Friday, October 14

as the world turns, slowly

It was March, and the small town in Pennsylvania was gray and cold. The clinic was back a country road in the forest with a small guest house for half in, half out patients. I shared a bedroom with my mother, who came along for moral and gastronomic support.

Dr. N. was not much older than me. He sat behind a huge wooden desk in an office he'd inherited from his predecessor, the founder of the clinic. It seemed like the sort of office one might be called into to see the headmaster of an old money boarding school. I was called in because I was failing the school of hard knocks.

My tests confirmed the prognosis. Dr. N. explained that my body was suffering the effects of debilitating stress. Stress activates the fight or flight response, he said, which is essential to survival--it makes the zebra run from a lion--but it's meant to be short-lived because your body can only produce so much adrenaline. My body had gotten stuck in fight or flight. There was a lion around every corner and my adrenal glands were doing overtime.

I hadn't burn out yet, but I was well on my way to exhaustion. Healing would be long and slow, Dr. N. said, and my condition would require continuous stress management. I would always have to be careful not to overdue it. My life would be limited. In a word: handicapped.

Olympic Arches, Athens
Life slowed to a sloth pace. In the morning, I went to the clinic for various treatments aimed at shutting off my internal 'on' switch. In the afternoon, I looked out over a dreary meadow of leafless trees. This about sums it up, I thought. 

The only thing that made life tolerable at the clinic was Christopher. He hailed from the Bahamas, but when he told me he was 'Bahamian' it sounded like 'bohemian,' which left me wondering why someone would state their personal preference for eccentricity and the arts so matter-of-factly. We were nearly the same age and inevitably became institutional allies. During the day, we exchanged therapy notes, and at night, we watched Sex and the City on the guest house television. We talked about the frustration of being young and sick. We joked about making a reality television show called The Real World of Chronic Fatigue, or soap opera titled, As the World Turns, Slowly.

"Don't miss next week's episode of Real World CFS, when the housemates try to walk up stairs for a nap..."

The ratings didn't look good. Who would want to vicariously live what seemed to me no existence at all? But I wasn't alone. Christopher kept my spirits from plummeting; he kept me sane.

One day I met with a therapist at the clinic in a small semi-lit room. “Tell me about you,” he said under knitted black brows, “what do you think is going on here?” 

What's going on here is that you are some kind of quack if you think you're going to unearth some hidden childhood trauma that will be the key to all my ailments, I thought.

We talked about my childhood. Immediately, he jumped on the arm. "Did other kids make fun of you?"

“No,” I said, “other kids always respected me. I always had good self esteem.” Ha! I thought, now I have him.

But he asked again about my arm, how did it affect who I was. And that’s when it came out: “Well, I guess I’ve always felt like I had to prove myself.”

He said, “Hmm,” and nodded, and typed something into his computer. “Because of your arm?”

My brain began to open up to the possibilities. Was he right? Was this all about my arm? Could that be possible?

“Yeah,” I said, “I guess I have always felt that I had to prove I was more than someone with a disability. I always just wanted to be normal, so I worked really hard at it.”

He looked pleased with himself. Then he burnt me a CD that sounded like nothing and told me I was supposed to listen to it three times a day after repeating a custom designed mantra to cure myself of negative thought patterns.

That night, laying on the floor alone in my room, I said the mantra and I listened to the CD. I wondered if it was working. Then I started to cry. Then I cried harder. Soon I was sobbing uncontrollably. In a moment, I realized all that my driven self had forced my body through––perfect grades, college, working two jobs without a day off, being there for everyone who needed me and some that probably didn’t—-the scenes pounded in one after the other like Jersey shore waves. I heard my body crying, “Help, please help me, I’m not well, I need rest!” I saw my child self, perfect as she was, and I wanted to take that innocent, helpless girl in my arms and protect her from what was to come.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” I gulped. Something had shifted.

To be continued...

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