I have never treated my body with too much kindness.
In fact, I’d have to go so far as to say that I have pushed it to the brink of destruction many a time in my almost 24 years. I have not taken good care of it. I have starved it. I have weakened it. I have ignored its pain and its cries for help. I have pushed it beyond its limits in the name of sheer willpower and determination.
I can’t do that, you say? Oh well, just watch me.
But, I guess in the spirit of honesty, my body hasn’t always treated me kindly either. Most people think that having CP just means that my legs don’t work like they should. And that I walk funny and fall down a lot.
I’ll do my best not to bore you with all the details, but being born three months prematurely unfortunately doesn’t mean that I made it out unscathed with just some funny legs as a souvenir. It means that my brain is damaged, that’s what CP is, after all. It means that my quad muscles burn like hell when I drink alcohol because they’re so stripped down (from being moved to other places in my legs) that they can’t process the lactic acid. It means that my spine is curved, and and nearly every joint in my body feels aged by at least 50 years. It means that my legs are scarred with purple pores from poor circulation. It means, among many other things, that as I am sitting here typing this – muscle and tendon contractions are literally pulling my bones out of alignment.
It means that my heart beats like a hummingbird’s – so fast and irregular sometimes that I can’t even handle it. It means that because my nervous system is underdeveloped, that neurologically, I’m a mess. My body can’t process adrenaline. My body temperature doesn’t regulate. My body, as much as I don’t like to admit it, can be fragile. Really, it just means that my body is weird. That a lot of doctors don’t understand it. The people closest to me don’t always understand it. Heck, I know it better than anyone, and sometimes I don’t even understand it.
My friends, I’m coming to you tonight from a place a weariness. Yesterday was consumed by a muscle tension migraine (spastic muscles will do that to ya, apparently) so severe that I spent the afternoon knocked out on muscle relaxers in my bed, drugged into a stupor for five hours just so my eyes wouldn’t feel like they were blowing out of my head. Today was blacked out vision, catching myself on the stall door seconds before I would have hit the bathroom floor hard. Three hours in urgent care with my great pal Mary Scott supplying humor, love, and a watchful eye. An EKG (for what feels like the 1,000,000th time), a blood pressure test, blood drawn, and no conclusive answers.
I know I’m not the only one who struggles. I know I’m not, and I also know that my struggles are pretty damn small compared to those of others. But today, on my way home from work, I was on the verge of a massive pity party and a complete meltdown. I had texted both my mom and my little Hannie (who knows this better than anyone), and said “I would love for my body to just fucking be normal. Just once even.”
Why? Because I am just tired. Tired of a body and a brain that I battle against day in and day out.
But before I got amped up into full blown cry-it-out-mode, I remembered February 20th.
On February 20th I, Ashley Susan Arleca Harris, hiked just a little over three miles up the side of a mountain to the top of Looking Glass Rock.
And it was, unequivocally, the absolute hardest and most rewarding thing that I have ever done.
Hiking Looking Glass has been on my bucket list for quite some time. It started as and idea of defiance to a boy that told me a long time ago that I wasn’t brave. The idea was born because it was the bravest thing I could think of in that moment. But it had long since morphed into something so much bigger. So much so that the initial idea to prove him wrong was just a faint memory. It became the insatiable need to take in those vistas, and to prove to myself and everyone else that I could do the impossible. I begged Claire and Nigel to come home that weekend so we could tackle it. That morning before we left Claire stretched all my muscles for me, and I treated her and Nigel to breakfast burritos at Sunrise Cafe.
We started on our journey, Nigel carrying the bag with water and snacks, Claire backpacking the Camelback, and holding one of my hands while I used a trek pole in the other. I got tired, real fast. We took about 100 rest breaks along the way and got lapped by people so many times that I lost count. We laughed and joked and listed to old country tunes. And because Looking Glass is shaped like a giant whale, that’s how we measured our progress. Ascending the tail! Ascending the butt! On the head!
A little over halfway up, my right hip began to hurt, and then hurt worse, and worse, and then all the muscles in that leg began to spasm. I begged the two of them to let us turn around, but thank God, they didn’t. At times the trail was so rough and hard to negotiate that Nigel would have to pick me up. Or Claire, in her badass and ever-capable way, would walk the trail backwards, up over roots and rocks, holding my hands.
As we got to the summit, almost to the top and victory, I almost had a panic attack. I was so overwhelmed with the thought of having to do it all over again in reverse, and my body was so weak, that I just didn’t know if I could physically do it. Tears welled up in my eyes and my hands started shaking when Claire took my by the shoulders and said:
“Ashley, you are the strongest, bravest, and most badass person up here on this hike today. No question. We will literally carry you down if we have to. Now, go. Let’s finish this thing.”
And so we did. She carried me the last 20 yards because it was wet, and slick, and my balance couldn’t be trusted at that point. And in maybe the sharpest moment of clarity I have ever had, tears ran down my face when we walked out on that rock.
Tears of joy, tears of relief, tears of celebration. I have never been so in awe of myself, or of God’s world, or so humbled by my small, fallible, humanness as I was in that moment.
After a 30 minute rest on the rock, as soon as I stood up, I knew my hip was seriously injured. I would try to move my right leg forward, and nothing would happen (which was slightly terrifying, I should add). It had simply said, “screw you, Ashley. I’ve done all I can do today. I surrender.”
So, true to their word, they carried me down the mountain. All three miles. Not a grumpy or ungrateful word. Just cheers and laughs and a few falls, and telling me how proud they were of me. Talk about a humble and thankful heart, for those two beautiful humans. I know that spending their Saturday on that tedious hike with me was probably the last thing they wanted to do. I did nothing to deserve the love they showed me that day. They did it anyway. And I won’t be quick to forget that.
So yeah, I think my body relishes in throwing me the occasional curve ball. And on days like today, I’m not all too fond of it. But it has been a pretty good home to me for my nearly 24 years. And it has done the impossible many many times, most recently on February 20th. It has learned to walk no less than ten times. It has bounced back from a lot of crap time and time again. My hip is still not healed, even a month later, so it has definitely faced the consequences of my actions.
Does my body let me down a lot? Yes, yes it does. But it also doesn’t take any excuses.
It keeps getting back up, every time. I keep getting back up.
And because of that? I’m pretty proud of it. I’m pretty proud of me.
Friends? Whatever the Looking Glass Rock is in your life? Just go do it. It might be hard. It might hurt you. It might take you seven hours. You might sweat a lot. But just go do it anyway.