Mom, That’s a Bad Word!

The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost . – J.R.R. Tolkien

When I decided to start a series of creative efforts to alter the way I am weaving the culture of my son’s life, I intentionally started small. I picked areas where I could quickly and easily see progress, and I chose topics that I had already been brooding over long enough to have thought of some positive solutions. Now, though, I’ve reached past the easy stuff to areas that are much more challenging, yet in many ways are in greater need of repair. This month (Ugh!) I’ve chosen the word “exercise.”

All my life, exercise has been a bad word to me. It makes me cringe like that stressed out lady in the old commercials that sighs, “Calgon, Take me away!” when she feels she can’t add one more thing in her day. Yet, how I use and care for my body is an important part of the culture I will pass on to my son, a part that I think is broken and deeply in need of renewal.

Me and exercise haven’t seen eye to eye since birth. I walked funny. I was never able to run. I had an awkward, lumbering, off-balance gait. Whenever I tried to get both my feet off the ground at the same time, I would always fall flat on my face. My brother has finished a marathon, and I have never made it around the block.

As the people-pleaser I was, I tried every PE game, every class exercise challenge, every sport my parents encouraged, but they all ended in disaster. Running, a behavior that seemed effortless to the kids around me, always left me with a sense of failure. My body would not work the way the other kids’ did. I had no explanation for this other than the word ‘me.’ Something was different about me. It must just be me. What I didn’t know then was that it was actually only one tiny part of me. Specifically, it was my hips. I was born with congenital hip dysplasia. The top part of my hip bones, the part which is supposed to fit smoothly into the hip socket and bear the weight of the entire body as it swivels through every step, were deformed. My hips were built from the very beginning always half-slipping out of the joint. I now know this defect is frequently detected early in infancy, but mine was not.

I was pegged really early in my school career as the non-athletic kid, a real pansy. I was always last to be picked for any game, and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t keep up. No adult ever seemed worried or concerned about this though. My parents saw how I struggled to play as a little child, but they just wrote it off as acceptably girlish behavior. Sugar and spice and everything nice. As a little girl, that was all I was expected to be made of. I remember that I was secretly annoyed about this gender bias even as a young child. I suffered from ingrown toenails and was always told just to wear sandals and sit out of PE. No treatment was deemed necessary for me, but when my brother got his very first ingrown toenail, he was hurried off to the podiatrist to have toenail surgery because it was imperative that he not miss a single soccer match. The painful toenails were a useful excuse to sit out of the humiliating disaster that was PE, but it didn’t seem fair that my pain was ignored when my brother’s was treated merely because he was athletically successful.

I didn’t want to sit. I wanted to run. I just knew that running was painful and I was a complete failure at it. Almost everyone in my life seemed to be happy to put me in the role of “shy, weak, bookish girl.” My body appeared to be designed to sit and read, but I wondered then, and I wonder still, what kind of child I would have grown to be if only I could have run. The first time my son ever ran, I swear I heard the wind in my own ears. Each time he runs with confidence and joy, I get a glimpse of the girl I might have been, and it gives me a sense of peace about those difficult years.

Around 14, things got worse. After a bad fall, I started having popping, grinding and daily pain with just walking and even sitting. The pain slowly escalated over time. I would give my parents a daily report of my symptoms, and I know that on some level they were aware of my suffering. My mom bought and forced me to wear an old lady girdle to “strengthen” my hips. She would drag me out of bed at 6 am and make me do an hour of an aerobics tape before school and encourage me to grit through the pain because “no pain, no gain.” They bought bottles of Tylenol and Motrin whenever they ran out. They kept a heating pad by the couch for me to use every day. My parents knew that I couldn’t walk through Wal-mart without holding onto my mother’s arm for support and stopping to rest. They knew their ultra conscientious daughter had to sit in detention due to tardy slips because, despite the fact that her tiny high school only had three halls, she couldn’t walk to class on time. All these facts were apparent, but no one could see that this was a problem.

I was privately embarrassed at the dark circles under my eyes that I covered with makeup each morning after nights tossing and turning. I was secretly ashamed to wear an old-lady girdle even though it did help the pain a little. I was humiliated every time a kid from school saw me holding my mom’s arm to walk. I knew this was not how healthy teenagers were supposed to behave. I knew that all my classmates didn’t hurt all day sitting in their wooden desks. Sports were always completely out for me, but as a freshman I had to give up marching band, and even drama class was too much time on my feet by the end high school. Over the years, I knew other kids left school excited to go out and play, go for bike rides, or walk around the mall, and I was so exhausted I just wanted to go home and rest.

I knew that I was not normal teenager. What I did not know was that I had a right to be healthy. I had no way to know that my pain was being caused by a rapid and premature deterioration of both my hip joints. I could not diagnose myself with bone-on-bone arthritis. All I knew to do was to complain of the pain to the only adults I owned, and when those complaints did not affect any change then I just kept going.

Over and over I have wished I could go back in time and hug that poor suffering girl and tell her that she was strong, so strong. She endured years of a type of pain that I have now seen many adults with the wisdom of eighty years crumble under. I can’t count now how many older patients I’ve seen give up on life in despair because of this exact same pain that she carried with such grace and determination for so long. I wish I could have been there to convince her that this pain was not an inherent flaw of character. The only flaw was knit into her bones while she was in her mother’s womb, and it was not her fault that no one detected it.

Shortly after I left for college, I turned 18, and I was finally able to make my own appointment with a doctor. I was sitting cross-legged on the exam table when the specialist walked bluntly into the room and slapped two x-rays up on the light box. He said, “One of these is an eighty-three year old woman, and the other is you. Yours is the one that looks worse.” Then he asked how I could possibly be sitting Indian style without being in terrible pain. I was stunned. I finally stammered back that I was always in pain. Today wasn’t any worse than usual. I always ignored it because I thought it was just me.

I spent the next 3 years of college having surgeries at every break, stumping around campus on crutches or with a cane, and working PT appointments into my class schedule. Four hip surgeries later and my hips felt sixty years younger. I knew I’d never be a runner, but I could walk pain-free on most days. Unfortunately, by the time I was done with the last surgery, I was twenty years old and few months post-op I started medical school. Exercise had never been a pleasant, useful, or regular part of my life. The word exercise conjured up memories of pain, frustration and failure. It was too easy, during the next seven years of grueling medical training, to feel that the hours spent standing in clinic and rushing around the hospital were exertion enough. When I finally transitioned into my first practice, I was working 60-80 hrs a week. I tried several different exercise regimens but never stuck with anything.

When I finally was pregnant, I was determined to make a change. I became much more active, sticking to a serious exercise routine, and as my pregnancy progressed normally, I finally felt like my body was doing something right for a change. During that short space of pregnancy and the year after, I was in the best shape of my life, and my attitude about my body changed in good ways. I was really looking forward to the idea of pushing myself to get stronger and stronger. Unfortunately, life pushed me in the other direction.

Cancer quickly shoved me back into those teenage days. I was so sick. I had debilitating fatigue. I slogged through the prescribed daily exercise that my doctor assured me would help my body tolerate the treatment, but I felt like the cards were stacked against me. At my diagnosis, I recall my doctor stating that two of the chemo drugs “cause problems for elderly women with arthritis, but you’re young so it won’t be a problem for you.” Tell that to my eighty year old hips! I was limping terribly for about five months, not just from my hips but also from pain in multiple joints that had most likely taken a good amount of wear and tear as collateral damage from the deformed hips I had walked on so long. Every step was painful then, as if my back, hips, knees and ankles were all on fire.

When chemo was over, I did see improvement, but I haven’t ever completely recovered. I get stiff and sore easily. I feel the weather changes in my bones. I’m reluctant to sit on the floor because on bad days I’ll get stuck and need help up. Many days just standing up from a chair will cause me to limp embarrassingly for several steps. When I limp, my emotions go straight back to high school, to those dreaded days when I tried so hard to be well and yet wellness eluded me. I have flashbacks of feeling like my body is a failure, and I add to that the recent knowledge that my own body tried to kill me once and nearly succeeded. It is so easy to get into a negative space where I worry about the resumption of pain and debility that future years may bring, because I know that surgeries done at such a young age were never meant to last my whole life.

So goes my days, and for all of this self-indulgently whiny series of reasons, I am not an exerciser, despite the fact that I know statistically that exercise is more powerful at preventing the debility and cancer recurrence that I worry about than any of the pills I dutifully swallow each day. I simply still have a tendency to feel that my body was only suited for sitting and reading. The word exercise still holds deep connotations of pain and failure to me, and I avoid using it.

In this tapestry of culture I wish to weave for my son, however, I don’t want to repeat the warped mistakes of my past. My son is healthy. He has normally formed, strong hips (believe me, I had him obsessively tested!) I don’t want him to grow up with an unhealthy use of the word exercise, and more importantly I don’t want him to have to struggle through life without all the positive things that healthy exercise could bring. I know that I need to change my attitudes and my actions in order to set an example for him. I want to make exercise a tool he feels capable and confident in using.

My son, however, is not intrigued by exercise as an idea. His passions run towards the sedentary and electronic. He has learned quite well how to push his mother’s buttons to his own advantage. He knows that complaining about the weather is likely to prompt me to stay in. One day when I insisted we take a walk against his better judgment, we kept pace to his repeated sighing of, “I think my blood pressure is too low. I think my blood sugar is too low. I think my joints are wearing out today,” over and over like a mantra. He is capable of great activity when it suits him. Just yesterday he did a marathon 1 hr and 45 min continuous jumping in a bouncy castle without a break and complained when it was time to stop. My mama’s-heart was so pleased with his effort, but confused and frustrated with the fact that calling such an activity “exercise” in the past has led to him to completely refuse to participate. Day to day, I am able to tempt and trick him into being physically active, but how to change the underlying attitude towards exercise for the future seems of equal importance.

On this subject, how I wish I could just throw up my hands in defeat, but this is, so I will throw them up in supplication instead. Tolkien, take me away!!! And, amazingly, the sage has a reply….

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Although this poem was the first Tolkien quote that came to my mind and was the clear frontrunner I looked at for inspiration on this subject, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I am by far not the first to look at these lines from a fitness perspective. NerdFitness published a fun article called the J.R.R. Tolkien Guide to Fitness based entirely around this poem!

So, taking Tolkien to heart on the subject, I have created a few challenges for myself. Hopefully remembering the rhyme may help me remember the goals I have set.

1) Put some glitter on that gold: My son already loves high-energy play. I need to start using the word exercise in an intentional way to describe the activities I know my son already loves. Eventually he, and hopefully I, can build some positive associations with the word.

2) Wander: Since we are now going to church downtown, we have gotten memberships to several museums and gardens. We plan to spend a couple of hours each Sunday wandering through inspiring and distracting environments as a way to get moving more.

3) Embrace age with strength: I need to channel my nervous energy about future health concerns into strength training now. I have been sick and hurt in the past, and I may be again sometime, but I’m not today. So, put a little bit of today in the bank for the future.

4) Stick to my roots: I started yoga after surgery and chemo had left me with severely limited range of motion. It’s the only kind of exercise I have been able to maintain for any length of time because I enjoy it. I need to share that enjoyment with my son. In the past I have always tried to do yoga when he wasn’t around in order to practice the meditative aspects without distraction. He knows I habitually set aside time one night a week to attend a class, but he hasn’t seen me actually participate. Luckily, he attends a fabulous school which is constantly meeting needs I didn’t even know I had. I found out recently that he has been studying yoga in his PE class and excelling at it! The instructor gave me ideas on a kid-based yoga series they use, and our first mommy and me session in the living room was a blast! I need to make it a regular event.

5) Fire from ashes, light from dark: I need to combine my efforts with my previous successes. I’ve been trying to bring more music into my life, perhaps I should dance. I’ve been trying to find creative ways to worship, perhaps I should make movement part of my spiritual practice. If I stir parts of my life where the embers are already warmed, even one small spark could ignite. If I seek to bring lightness to the dark places of my memories, perhaps they will become less of a burden.

6) Broken blade to crown: If at the first four decades of life you don’t succeed, try again. I can make a choice to strive to renew my many-times-broken hips by crowning them with special care no matter how they respond to it. By doing so, if nothing else, I might perhaps teach my son how to care for even the parts of himself that he or others might deem weak or disappointing with a kindly attitude befitting a wise and gracious ruler of his own skin.

I may not be a runner, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t strive for ways to hear the wind in my ears. I think I at least owe my son the chance to learn from me as I try. Perhaps, after all, a “bad word” could be the best thing I ever teach him.

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One Response to Mom, That’s a Bad Word!

  1. Katherine Marshall says:

    This was really beautiful. I had no idea what huge struggles you had overcome! Attitudes like that can so easily pass to our children, but we want better for them!

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