On Liking Your Body When It Doesn’t Like You Back

So here’s the thing: I’m sick.

Not in a life-threatening way. Or a crazy way. But rather, in a way that makes it hard to even type “I’m sick,” because I definitely don’t identify with those words. I don’t have cancer. I’m not dying. I’m tremendously fortunate to pass with flying colors on all of the physical markers of health that they check at your annual physical (blood pressure, cholesterol, reflexes, what have you). And I spend so much of my time behaving very much like a not-at-all-sick person.

But I have two chronic medical conditions — migraines and ovarian cysts — which are what doctors call “benign,” because they don’t kill you, they just beat you up so much that sometimes, you kinda wish they would.

Since I woke up today pain-free for the first time in six days, and this is a victory, I decided it was high time for me to write about what’s been going on. Because the fact is, being sick like this profoundly impacts how you feel about your body. And that seems like something we should be talking about more, but just aren’t.  

The main reason we aren’t is because this sh*t is personal. Despite the fact that I’ve told you my weight, shown you my house, and disclosed all sorts of random facts about my wedding, I have an aversion to the kind of blogs that depend on oversharing every dirty detail. (Exhibit A: the Dooce Divorce Debate.) It’s a bit hypocrtical, because I also get hopelessly addicted to these blogs — I connect with the bloggers, start to incorporate their updates into your daily life, and sometimes, they’re like a train wreck, and I Can’t. Not. Watch — but I’ve never wanted to be one. There are just some boundaries that I want to keep firmly in place.

But I don’t think we can get into this without a little context, so here goes: For the past 18 months, I’ve spent the better part of every weekend, and a goodly number of week days, with a migraine.

For the uninitiated, a migraine is not a headache. It’s a neurological disease where pain receptors in your brain are hyper-sensitive and sound blaring alarms all over your body. So yes, I have a headache, if that’s what you want to call the ice axes hacking their way into my skull, but I also have throbbing pain in my neck and back, plus a bunch of sexy accompanying symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. Oh and this weird sensation of feeling like I’ve been shoved underwater. It’s a full body experience.

That’s where the body image stuff starts to trickle in. I write all this stuff about being nice to your body, but behind the scenes? I’m pretty mad at my body a lot of the time for making me be in pain this often. Which gets tricky. Proper migraine management centers on being nice to yourself — you have to get plenty of sleep, drink lots of water, be careful around alcohol, and exercise, but not too hard. You can’t work insane hours or live on chocolate chips and Diet Coke, like I might have done on deadlines during more carefree days. But even when I’m doing everything “right,” it’s no guarantee that I’ll escape that week’s migraine. Stress, weather conditions, and hormone fluctuations beyond my control can trigger an attack.

Plus, when you’re sick, “be nice to your body” takes on a different meaning. It’s more about lying around with your head packed in ice, watching Gilmore Girl reruns and eating whatever you can keep down — saltines, pasta, chocolate chip cookies. (Why do I never puke up chocolate chip cookies? Because they are our most perfect food, obvs.)

This was fine back when my migraines hit only once a month or every few months, which is how they behaved most of the time from age 18 to 29, give or take a few spikes. But then right around the time I finished beauty school, they spiked up to once or twice a week. And stayed up.

Suddenly I was spending a lot more time in migraine “be nice to my body” mode versus every day “be nice” mode. That leads to being-nice hangovers, where I feel bad about days spent in refined carbohydrate slothdom. Yes, it’s what I need to get through the migraine hell, but I don’t necessarily like how it makes my body look later on.

And yes, I’ve tried insert-whatever-you’re-going-to-suggest-here. Drugs, physical therapy, a chiropractor, more drugs, acupuncture, talk therapy, more drugs, you get the idea. After eight months, out of desperation, I did one of those dreaded elimination diets in March 2011 — and I didn’t tell you guys about it. Partly because of the above-mentioned boundaries thing, but also because doing an elimination diet for health reasons feels an awful lot like doing a regular ole crash diet, and frankly, I was embarrassed. I had just started the Never Say Diet gig… and I was sorta on a diet. Also, it sucked to go to a friend’s engagement party and have to explain that I’m really not pregnant, I just can’t drink (or eat this ridiculously long list of yummy foods, all of which are being served).

But I did it. And at first, it seemed like we were getting somewhere because the elimination diet pinpointed red wine as a definite culprit, with bacon and aspartame as runner-ups. I had a blissful six weeks of being totally migraine-free — and then, while out to dinner with friends one night in April 2011, felt a sudden, stabbing pain in my pelvis that made every migraine look like a hug and a hot bath.

That turned out to be a cyst next to my left ovary, rupturing with all its might. I won’t bore you with a long explanation of cysts, mostly because I’m still learning about them myself (versus migraines, which I’ve been researching out of necessity for over a decade). If you’re curious, there is some good info here. Because most women of reproductive age have cysts and most are teensy and don’t cause any trouble, my gynecologist hoped that the April rupture was just a fluke. Instead, it was followed by two more flukes. So she put me on the Pill.

Bam, no more cysts… welcome back, migraines. Plus bad skin and weight gain. And feeling bad about my body (plus feeling bad for feeling bad because hello, high-class problems!) ratcheted up another notch.

I stopped the Pill after six months because my neurologist was convinced it was the culprit behind my now-back-to-once-a-week migraines and my gynecologist thought maybe I’d be over the cyst situation after six months of suppressed ovary action. Twist! I started getting twice as many migraines and I developed a new cyst during my first period off the Pill. And instead of rupturing, this guy — I’ve named him Horace — is hanging out. Horace is roughly seven centimeters in diameter and leaking blood all around my reproductive organs. He flares up whenever I have a migraine. So, often. And then he settles in to party every day for a solid two weeks around my period. And then again for several days when I ovulate.

Add it all up, and I’ve spent 29 of the past 54 days sick.

And this is where the body image stuff gets super nuts. As Joshilyn Jackson wrote in her Open Letter to the Fat Girl in Hot Yoga, “I AM VERY ANGRY WITH [my body] for being sick, for getting fat, for not doing what I SAY. But I am nice to it anyway, three times a week, at Hot Yoga.”

When I was just dealing with migraines, yoga was my lifeline. It made me be grateful for all the cool things my body can do (backbends! headstands!) instead of obsessing over how it looks. This helped with all the days where my body couldn’t do a damn thing and looked like crap because migraines and hygiene don’t tend to go hand in hand. Plus my neurologist was all for it, what with yoga being great for de-stressing and stress being one of those nebulous migraine X factors that f*ck up any decent treatment plan. And certain yoga poses even help ease migraine symptoms. As long as you combine with them tasty painkillers.

But Horace and yoga do not mix. Engaging your mula bhanda, twisting into pretzel-y poses, working your lower ab muscles? All off the table when one of your ovaries is trying to claw its way out of your body. A simple prayer twist can make Horace mad. My teachers are lovely about modifying poses for me and encouraging me to go at my own pace, but there have been whole weeks lately where I can’t even make it in to class.

This adds yoga to a whole long list of beloved activities — parties, hikes, visits with friends, house projects, regularly scheduled blogging (ahem) — that I have had to start bailing on. To be clear, I fight this tooth and nail. I’ve taken Horace plus a migraine to Christmas Eve, to a friend’s wedding, to help my parents’ move. Having to cancel plans makes me feel pathetic and old before my time.

Because I’m young and I have sh*t to do. I should be out conquering the world.

Instead, while my husband goes rock climbing and my girlfriends make babies, I curl up with the cats and fire up another episode of the Big Bang Theory. Sometimes I go for a gentle walk, which makes me feel even older and more pathetic. (Not to knock walking — it’s great. I’m just used to being able to do so much more.) Last Sunday, the best I did was to stand on the back porch for five minutes to watch the cat dive around in the snow. And when I do go to yoga, I want to be happy and grateful for every not-sick day, but it’s hard not to focus on how I’m losing my strength and flexibility because I’m not practicing as often.

And then there’s the weight thing. As y’all know, I’m not a fan of frequent weigh-ins. But my body changes so dramatically when Horace gets frisky that I had to start collecting some data, to keep it in perspective. So I can tell you with authority that I gain about six pounds every time he freaks out. Even last weekend, when I spent the wee hours of Sunday morning throwing up violently while watching infomercials until I passed out next to a spaghetti pot full of my vomit, I still weighed three pounds more on Sunday afternoon than I did on Saturday morning.

And while I know that weight isn’t my main barometer of health, in my case, it is  a symptom in the bigger “what’s wrong with this picture?” Which makes it tricky to tease apart the Beauty Myth and the health thing — it feels like I’m failing on both fronts. I suppose you might say it’s shallow to obsess over how faux-pregnant I look (answer: tremendously!) when I should be worrying about how to get my health back. To that I say: You can suck it. Being sick doesn’t erase my complicated relationship with beauty and wanting to be pretty isn’t some healthy-people-only privilege.

But also: The irony isn’t lost on me that my biggest body hang-up (mid-section) is the site of so much physical pain. Armchair psychologists, go!

Now I want to bring this around to some kind of hopeful conclusion, but the truth is, I’m still too in the trenches with this whole mess to be entirely hopeful. There are new treatments and new doctors who may be able to help, but it’s going to be a long process. Neither of these conditions has a magic bullet cure. But I will say this: If my biggest downfall in dealing with this stuff has been that my gut instinct is to push through, propped up on painkillers, I am slowly coming around to understanding that I can’t do this all the time. I have to do less when I’m sick and give myself permission to curl up with the cats, watch television, and eat cookies when that’s what I need to do — even when it means disappointing someone I love. Especially when that someone is myself.

So I’m doing less. I’m being nice to myself in the sick sense as well as the everyday sense. I’m working on liking just walking.

But I’m also kind of proud that it is so hard for me to write this post, to miss yoga, to bail on my life. Because that reminds me how much I love my life — and that includes loving my body, flawed and infuriating as it may be. It’s my body and it can do backbends and headstands.

And I’m not giving up on it without a fight.

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30 Comments

24 Comments

  1. shelby
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    those are the exact two “illnesses” that i suffer from! (migraines multiple times a week, and cysts randomly) i have a great immune system when it comes to cold and flu type stuff, but darn those migraines and cysts. it’s so irritating when people don’t understand the pain that goes along with both of them.

    i enjoyed reading about your particular ongoing fight. i feel like it’s a lifelong struggle, and you’re so right about having to slow down and care for yourself in different ways during the bad times. good luck with your current treatments!

    • Posted January 24, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Shelby! I really appreciate hearing I’m not the only one with this particular combination… it has definitely stymied a bunch of doctors, but I think there MUST be a connection between the two. Hoping the next round of people I see has something more productive to offer… I’ll be blogging soon about the various treatment situations. Good luck to you too!

  2. Posted January 24, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Ugh, the dreaded elimination diet! I did the same thing several years ago, and though it did not get rid of my migraines, it did help. (No more caffeine or citrus fruits for me, tragically.)

    It’s a really hard thing. It’s frustrating and sad and demoralizing to deal with chronic pain like this, and I wish you the best of luck with it.

  3. Posted January 24, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Hang in there! I have known you when you’ve been more “you” and I am SURE that you will get back there again. And until then, feel free to share and vent, and watch tv and take slow walks. The activities that you love aren’t going anywhere:) But seriously, I hope with all of my might that things start to take a turn for the better super, super soon.

  4. Rebecca (formally Confused)
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    I have no advice to give except to give you a big virtual hug!

    • Posted January 24, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      Aw, thanks sweetie, I will take it! (And btw, I am still going to write that post about health and weight that we were talking about a few weeks ago — this nonsense has me a bit behind on the ole blogging schedule. But it’s in the works…)

  5. Caroline
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    I love you I love you I love you! This is an amazing post, and you are an amazing person. Even if there are days when you are mad at your body and disappointed in yourself, you should remember that you are always my hero.

  6. Becca
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    Wow. You’ve got a lot of strength – it shows in your writing this post. Lots of love!!

  7. Posted January 24, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Wow…I’m so inspired by your courage to share all this.

    Your post made me realise that we do have a relationship with our body and sometimes we have falling outs with it when it isn’t doing what we thought it should.

    We’ve got to love our bodies first, unconditionally, and not love them when they are the way we want them to be. I’m sure by loving your body, it’s in an easier place to heal than if you chose to hate it.

  8. anne
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Well, I never would have known! The last time I saw you (Christmas), you looked radiant! Honestly, I mean that! You are a trooper for putting on such a brave face because I never suspected any health issues. I am feeling so awful for what you have been going through without me knowing any of it! And, well, now it’s out there cuz you’ve written all about it! Do continue to do what’s best for you and what makes you feel good. I pray that you find an exceptionally good doctor that can pinpoint exactly the cause of these migraines and how to best rid you of them. Those ovarian cysts are a pain….refer to Aunt Joanne for more info if needed….I know she struggled with those for years. Keeping you and your health in my thoughts…….

    • Posted January 24, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Aunt Anne! And no worries — I had a fantastic time with everyone at Christmas. They’ve got me on some pretty excellent painkillers now, for days like that when I wouldn’t want to miss out, no matter what! Xo

  9. Laurel
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Hi Virginia,

    I’ve loved and read your blog for a long time and this is my first time commenting. First, thank you so much for being brave enough to share this with us; there’s not enough dialogue about emotional and psychological feelings about body image combined with underlying physical conditions (I’ve had severe scoliosis my whole life and often have pretty crippling back pain, which puts a whole new wrench into pre-existing feelings about my body).

    I also had gut pain and did an elimination diet several years ago, and eliminated gluten and dairy. I feel great now and don’t miss them at all, so learning that was definitely a blessing, although the first few weeks and months were really rough.

    I’m commenting, though, because my mom has suffered intense migraines for years and just last month discovered a remedy that’s been unbelievably helpful for her – it’s called lipigesic (http://www.lipigesic.com) and you can order it online or get it at walgreens. My mom’s been taking a dose when she feels a migraine coming on – for her, that pretty much means she takes a dose every night, just in case – and she hasn’t had a migraine since. I know what works for one person might not work for another, and the last thing I want to do is turn my first comment into a sales pitch, but I’ve been recommending it like crazy and I couldn’t not leave a comment here just in case.

    I wish you nothing but the best and selfishly hope that you can continue to blog here! I’ve followed you since your days in beauty school and am so in love with your smart, thoughtful take on beauty issues; it is always so encouraging to hear a broader dialogue around beauty.

  10. Posted January 24, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    I know it was a hard decision to write this but it was a great post and thank you for sharing. I like reading your blog because of the funny but also because I like how we can discuss (or read you discuss!) body and beauty in theory and in practice. Sometimes those theories seem simple on interweb paper but complicated and complex when they apply to your real life.

    I have a chronic hormone disorder that doesn’t leave me in pain but it does affect how I view my body in addition to dealing with all the medical junk. It’s hard to be thankful for all the wonderful thing your body does when it’s NOT doing wonderful things! Can’t we reach a truce, Body?! Gah, so selfish with all the ME, ME, ME and medications you need! If I’ve learned anything it’s that EVERYTHING in your body is connected and you know your body (or will learn to) more than tests and numbers.

    I’m so sorry to hear about your pain and wish you luck. High five for health and happiness and cookies!

  11. Ilona Fucci
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    My dear Virginia,
    I write this with tears in my eyes for you. I’m so sorry you have this illness. Your essay is bravely written –honest, insightful, and even witty. I remember battling brutal headaches (although not migraines) and wretchedly painful periods (but no cysts) through my 30s until I became pregnant at 36. (I also had miscarriages.) I have always believed that our bodies are at war with our hormones when we are young. Like you, my difficulties started at 18. Your story speaks to the experiences of so many young women and to those of us no longer young but with memories. You will prevail … Your intelligence, perseverance, and positive attitude will allow that to happen.

    Bless you, Virgnia. Hugs from your old English teacher.

  12. Posted January 24, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Virginia, I feel weird saying this is a “fantastic post” (though it is) because I don’t want to make your experience feel like it’s just really great post fodder. But I’m really glad you wrote this, and it most certainly relates to your topic areas here. We write about treating our bodies well, but unfortunate biology means that sometimes our bodies are just assholes anyway, no matter how “gentle” we are with them. And that’s a reality we sometimes have to deal with, all the mula banda yoga stuff aside. You articulated that wonderfully, and I thank you for that.

  13. Posted January 25, 2012 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    Wow, you’ve had a lot to deal with. Since you’ve named Horace, perhaps he needs a FIRM talking to.

  14. Posted January 25, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    I ‘liked’ your post–because it was well-written and honest–not because you have migraines and a bitch of a cyst. I hope you feel better in 2012.

  15. Kirsten
    Posted January 25, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Virginia, Your posts are always humorous, insightful and thought-provoking. I’m sorry to hear you are having such pain…Please take good care and a little comfort in how much you are appreciated.

  16. Posted January 25, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Hey, just wanted to chime in and echo what everyone else is saying: this is an incredibly brave post, and as always, beautifully written. I’m really sorry you’ve had to go through so much, though — it doesn’t seem fair.

  17. Posted January 26, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    How do hold a job in this circumstance? How can you make rent?

    • Posted January 26, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      I’m very fortunate on two fronts.

      One, the vast majority of my migraines hit at the weekend, when I don’t work. (They only started cropping up midweek in the past two months.) So they only sabotage my personal life, but don’t impact my ability to meet deadlines.

      Two, as a freelance writer, I have a tremendous amount of control over my schedule and can generally juggle my week to accommodate both work and illness. Obviously other things (see: personal life!) get dropped to make this happen, so it’s far from a perfect system. But I’m not worried about paying my mortgage or facing other financial concerns as a result of these conditions right now. I know that makes me one of the lucky ones. Migraines result in 113 million lost work days per year,* making it one of the top causes of workplace absenteeism. That comes with a tremendous cost.

      *Source: http://www.migraineresearchfoundation.org/fact-sheet.html

  18. Liz
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    I love you and I am sorry. I flip out when I am constipated for more than 2 days so I tremendously admire your for having to deal with this and sharing it with the world. I can’t wait to see you!

  19. Posted March 3, 2012 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    I can’t imagine what you’ve been through. I remembered a friend with same issues like you. Sometimes she can’t take it anymore. You’re great and brave. Take care always and all the best for you.

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