It’s 10:18 on Monday morning and I am still lying in bed where I have been for the past 3 hours, both too tired to get up and too awake to sleep when my phone buzzes next to me. “Hi, mom”, I answer.
“Hi honey. Okay, now listen, I don’t want you to get upset, but I was talking to Sue (or was it Chris?) and she knows a gal who’s son was only 34 and he had symptoms just like yours and well wouldn’t you know it turned out to be stage 4 cancer, and honey YOU NEED TO GET THAT COLONOSCOPY AS SOON AS POSSIBLE….”
Her words tumbled out on top of each other and then just kept right on rolling, but I had already focused in on counting my breath. I do that a lot now- 5 seconds in, 5 seconds out. Low and slow. It’s a small thing, but it helps.
The anxiety is very close-up these days. It is right there under the surface. You feel that don’t you, Body? You feel it all over.
I keep counting my breaths until I hang up from my mother, who has just instructed me not to get upset before sharing decidedly upsetting news.
It’s okay, I don’t blame her. I understand this kind of duality is inherent to motherhood. The moment we expel a human being from our body it becomes our maternal right (and instinct) to say nonsense things like, “don’t get upset” while sharing upsetting news.
Usually for me Fear arrives like a waif, clutching her pearls and waving her kerchief before collapsing on a chaise lounge. Yes, she is fussy. Yes, she is annoying. But she is also less threatening.
This time it’s different.
Fear showed up like a vicious beast with a finger on my pulse and a chokehold on my neck. It brutally assaulted my entire nervous system. This is precisely the kind of fear that must be exorcized, not coddled, I know this in my knower.
That feels like a lot of work right now, so instead I grant myself 5 more minutes to lie there and count my breath while I stare at the same book that I always stare at, wedged against the same journal on my bookshelf.
I realize they’ve both sat there, untouched for weeks.
“Is this depression?”, I wonder.
“No”, I remind myself, “This is limitation”, and in a small way that makes me feel better about the way things are now. About this new mode of operating that you’ve thrust us into, Body.
Sometimes I wonder if you’re mad at me. I guess I don’t blame you if you are. I’ve been kind of a dick to you over the years.
I’d say I have a healthy respect for you.
On a good day that looks like honoring your capacities, both big and small. On a bad day it looks like outright fear of you, of what’s happening inside of you.
Here’s where it gets tricky for us, Body.
Right now I can’t tell if I’m scared FOR you or scared OF you.
You are very thin now.
Thin enough that it’s become startling, even to me. I have bruises on the insides of my legs where my knees touch, mysterious bruises that make no sense until I roll onto my side in bed at night and feel the ache of those bones pressing together.
Oh. I see.
This size is clearly not your happy place, Body, and I would do well to remember that if (I mean when!) you start to feel better and gain some weight back. It is scaring me, Body, the way you can’t keep food in, the way you just don’t stop losing weight.
That part is getting tricky too. The thinness, I mean.
Because let’s be real here, Body, we have some… energy around this, don’t we?
For so many years I tried to force you back to an arbitrary number on a scale, and for so many years it felt impossible. We passed that number months ago. It felt good for a minute. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some dark twisty part of me that liked seeing each lower number appear on the scale. It was almost too easy.
The feeling was always fleeting, though.
It was quickly squeezed out by concern and then worry and then anxiety and then all-out fear.
The weight loss isn’t fun anymore and actually, it ever was.
You know all too well the discomfort of carrying around extra weight… you remember how that didn’t feel good.
This doesn’t feel good either. The smallness. The lack. It all feels like a metaphor for something bigger but I’m too tired to find it at the moment.
You are thin enough now for people to notice, and either congratulate me or ask after my health. Despite any of my efforts to not talk about my weight it seems to be the only direction people are interested in steering the conversation.
“You lost weight during Covid?! I hate you! Haha!”
“Hey, are you… okay?!”
“Omg, you’re so SKINNY!” … as if that is the first-place-blue-ribbon whopper of a compliment.
I used to think it was. So I get it. Really.
This is why I don’t tell them that I’ve had no rules around food, that I haven’t worked out in months, or that I didn’t even lose the weight intentionally, it just started falling off. Nobody actually wants to hear that.
I *also* don’t tell them that I spend half of my life on the toilet in humiliating agony. Nobody wants to hear that either.
It’s interesting, how they say the Gut is our Second Brain.
What is it that you know, Body? What are you trying to tell me?
All of your appetites are fading, even your appetite for pleasure. Sure, the sex has never been better, but let’s not get it twisted- the it’s only better because I am more in tune with you than I used to be, more intimately connected, more aware of what you want.
It is not because you are thinner.
IT IS NOT BECAUSE YOU ARE THINNER.
That was a real plot twist, wasn’t it?
I think the best surprise so far though, is that all this work of coming home to you has have given me the kind of confidence I always wanted but never had, like the kind you need on a dance floor or in the bedroom.
To be clear; I’m not saying I’m some kind of hero in either of those locales.
I’m just saying that while this kind of confidence isn’t showy, it no longer shrinks itself either. I have given you permission to move freely, passionately, and joyfully, even if not always gracefully.
Sometimes you are cute and shy. Sometimes you are all heat and urgency and Cute doesn’t even enter the conversation. Cute is still sitting at the kids table. I don’t say this to be salacious. I say it to point out that in some ways, embodying you has truly never been more delightful.
But for every bit of delight, there seems an equal and counter weight of brutality meted out. And right now the unromantic truth is that I don’t want to come home to you because you are not a very nice place to be.
It’s confusing, you know?
At the end of last year I prayerfully chose my word for 2021, just like I do every year- except this time it wasn’t a word, it was a whole sentence, because yes, I am extra like that.
It was simply this:
COME HOME TO YOURSELF
I had all kinds of lofty and metaphorical ideas of how that might play out in my life this year, but (un)surprisingly there was only one place to start.
You needed me to come home to you first, Body. You needed me to stop distrusting you, working against you, gaslighting you, belittling you, making fun of you. You were begging me to stop talking over you + about you and to finally start talking to you.
For a long time I wasn’t ready.
I didn’t want to think too much about what YOU’D been through or what YOU needed because if I thought about you like that, then I’d have to own up to the ways I’ve treated you in the past. I wasn’t ready to face the meanest parts of me.
But what I didn’t know then, what I couldn’t have imagined, is that doing so would also also unlock the most compassionate parts of me. That gently pressing down on that ache and listening to where it hurts could actually teach me where + how to begin loving you well.
At first it was such a lovely and tender thing, the coming home.
You are so good to me sometimes, Body, I could cry just thinking about it. But lately embodying you looks a lot like suffering. At first you wanted my attention. Then you needed it. Then you required it.
Now you demand it.
Some days you are so difficult and petulant and high maintenance that I can’t help it, I get mad at you, I do. But I know that if I’m harsh with you, if I distrust you, if I detach and ignore you, then we lose all this gorgeous real estate we’ve claimed together.
I’m scared, Body.
It feels important to say that, to name it while we’re here in this liminal space because I know we won’t be here forever.
I have been running from the fear in my mind for a while now, but not you. You are already facing it. You are flagging me down. Signaling for me to get help.
Triage is loud though, and I can’t hear what you’re saying- and that makes me even more scared.
I used to be able to quickly recognize your cues, to trust them and act on them. We worked SO HARD to get to that good place together. We fought and we clawed our way there and now it feels like we’ve been snapped backwards.
Whatever this is, it is taking and taking from you. It’s left us both feeling like an exposed nerve.
It’s all close the surface now.
My bones. My emotions. My fear.
What I fear the most though, is the knowledge that if we go with each other to that wilderness place again it will be for reasons very different than before. Reasons I have no control over this time, like sickness + diagnosis + prolonged stress on your nervous system.
Those reasons feel more ominous and hulking than something like body image ever did.
Now it feels like I’m saying “reasons” a lot but the point is, now you need my gentle and constant attention. Anything less and we crumble. Every good thing we’ve built together would cave in on itself.
Listen, I know the trust is shaky between us. I’m aware of all the ways we’ve wounded each other in the past. But this time is different, okay? This time you are not on your own.
I am here with you and for you.
You’ve been sick for so long, I know, and we are still very much “in it” right now- whatever this is. The middle place, the dark underbelly of the thing, plunged a thousand leagues under the sea. But I will take another breath and keep sinking with you, Body.
Down, down, to that place inside that is still + quiet, even when it is afraid.
I just need you to hold on, okay. I need you to keep trusting me as I learn to keep trusting you.
Next week there will be procedures and biopsies and yeah, the diagnosis-anxiety is real right now, but I’m also ready to have a name for what’s been happening to you. I think you are too.
Remember- whatever happens, we do this next part together, okay?
I love you, you know.