Immune System, Interrupted
Not All Injuries Are On The outside
Bone fractures. Road rash. Casts. Slings. Crutches. Scars. They are tangible and visible. They command slaps on the back, tales of bravery and skill. You are a viking hero. Damn that’s harsh. Get well. You’ll be back in no time. Your state of immobility evokes comebacks, redemption, strength through adversity. Your surgeon puts you back together. Your PT outlines a recovery timeline. Your coach recalibrates your training plans. Everything is linear and has an end point: the day you’ll be back to yourself - The Athlete - perhaps even better, stronger, faster.
But what if you’re broken on the inside? What if every day is a ticking time bomb and you never know when your immune system will hit bottom? No, not with the sniffles or a sore throat. This is a debilitating, long-term fatigue that can last for months or years, stripping you of your strength and quickly, your identity as The Athlete. You never know if that exhaustion is from a stressful day, or if that pain in your lungs is from a quick hit of house dust, or if you’ve really encountered something on your List of Shit That Will Really Fuck Me Up and your body is now on full alert battling an unseen force…and losing. What if every year you think your battle armor is stronger and your generals are smarter, but inevitably an unimaginable hole forms and you crumble to the floor not knowing how you’ll ever hold your sword again.
Your body attacks itself and won’t stop. Your joints. Your thryoid. Your gut. Your lungs. Keep it quiet and it won’t trigger a landmine, but everything in your environment was designed to make it blow. Dust, mold, grains, sugar, booze. Your circle of control grows smaller and smaller. You are now the person who spends all weekend cleaning. The one who brings tupperware of safe food to work and parties. One step outside this circle and the small hill you used to charge up now becomes as far away and high as Everest. A nap is all you can muster. On a good day, Nordstorms. You think of how much endless energy you had 10 years ago and wonder what 10 more years will bring. Inflammation grows inside, its presence rudely made known by clothes that are suddenly a size too small.
The community you’ve woven your identity around doesn’t understand why you disappear. It is a community that rewards the healthy. They trumpet only the strongest and most successful. You are no longer a blip on their radar and it hurts to silently be left behind, especially because you are not a quitter. If they only knew how strong you have to be facing each day of weakness and each unknown challenge. You need to remind yourself how valuable you are. That a whole world of friends and professionals rely on your devotion and expertise and the laughter of madness when fighting so hard for your passion.
There are no little blue pills that accelerate an improvement in your health. There are no multi-million dollar investments to find a cure. The one procedure you hold out hope for would make most people wretch. It is also stuck with the FDA and available on an experimental basis to only the sickest patients. Check back again in 20 years. Until then there are supplements to support your immune system, there are IVs of nutrients to bypass your gut, there are military-grade drink powers to absorb the toxins, there are medicines to breathe into your lungs, and there are endless co-pays and tests to see what you’re are up against now. And there are naps. Weakness, knowledge, fortitude, plan, step forward.
And in this world of what cannot be seen you’ve met the strongest people you know. The doctors who don’t rush you out the door, who sit and listen to every new ailment and speak with wisdom and empathy, who answer your emails on the weekends, who laugh and provide a strong limb to hold on to when you cannot any longer. They are thankless and give 110% of themselves. You cannot imagine what they have left at night for their families. Then there are the patients with Lyme's who are treated daily with IV bags for months on end. Yet they continue to laugh and bond with the small community in the treatment room. Dirty jokes, Facekook memes, stories of their struggle that only the chronic suffering can understand. They talk of partners not understanding, of friends who think it’s all in their heads, and then they drift off in their chair as the medicine quietly drips into their arm and they sleep. And heal.
Day after day I am still grateful. I’ve experienced so much in between episodes. Heart thumping challenges, personal breakthroughs, jaw dropping beauty, and laughter. That’s what keeps me going, to know that I could still experience such strength and a glimmer of joy, so I don’t quit. Some day I will need to take it down a notch, or all the way. For now these periods of perspective give me the time to collect those memories so I’ll always remember what it’s like to wield my sword.