This question wasn’t one I even knew to ask when I was in my 20’s navigating chronic illness. I simply assumed my body was betraying me. Anyone who has experienced living in a body that feels like it is against you knows how this feels. Hopeless. Infuriating. Depressing. Heavy. Disempowering. Confusing. Sad. Sometimes it’s really obvious when we feel this way. Other times it slips in so quietly that we don’t even recognize it.
During my recovery from thyroid cancer, I experienced muscle wasting. I frequently found myself down on the floor playing with my kids and unable to get back up without help from someone else. And if someone else wasn’t available, it often resulted in rather humorous scenes that involved a lot of grunting and wild body maneuvering to try and find some kind of position that allowed me to inch my way back into standing! I’m quite certain that any video of this would cause a lot of chuckles from anyone who knows me because I already have quite a flair for physical humor so you can bet my attempts to stand were performed in true Emily-esque style!
As the months climbed onward, I spent a lot of time focusing on my muscle wasting. When I used the term with a friend one day, she commented that the term felt so hopeless, which pissed me off! I mean, it was a reality, right? Yes, it was. Yet as I allowed her comment to percolate, I noticed the feeling of hopelessness that the term triggered in me. It actually felt so hopeless that it made me feel paralyzed to move forward with exercise to address it.
Isn’t it interesting how quietly a thought or word or phrase can begin to tune us into an underlying feeling, which can begin to create an experience that we never intended? There I was marching around thinking and focusing and talking about my muscle wasting, having no idea that it was actually just one particular perspective available on this subject. I noticed that tucked beneath my reference to my muscle wasting was a suggestion of wrongness, as if my muscles were somehow betraying me and were no longer on my team.
If there is one thing I have repeatedly learned through my own experience and that of patients over the years it is that our bodies do not betray us. Do they always function the way we hoped? Definitely not. I’ve also learned that there is never only one perspective available when trying to make sense of why our bodies are expressing difficult symptoms. It’s so human for us to feel betrayed when our bodies seem to go renegade on us. Confusion and anger and hopelessness are all very appropriate reactions to have.
Making space for these feelings is so important. It’s actually when we make space for our feelings of the present moment, purposefully acknowledge their presence, soften to them and notice where we experience these emotions in our bodies that we begin to open the door to new perspectives on the very situations we are in.
When I began to notice, acknowledge and allow that I was actually feeling hopeless and wrong in regard to my muscle wasting, a different perspective quietly slipped in. My mind suddenly offered a new term: “Hero Muscles” and I immediately felt the difference. It instantly placed my muscles on my team again and I understood that they always had been. I was flooded with a love and appreciation for their unending willingness and eagerness to keep showing up and to become strong again when given the appropriate tools.
My hero muscles and I went on to embark on an inspired, empowering journey to become strong again. My muscles and I learned how to use machines at the gym that we’d never before been one bit interested in! We (because we are a team, after all:-) eagerly headed to the gym to stretch and build and grow throughout the week and it felt SO GOOD!!! Each day we noticed small, powerful shifts in the direction we wanted to go.
I once heard Elijah Cummings, a U.S. representative, say that when bad things happen to his kids, he’s taught them to ask not “Why is this happening to me?” but to ask, “Why is this happening FOR me?” I spent a number of months unknowingly asking myself why my experience with side effects like muscle wasting was happening to me. When my friend suggested that the term muscle wasting felt hopeless, it felt like a direct challenge to a perspective that felt so undeniably true, which is why her comment initially pissed me off! Yet look at all the gifts I ended up receiving through my muscle wasting adventure as my broader understanding of it expanded! It ultimately ignited an awareness that the feeling of betrayal by my body had once again come for a visit and was asking to be acknowledged by me. As I made room for its presence, new, more empowering perspectives showed up that changed my relationship with my sweet hero muscles and my body and the process in which it found itself.
Doesn’t it make you curious about what other ways our unwanted experiences may be happening FOR us rather than to us? Or what other perspectives just might show up as we consider this?
Check out my latest article on Thrive Global https://thriveglobal.com/stories/what-if-this-is-happening-for-me
Emily Colwell, MSSW, ND