September 05, 2009


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.


Dan J said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels that way about several things (I'll leave it up to others to guess which).

I've learned how to smile. I've learned how to fool even the experts. I'd probably make a good salesman or politician if it weren't for my morals getting in the way.

People come to me with questions or requests. I give them answers or help them. They feel better. I feel better. If I could only work that into a good way to put a roof over my head and food on the table then I'd really have something going.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Dodgeball, of course. Everyone who isn't a bully hates dodgeball.

Yeah, no matter what the reason, not being able to do those helpful, productive things that you're good at sucks in a very large way.

Dan J said...

"Dodgeball, of course. Everyone who isn't a bully hates dodgeball."

Very comical story about that. I hated it, of course. In 7th grade PE, I was in with the 8th graders due to the fact that I was also in Band. (Screwed up system.)

Dodgeball. I stayed out of the way of the bigger guys. Unfortuantely, that left me as the only person left on our team. Oddly enough, there was only one person left on the other team as well. I had a ball in hand, and two at my feet. The other guy was huge compared to me. I stayed put, he stalked (we were at full-court by then, of course). He threw a couple, but I deflected them easily with the ball in hand.

My team ended up winning (though with little acclaim for me, just one of the geeks). How did we win? I took one in the face. Automatically disqualified Eric, the other guy. I felt nine miles tall.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Every once in a while, it can be useful to let them hit you. If you've lived through, well, anything of consequence, it doesn't hurt as much as they think it will, and they often lose by it. And no, I'm not just talking about dodgeball. :)

Greg Laden said...

Some people are runners.
Some people re not runners.
Some people who are not runners run anyway.
They are stupid.
(But numerous.)

Stephanie Zvan said...

Stupid? Perhaps I was. I've been stupid before. It'll happen again. There are worse things to pay a price for than working a little beyond one's limits.

Dan J said...

I never did like running. I need a good reason to run: running toward a goal that means a great deal to me (i.e. saving someone I love), or running away from something that means a great deal to me (i.e. an oncoming train).

Sports in general: Meh.

That's the category to pick for my final answer if you want to beat me at Trivial Pursuit.

Jason Thibeault said...

Hey, I used to love dodgeball. I was the wiry stringbean nobody could ever hit. But boy did that (and my being a geek) draw their fire. The sports I did participate in, I was mediocre to fair, but when I succeeded (floor hockey goalie for instance!), it pissed them all off so much I had to keep playing. In retrospect though, I probably didn't play nearly as much sports as the average kid. Maybe I should have.

I always wished there was a track and field at our high school. Or fencing or archery, but the latter two were far more unlikely compared to the former.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Okay, I'll give you that enjoying surviving in dodgeball doesn't require you to be a bully. Nor does enjoying pissing them off. It's always fun to see how wrong they think it is for the geeky kids to be good at something physical.

I could never get into throwing a ball at someone else, though.

DuWayne Brayton said...

I'm with Jason on the dodge ball front. I loved it because I was the target instead of my friends who would have hated it if they were. Not so much because I didn't get hit - though I was good at dodging, but because I have a relatively high threshold for pain and could in turn wail on the fuckers when I threw it back...

I know the feeling of being the malingerer and have only recently been able to accept that whatever the influence it had, my neurological issues have made a profound contribution to my general theme of being a fuckup. Still have issues with it and suspect that I always will.

Good times, good times...

Greg Laden said...

Stupid? Perhaps I was. I've been stupid before. It'll happen again. There are worse things to pay a price for than working a little beyond one's limits.

Sorry, I was vague. I wasn't thinking of you at all. I'm thinking of a dozen or so people I know who are 50 or more in age, have been running since they were 20-something, and int heir 30s started to get injured and have been advised all along to stop running but didn't.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thanks for the clarification, Greg.