Woman, back to the viewer, looking off to the sunset (double exposure). Title in black font.

Fibromyalgia Forced Me to Look Inward

Woman sitting, her back to the viewer looking out into the sunset (double exposure). Title in black font.

Fibromyalgia has given me a gift. It has pushed me to reflect, evolve, and break up a solid foundation of untruths I’ve lived by. Trauma happens to all of us, at least that is what I’m finding as I share my story. We all have things we need to work through. Some do it sooner than others.

Childhood Trauma is being found to be linked to the development of Fibromyalgia. I think what we’re starting to appreciate is that when you have traumatic experiences as a young person, it rewires you. And the way in which you interpret physical symptoms is changed forever,’ said Steve Passik, PhD, a psychologist and Vice President of Research and Advocacy for Millennium Health.”

One way I have always gone through life is by playing the “mother figure”. From a very young age, I remember peers and elders saying things like “Katie is the mom of this group” and “you’re an old soul”. I remember being 10 years old, my mom cemented to the couch again. I didn’t know why. Six years later, she would be committed to Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital (and spend the rest of her life in the State’s care) for Schizophrenia and Bipolar disorder.

Cultivating a Caretaker Persona

When she was on the couch for days on end, I would “cook” meals, do the dishes, rub her feet, and scratch her back. My younger sister and I would stay out of her sight as much as possible. When she was manic, it was a crapshoot. She could be a lot of fun, bringing us to get ice cream or buying us things we liked. However, she could also be violent. Not so much physically to us, although there was some of that, what she’d do a lot screaming and breaking of things. It was scary.

As an elementary student, I’d befriend those I saw as outsiders. I’d see it as my role to help them. In 5th grade, one of my friends was Joey. He had six or so siblings. He’d come to school dirty and wearing raggedy clothes and shoes with holes. I made sure to protect him at recess (bullies saw his petite frame as easy pickings) and brought from home anything I thought he could use. My home life was not much above his financially, but my mom did obtain decent clothes (generally garage sales and donations) for my sister and me, so I felt I could help him, too.

This mother-figure that made sure to take care of those around me continued into college, my marriage and family, and into my profession as a teacher (both to my students and colleagues).

I’ve begun to realize that this role has served me. Yes, I did it to help others, but I also received what I wanted. Maybe it was a distraction from dealing with my own wounds, helping someone with theirs. Maybe it was to get the love and appreciation from the one I helped. Maybe it was to get the praises of those around me. Maybe it was to be needed. Probably, it was all of these. Still, it led to me ignoring my own needs- physically and emotionally. I would regularly get through a day of teaching, realizing that I had not had anything to eat or drink all day.

Learning I’d Been Living a Lie

This realization comes through writing. Often my hand flows without me knowing what’s going to come out. It’s as if an invisible spirit has taken my fingers over and I sit and watch as the words fly out. Often what I write is very close to the first draft’s version. When I read it, I come to understand a new insight about myself. There was little to no forethought about what gushed out. Many times I cry as I read it to myself-the knowing becomes so raw.

Below is a poem that brought me an understanding of one of the falsehoods I had lived by.

 Campfire blazing, sending orange sparks into the black sky. Title font in white.

By Katie Clark

I am looking for the light. What sparks? What ignites?
Too long have I hidden in the dark; fanning your fire.
I too need to burn; burn bright and strong.
I too need to know that who I am counts.
That just me, not what I've done for you,
Actually has meaning and worth.
It's not your fault. I wanted with all my heart to give you my-
But now, I will sit here, staring up at the stars calling out from the blackness. Striking my flint against the steel of my thigh.
My sparks fly out onto the carefully cultivated tinder.
The sparks glimmer and glow orange, going out before I can give it breath.
I strike again, showers of promise shine down on the awaiting fodder.
I don't hesitate.
I blow gently, timidly at first, hoping that my fire will burn strong and vibrant.
You come and sit next to me,
reminding me of all the oxygen I gave to you to hold.
You pass it back to me.
I blow with a giddiness that encircles those embers and brings it to flame.
I will get you sticks, you say.
I've only brought logs, and they're not ready to ignite.
Your offering brings my fire alight and bright.
Now, you nudge, add your first log. I think it's strong enough.

It Was Complicated

The relationship I had with my mom was complicated at best. I was so angry, disgusted, and ashamed with her nearly all my life. Yet, I respected her, loved her deeply, and thought she was amazing. After her suicide in May 1991 when I was 27 years old, 5 months after my son was born, I went through many stages of emotion: anger, judgment, love, inconsolable grief, forgiveness, and shame. This poem poured out of me after listening to a speaker talk of forgiveness.

A portrait of 18 year old woman, looking a bit like Elizabeth Taylor wearing an off shoulder shawl. She is staring off to the side, with a serious expression.
By Katie Clark
You defied them.
They said you were mentally ill.
You said you had hypoglycemia-
drinking raw eggs like Rocky.
They put you in a hospital.
Outwitting your opponent
with your 140 IQ.
They put you in a home
and told you not to smoke.
You went to your best friend's house and bummed a carton of cigarettes.
They let you get your own studio apartment.
You said, screw this,
I don't live because you say.
So you, let the blood run out
Soaking into the shag carpet.

A Desperate Obsession

About three months after my diagnosis with Fibromyalgia, I began to massage myself, relentlessly. The more I massaged, the more I needed to and more places that seemed to need it. My massaging was not gentle. I would poke and press as hard as I could take directly onto an aching muscle: calves, thighs, feet, thumbs, neck, chest, shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, armpits… This began to happen when I was reading, sitting as a passenger as my husband drove, when I was out for drinks with friends, while I was teaching… It began to be an obsession. Again, after some reading about Complex Trauma (childhood exposure to multiple traumatic events often of an invasive, interpersonal nature and the wide-ranging, long-term effects of this exposure), I sat down to write and this came out.

Two hands kneading bread dough.
Kneading Need
By Katie Clark
Sitting across from him, I watch his question mark gaze
follow my own fingers kneading my arm like bread dough.
Deep within the fibers of my body is an aching-
the famished maw of need.
In the shower, I see purple and brown finger painted bruises on my calves, thighs, forearms... chest from kneading the angry gnawing with no respite.
From foot to skull, silent shouts seep.
Bone to muscle to flesh-
exposing the desperate deprivation, demanding to be satisfied.
How funny it is coming to love her-pain and all.
To understand that she is just asking for what she has needed all along.

Fibromyalgia has forced me to look inward. I’m grateful in many ways. I am coming to know myself. I plan to live FULLY as myself from this time on.

What have you learned about yourself as you deal with chronic illness or issues life has brought you? What benefits have you reaped as you wade through these obstacles?

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