Since I was sixteen years old, I have felt betrayed by my body. Most of the battles I have fought with my body have been underneath my own skin. Potent diagnoses, mostly invisible to strangers, acquaintances, and loved ones alike.
Over thirteen years ago, symptoms for rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia began to emerge. It’s an autoimmune disease that I deemed “was only for old people” and stepping into a life of chronic pain, joint inflammation, muscle tension, exhaustion, and weakness felt overwhelming. I hated asking for help, hated not being able to do simple things on my own, and hated that there would now be many circumstances where my body would prevent me from earning my worth by how hard I worked. I resented my body for failing me.
Eighteen months later, another battle began. After ending an abusive relationship during my first semester of college, I started starving myself. Unbeknownst to me, the perfect storm had already been brewing and this was the catalyst that sprung anorexia into my life. I had already believed that my worth resided in being the smallest girl in the room, that I gaining “the freshman 15” was unacceptable, that I wasn’t really that pretty anyways and being thin was the only thing I had going for me in the looks department.
Thankfully, I had some incredible interventions and people in my life who helped me sort through those lies. It took months and months (really years and years if we’re looking at the big picture) to create new rhythms for myself, where self-deprecating comments weren’t a regular part of my thought life.
And then… the big one. The most daunting battle I’ve yet faced.
The shame had never been sharper or sliced me so deeply.
It had never been more poisonous and invaded so much of my self-worth. That betrayal was vaginismus, a sexual pain disorder. An unwelcome companion for my entire marriage.
So began eight years of trying to fix myself. Of gynecologists and pelvic pain specialists, of physical therapy and hormone therapy, of counselor after counselor. Eight years of vast grief. Eight years of excruciating shame. Eight years of trauma stored up in my body (but really so much longer). Eight years of trying to make progress, and then being triggered and feeling like I ended up back at square one.
It annihilated me. I couldn’t deny it out of existence. I couldn’t obliterate it with willpower. I couldn’t banish it with positive thinking or prayer or Christian marriage books. I couldn’t conquer the trauma in my body by making a plan or with goals & timelines. I felt robbed. I felt deeply defective, that I had failed as a woman.
So what do you do when you feel trapped in your own body? For so long, I told myself that I would only be okay after I eliminated this diagnosis from my present reality. That didn’t really work out so well since it’s still a part of my present reality after all these years. Vaginismus is still a part of my story, still in my current chapter and not a past one, no matter how hard I’ve tried. At the first Brave On conference in the fall of 2017, I knew something had to change because I could not carry the crushing weight of this anymore.
Let me assure you, it’s still a work in progress. I’m still having to let trusted people help me sort through the lies and remind myself of what’s true when it comes to all of these ways I have felt betrayed by my body.
I still have to tell myself some days that having chronic pain doesn’t make me pathetic. That feeling exhausted “for no reason” isn’t actually no reason, because having an autoimmune disease is reason enough. I have to remind myself that it’s okay to not only let others help me, but also okay to proactively ask for help, because I don’t have to prove myself by doing everything alone.
I still have to tell myself somedays “If you never lost another pound, you are still stunning. Losing or gaining pounds doesn’t determine your beauty and people wouldn’t love you more if you were thinner.” I have to remind myself that the stretch marks on my thighs (and butt and boobs and under my arms) are normal, that they show a battle of a woman who is trying to learn how to relate to her body in healthier ways.
The hardest reminders of all are about this sexual pain disorder. The reminders that this isn’t my fault, that I didn’t choose this, that I’m not permanently defective. That I’m still worth staying for and haven’t doomed my husband to a life of misery by staying with me. That the courage I have shown by not giving up, by learning to be gentle with myself in the midst of the wreckage this diagnosis has brought is one of the bravest things I can do. That I have more grit and tenacity than I ever thought possible. That even in the midst of this excruciating reality, I am learning and receiving gifts of love. I have spent years resenting my body, and I am slowly learning that it has wisdom to offer me. It has taken this vulnerability thing to a whole new level, which I have a love/hate relationship with. Ultimately, I am being transformed in so many ways I didn’t know I needed to be…and it’s possible that I may just be starting to taste the gratitude of that.
Nicole Clifton is a Phoenix-native, a voracious reader, an Enneagram 8, a passionate advocate against injustice, and committed to being a life-long learner. Her educational background is in psychology and was a Resident Director at Grand Canyon University for 8 years. As aa RD, she loved mentoring and getting to engage with college students about a variety of topics such as embracing diversity, LGBTQ awareness, healthy relationships & boundaries, sex trafficking, body image, forgiveness, and the power of vulnerability & owning our stories. Nicole and her husband are about to celebrate 8 years of marriage this summer and are figuring out how to chase their dreams together. Read more about Nicole here or watch her TEDx talk here.