Get it straight: How I exercise with chronic pain and fatigue

I push up into a yoga plank. Breathing deeply, in-and-out, my mind scans my entire body, making sure the pose is correct. I lift my hips up, moving into down dog. Fingers splayed, I press my knuckles into the ground, trying to alleviate as much pressure off my wrists as possible. Head inverted, I continue to take deep breaths. My body glides over an invisible hurdle as I transition back-and-forth between down dog and planking. Ready for a rest, I pause the video and ease into child’s pose. Legs wide, head resting on my mat, I sit as far back on my heels as my knees will allow.

Today was a good day. The pain and fatigue that are a constant companion subsided to a dull reminder. Not the intense sidekick ever present. Mentally, I’m pretty lucid. Thoughts are swirling, but I can keep immediate goals and tasks straight. I’m tired, but it’s not oppressive.

I manage a 15-minute morning yoga routine after feeding children and pushing them out the door for school. While my focus is clear and energy decent, I work. Later, my body feels good enough for a moderate 40-minute turn on my elliptical. The weather is nice, and I debate a family walk-about around the neighborhood. My legs tingle, and my right knee is stiff, but I decide to go. I take brisk steps as we take a two mile walk as a family. My lower back tightens and my hands go numb, but I manage to keep my pace with little breaks.

My internalized ablism triumphs as we return home. I can still do it. I can still function. Deep down, I know I will pay tomorrow. And once again, my self-worth is tangled up with ablist, antiquated ideas about body and ability.

Five years ago, I competed in a triathlon while pregnant. During the entire pregnancy, I swam, biked, jogged and did yoga. I was in the best shape I’d been in for quite some time. Since 2019 though, I’ve developed chronic pain and fatigue along with other symptoms. There’s no medical explanation. Test-after-test has been conducted, every result coming back negative. In a nutshell, my body is acting like I have an autoimmune condition without having one.

It took more than a year for doctors to take my symptoms seriously. Most people still doubt my symptoms. I don’t fit the ablist picture of someone living with chronic pain and fatigue. Visibly, I don’t fit the mold.

Here’s the thing: When I’m in public, you’re probably seeing me at my best. Or, more likely, I’m masking symptoms. The reality is that I’m constantly uncomfortable at best, holding tears back at worst. Internally, I’m tormented with the desire to look strong and capable, and also make you less uncomfortable with me. I’m already blind, and my internalized ablism doesn’t need another box to check.

Despite all this, I still exercise. I can no longer run. My triathlon days are over. As much as I enjoyed CrossFit, my body rejects the intensity. But I like to move, and I still want to control my body as much as I can, for as long as I can.

A lot of this is probably a part of my anorexia with a large dose of my OCD. I don’t always feel great after movement, but in some weird way, I feel better than if I don’t exercise at all.

Disability has nuances. We are so sure people with disabilities and health conditions are not capable of a lot of things like exercise. Disabled people are frequently accused of faking symptoms when they don’t fit some ablist narrative. But there’s no one-size-fits-all picture of disability and health.

When I talk about exercising, it doesn’t mean I don’t live with chronic pain and fatigue. Not to mention brain fog, low energy, depression… The list goes on. It means I live with all this and still manage the best I can. It means I have good days and bad days and really bad days. I’m not exaggerating or fabricating symptoms. I’m also not brave or singular. I’m just a person doing my best while living with specific circumstances.

I’m still hoping for a diagnosis, but I may never have a specific one. This is very common. In the past two years, my symptoms have progressed. If it weren’t for my kids, most days, I would not get out of bed until late in the day. On my really bad days, I feel like a shell of myself, sitting around unless the boys need something they can’t do for themselves. But on just bad days and certainly good days, I do what I can. Cramming in as much as I can, which includes exercise.

By Imperfection

Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter is a mom and writer from Omaha, Nebraska but recently relocated to Urbandale, IA. When she’s not chasing children, picking up messes or reorganizing the house, she enjoys yoga or reading to relax. In her spare time (A.K.A. her dreams) she’s a Broadway star. Kuenning-Pollpeter is a freelance marketer during the day, a creative writer at night. Her work has appeared in the Brevity blog, The Omaha World Herald, 13th Floor, Misbehaving Nebraskans, Hippocampus, Emerging Nebraska Writers and Random Sample Review. She has her BFA and MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha. Her essay “The Body” was a McKenna Fellowship finalist, and her essay “Imperfection” was a 2020 Best of the Net Nominee. She is blind and writes frequently about disability. She’s working on a memoir about the disabled feminine experience. With the kids though, expect it in stores in about a decade.

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