Toughness is in the soul and spirit, not in muscles.
"Okay Beth, one more, that's it, just one more."
I huffed and puffed my way through another sit-up, red-faced and exhausted, then collapsed back onto the mat and stared up at the ceiling. My physical therapist leaned over me, a smile on her face and her hand outstretched, waiting for me to lift my arm and slap her five.
"I can't," I said. "Give me a minute."
As I gazed up at the peeling paint of the physical therapy room's ceiling I wondered again how I'd gotten to this point. Five sit-ups? I could barely make it through five sit-ups without having to stop and rest? What had happened to the girl who could swim five kilometers at a time? What happened to the woman who did yoga several times a week? What had even happened to the peppy lady who would walk an hour to work just because the sun was out?
"She's gone," the physical therapist said gently, sympathy radiating from her kind face. "Whoever you were, she's gone. You have to concentrate on being who are you now."
Squeezing my eyes shut against sudden tears, I inhaled deeply and the smell of stale sweat and antiseptic filled my nostrils. I exhaled slowly, shakily, my diaphragm protesting under even that much use.
I didn't want to be who I am now. I didn't want to have myasthenia gravis (MG), a rare form of muscular dystrophy that causes great muscle weakness. In my case it started with a droopy eyelid, then affected my arms until I could no longer wash my hair without weakness and eventually attacked my legs until walking up stairs became a problem. Physical activity just for the fun of it became a thing of the past and "fitness" became a measure of what tiny fraction of my past routine I could get through in any given day.
With a sigh, I rolled over to my side, pushed up with one arm and eventually drew myself into a seated position. I reached out and gave the PT a high five. She smiled at the evidence that at least I was still trying.
"It sounds so pathetic, but I don't want to be who I am now," I said, admitting it for the first time since my diagnosis.
"I know," she said simply. "If it helps, remember that fitness isn't a competition. From here on out you have to measure yourself against yourself and that's it. If you could do five sit-ups today you have try to do six tomorrow. If you could walk for ten minutes today you have to try for eleven tomorrow."
I nodded, knowing that what she said was important. But deep inside there was a small child who wanted to clap her hands over her ears and sing, "I can't hear you! I can't hear you!"
We got on with the session that day and I took her advice to heart in the coming months, particularly after I had to have a full sternotomy in order to take out my enlarged thymus gland in an attempt to alleviate the MG. After the surgery I chanted "just one more, just one more" as I fought to put one foot in front of the other, feed myself, cut my own food and finally climb stairs. When the surgery didn't bring about the results for which we'd hoped, I chanted "just one more, just one more" as I learned to walk with a cane, then a crutch. These weren't things I wanted to do, in fact I downright resented that simply walking could make my legs weak and on hot days a short stroll to the corner could make me sweat as if I'd gone for a long jog. Yet every time I wanted to stop I promised myself I'd do just one more and, most of the time, I'd do a lot more than that before I finally finished.
Now that I've adjusted to life at this slower pace there are few days I still get caught up with how much I can't do. But every now and then I'll watch someone dance or run or swim or even carry a baby and I can't help but compare myself to her. Then I'll hear the PT's voice in my head telling me that fitness isn't a competition and I only need to think about myself. I can still walk and even dance a little, I can swim in my own way and I can carry a baby for short amounts of time. I may not be as healthy or physically fit as others, but I'm still committed to being as healthy as I can be, to doing just one more of whatever I need to do.
Just one more. It's not so much, but there's little more important.
Cover image via adriaticfoto I Shutterstock
This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive: 101 Inspirational Stories about Counting Your Blessings and Having a Positive Attitude © 2011 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.