Fathom Mag

Published on:
August 13, 2018
Read time:
4 min.
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Oh, to climb a tree.

While my sister climbed a jungle gym and made friends with other children, I climbed a tree alone. The concrete and metal of the city playground shrank in my view as I scaled each branch. My joy rose with each inch of distance from the ground, each step away. 

I breathed easier up here. 

Compared to the quiet watching-place of the treetop, the bark scraping against my legs seemed barely a discomfort. That was until one of the limbs wasn’t so steady, or perhaps until my five-year-old judgment wasn’t so reliable, and I fell. 

I landed on my back and stared up at snippets of a cloudless sky through the branches that had held me just seconds before. Had the limbs betrayed me, or had I betrayed myself? 

Adults swarmed. I answered their questions calmly—as resolute as a kindergartner could be. I didn’t need to make things worse by panicking. Plus, I didn’t feel panicky. I felt like an idiot. 

I didn’t feel panicky. I felt like an idiot.

I’d climbed the tree to avoid feeling like I didn’t know how to play like everyone else did. Reading came easily to me. Following the rules came easily to me. Nothing about the park came easily to me. The spontaneous games with children I didn’t know, caring about sliding over and over again, the monkey bars—I watched other kids enjoying themselves, delighted by the park and each other, and I wished I could be like them as much as I knew for a fact that I couldn’t. 

It felt like too much. I didn’t understand how others adhered to all the rules of a game and all the relevant social codes of relationships at one time. So I climbed a tree to avoid the possibility of discomfort. I climbed a tree to feel like myself—an observer, a thinker, a mind trying to make sense of her heart and body. 

And my plan was working so well until I found myself on the ground, surrounded by people worried about my body and watching my eyes for tears. I’d climbed to avoid pain only to fall and be caught by it.

I’d climbed to avoid pain only to fall and be caught by it.

I woke up on a Sunday morning two months ago sure I had slept on my arm because of how fiercely it tingled. Then the weakness in my hand came, and the headache burrowed deep in my left temple. We called it a migraine at first. Now we—my husband, Jared, me, doctors, and a file full of MRI results and blood work that feels like its own ambiguous, villainous person—don’t know what we’re calling it.

My youngest son stands next to the bed where I spend most of my time. He builds towers with the pill bottles that cover my nightstand and asks if they are all filled with medicine. The tone in his voice makes clear that this possibility seems preposterous to him. 

How could I be taking all of these drugs yet continue to answer, “Yes, baby,” when he asks, “Your head still hurt?” 

Over the course of this illness, I’ve wondered, like I did after the tree fall, if I’ve betrayed myself. In the early days, I wondered if I made a poor diet or sleeping choice that caused me to get sick. As the weeks have stacked one on top of the other, I’ve wondered if my ongoing struggles with disordered eating have reached a tipping point. I’ve wondered if I could have made healthier choices ten years ago, and then maybe I wouldn’t have needed a thyroidectomy eight years ago, and then maybe I could have prevented some kind of hormonal meltdown.

Over the course of this illness, I’ve wondered, like I did after the tree fall, if I’ve betrayed myself.

I fantasize about climbing to the tops of the tallest trees, but this time, instead of other kids, the pain stays behind on the ground. I imagine my first grasp of a branch and the first lodging of my foot on a limb as a shedding of skin. A layer that holds all of this wild, undiagnosed misery sloughs off of me onto the dirt. Once I reach the top, I do not fall. The pain-filled part of me has already fallen.

But the other wonderings, the accusations of self? Despite my fantasy, those are harder to dismiss. As my doctors, husband, and friends gather over and around me, asking questions and offering help, I have to fight the instinct to be resolute just like I did as a five-year-old. I feel stupid for being in pain and not knowing why. 

I’m aching to be the one who stands back and observes others so I can swoop in when I see a way to help—a way to feel safe in a specific social role, rather than being the one who is observed and moved toward. I couldn’t go to the Philippines to visit survivors of sex trafficking so I could write about their stories, and I couldn’t take on ten days of solo-parenting so Jared could lead a mission trip. I can’t take care of my children, or go on a date with my husband, or follow through on a housewarming party I promised to throw. 

Simultaneously, I cannot choose to be alone when I want to be. Doctors call and say an MRI is available in thirty minutes. So I pull my hair into a ponytail, pull one of Jared’s t-shirts over my head, and pull my mind from its treetop musings as I squint and limp my way to the car. Doctors and nurses and technicians touch and ask and poke. Friends bring dinner and give hugs and play with my children just outside my bedroom door. 

I cannot choose togetherness or aloneness. I merely find myself in one or the other. The lack of choice makes me nervous and afraid. The decision to go tree climbing doesn’t seem to be mine, and maybe that’s a good thing.

Abby Perry
Abby Perry is a columnist for Fathom Magazine and a freelancer with work in Christianity Today, Sojourners, and Coffee + Crumbs. Her Prophetic Survivors series features profiles of survivors of #ChurchToo sexual abuse. Abby lives in Texas with her husband and two sons. Find her on Twitter @abbyjperry.

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