Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Trust Issues: When Your Body is Not Your Own

My friend E is a medical miracle. Several weeks ago she was struck down by a bacteria that on Friday made her feel flu-ish and by Monday had her in a coma that the doctors said she would not come out of. Emergency surgery that required a team of 12 doctors, several near misses in the ICU and days of prayers from her loved ones - including her husband and three adorable little girls - finally saw her through the other end. I don’t know how she felt when she awoke but it must have been like a bad movie. The day she fell ill, she wrote on her Facebook status “Just got back from playing outside with my girls” - a status that epitomized everything she was: a loving mother, active, healthy and beautiful inside and out. And then the day she awoke from her coma, her health was gone from her. Just like that, the mother who fed her daughters three meals a day didn’t have the strength to feed herself. The dear friend who never forgot to send a note for my birthday now couldn’t even take my phone calls. The woman who always looked so beautiful and put together couldn’t even recognize herself in the mirror.

And yet, even though she now e-mails again, she has never once complained (at least to me) of the toll any of this has taken on her. I’m sure she feels the burden. Immensely. I can’t imagine how one wouldn’t. But the first e-mail I got from her since she awoke told of her excitement at hopefully getting to leave the hospital soon, briefly mentioning the effects of the steroids on her small frame and then thanking the Lord for allowing her to live. The second e-mail was to thank me for a package I sent her and to congratulate me on my pregnancy. I tell you, I’ve never felt so humbled - my complaints of nausea and water weight gain resumed their rightful places at the very bottom of the Important Things in Life pile. Regardless of the current state of her physical body, E is more beautiful to me than she was before her illness happened.

In an unrelated incident, another friend recently woke up to two huge black eyes. After convincing her mother and the hospital staff that her loving husband had not beaten her nor had she taken up clandestine lessons in ultimate fighting, she learned that she has a rare blood clotting disorder. The initial treatment involved some drug therapy but if they didn’t work quickly - the girl could bleed out from a razor nick after all - then it was onto steroids for her. “They’d make me gain, like, 20 pounds in the first month alone,” she lamented to me. “What will you do?” I replied. She gave me a crazy look. “Take them and suck it up.” She has two sons.

I share these two stories with you not to invade the privacy of my friends’ illnesses but rather to share with you the poignancy of when our health - something we often consider well within our purview of control - is wrested from us. The New York Times recently ran a personal essay, “When Medicine Makes You Fat,” about a woman with ulcerative colitis and her struggle between balancing her need for medication which makes her gain weight and her health. Moving through the stages of grief, Loren Berlin writes, “Initially I got angry. It seemed unfair that I should have to lose my hard-earned shape to regain my health. These weren't the terms I wanted to negotiate. But my gastroenterologist and my blood tests told me that what I wanted and what I needed were at odds, and needs trumped wants.”

Her next reaction, after gaining 10% of her bodyweight, was guilt: “I scolded myself for placing so much emphasis on the superficial when I should have been grateful for a drug that could control my illness. There I was, actively worrying about my pant size while my body attacked itself. I was stunned by my own vanity.”

And lastly, after years of managing her illness, she comes to the conclusion: “But now, I've come to realize that my vanity, in the midst of a serious illness, isn't such a bad thing. In caring so much about my appearances, I am acknowledging that my illness is just one part of a whole person. I'm a 31-year-old woman with the same goals and insecurities as any other 31-year old woman, with or without a chronic health problem. And looking in the mirror reminds me of a fundamental truth. I am more than my disease.”

This article resonated so much with me because while pregnancy is not an illness - and I do not wish to denigrate my friends’ or Ms. Berlin’s experiences by comparing myself to them - it is a condition that takes the control of your body almost completely out of your hands. It’s like the baby hormones take over and you’re just along for the ride.

As one anonymous reader - and fellow preggo - commented on my last post about working out in the first tri, “Another fear that popped up big time is the fear of getting fat. Sorry if I sound superficial, but I just care about that kind of stuff. My whole life I’ve reveled in the fact that I have the power to control my body and the way it looks. Now, it has a mind of its own. And it scares the shit out of me. And what scares me even more is that it’s only going to get worse as the pregnancy goes on. I would love to adopt a new mindset where I can feel sexy and attractive while pregnant, but I’m not sure how to get there.”

I know exactly how she feels. When I’m feeling sensible, I am profoundly grateful for the ability to grow a life inside of me - talk about a party trick! - but in the day-to-day depression of one pair of jeans after another going in the put-away box and the ever increasing scale numbers, I feel angry. And sad. And if I’m being totally honest, scared. Pregnancy is an adventure but it’s also a risk. I say this as a mother who has lost a baby at birth: You don’t know the end from the beginning. Nothing is a given. Even the baby.

Today at my monthly check-up, I had an interesting conversation with my doctor.
“So, any concerns Charlotte?”

“Um, yes, doctor.” (I already knew how stupid this was going to sound but my anxiety of the subject made me say it anyhow.) “See, I’ve gained a lot of weight.”

His eyebrow raised. “You’re still well within normal for your height.”

“Yes, yes, I know but I’ve never gained this much weight this quickly before and most people lose weight in the first tri and it’s so hard to get off after the baby is born and I worked so hard to get it off after the last baby and this baby isn’t even big enough to be ’showing’ yet and I already look like I’m four months pregnant and what if I get pre-eclampisa or gestational diabetes or - “

Cut me off kindly, he patted my shoulder, “Are you eating right? Exercising?”

Nodding like a bobblehead I answered, “I workout two hours a day and write down everything I eat (thanks to the Women’s Health mag Experiment this month). I’m good, I swear!”

He grinned as if he’d finally solved the mystery of the grassy knoll, “Well then it’s probably just water weight. Your hormones are in overdrive. Think PMS times 100.” (Stupid hormones. A friend sent me the video of Susan Boyle’s heart-rending performance on Britain’s Got Talent and I bawled like a baby through the whole thing! Seriously - if you haven’t seen this clip yet, it’s a MUST watch. I’d embed it but YouTube won’t let me. Stupid Simon Cowell.)

“But, but…” I sputtered.

Looking me squarely in the eyes he said, “You let me worry about this. That’s my job. Just keep doing your best. You’re going to be fine.” And then he added the zinger that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since. “Trust your body, Charlotte. It knows what it’s doing.”

Trust my body?? I have spent my whole life - heck, I’ve practically made a career out of - NOT trusting my body. My body is the thing that gains 5 pounds if I even so much look at a hot pretzel. My body is the thing that still gets acne like I’m 15 despite the fact I found my first grey hair not two weeks ago. My body is the thing that decides the best place to distribute it’s fat stores is not in the socially acceptable boob area but rather in two lumps at the top of each thigh.

And yet, my body is the thing that’s run 26.2 miles. My body is the thing that can carry my half of the couch when we’re moving furniture. And. My body is the thing that has grown and birthed 4 children. Maybe I can learn to trust it.