I am completely unashamed to say that I, like so many others, discovered the brutal and brilliant sport of Roller Derby through the Drew Barrymore movie ‘Whip It’. Even though it is a really technical sport with enough rules to make even the most ardent bureaucrat flinch, it still seemed to be the type of team sport that would suit the way my brain worked: gameplay travels in one direction and the very clearly marked boundaries make it quite difficult to find yourself accidentally offside. There was, however, one small problem – my health was languishing at the bottom of a metaphorical toilet bowl.
I knew I was unwell with some kind of condition secondary to the Endometriosis at the time of the team try-outs; I simply didn’t know what it was. In the two years prior I had felt myself become more and more of a broken doll; running on drained, acid spewing batteries with my limbs precariously held on with masking tape and a heavy, wet towel permanently wrapped around my head. My mere existence was a struggle, and I often found myself watching helplessly from the sidelines as all human life took off without me. None of the doctors were listening so a state of medical limbo became my natural existence.
But even with all of that unpleasant noise in the background, I felt strongly that I couldn’t wait until that mythical time when I ‘got better’. The word ‘cure’ gets thrown around a lot in relation to Endometriosis (often alongside the word ‘pregnancy’), so I found myself wasting a lot of time (years, in fact) waiting for that one treatment that was going to rid me of the disease. It was a slow and painful realisation that what I had been continually told, by doctors who should have known better, was a fallacy. I wasn’t getting any younger or, it seemed, any better – it was now or never.
I threw myself into the Roller Derby experience; the plan being that if I couldn’t actually participate I would give myself a pat on the back for trying. I realised a month into the fresh meat training that a ‘pat on the back’ was pretty much all I was going to get; the positional blocking training left me feeling as though I were about to suffer a major cardiac event. But by then I was hooked – the immense feeling of freedom that comes from gliding on wheels, the unexpected levels of speed from whips and ‘shopping trolleys’ that I could never garner under my own steam and of course, the feeling of being part of something so much bigger than any individual skater. So I altered my original parameters and decided that my new goal was to see if I could complete the first level of training.
As I still hadn’t been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, at this time, I kept everything I was going through hidden from my team-mates
For those who are unaware Dystaxia is a perpetual feeling of being off balance combined with poor limb control; because of this I often hesitate when descending steps (they’re so easy for me to miss) and I have an immense amount of trouble looking behind myself while in transit. As you can probably imagine, this proved to be a huge obstacle while learning to play a contact sport on wheels. The other major issue was my low exercise tolerance – a Sunday morning training session would knock me out until Tuesday afternoon. When our group of ‘freshies’ moved up to the recreational league, that recovery time would almost encroach on the following weekend, leaving me unable to do any strength training during the week. It also prevented me from attending the (pretty much essential) informal open skating sessions that took place on weekday evenings.
My body told me during the very first Rec session that this was something it was not equipped for (all of my muscles were quaking with exhaustion after the fifteen minute warm up!) but I still wasn’t ready to let go – after all, “the only disability is a bad attitude” right? Well, at my fifth session, and after a particularly egregious Endo flare, that ‘bad attitude’ saw me crash out during a paceline exercise. This was a huge deal for me as pacelines were always my favourite part of training. The alarm bell that had essentially been ringing for over three months finally shook itself free from its mounting and clattered, with an almighty din, to the floor.
As I still hadn’t been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, at this time, I kept everything I was going through hidden from my team-mates. I would avoid going to the pub after training because I knew it would reduce my ability to get home unaided, but I would never explain why fearing that I would be met with the same disbelief that I was receiving from the medical community. I had pushed myself into isolation and pushed my body beyond its capacity for recovery – it was time to go.
If you’re looking for the inspiring, uplifting story of empowerment, here it comes…
There are two words that get repeated constantly in Roller Derby. Get. Lower. Getting a good bend in your knees is essential for both speed and stability – you want the first contact you make with the floor to be your heavily padded knees. Whenever I thought I was getting lower, I was actually just bending from the waist, and hugely increasing my risk of face-planting. I would get straightened up by a trainer, then almost immediately fall back into the same pattern of behaviour. (I must just add, though, that despite the fact that I always kept my knees strapped, the pain in those joints was often close to unbearable…) It was yet another thing I was failing at, but simultaneously, something that was fundamental to the sport itself. Knowing full well that it was a skill I had to work on, I came to realise that the problem lay not in my skating style, but in the psychology of my own ‘self’.
Due to sheer necessity, I have always kept an eye on my posture. Long before Fibromyalgia became a problem I had been dealing with Idiopathic Scoliosis and spent a lot of time in the yoga studio trying to ensure that I avoided developing Dowager’s Hump. What I didn’t realise was that, even though I was taking good care of my spine, I was also creating a deliberate ‘stoop’, an attempt to make myself less conspicuous when in public. Observing the way I presented myself by glancing intermittently at my reflection in shop windows, I discovered that I looked as though I were apologising for my own existence. This shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise considering my upbringing – my mother has a strong narcissistic streak and humiliating her daughters in public seemed to be one of her favourite pastimes as my sister and I were growing up – the true surprise was what happened when I started to correct this unconscious attempt to become invisible.
I made a particularly valiant effort to stand as straight as possible and keep my shoulders back, regardless of how unnatural it felt – and it did feel unnatural. For more years than I can remember, I had been unknowingly ‘bowing’ my head or lowering my eyes when passing people in the street; again, trying to make myself look as insignificant as I felt. That was the hardest phenomenon to alter – to allow my body to say ‘I am equal to you’, and mean it. This simple act of ‘standing up straight’ made a subtle but distinct change in my psyche. It’s a difficult feeling to pin down with words, but the essence was that I felt emotionally ’bigger’, and that I deserved the space I was occupying – I wasn’t stealing or encroaching, I was simply ‘be-ing’.
They looked afraid: not frightened of what was happening in the moment, but scared that what they feared most was true…
I then started to notice how this postural change altered the way people reacted to me. There were some who really didn’t like what they saw (for reasons that I can’t spare the time to consider), but as I am lucky enough to be blessed with a Resting Bitch Face, a long sideways glance would usually encourage them to mind their own business, instead of trying to figure out mine. But then there were those who reacted the way I used to react; starting off as though they were about to win a trophy at the annual ‘Stare-Out’ competition, then realising that they were incredibly under-prepared, leaving their gaze to frantically dart around the head of their opponent before settling finally on the floor. They looked afraid: not frightened of what was happening in the moment, but scared that what they feared most was true – that they shouldn’t be here, taking up somebody else’s space. That was how I presented to the world before those two words, ‘get lower’, forced me to pay full attention to how my inner critic was sabotaging me. Much like the interesting serotonin feedback loop that can be created simply by smiling (the brain registers the smile, assumes you’re happy and releases the appropriate hormone) the whole body can be utilised to ‘hack’ the brain into altering your chemical balances. This may not appear to be that much of a change in circumstance, but as I still have to remind myself to ‘straighten up and fly right‘ on a daily basis, it was clearly something I needed in order to rid myself of a poorly formed, and deeply damaging, habit.
As I write this another local team has its try-outs coming up, and a very strong part of me wants to do it all again (training for the sole purpose of becoming a referee, this time – I’m not completely delusional…) and I have to keep calling my attention back to the fact that the diagnosis didn’t actually lead to any concrete treatment plans – just the incompatible CBT – and I’m still waiting for the Hydro-Dilatation treatment to get my shoulder working again: ‘falling small’ is extremely painful with an inflamed bursa sac. There may be a time in the (hopefully, very near) future when I have the worst of my symptoms under enough control that I can take part again – but for now, I have to remember to live in the gratitude of the way that Roller Derby changed me: the fun memories and friendships it created and the unexpected way that it challenged, and encouraged, me to literally stand up for myself.