I was thirteen, which means I was in eighth grade. I hated school for numerous reasons mostly having to do with being a poor geek in a rich suburb in the status-obsessed eighties. I hated gym class for the very similar reason that almost everything was turned into a competition. After all, what better idea is there than making blood-thirsty teenagers play dodge ball (except maybe stranding them on a desert island)?
I liked swimming, both because water was home and because I’d been doing it competitively for a few years in a state where summer wasn’t strictly bounded by holidays. All that practice meant that when one of the snobby kids wanted to put me in my place with a swimming competition, they got their asses kicked. Okay, beating one of them while doing the backstroke instead of freestyle was just showing off, but it was fun.
I liked running, too. Like swimming, it was an opportunity to be by myself, even in a class full of other people. I was a decent sprinter and an okay distance runner until I ran out of breath. I never did manage to condition that up properly, despite walking a mile to school every day with a nice uphill section in the middle.
Then I started liking running less. One day, my foot hurt. I didn’t remember injuring it, but I figured I must have. I wasn’t screaming with pain, but I limped. The gym teacher looked at me funny but let me sit out a day. Then a second day. Then the look was less funny, and I was told to get out there and try.
It hurt, of course, every time I flexed my foot. But I could do it. The pain, just as it had started, never got so acute that I was afraid I was hurting myself more. Sometimes it even waned. Then it waxed again. But I’d already learned I could run through the pain. It was better than that look and all it implied. I even taught myself to walk without the limp.
I think it was the next year that my knees started to hurt. Same gym teacher, though, so I knew better than to sit anything out. As long as I could do it through the pain, the pain couldn’t really be that bad, and I shouldn’t use it as an excuse. For not doing something I’d like to do until it hurt.
It wasn’t until I was sixteen, riding the bus to a more-distant school and no longer required to take gym, that I saw the doctor about my foot and my knees. That may have been the first time I saw a doctor in that period. It may just have been the first time I said anything about this pain that I’d gotten used to living with. I don’t remember. Things were complicated then.
It was arthritis. The toe got a whopping huge shot of cortisone, which burns like you can’t imagine if you’ve never had it. A couple hours later, it was fine, a condition that persisted for more than a decade. The knees were more difficult, since my kneecaps are slightly malformed, but I was given exercises to strengthen the appropriate muscles to keep my kneecap from grinding into the rest of my knee.
That’s what I’d been living with for three years. That and exercise-induced asthma, but it was even more years later before I figured out that being out of breath after a run doesn’t make most people really struggle for air and cough to clear obstructions that can’t be cleared. Well, the arthritis, the asthma–and that look on my gym teacher’s face that said I was faking it, relying on a tiny boo boo to get me out of work.
I wanted to take the diagnosis back to my teacher and rub her face in it. I still don’t know whether I should have. There are so many forces in our society telling us that as long as we can limp along, the only thing that’s really wrong with us it that we’re not doing it with smiles on our faces.
So I’ve learned how to smile, just as I learned how to run and how to walk without a limp. Real smiles, too, the kind that will fool experts. I’ve learned how to push enough air over the reddest vocal cords to defeat laryngitis long enough to allow the smallest of small talk. I’ve learned to look attentive when I’m falling-down tired. I’ve trained, “I’m doing well, and you?” as the automatic response to the polite question that isn’t really interested.
Of course, I haven’t learned how to feel any better. I haven’t learned how to keep from resenting the world zipping past me when I have to stop or the people who can’t see through the facade.
Most of all, I haven’t learned how to stop feeling like a malingerer when I stop short of running. I know that the best thing I can do when I’m sick is sleep. I know that sitting up will just make my joints hurt more and that my temperature will fluctuate broadly, requiring that I have quite a bit of control over my coverings. I know that migraine-induced vertigo is much less likely to make me nauseated if I don’t move around a lot. I know that in the past year, I’ve used five days of PTO for vacation, and all the rest has gone to sick time.
None of that makes me feel any less like I’m slacking off. None of it makes me feel any less useless when I’m not getting something done. None of it makes me feel that it is any less shameful to limp. And none of it makes me feel any less like someone is going to come along and look at me as though I’m making it all up.