Five years ago, I made a career move from a large research institution in the Deep South to a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. This was and continues to be one of the best things that has happened in my life. Not only do I have my dream job, but my spouse, son, and I really like where we live. Sure, some days the stench from the chicken and hog yards on the outskirts of town is enough to make us gag, but there also is an ever-growing grassroots political activism taking hold in our community. Our town is quite a mixed bag. Some days I get frustrated and wonder why folks are so resistant to changes that I and others are confident will improve our quality of life here. Then I remember how resistant I am to getting on the treadmill even though I know it will make me feel better if I do. Life is complicated.
Since moving here, I sometimes feel as though every breath I take is an act of gratitude. I am grateful for my community of friends and colleagues who nurture my intellect and my soul. I am grateful for my students who inspire and challenge me. I am grateful for my job that allows me to share my ideas and energy with others. I am grateful for the opportunities to participate in local political activism. I am grateful for the smile on my spouse’s face when he laughs with our friends. I am grateful for every time my son sighs and says he’s so glad we live here. I am grateful for our puppy. I am grateful for our house and yard, especially the back patio where we gather with friends around a bonfire in the summertime. I am grateful for the trees that stand next to our house. I am grateful for all of it.
The one thing I forget to be grateful for is my health.
I was sick all the time in Louisiana. The climate meant that something was always blooming, and molds and mildew were always growing. I would start coughing in September, and by mid-March I would have had a chronic case of bronchitis ever since. I coughed less in the summer months, but my back pain seemed to worsen with the summer humidity. When we moved to Iowa, I found that I got sick much less frequently. Coughs, colds, and fevers mostly disappeared. What remained was the pain. In fact, the pain worsened with each winter. I became convinced that my left hip could predict snow and rain. And there were so many days when just getting out of bed in the morning seemed to take all of the energy I had for the day. I pressed on, pushing through it all, just as I had always done.
Until I turned 40.
Turning 40 really felt like a switch was thrown. I literally bent over to blow out a candle and blew out my back. After months of agony, I admitted to a friend what my symptoms were — not just acute pain, but chronic; not just muscle aches, but a feeling of rawness, as if someone had scraped off the top layer of my skin; not just fatigue, but a deep exhaustion that made thinking and functioning outrageously difficult. Some days even my hair hurt. She nodded knowingly (and virtually; we were messaging, not speaking) and pointed me to websites about fibromyalgia. Long story short, within a few weeks, I had consulted with a new general practitioner, who also nodded knowingly, and then diagnosed me with fibro. There was now a name, a diagnosis, for what I had been enduring.
Sometimes I manage to muster gratitude for the fibro. Having a diagnosis has silenced (most) of the internal messages about laziness and shame with which I used to (and sometimes still do) berate myself. I know that there are reasons why I don’t exercise, why I seem to hurt myself every time I try to lose weight, why I don’t inhabit the same body I did when I was 25. Fibro has enabled me to forgive myself, to have compassion for myself.
I also now have tools that I didn’t have before. I have a prescription for Cymbalta that works well for daily management. I have another prescription for a muscle relaxant for the nights when pain becomes severe and I cannot relax enough to sleep. I am able to use my Flexible Spending Account and my employer-provided health insurance to pay for regularly scheduled acupuncture, massage, and chiropractor appointments. I really cannot imagine how difficult it would be to manage my symptoms without these tools.
And fibromyalgia has lead me to herbalism.
I am learning so much about how to care for and nourish my body — and my spirit — through herbalism. And, even more incredibly, studying herbalism has opened doors to new opportunities in teaching that will take me to India, Japan, and the UK this summer. Might this have happened without the fibromyalgia? Maybe. Maybe not.
My desire to regain some semblance of control over my body and to be able to make choices about food and medicine that nourish me has definitely changed the way I see not only my body, but also the world around me. The natural environment has greater meaning to me than ever before. And now I will see even more of it than I ever imagined. Fibromyalgia may make this travel difficult, but it also is what makes this travel possible. For that, I am immensely grateful.
So, even on days like today, when the never-ending winter weather makes me ache all over, I raise a cup in gratitude for all that I have learned and for all the adventures that are yet to come.