Am I Unfit?
I was cleaning my son’s room this morning and under the piles of cast off book jackets, broken crayons, and random Legos, I came upon a small popsicle stick, the kind you might have made a little treasure box out of as a child. But this was not part of a craft project. It was, rather, a document of the tumultuous year my son and I have had. Months ago, my angry seven-year-old, in a moment of rage wrote, “I HATE YOU MOM” boldly in black Sharpie on this popsicle stick. Finding it, my heart sank. My eyes welled up, and I sobbed. It was a stinging reminder of the emotional cliff-diving our family experienced this past year as our son began exhibiting symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: severe tantrums, slamming doors until the frame broke, punches, screams, kicks, and scratches. Every day when he got frustrated with life, bedtime, or simply the way I put ketchup on his plate, I would hear, “you’re the worst mother in the world!” The constant, daily barrage of “I hate you” chipped away at my heart. While I wanted nothing more than to help him, nothing either my husband or I did seemed to make a difference. The outbursts got worse and our happy-go-lucky little guy was stuck in a perpetual cycle of anger and frustration. I felt beaten down, depressed, and incapable as a parent.
At the same time as these behaviors were escalating, I injured my right elbow. While tennis elbow doesn’t sound all that bad, it was an injury that kept me from exercising at all for months, as most movement caused my arm to move, and that caused pain. The tendonitis kept me from pulling, pushing, holding, grasping, lifting, or bearing weight of any kind with my right arm for months. I went in and out of physical therapy. I continued teaching despite the injury and despite being unable to demonstrate many of the movements I was asking my clients to perform. I re-injured myself four times teaching classes, squashing any progress I had made to heal. The frustration of not being able to move as I wanted to, coupled with not being able to teach the way I am required to, compounded the emotional stress. It was hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel. My lack of movement led to weight gain, sending me further into self-doubt. Looking in the mirror, I no longer saw a fit person. Feeling weaker, heavier, and less competent, I began to fear that I was “unfit” in more ways than one.
I have been grappling for months with whether to write this post and reveal such vulnerability. In the end I decided to share this because I think at some point in our lives we all have looked at our reflection and seen someone we don’t recognize, an image that doesn’t support the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. We have times when we’re incredibly strong, and moments of severe vulnerability, when our self-esteem seems as fragile as a hummingbird’s egg. At work, I pride myself on being knowledgeable about the human body, on being fit, on being able to motivate others to pursue their healthy goals, and at home I take pride in being a good parent. But this year, I felt as if I was failing on all fronts. Who was I if I couldn’t move, couldn’t stay fit, and couldn’t help my son? My inner strength was failing. The voice inside started to say things like, “no one is going to be motivated by you with all that extra weight,” and “you don’t have any idea how to help him be happier,” instead of, “it’s going to take time, but you’ve got this!” We’ve all heard this negative self-talk, the bigger, louder voice that bullies our positive inner cheerleader.
When my inner tyrant began speaking up too often, too boisterously, I realized I could not move forward alone. Accepting vulnerability led me to a path away from self-doubt. I asked for help for my son and got it in spades, from professionals, family, and friends alike. I asked for help for myself and found patience again and appreciation for the other sides of me that define who I am outside of my physical self. I remembered to be kinder and gentler to myself and was reminded that no one expected me to be infallible, just human. These days my son is getting the support that he needs. He is happier than he has been in a long time. He and I know that we’ll never give up on him. Ever. And that our family’s love is truly unconditional. I’m still battling the tennis elbow, but it’s getting better. I’m weaker and heavier than I want to be, but I am working on it slowly. If anything, I have emerged with even more empathy and sympathy for anyone struggling with parenting, weight loss, injury, recovery, negative self-image, and depression.
I have not thrown away my son’s popsicle stick, and while I am not going to frame it, I think it is important to keep this token from our difficult year to remind me that I am, and we all are, a work in progress. Ever-evolving, complex, imperfect human beings. And despite our daily struggles, whatever they be, it’s all going to be just fine. Maybe even better than that. Especially when we don’t go it alone.