Standing naked, I gaze into the mirror. So many changes have happened to my body, I barely recognize the person who stares out at me. Time and illness have taken their toll.
I will be 48 years old this month. Late forties. Almost fifty. My mind struggles to wrap itself around the concept.
There is a thing that happens when you have the chronic illnesses I have: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, chronic Lyme, Neuro-Immune Disease. It’s hard to explain. But you lose your sense of the passage of time; the years pass without it really registering. I think it’s from the short-term memory loss. When you can’t remember whole days, weeks, or months, and the years go by, it all blurs together into a fog of vague memories of pain, exhaustion, struggle, the constant fight to keep going.
But no real sense of the passage of time. No real comprehension that you have been sick for more than a decade.
My body has been through many changes in those years, and it shows.
When I first got sick, “officially sick,” with CFS/FMS in 1999, the headaches were really bad. I was a big breasted woman, and wore a “G” cup bra. The doctors at the pain clinic suggested I have a breast reduction; they thought the weight of my breasts and the pressing of my bra straps into my shoulders was irritating the nerves, and contributing to the headaches.
When I saw the surgeon, I weighed 150#, and had been at that weight for a while. She asked me if I planned to go on a diet, and I wanted to, but thought it unlikely to be successful, so told her “No.”
I had gone through two pregnancies, and have never had elastic skin; as a short-waisted woman, my belly had been drastically stretched. It never really recovered, and I hated the droopy, loose skin. She suggested we do a “tummy tuck” at the same time, and I surprised myself by agreeing.
I liked my new tight belly & smaller breasts, but hated the scars.
About a year later, I developed hypothyroidism. In four months time, despite eating very little, I gained nearly fifty pounds, and ballooned up to nearly 200#.
Once my hypothyroidism was under control, I slowly began to lose weight. Years passed as I fluctuated between 150# and 170#, depending on the constantly changing level of hypothyroidism.
A year ago, I weighed 160#, and had been pretty stable at that weight for a while.
Then, the migraines – and the nausea they bring – got much worse. Along with that, my CFS was also getting steadily worse, and I became even less active, spending most of my time in bed. I gave up dairy products, including the cheese I’ve loved since I was a child, and wheat – the crusty breads I loved to slather with butter, pizza, lasagna, macaroni and cheese – to try to settle my irritable gut down, and in the hope of reducing the migraines by not eating foods that might trigger them.
My weight began to drop, slowly but steadily.
This week I weighed 122# at the doctor’s office. I have not been this weight since I was 17.
Gazing at my reflection in the mirror, I remember the healthy, strong, young woman I was in the Before-Times: before I became sick.
That woman is gone.
The woman I see in the mirror has alarmingly bony shoulders and arms, muscles wasted away by years of inactivity forced onto her by chronic illness, by an exhaustion beyond words. The skin, stretched by rapid weight gain, now hangs loosely in too many places. The breasts have fallen again.
My eyes follow the familiar lines of tattoos, the story of my spiritual life indelibly marked on my skin, but even those are almost unfamiliar without muscles filling out the flesh. The canvas has changed it’s shape, and the harsh outlines of bones show through.
The once waist-length, almost-black, hair is now heavily streaked with silver, left undyed because of the concern for a reaction to the toxins in hair dye. The bangs are more silver than dark, and silver tufts sprout from both temples. Cut to just below shoulder length a few months ago, during a period of almost-mania caused by the start of Valcyte, the familiar gentle waves have turned more to curls.
The face I see reflected in the mirror has a deep furrow etched between the eyebrows, from years of headache & migraine pain. The dark eyes are shadowed by puffy eyelids. There is a pallor to her face that was not there in the Before-Times.
She does not smile back at me with her pale lips.
I study the woman in the mirror, and see the signs of years of illness reflected in her body. Though I see her everyday, still she is a stranger to me.
The years have passed in a blur, a fog, unremembered, lost. Never to be regained.
Just as the healthy young woman I remember from the mirror, from the Before-Times, is lost, and never to be regained.
I mourn for her, sometimes, when I catch sight of the stranger in the mirror. A great stillness, a great silence, will rise in my soul. I ran out of tears long ago.
Were I a wolf, I would howl out my sorrow to the Moon.
Instead, I remind myself to try to eat more protein, to help stop the muscle wasting, and to accept and love the silver hairs, for I have earned every one.
I return to my bed.
There is nothing else I can do.