There is something satisfying about being a martyr. It feels good to absorb the stress and pressures from those around you and not complain. Out loud, at least. The martyr takes satisfaction in being under appreciated for the monumental task of keeping the world from falling apart. The martyr isn't thinking about staying well and healthy. The martyr isn't in it for the long haul. The martyr is in emergency mode all the time.
I have a well-worn martyr hat. I enjoy the sense of fulfillment and purpose and focus that comes with immersing myself in the needs of other people. In college I martyred as an RA in the residence halls and as a one-way confidante for many friends - taking in other's pain and struggles without offering much of my own in return. The stress of being a martyr manifests in my body. Through the four years of college I had mononucleosis (the kissing disease, funny as I wasn't doing much kissing), kidney stones, tendonitis, and a series of intense colds and flus. I carry tension in my shoulders, and during a massage I take perverse pleasure when my massage therapist is shocked to discover the enormous knots in my back. Yes, it's horrible, isn't it? Such is the heavy load that I bear. During graduate school I woke up from a nap and couldn't turn my head. A doctor diagnosed a sprained neck - I sprained my neck while sleeping - and prescribed physical therapy. Which, of course, I didn't fulfill because that would have required me to take off my martyr hat.
I am so very privileged in so many ways. My partner was able to take six weeks paid paternity leave for each of our children. We are financially stable, surrounded by in-town extended family. We recently bought a home in a peaceful tree-filled neighborhood with more parks in walking distance than we can get to regularly. I am blessed to have found a community of mothers who tend to each other with meal trains and child care swaps, knit nights and nights out. We constantly push each other to care for ourselves. And yet. My own well-being is still the hardest to tend to.
I recently developed a series of heart palpitations and irregular heartbeats. These occur mostly when I'm lying down, at night while the kids are sleeping and I have time to just think. My heart does fine when I'm carrying my two year old on one hip as I push the four-year old in the cart through the grocery store. It does fine when I run up and down the stairs three times in a row at bedtime to retrieve first Pancake the Bear, then Penelope the Penguin, then bedtime apples because heaven forbid these items be requested at the same time. It's a particularly cruel joke that my body has settled into this new rest-based anxiety now that my kids have started to sleep through long stretches of time that actually coincide.
The palpitations started during the two days of extreme caffeination that followed my first girls' weekend away from the kids, and they continued regularly for two weeks. I experienced the last heavy bout of these off-beat heart pounding sessions the night before I was scheduled to see the doctor. Maybe I finally settled down knowing that I would get help. I cried in Dr. M's office as I talked about the stresses of the last year, which included going back to work full time then quitting my job, welcoming an extended family member to live with us, searching for and buying a house, moving to a new neighborhood, and supporting my partner through a work transition. Oh, and caring full-time for a 2- and a 4-year-old. Dr. M was horrified to hear that during my night time panic sessions I found myself imagining what I would say in the video to my boys if I knew I wouldn't be there to see them grow up. I didn't share with her that a deep part of me hoped for a serious diagnosis because with it would come the social pressure and acceptance to put myself and my health first. The wake-up call moment when I could finally reach out and call in the wagons to circle around me.
It is also not coincidental that I experienced the heaviest bouts of heart drum rhythms as I was preparing to make this website public. Into this project I have funneled my deep desire to be honest and present. In my heart I want to be a "radical truth teller" like Glennon Doyle Melton at Momastery. This desire has always simmered under the surface, despite years spent perfecting my ability to hide all these squishy, sensitive feelings under pleasant aloofness and a veneer of friendly-yet-distant independence. It's as if my heart is in the final throes of a violent resistance - it knows I am trying to break it open with my words. One night during some minor palpitating I placed my hand over my heart and kept repeating, "You're safe. You're safe." It was a lovely poetic meditation that totally didn't work. In the end, as usual, I had to lay down with the sleeping kids and let their rhythmic breathing calm me to sleep.
It's messed up to hope for heart disease as a way to escape martyrdom. But it's also messed up that most people are guaranteed paid sick days but families aren't guaranteed paid leave to recover from childbirth and learn how to care for a brand new person. It's messed up that we can all talk about broken bones and heart attacks but we aren't supposed to talk openly about loneliness and anxiety and the daily struggles of living in this overwhelming world. I won't even start with all the messed up-ness around race and class and gender and what we've done to nature and... well, you know.
I was happy to learn from Dr. M that my heart isn't sick or broken, just a little jumpy. Blood tests and EKG's all read normal. My diagnosis is stop-being-a-martyr-and-take-care-of-yourself-dammit syndrome. I'll take this as a the wake-up call I was looking for.
This world does not need more martyrs. It needs whole people who are ready to show up with their best selves, every day.
My children do not need martyrs. They need role models for how to care for themselves completely so they can show up, every day. They need parents who are rested and healthy, loving and patient. They need someone who will put on her own oxygen mask before helping them with theirs.
So here I am, writing this essay in a notebook while relaxing in a brown leather recliner at King Spa, a bargain slice of paradise just outside Chicago. I am letting my fear seep out of my pores and soaking the energizing heat into my aching muscles and disgusting summer feet and skittish heart. I have access to an oxygen mask so the least I can do is put it on.
Let's all try to remind ourselves, and each other, that we don't need to be martyrs. I give us all permission to engage in the radical self care that will keep us well. Martyrs burn out young, but my heart and I plan on sticking around for awhile.