I Never Throw The First Punch

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Once a upon a time in junior high school, I was walking down the hall, minding my own business, on my way to my shiny yellow locker when suddenly three girls were in front of me. They blocked my passage. One of them said, “You’re new here and we don’t like you.” My heart started pounding so loud, I thought the gathering crowd could hear it. My throat got a raspy kind of dry and my lips curled from a desperate thirst. My palms were clammy. I said, “I’m sorry to hear that. Could you excuse me though, I’m just trying to get to my locker.” The girls stepped forward further crowding my personal space and refused to let me pass. Soon, I was cornered and felt very much like a trapped animal, backed up against that bright yellow locker I so longed just to get open, get my books and get on to my next class. I could feel my cheeks redden and sweat began to drip, drip, drip down my back. The throng around us grew and everyone just watched as these girls menaced me. They were bullies. They were testing me to see if they could control me. I felt confused and unfairly picked on. I didn’t know these girls. It was my third day of school in a new district. I didn’t really know anyone yet.

Things went from bad to worse as they continued to call me names, standing at an uncomfortably close distance. I could smell their sour breath as they railed at me. I remained quiet. I looked down. I tried not to engage. I just wanted to get out of there and I wasn’t sure how I could manage it. They had me against the wall and I could feel the cold steal of that yellow locker on my back. I didn’t care so much that other people were watching, except that it would have been nice if just one of them stepped in to help but no one did. I hadn’t thought much about how the crowd would respond to the way I reacted to these girls. I only wanted the harassment to stop and I just wanted to be safe. I bit my lip so that I would not start crying. I’m not really a crier but the stress of this most unwarranted attack was starting to get the better of me. I could feel myself shrinking. I hated that feeling more than I hated these girls who were publicly humiliating me.

I wondered how things could get worse or even how I would get myself out of this situation. I didn’t have to wait long. One of the girls spit at my feet and another one slapped me hard across the face with an open fist. I really didn’t see it coming and it stung as sharply as a bee sting and I’m allergic to bees. For just a split second, everything froze. Then, and I had to have this part retold to me by the myriad of observers because I could not remember it, I apparently dropped my books and started throwing punches. I only have a very vague memory of a lot of noise. Shouting mostly, I think it must have been the crowd.

Later in the principal’s office, I was informed that girl who hit me, her nose was broken. I was heartsick. I didn’t think I was a fighter. I’m not a fighter. My knuckles were raw and my head ached from getting my hair pulled…other than that, not a scratch on me. The principle asked me several questions about what had happened and I told him what I remembered, that I’d been unexpectedly cornered and then assailed. He handed down his punishment. Detention for a week for me and suspension for the girl who started the fight. She and her “mean girl” friends, apparently had a history of starting fights. I was not singled out for any other reason than being new to the school. The principle said he didn’t want to give me detention but he had to. I understood and took my punishment without complaint.

When I got home that night, my mother was beyond furious with me. My step father was proud. He asked me how many times I punched the other girl. I told him that I had no idea. He insisted that I give him a number. I told him five or six. He gave me six dollars….a dollar for every punch. I should have told him fifty! He told me if I had started the fight, then I would have been in trouble but he was proud of me for defending myself and told me, in time my mother would be too. I’m not sure she ever was and I was grounded for a month.

I often think about this story and others like it in my life. Just yesterday I was walking my dog. She was doing what dogs do on walks…sniffing and peeing on things. We were at the yard of a well known grumpy old man in our neighborhood. We were down by the curb, in the street, exactly where you’d expect someone to be who is walking their dog. She stopped to sniff a bush when the grumpy old man came out of his house yelling, “Get that filthy animal off my lawn.” I was shocked but, given this man’s reputation, not surprised. I said, ” Sorry…She’s just sniffing a bush. We’ll be on our way.” He said, “What are you stupid or something? I told you to get that beast the #@%#  off my lawn.” Before I even realized it, I said “Calm down and don’t be such an #$%@&*$#.”  The man was stunned. I don’t think he is used to anyone talking back to him, let alone a woman. I do live in the “Deep South” and this man is not only a grump, he is also a typical Southern “good ‘ld boy”, used to women being seen but not heard. He didn’t say another word and my dog and I went off to finish our walk.

That’s how I am though, I guess. I won’t start the fight but apparently if you come at me, I will finish it and I will give it my best shot to win. I’m a peaceful person until I am provoked but apparently, I am not a pacifist. Sometimes, I wish I could respond differently to mean people. My husband often turns the other check. He will smile and wave at people who are unnecessarily rude. He would have smiled at that grumpy old man and probably just waved at him had he been there. I’ve observed him enough to see that this is equally disarming as surprising a bully by fighting back. Sometimes, I wish I was more like that but I’m not. I never throw the first punch but it’s in my nature to defend myself…vigorously.

As I think about this quality as it relates to having chronic sarcoidosis, maybe it’s not a bad thing. Sarcoidosis invaded my life, much like those mean girls, out of the blue and for no good reason. It cornered me and it scared me, just like they did. It cusses at me, just like that grumpy old man. Sarcoidosis wants me to be miserable, just like bullies do. If I am miserable then the disease has the upper hand. I become weakened in misery. If I am miserable, I give my sarcoidosis ammunition to beat me. Sarcoidosis is a menace of a disease. It’s wildly unpredictable. You don’t know what is going to happen next when you’re in the throes of it. Sarcoidosis punched me first, but as I look at how I have responded since my diagnosis, I have been fighting back and I am giving it everything I’ve got. I might not win this war but I intend to put up a hell of a fight!

I never gave much thought to what I would do if I ever got sick, really sick. I’m not sure anyone does until it actually happens to them. I’ve learned that my fight instinct kicked in. Even though this instinct has not always served me well, has sometimes gotten me detention or disrupted my serenity on a walk with my dog, I now see this instinct in a whole new light. I am actually grateful for it because it is saving my life or at least prolonging it.

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Five Things…

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Five things I wish I could go back and tell myself when I was newly diagnosed with sarcoidosis:

  1. Nothing is ever going to be “normal” again. You will lose your career and this will be devastating for awhile. Your life is going to change in ways you never imagined and this will be sad and scary. You will grieve. It will also be exciting and challenging and rewarding because you will learn that you never give up. You will figure out how to make the best of it. You will learn to develop your artistic side. You will write a blog, learn to draw and paint. Nature photography will become a newly found passion and you will be good at it. Despite this disease, life is still a worthwhile experience and, in some ways, it becomes more rewarding now because you are sick. You will learn to cherish what matters most and let go of what doesn’t. You will learn to live with dignity despite the fact that this disease continues to attack your physical wellbeing.
  2. Learn all that you can about sarcoidosis and do not be afraid to know more than your doctors because you will know more than most of them. Question them if they say something that doesn’t make sense to you. Be a strong advocate for yourself. You deserve good care and the only way to get it is to be an informed patient. Take an active role in your healthcare and look at your relationship with your doctors as a partnership instead of a doctor/patient relationship. Make informed decisions about your treatment and include those closest to you in those decisions.
  3. Finding an inner strength will be the key, not only to surviving life with sarcoidosis, it will be how you learn to thrive. It is in you. Strength is found in many forms. It is a positive attitude. It is being okay with being afraid while still doing what must be done. It can be found in tears. You will need to dig deeper inside your soul than you ever have before and with brutal honesty, you will need to accept that you are changed both physically and mentally. This is how you are going to move on with your life. It will be a process that is painful but rewarding. You will come to know yourself profoundly better than you did before you got sick and you will learn to trust yourself completely. This trust will help you improve your relationships with others. It will also help you let go of those who refuse to acknowledge your journey.
  4. Take exceptionally good care of yourself physically and emotionally because doing this is better for you than any prescribed treatment. No one else is going to put your needs first. You have to learn to do this for yourself and you have learn that you are worth it. Learn to set boundaries about where to put your energy and do not feel the least bit guilty about it. Eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, reduce stress and get regular exercise. Don’t make excuses not to because, in the long run, it will these things that keep you as healthy as you can be. Practice the art of daily gratitude because you will come to understand your own attitude plays a major role in the quality of your life. Life in a body ravaged by sarcoidosis is not easy but you will find peace and you will be happy again.
  5. Life with a chronic health issue like sarcoidosis is a marathon. It is important to pace yourself. You won’t have the energy you used to have. Your mind won’t work the way it used to and no matter how well you take care of yourself, you will be physically weaker than you think you should be. You will be in some level of pain constantly. You will need to learn to prioritize your responsibilities, your relationships and your time because your energy will be limited and your pain unpredictable. Sleep doesn’t fix your fatigue and it will be necessary to say “no” to some activities. You will feel guilty but you shouldn’t. You will be alone more and you will have to learn to appreciate the company you keep with yourself. Every day will be different so when you have a bad day, know that the next will likely be better. When you have a good day…rejoice! You are not going to get better. Sarcoidosis has changed your reality forever. It’s up to you to figure out how to make the most of this new strange world and you will. You will learn and grow in ways that are profoundly important to living a truly good life.

The Tranquility Credo

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Resist what is wrong even when what is wrong is the easier thing.

Rise up for what is right even when it is the harder thing. 

Seek truth in the face of absurdity.

Seek to be kind even to those who are not. 

Be curious.

Be brave. 

Find peace because another’s chaos does not belong to you. 

Find courteous goodwill in the face of disagreement. 

Resist the need to be right rather than happy. 

Rise up in principled purpose for those most in need. 

Strive to be honorable in your actions and accurate with your words. 

 

The Power Of Unburdened Truth

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There are times we don’t talk about my sarcoidosis for weeks at a time. It’s almost as if my disease has just become part of the fabric of our lives. There is little need to discuss it. It is, after all, a known quantity in our lives. I am sick. What else is there to say? Why should we dwell. When all is said and done, we don’t need words to know the impact sarcoidosis has had on me and on us, the loss of income, the slower pace of life, the ease with which I now cry and feel helpless and ineffectual because my lungs burn in a fiery blaze, a blistering ache every time I take a breath and my body writhes in unexpected and mysterious discomfort for reasons no doctor seems to understand and, always at the most inconvenient of times.

Tonight for the first time in quite awhile, we did talk about it. I talked about it. I admitted a rarely spoken ugly fact about living with a chronic disease. I said that it’s hard. I said that I hate it. I don’t like to say these things. I feel like when I do, I give the disease power over me, power I loath to feed that horrible ogre who took up unwelcome residence inside my flesh and organs, my bones and limbs. I do hate it though and that’s the simple truth of the matter.

There are things about becoming persistently unwell that actually make you appreciate life in deeper and more profound ways. Time changes because you realize how much of it you wasted when you were well and worried about stupid, mundane, often petty things, stuff beyond your control, outside of your grasp, the injustice of things not going your way. What I know now because of my sarcoidosis, is that most things don’t turn out as planned and that this is meant to part of the adventure of life, not something to fret over. The unplanned events in life are what build our character because they are what shape us through the choices we make about how we face them.

I am grateful for the knowledge about life that I have gained from being knocked out of the rat race, the constant chase for the next best thing. I no longer have the drive or the need to be the best at everything I do or in the know about every stupid latest fad or fashion. Instead, I find my life of forced simplicity to be an unexpected blessing. There is ease in it. It does give me pause to be still and know that life is not only fleeting, it is profoundly short and when every breath you take is literally painful, well, this just gives you a better understanding of life and death, how the two are intertwined and cannot be unwoven from each other. There is a humanity and a humility that comes with the knowledge that death is forever chasing life. This is a little secret that can only be understood once your very being has been threatened by the mayhem of disease.

Most of the time, in my acute awareness that life is a fragile momentary passage of time on this insanely beautiful planet and, despite the unyielding stumbling blocks of life inside an uncooperative skin, I choose to be grateful. I choose to focus on contentment rather than disappointment. I seek serenity instead of worry. I long for peace instead of disturbance. However, I would be remiss and even a liar, if I didn’t once and awhile admit, despite my abhorrence to the fact that I loath to acknowledge it, having this disease is hard and I do hate it.

So tonight, I let the floodgates open but, only a crack. I released the burden of the all too often unvoiced reality about life with a chronic health condition. I admitted that I feel weary sometimes. I disclosed my loneliness and insecurities. I shed light on the ugly sorrow of a body burdened by disease but I only did this so that these demons cannot swallow me whole. Sometimes the only time the truth can hurt you is when you’re not honest. Feelings are only as powerful as you allow them to be. I do grieve and this disease does make me sad but when I am honest, when I acknowledge my broken heart and liberate myself from being mostly stoic and strong and outwardly fearless in the face of constant uncertain health, I am better able to appreciate the simple joy that is life and I am free to continue living with grace and acceptance of what is rather than what will never be.

Taming the Beast Inside Me

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What is it that I should write about, I ask myself? I don’t know echoes the answer in my vacant head as the curser blinks on a blank page of regretful emptiness. If I write about not knowing what to write about, will it clear my mixed up mess of a brain? Given my current state of mind, considering the answer, I’ve come to a conclusion of doubt and resistance. I am angry that words defy me today. I am frustrated by my lack of imagination. Where has my sense of artistry gone and why has it left me abandoned and alone?

My blog is supposed to provide comfort to the chronically ill but in truth, I’m tired of being chronically ill. I’m tired of pushing down the endlessly dreary feeling that my life has come to nothingness. I think I’ve lost my sense of moral outrage that my body has betrayed me. This is my new normal and I fear that I have come to accept it as such. I am broken. I am defeated and I am beaten. Sarcoidosis has subdued my purpose and stolen my determination to continue the fight against the intolerable fact that I am not who I once was or who I want to be.

Sometimes my sarcoidosis feels bigger than I am, like a giant ogre ready to oppress and slay me into submission, taking what little will I have left and devouring it as only a monster can do, striping me of hope and purpose. Sometimes it feels like because sarcoidosis changed my life so dramatically, it has ransacked my identity, my passion and my drive. I don’t know who I am some days other than a person with a chronic disease, forgotten by the rest of the world, left in quiet isolation to wilt and wither away.

I know my disease is not who I am. I know these feelings are only temporary moments of insecurity, brought on by a body changed through disease and a life altered by unwelcome illness. I know that I am more than my sarcoidosis. Though I don’t yet know how, I am convinced that I can tame these beastly feelings inside me because, my spirit may be shaken but it is mighty. I know in the depth of my soul that I am tenacious and whatever demons try to slay my animation will ultimately be beaten. So these heavy feelings I am experiencing, while they impede my ability and even my desire to write for now, they will not cripple me forever and they will not permanently change my want for hopefulness or my inclination to seek joy. I will find my passion once again and words will defy me no longer.

The Texture Of Life

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We cannot go through life unscathed. No one enjoys its grace while escaping the darkness. We cannot live if we spend all our time running from pain. Scars are just part of life and if we leave this world without them, then we didn’t live, we merely existed. Life’s grace was never within our grasp. It’s a conscious choice, to live or to exist, to seek grace and accept sorrow. To live, we must make ourselves aware of all of life’s textures, the way it weaves through us in both glory and shame, happiness and sorrow, recovery and pain, comfort and fear.

This journey we are meant to take, this life we are asked to live, was not given to us easily. We must earn its joy through our willingness to accept its heartache. Every emotion we feel has an equal and opposite one, with love comes loss, with grief comes gratitude, with joy comes sadness. To be alive, to truly live, means that we must consent ourselves to receive the good with the bad. We must unlock that part of ourselves that guards against the darkness. In unreserved fashion, we must fling open the door to our heart and let in both fortune and tragedy.

It takes a steely resolve, a deliberate desire to avoid regret, a willingness to be strong in the face of hardship to walk this earth in a vulnerable way, to allow for the mixture of jubilation and triumph and melancholy and despair that life heaps upon us. Oh how it is easy in a way, to build walls to ward off the despondency, the loss and the hardest part of life. Yet, how lonely too it is to live behind such barriers. Life is meant to be felt. It is meant to be messy. It is meant to go up and then down, to grow and then to die and in a time and place of its choosing, not ours.

This is why choosing to live rather than exist is so important. We don’t know what each day, let alone what each hour of our life holds for us. We can accept its beauty with the ugliness or we can later mourn that we missed what it means to love, to hope, to grow, to seek, to know. For when we choose existence, we choose stagnation, we choose loneliness, we choose a sad kind of stillness. Yet, when we choose life, we choose all of the above without remorse. We come to understand the scars we have simply mean that we knew love, we understand passion, we had a purpose, we took a chance and we have nothing to rue or regret.

The Ultimate Sarcoidosis Superpower!

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I have figured out what superpower I would want if I could have one and it’s not to be able to fly, or to be invisible or, to read minds. My superpower would not be to see through walls or to have crazy strength. I would not need a special car named after me or a cape and boots or a truth lasso. The superpower I want is unique and anyone who suffers with an otherwise invisible chronic, yet life altering illness, would probably agree. I want the power to force people who doubt how I feel or question me with skepticism to live inside my skin. A little time inside this body would prove to the naysayers that life with a chronic condition like sarcoidosis is no joke. Those who doubt us would then be obligated to admit that we are actually the stronger ones, that what we experience is real and that we are a people full of grace.

There is not one thing that is easy about living in a body that won’t cooperate. Even when many of us attempt to make it look like a walk in the park, it is more like a trudge though thigh high muck without the benefit of protective boots. Our desire for some visual sense of normalcy is for our own benefit though. If we act and look as if we are okay, maybe we can believe it too, even if for a little while. Why should we be relegated to PJs, sweatpants, and no make up 24/7. We have every right to look our best and to try to live as normally as we can but, just because we are doing this doesn’t mean we don’t suffer. We do. We suffer in ways most people cannot imagine and we often suffer quietly and alone. Ours is a misery we do not share and we do not dwell upon.

If we could put just one of the “Doubting Thomases” in our body for 24 hours, I suspect they would be shocked at how we work just to take a simple breath of precious life giving air. Every breath is a chore unto itself. Every inhale and every exhale is exhaustion for us. The other thing that would surprise a non-believer is the amount of constant pain we are in. Somedays it is low level pain, sure, but it is always there and like our shadow, it never leaves us. Some days it stops us cold. These are the days we hide from you. These are the days we grieve privately for the person we used to be, before life became about effort and lost its ease.

Doubters would be truly horrified to learn how long it takes us to heal. A mild cold can turn into something serious or even life threatening in a moment’s time. A cut or a bruise can take weeks if not months to go away. There is no telling how our bodies will react when sickness lurks or injuries befall us. It is astounding how vulnerable we are because of our sarcoidosis. It is also frightening because while we know living in a bubble is not realistic, living like nothing is wrong with our immune system isn’t either and finding a balance can be very difficult, sometimes lonely and occasionally overwhelming to figure out. While we might never say it out loud, everything we do, or don’t do, revolves around our best guess in how we think our bodies will react in any given situation. We are held hostage to our disease even when we pretend we are free.

Forced empathy. That’s the superpower I want. I would use it sparingly. Only on those who are knowingly critical or obviously skeptical. I wouldn’t make them suffer long, just long enough to learn the valuable lesson that you shouldn’t judge what you don’t understand or what you yourself have never experienced.