Monday, 29 April 2013

"All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you."

(Because it's not as nerdy if it's not in Elvish. Courtesy of

I’ve pondered over this post for a while, and in writing it I feel it’s going to be of more appeal and/or benefit to women than it is to men, though that is in no way intended to belittle the fact men suffer from self image issues related to illness or otherwise. It’s more a gesture to the fact that in my experience we women tend towards being a little more neurotic about it.
One of the trickiest parts of a post dealing with how my illness has affected my self image and overall self confidence is that it requires me to separate what is directly resulting from being ill, and what already existed as one of those demons we all have which comes out to play from time to time and raises merry Hell.

The best way I think is to give a very short background of the place I was in mentally with this kind of thing beforehand and then go ahead with comparison. I am by nature not a showy individual. I consider myself fairly ordinary to look at and I’m for the most part happy that way – I don’t really like being the centre of attention (mostly because it’s embarrassing and I haven’t a clue what to do with it) and I’m of the sort who does one of two very distinct things when presented with a compliment:

1) Go bright red and do a remarkable bunny-in-headlights impression then flail about for something to say or;

2) Mumble a “thank you” whilst very carefully studying my shuffling feet. And going bright red, naturally.
Aside from an occasion such as a wedding where dressing nicely is expected, it takes a lot of effort on my part to get out for anything less and deliberately “dress up”. Any instance takes a good week of battling with myself about it beforehand and generally some good-natured just-shy-of-bullying from a couple of friends who think I need this drumming out of me. Honestly? They’re probably right.
There are reasons which have contributed to my being like this of course but this is The Retired Bridgeburner, not This Is Your Life.  

(None of that, thank you!)

So, I think I’ve successfully established that I was not in any way starting from a place where I felt I was a great beauty. I’m not, and that’s absolutely fine. I never walked into a room knowing or expecting that heads would turn, and often jumped to the conclusion I had one of those pesky “kick me” notes somewhere about my person on the odd occasion it did happen. I don’t think that’s ever actually been the case but one can’t be too careful.

For me I think the biggest issue in dealing with the way an illness changes the body is learning to accept that these changes are beyond your control. You may be able to reverse them, but you also have to deal with the possibility that things will never return to the way they were. I think it’s a perfectly natural thing to be somewhat begrudging towards changes you had no part in.

At what point was I consulted about the sudden lack of hips, and I certainly don’t recall acquiescing to the bouts of wild bloating which affect both the fit and the comfort of half of my clothes either? Anything to say for yourself Petunia? Nope, thought not.

Now, I have my fair share of capability to be unreasonable and somewhat neurotic just like most people. I always hoped the weight would arrive back on my hips at some point. It’s just not in my build to have fabulously wiggly hips, but it’d be nice for them to have a bit more shape again. For me, a girl who lacked much shape until I hit 20, this caused a fair bit of resentment and frustration. To this date, I still don’t really have proper hips but they’re less alarming than they were this time last year.

The bloating however just made me want to scream. I led a very active youth and my general build reflects this. I’ve had an ironing board stomach for the best part of five years now and a reasonable amount of waist definition. I didn’t want to accept the illusion of lack of shape caused by this bloating, and what is probably not actually a huge difference in the grand scheme of things became a whale of an issue for me. I felt like I was right back at being the gawky fifteen year old who like so many others looked in a mirror and couldn’t find anything to like or love in what she saw. Being only 5’3” and slight of frame I felt the illusion was made worse by my comparative lack of height. I went through a fairly long stretch of time when every time I bloated I didn’t want to go out at all – I didn’t want to be noticed or judged by comparison to the healthy me of two years ago.

She isn’t here anymore, and the comparison would have been unforgiving in the extreme.

I also came up against changes you’d expect would be positive, but I’ve been wrestling with them nonetheless. My Fibromyalgia to date is best controlled by exercise and careful pacing of whatever I’m doing, but mostly the exercise seems to be the key.

Now, we’ve all had it drummed into us that if we eat too much cake, our clothes stop fitting – a sweeping generalisation which infuriates me in the context of conditions like Fibromyalgia, CFS and ME which can often cause a profound restriction on your potential for activity. I’m passionately against any sort of weight policing because it’s nobody’s business but the person themselves and nobody else knows their circumstances unless told.

Somewhat naively by comparison, I never thought about the other less-spoken truth that if you suddenly increase your exercise routine your clothes may also stop fitting.

I think the reason I have difficulty with this in my head is that had I increased the exercise to deal with my condition, not to build and gain muscle. Had I set out with that goal I’d probably be over the moon right about now, but I didn’t and so I’m still unsure as to quite how I feel about it.

The long and short of this is that me and jeans are no longer strictly on speaking terms. My legs are not any visibly larger, but what they are now is incredibly solid. They’re totally unforgiving in the scenario of squeezing into things. The only real monitoring of the exercise I did was in marking how the pain levels fluctuated – it took me six months to have a look and go “Oh, well that’s different!” in terms of shape and muscle. I’ll be clear, I’m a typically British lady in shape and also extremely typical of my Mum’s side of the family, so I’ve always had reasonably big thighs by proportion to my build as a whole. It’s not completely new, but it’s still something I view as beyond my control and not something I ever intended upon.

In light of this, femininity has crept up on me at last and got her claws into my inner tomboy. Whilst I can still get away with some loose fitting linen trousers, for the most part I have been dragged kicking and screaming into swearing allegiance to skirts and dresses.

So, how do I go about coming to terms with this?

There’s no magic formula I’m afraid. There’s no Felix Felicis to add some luck to your endeavours. There are as I see it two major points, at least to my particular way of thinking.

(If this stuff existed, you know we'd be all over it. Courtesy of r-o-b-a-n on DeviantArt.)
Firstly: looking past the physical. We’re all as human beings capable of being shallow and getting lost in the aesthetic unable to look and appreciate any deeper. We’ve all done it, we’ll all probably do it again. However, we can choose to look further.

I’ve spoken elsewhere in this blog about the process of accepting your new normal, and using that as a springboard to finding your own strength and courage in the face of whatever your chronic illness may be. It takes some soul searching and a lot of thought and patience, but it can be done. It is infinitely worth finding, particularly in the face of days when you feel you look like something the next door neighbour’s cat threw up..

Strength cannot be hidden by bloating. Courage isn’t eradicated in the face of looking tired. “Coping well” (in whatever parameters apply to you personally) is not controlled by a number, be it weight or dress size.

All of us, ill or healthy, have much more to offer the world than our transient and changeable physical appearance. For our own well being it is worth remembering that and thinking about everything else we are, every other facet of our beings. If we try to find it there’s usually far too much to be happy about to continue dwelling on something temporary like a bloated abdomen.

The second thing is time. It’s cliché to say time is the great healer and leveller, but it’s the truth in the case of something as all consuming as incurable ill health.

This sort of making peace doesn’t happen overnight ever – nothing worth having is given that freely and that quickly. I also think it’s a constantly evolving process in which we don’t stop learning. Each new challenge presented to us needs a new strategy or a new way of thinking to overcome – in this way, nothing is static and is always fluid. I personally see this as a good thing.

I believe I’ve made mention previously that part of my coping strategy is to lose myself in literature which means something to me or provides catharsis just as often as I possibly can. In terms of my discomfort and awkwardness with how I look, be it a good or bad day illness-wise, I go in search of the characters which helped me through teenage-dom.

I turn most often to a woman who was so uncomfortable in her own skin because she lacked traditional beauty that she rejected everything feminine and learned to be a warrior. She became tempestuous and miserable until someone loved her for her, warts and all.

Had someone given teenage me the opportunity for armour and a sword I think I would have bitten their hand off, but no matter the particular differences the depth of the character and the reasons she was the person she was struck a chord.

David Gemmell fans will recognise the description of Virae, heir to Dros Delnoch in Legend and of no small comfort to me. She doesn’t have to be a real person to offer such comfort – it’s the idea which strikes the chord after all.

So, as in the title. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

My story does have one up which looks irrelevant to most but is wonderful to me. Being forced into femininity means I now have no excuse not to wear my pride and joy at every conceivable opportunity – my map of Middle Earth skirt.

Because few things in the world are better than a Middle Earth skirt.
(The beautiful handiwork of NerdAlertCreations on


  1. Regardless of your muscle/bloating, you'd look fantastic in a plastic bag! Not only does your natural beauty take away anything you might feel negative about in terms of looks, but you're just such a lovely person. I'm glad you managed to fight your inner demons about appearance, because Mr Inner Demon was a dick for being there anyway :-P

    Oh and my reasons for eating cake is ITS DAMN GOOD! Thats legit right? :-P

  2. The only and best reason, I'd say! :D

    Thanks so much Charley, you are an absolute diamond - you made me blush! :O xx

  3. Everyone has these phases, ill or not, but when you are already ill it can make it all 5058095093x worse because it's just a continuous "why me" situation. Sometimes you just need to shake yourself and focus on the positive outcomes - in your case, the amazingly awesome skirt :p

    We are only here for a blink on an eye in all fairness.