Maybe it’s just me, but when I was initially diagnosed as an autoimmune mess it was sort of a surreal experience. I knew that my health wasn’t right, but a chronic illness that would never go away seemed implausible. I was only thirty years old. I had two young children and was currently pursuing my black belt in tae kwon do. Sure, there were some things about my health that gave me enough cause for concern to see a physician but how could I possibly have an incurable disease? Then slowly but surely, through different things, I began to have face to face encounters with this new reality that I really was truly ill with a serious condition and would have to come to terms with it.
One of those encounters took place at the beginning of many visits with my rheumatologist. It was such a significant moment of realization in this new reality of mine that I will never forget it.
I was sitting on the exam table feeling incredibly awkward as she meticulously leaned close and hovered over each of my joints looking for signs of my rheumatoid arthritis. About the time she got to my left elbow she casually asked during her inspection, “Do you exercise?”. I responded, “Yes, I work out five days a week”. I sensed her surprise because her thorough investigation was suddenly cut abrupt by her distraction from my answer.
“What do you do to work out?”, she asked, now clearly distracted.
“I do martial arts”.
(I wasn’t quite sure why she thought it would be a problem
for her arthritic patient to admit to doing tae kwon do?)
At this point, she stiffened, still staring at my left elbow. Recovering quickly, while I still awkwardly sat there wondering what her issue was, she pulled her little rolling doctor’s stool over in front of me and sat down. She looked very intently at me and then said words that I will never forget.
“Keep doing it for as long as you can because once you stop, that’s it. You will never be able to do it again.”
At the time, I really thought this doctor was just bizarre. It never dawned on me until many years into the progression of my illness what she was saying to me. You see, I had taken advantage of the fact that, even though there were hard days, there had not yet been a day where I struggled to move. I didn’t understand that her obvious shock at my statement as an autoimmune mess, that I did martial arts five days a week, was at the fact that physically I remained capable of it for as long as I did. Technically, as she studied my joints she knew that my time was limited and was surprised that I had not realized that on my own already.
Her advice was that I continue moving as much as I could for as long as I could because, unlike me, she knew that I was taking for granted the idea that I would always be able to physically do what I wanted to do. As my body slowly progressed in its rebellion I soon came to realize that the movements I had once done with ease became more and more difficult. I learned that doing martial arts would be a much different battle for me than for others in my dojang.
As I was learning this whole new concept of physical limitations I went through frustrations that I did not yet understand. For one thing, I was so much more sore than people around me. My body actively undid the physical training I poured into it seemingly overnight so that the very next day the same activity was just as difficult. My body worked against me and all of my hard work so the activity never got any easier to do. Whereas most people do the same kick until it is no longer difficult I started from scratch every single day. The last day was just as difficult as the first.
This became such a mental struggle for me as well. I use to feel so frustrated at the fact that I would physically struggle with things that had at one point been easy for me. Then there would always be someone looking at me as a black belt candidate and judging me based on the fact that I didn’t seem to make it look as easy as it had been. While I was suppose to be getting better and better in their eyes they were noticing my struggle more and more. I felt inadequate when lower belt ranks would clearly size me up and write me off based on their lack of knowledge about my situation. I don’t do well with competitive types. I either avoid them or put them in their place. This led to me sparring too hard for my body to handle many times. But I would rather keep my dignity as an upper belt than to allow them to think they had found my weakness.
Eventually, I learned that my battle wasn’t really to keep up with others in the dojang. My battle was to keep pushing myself in healthy ways. As I learned to move out of the surreal nature of my diagnosis and face the new reality it brought into my life, I matured to accept things differently. I began to realize that what my rheumatologist was saying that day was something that rings true not only in my journey as an autoimmune mess but throughout the laws of motion. An object in motion tends to stay in motion while an object at rest tends to stay at rest.
It’s true that there are new limitations I have had to learn to accept because of my health. While those limitations can slow me down, hinder my training in ways, force me to make adaptations, and even lower my expectations, I can never, and I mean never, allow them to stop me. Moving, even the slightest bit, is better than allowing ourselves to be at rest because as long as we are moving we can continue to move. Once we stop we stop. Very rarely do you hear of someone that is battling a progressive disease beginning to work out and sticking with it. That is because its hard! Exercising when you feel miserable, your joints and muscles ache, you’re battling fatigue, and feeling anxious and depressed is practically a joke. I get it. I really do. I can’t tell you the number of times I wanted to give up, or deflated at the thought of walking out onto the mats on the way to the dojang throughout the years. People around me will never know just how deep I had to dig in order to make it. But there is one thing that keeps me going when I have to reach farther than I feel like…objects in motion tend to stay in motion, and when I rest it will be infinitely harder for me to ever become an object in motion than it will the average person at rest.
Long since that impactful conversation with my rheumatologist I have carried the truth of her words. My fear is no longer what the people around me think as I struggle through the same old workout as last week. My fear is the day when I can no longer struggle through. My fear is never being able to get back up again if I stop. So I push. I push through. I sweat and cry. I hurt and ache. I find my limits. I watch physical abilities fall farther away and my limitations grow closer with each passing year. I am not ready to rest because once I do I will probably never be an object in motion again.
So don’t give up. I know there are days when it is absolutely easier to rest than to move. I know the physical and mental exhaustion it takes to do the simplest exercises. I know that it is like pushing a boulder uphill to get your body to move. I also know that once you give up you, like me, are probably never going to get it back. If all of our energy is spent maintaining our body as autoimmune messes, how will we ever find enough energy to build ourselves back up to moving? So stay an object in motion for as long as you can. When it’s hard and seemingly impossible it is still infinitely more possible than starting from an object at rest.