think I am scared to get high for the same reason.

As I’ve started trusting John more and seen him becoming more open and intimate with me, I’ve found myself letting go more during sex and getting more pleasure out of it, but it is only when he initiates. I cannot bring myself to initiate it myself. I still feel so held back when it comes to making my desires known when he has zero issue letting me know when he wants me.

I am a tightly wound coil. I was such a goody good church girl growing up that people tiptoed around me. To get around this persona, I developed a love for swearing like a sailor.

And that’s part of the rebel inside of me. The mischievous side that only comes out in swear words and dirty jokes. Or, you know, when people tell me I can’t or shouldn’t do something, and I’m like, hold my sparkling water (you know, since I can’t stomach beer).

I grew up with rules around food and my weight. No junk food so I learned how to sneak Little Debbie oatmeal creme pies without that cellophane wrapper making a single crinkle as I walked to the bathroom to basically inhale it as a giant “fuck you, I’ll eat what I want” to my parents. (It’s funny to me now how I snuck junk food at June’s house too when that was the one place where that food was bought for me to eat and I had all the permission, minus snarky comments about the size of my ass from my great-grandfather Brophy and my creepy uncle Charles, to eat as much of it as I wanted.)

As a Christian, I found myself constantly praying to be obedient, to rid myself of basically me and to be the submissive person I was told God made me to be. Always asking for forgiveness. Always ashamed of my thoughts and, often, my disbelief. Even as I tried to do all the right Christian things, so much of it felt hollow. That rebel in me wanted so badly to question everything I was told to believe, but I put her in the boulder-covered cave with my sexuality.

So now, in the wake of leaving Christianity, I’ve thought, Okay, so all of these rules I’ve tried to follow all of my life don’t really mean anything anymore. What now? What now when it turns out I’m supposed to be me, not some temple for God, not some submissive, “pure” servant to John, not a lifelong child to my parents, but me – my desires, needs, talents, curiosity, knowledge, strengths, etc.? What do I do with this freedom?

I am still figuring that out. It is an inward battle because I was taught to be so vigilant, cautious, distrusting, to never walk into situations or put myself in situations where I don’t know exactly what’s going on, to never allow myself to be harmed or manipulated (oops, that happened constantly growing up where I had no safety or choice in the matter). I still worry too much about disappointing my parents even as I’ve seen my brothers do stupid shit and just shake it off and our parents still love them anyway.

I’m not saying I need to be able to get blackout drunk and puke all over the place or get high or whatever to say I’ve truly lived, but I want to adopt my attitude around flying with everything else in my life. To be able to let go and trust that it is okay for me to relax and to allow myself, my body, to loosen up and accept pleasure, joy, and freedom, and maybe lose myself in it from time to time. To accept that I absolutely am not in control of anything but how I react to life – and sometimes not even that – and THAT IS PERFECTLY FINE.

John asked me a few weeks ago if I’d want to know when and how I die. Part of me says yes so I could prepare for it, but most of me screams no because I’d be so apprehensive about it that I would not be able to enjoy any of my time left. I always want to plan and be prepared, and I’ve realized lately that all the preparation in the world, all the looking over my shoulders I want, will not prevent suffering or my eventual death, but it will prevent me from truly living my life and making the most of whatever time I have left. Nowadays when that little voice in my head says hey, you’re going to die someday, I respond, yeah, I know, so how about we enjoy life while we have it, huh?

John is the mischievous one of the two of us, which would probably surprise many because he is so quiet and often socially withdrawn. However, if we are walking somewhere and, say, I see a sign that says we can’t go past a certain point, I’ll say, “Wait, the sign says no” like the little rule follower I am. I can’t even finish pointing out the sign before John has already pushed past it and gone inside. I usually wind up following him even though I’m looking over my shoulder constantly hoping we don’t wind up getting arrested or shot.

This isn’t an often example – we don’t make a habit of trespassing – but it is an example of how John doesn’t let fear get in the way of his curiosity. He has so much confidence to do whatever it is he wants whereas I’m going through all of the worst case scenarios inside.

And I think it is good that I do have some of that mental preparation going on because it has kept us out of trouble, but I’d like to have more of his confidence. This is a good area of where we balance each other out. He trusts me and I trust him so we just follow each other along. He leads when it’s something I’m afraid to do and I lead when I’m not afraid (or I am but I’ve let the brave little rebel inside of me come out of the dark cave I’ve shoved her into).

I don’t really know where I am going with this, but it is all something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about lately when it comes to unleashing myself from all of the fear and shame-based rules I grew up in from everything pleasurable in life and from the need for validation and approval from everyone else.

I want fun stories in my life. (I have fun stories of my life, though they’re hard to recall at times, especially when I listen to others talk about their high school, college, and early 20s years where they partied, traveled, and explored and I remember how I went right to the boring career and search for security and stability my family told me I needed to do.)

I am tired of writing about all of the bullshit and trauma I grew up with. I’m tired of clenching my butt cheeks so tightly, I could turn a lump of coal into a diamond in no time. I know most don’t see this side of me. I know I am fun to be around (most of the time), funny, adventurous, and laidback around others, especially those I’m comfortable with.

I want that outward expression of myself to spread more inward too. Baby steps though, I guess, unless I want to jump out of an airplane, which John has done but I do not feel the need to do myself.

My acts of “rebellion” have been tamer with rainbow hair and pierced cartilage in my ear and nose (piercings I no longer have) and having sex/living with my boyfriend now husband before marriage, haha. Oh, and drunkenly running through the sprinklers of a baseball field at 2a one time with another guy I sometimes wish I’d just kissed to see what would’ve happened with even though I know now that the way everything happened (or didn’t happen) is how I ended up where I am now. It isn’t perfect but it’s good. (My future retired self is also thankful for those early career years where I socked money away because I’m way ahead of a lot of people my age.)

This life is mine to live. This is my story to write. And all of those rules growing up are mine to break. I’m not telling fear to go away – or convincing myself it needs to in order for me to live a fulfilling life. I am breaking a generational habit or trauma or something of the sort. Sometimes I feel like I need to do it for those in my family who can’t break free, but then realize I can only live my life for me.

I don’t know. Just more rambling from all I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m not really writing to fix myself or figure everything out. I am writing to hear myself, to understand what I am thinking and feeling.

And what I’m thinking and feeling lately is it is time to forget all those rules enforced upon me out of fear (and love and wanting me to be safe) growing up and figure out what I want to do and how I want to live the rest of my life, on my terms but without such restriction.

Showing Up

Self-Care and Chronic Illness

This has been one hell of a week. No, make that, month.

For many reasons, one being comparing my health to others’, it has been hard for me to say, I have a chronic illness.

Actually, I have several.

I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism at 16, PCOS at 20, gastritis at 31, and endometriosis at 31.

For the most part, they aren’t debilitating. A friend of mine says she has a daughter and works more hours than I do and I’m more exhausted than she is. I know she doesn’t mean anything by it, it’s just a general observation, but my brain twists it into, Maybe I’m just lazy, maybe it’s not that I am tired.

The past couple of weeks – really, the past several months – have disproved that, but I don’t think I truly realized it until my OB-GYN did bloodwork to test my thyroid hormones and he saw how off everything was. I thought maybe I was just lazy or maybe being sedentary was the problem, but I had no energy and was more depressed because I had no energy.

Even though I’ve dealt with chronic exhaustion since my teens due to all of the above, specifically the hypothyroidism, the biggest battle with my health has been my digestive system. I have had IBS pretty much since birth. At one point, in infancy, I was so constipated the doctor thought I might have Hirschsprung’s Disease where you’re missing nerve cells along the end of the bowel and the bowels can’t move like they should. (But then when the doctor tried to physically examine my rectum, I pooped all over him, haha.)

I spent, oh, probably about the first 30 years of my life chronically constipated, no matter what I did. Then around the time I was diagnosed with gastritis and endometriosis, the tables flipped and I have found myself running to the bathroom more times that I care to admit.

Endometriosis seems to be running the show with my body here lately. I really wish more was known about the disease and it wasn’t just as advertised as “heavy periods with pain and pain during sex,” narrowing it down to a wholly female reproductive system issue.

Endometriosis really is a whole body disease. Sure, I have horrible cramps, pain during sex, and sometimes heavy periods, though not as heavy as they were before going on birth control nearly 8 years ago. However, my digestive issues are worsened by it, I have headaches that seem to be getting more painful every month, my whole abdomen becomes inflamed and tender, and if I have any pain in my gut, it triggers the endometriosis in my pelvic area to flare up and I ache from my upper abdomen to my knees. I think it exacerbates my gastritis and IBS because they’re worse close to and during my period, and like I said above, I am so fucking tired all the time.

It is extremely difficult not to be frustrated with my body. I feel like everything I eat is wrong because it goes right through me, makes my upper abdomen ache, gives me reflux, or all of the above. I am often afraid to go anywhere because I’m worried I will have to go to the bathroom and won’t be near one. John gets so annoyed when he wants to go somewhere and I’m like, “Give me another 30 minutes to see if I need to go to the bathroom before we leave.” This has kept us from going on walks or going hiking several times. And sometimes, the stomach cramps are so bad when I have to go that I have nearly passed out in the middle of the grocery store. And guess what, when my stomach cramps like that, the endometriosis around my uterus and ovaries is like, hey, we want to join the cramps party too and I am so wiped out by it all that I have to lie down.

I have been thinking about this a lot over the past few weeks and realized I have spent most of my life angry and disappointed with my body because of my struggles to lose weight and keep it off (more so than most people since I have such hormone imbalances between my thyroid and sex hormones), my at-times crippling anxiety and always overthinking brain, not having a very conventionally “feminine” body shape, and my chronic GI issues.

I look at myself in the mirror and I don’t look like anything is physically wrong with me. I can walk, talk, eat, drink, breathe, swim, move, think, speak, smell, hear just fine. I think I often feel a lot of shame for this too because I think about the real privileges I have and how often I overlook them.

It is hard for me to rest because I still equate resting with laziness thanks to my dad who used “lazy” like a dirty word when my brothers and I just wanted to spend our Saturdays watching TV and lying on the couch. I feel like a useless dead weight and burden if I am not doing something active. Being unemployed twice for more than a month over the past 2 years really drove these feelings home, and it stung more when John said staying on the couch in my pajamas all day while looking for jobs online made me less attractive to him because “it looked like I had given up on myself.”

Self care feels really difficult when you feel so angry, resentful, and disappointed with your body, but this is where self-care is more than just bubble baths or ice cream or reading a good book.

Self-care, especially when you have chronic health issues, means being empathetic towards yourself.

This does not come easy for me because self-compassion is still such a struggle for me. So I think, How do I react when others tell me their bodies hurt or don’t work like they want them to?

Take my mom, for example, who struggles with debilitating, chronic neck and back pain and neuropathy in her hips, lower back, and legs. When she tells me she has days where all she can do is sob and her pain medication has run out or it’s not even touching the pain, I say, “Oh Mama, I’m so sorry you’re hurting.” Then I listen to her express her frustrations with her body, doctors, the way the government is handling the opioid “crisis” and bunching those with legitimate pain issues like my mom in with people who abuse pain medication, and etc. I don’t know exactly how she feels and I can’t do anything to take the pain away, but I listen and I ask how I can help in other ways, like cooking, washing the dishes, taking her dogs outside to potty, getting her something to drink, taking out the trash, etc.

How do I treat myself when my stomach is upset, I’m cramping horribly, my head hurts, or I’m so tired I can’t function? My stupid stomach ruins everything for me. I can’t go anywhere. I can’t eat anything. I can’t even drink a freaking margarita. My body hates me so much. Why can’t I eat and drink like a normal person? Why do I worry so much? Why can’t I just stop thinking and worrying about stupid shit for like 5 minutes? 

Since I believe – even though I don’t yet practice it – empathy is a huge part of self-care with chronic illness, these are some steps I am putting into place for myself, especially when I feel my worst:

  • VALIDATE MY FEELINGS AND THOUGHTS – ALL OF THEM – EVEN IF THEY DO SEEM RIDICULOUS. They are still my brain trying to process life so they still matter, no matter what.
  • Say to myself, I’m so sorry you feel this way, Amy. How can I help? What do you need?
  • Keep a food and mood log to help me see how what I eat affects my body physically and emotionally so I can make better choices for myself depending on what is going on. (This actually really helped me figure out this month that dairy is a huge trigger for stomach issues when my abdomen is inflamed and irritated due to endometriosis flare-ups.)
  • Focus more on what I can do instead of what I cannot to help me out of that negative thought pattern when I am struggling.
  • Thank my body for doing the best it can with what it’s got.
  • Rest when I need to rest.
  • Practice being gentler with myself and replacing my critical thoughts with more encouraging and kinder thoughts.

How do take care of yourself when you don’t feel good? In what ways can you express more empathy and grace towards yourself? I really need help in this department so I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.