Something I’m really passionate about, besides mental health is physical health. I’m very much wrapped up in the whole mind body connection. I’ve mentioned it before so I won’t beat a dead horse but in a nutshell, if your body is healthy, your mind is healthy and vice versa.
To this end, I consider physical fitness to be a pivotal aspect of my mental health wellness. There is no magical bullet to managing mental health. For me, it’s a combination of living with my adorable four furbabies (cats), engaging with things I enjoy such as music, my favorite TV shows, reading nonfiction, kickboxing, and anything else that gets me moving and outside. Additionally, healthy eating, getting good sleep, drinking plenty of water, therapy and medication join this combination of helping me manage things.
Physical fitness isn’t just important to me because it keeps me healthy, it’s also an outlet for me, the same way writing is an outlet, but in a different way. Kickboxing helps me get my frustrations out. I go two maybe sometimes three times a week and work with a trainer. We always end the sessions with a sort of grand finale speed routine. And I just imagine whatever challenge I’ve encountered in the days since my last session standing before me in the form of the bag and i just put my strength into it and beat it out.
Besides the health and de-stressing benefits of physical fitness, it also helps me to manage something else: my chronic pain. When I was nine, I was a tomboy. Okay, it’s fair to say, I’ve always been a tomboy and I still am. However, as a kid, I did a lot of risky things, without much thought for my safety. I had one sibling and due to the nature of our home and education situation, they were my only friend and playmate. My mother didn’t like some of the things I engaged in as far as play but I don’t regret it at all. If I had chosen to “play safe” because I’m “a girl” who needs to learn to be “a lady” my sibling would have been lonely, with no one to play with. And we developed a bond because of all the time spent together that to this day, despite the many challenges we’ve endured has maintained and even grown stronger.
Anyway, one day just a week before Super Bowl weekend (I remember this because I loved the Super Bowl, not for the sports, but for the party my parents always went to every year and all the food and goodies I’d get to eat), I was climbing a tree. Since it was winter, it’s harder to tell which tree branches are alive or dead. My dad always told me, no matter what you’re doing if you’re climbing a tree, always stay as close to the trunk as possible. I always heeded that advice, except for this one time. There was a couple who lived at the end of our road in a big house on the corner. They were an eccentric pair compared to the people who had lived in the area for years. It was a semi-rural area, lots of trees, houses spread apart, quiet roads, a place I really loved growing up in. The reason they were viewed as eccentric was because their house was on a corner where our quiet road connected to a busier road that connected the capital (we lived just outside the capital) to a neighboring city. Their house didn’t have curtains on the windows. And these weren’t your average house windows with two panes. These were enormous Indian windows that faced the busy road. You could see everything going on inside from a mile away (it felt like that).
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think they should have had curtains or that they should not. I think whatever they chose to do is certainly within the purview of their own preferences. However, the neighborhood was a very private and conservative one. No one had windows not covered and no one left curtains open after dark. So, some neighbors thought this strange. They were from a different state and city where I assume the way they lived was probably more common. They walked around in the winter time in what looked like wet suits but what I know now were just really fancy thermal wear. They never wore big puffy winter coats or snow gear. They were very fashionable and minimalist. I had not really been exposed to this. So, the first time I saw them walking outside in the winter, I was fascinated. Since it was winter, I could see them clearly through the trees, coming down the road by our house. And in a dumb twist of fate, I forgot I wasn’t on the ground at that moment and as they moved along, I also moved to follow them and get a better view.
Crash! The branch I was standing on decided it had enough and gave up the ghost. Down I went, falling about a story and a half. I fell on my right leg and right hand. The fall severely injured the whole right side of my body, from my neck, all the way down to my ankle. I have chronic knee, back, and joint problems in my arm and leg. The couple heard me scream, which I did briefly upon impact and came rushing through the short stretch of woods between our yard and the road. I still remember, they came over and then the husband picked me up and carried me to the house. My mother heard my scream too and came running out. They brought me in the house and laid me on the sofa where the wife then assessed me. Turned out, she was a nurse and told my terrified mother that nothing was broken which was everything short of miraculous. She did advise if I started to have a certain set of issues (my memory fails me here) that I should be brought to the hospital. However, my parents didn’t have health insurance and certainly couldn’t afford it. I didn’t develop any concerning complications but I also was never assessed in a true medical setting.
My dad had me do forty squats everyday to help keep my ankle and other joints strong and limber. He said if I didn’t, it could heal up tight and cause problems later on. It was very painful and for a while I had a lot of difficulty walking. But in the end, I healed up nicely, better than before even. The cruel irony is that around the time I turned sixteen, I started having problems. I had thought I got lucky, sustained a serious injury, healed up and that was the end. No. Fate had other plans. By the time I was sixteen, I started having pains in the previously injured joints. There were times it was so bad that if I sat for too long it was almost impossible to get up without excruciating pain. I would need help. Additionally, if I stood for too long and then tried to lay down, it was almost impossible to stretch out for a few minutes. I’d have to wait until my back settled enough to stretch out. In general, my leg and hand especially were always in pain.
When I was about to go off to college at nineteen, my mother took me to see a doctor to try to figure out what was wrong. Even with a second opinion, they told me I was healthy and nothing was wrong, there was possibly just some weakness in that side of my body. They ruled out a ton of diseases through blood tests. One doctor did hint there could be some rheumatoid arthritis going on since one of my test results came back outside the normal range but the difference was so negligible they couldn’t definitely provide a diagnosis. It’s sort of like going one mile over the speed limit. A cop generally won’t pull you over for that, even though in a lot of states, you are technically speeding, because it’s a small difference compared to going ten or fifteen miles over the speed limit.
My mother was frustrated we couldn’t find an answer. We gave up and off I went to college in Arizona. I loved the dry heat and it really helped the pain. I came back after almost two years and lived at home for another year or so before heading back to college but this time in Vermont. The cold didn’t help but I was a lot more physically active in college the second time around. The physical fitness really helped me manage the pain. People noticed me limping but by that point, I’d been dealing with it for some time so I barely even noticed. I tried again in college the second time to see if doctors could figure it out but it was another dead end. They even took x-rays and told me they didn’t see any abnormalities. They also told me that even if I had fractured anything that it wouldn’t show up in an x-ray, which I now know is false. It’s not dead positive in all cases but it’s definitely not always not possible.
Regardless, over the years, I’ve managed to control the pain with exercise and healthy eating. Now, I’m generally always in pain but if someone asks me if I am, I have to think about it before saying yes, even though I subconsciously know the answer is yes. I do notice the pain more when I’m cold or sick or tired. The most concerning development however is that the pain isn’t just on the right side of my body anymore. Over the last four years it has slowly spread to the rest of my body. My left leg and arm don’t bother me the way my right leg and arm do but I do notice pains on the left side where I never had it before.
Recently, I learned from my current doctor that I could have osteoporosis that may have developed as a result of the previous bone trauma. This concerns me but it is what it is. I just have to stay strong and health and manage as best I can. Being chronically in pain definitely affects my mental health and that’s why I focus so much on strength.
I never thought I would wind up with chronic pain but that’s life. Things always happen to us that we don’t plan for or expect. We take it in stride and do our best. We could let it get us down and some of us do. But we get back up and keep on going. I won’t let anything slow me down, even if I’m in pain because things could be worse. I could have lost mobility, so I’m thankful that despite the challenges I have, I’m still able to walk and run. As long as I have that, I feel like anything is possible. I feel like I can endure and persevere.
One last note to this excessively long post that I got carried away writing, is how my chronic pain has challenged my perspective. I was talking to a supervisor at work who suffers from chronic migraines and she said something about how frustrated she gets when staff call her to say they can’t come to work because of a headache. She wants to tell them how she still comes to work even when suffering from a migraine but she doesn’t. It reminded me of how a particular staff had told me she couldn’t work with a client because she didn’t want to hurt her back, even though the client is probably fifty pounds soaking wet and we use equipment to move them, not our sheer might. I couldn’t help feeling annoyed because I wanted to tell her how I still work and have worked many jobs that required me to be on my feet for hours at a time despite my chronic pain which made me want to drop dead at the end of the day. When I hear people who don’t have chronic pain make excuses about things they don’t do because it’s too hard. I can’t about how I manage to kickbox twice a week and still run despite my challenges.
But, it behooves me to say that everyone deals with pain and trauma differently. Even if I think I manage to accomplish a lot despite my chronic pain, I shouldn’t compare myself to others. I should look at the things they struggle with as less than my own struggles. One person’s mountain may be Everest and to them, though difficult, surmountable. Another person’s mountain may be Sutter Buttes and to them feel impossible to conquer. For reference, Sutter Buttes is 2,122 feet (647 meters) at the summit, about a mile and a half climb compared to Everest which is 29,029 feet (8,848 meters) at its summit, about a 22 mile climb.
So, I try to remember this. Everyone’s challenge is there own. I should compare myself to others nor should I judge others in their struggles. Just because I think the challenges I’ve overcome are nothing doesn’t mean the same person would feel the same and this is a good reminder for me on a daily basis. We are all stronger than we know. It’s all about attitude.