Jesus said many times and in many ways that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Whenever I hear that Gospel, I am a bit consoled as a stay-at-home mother of kids with challenges — that at least I have the hope that my lowliness here on earth might be rewarded in the kingdom of heaven.
We mothers are veritable professionals at putting ourselves last. After our husbands, our kids (however many there are), and sometimes even the family dog. Our “number” descends as the amount of people — and their needs — around us increases. God made us moms to love and serve, and that is our saint-making. If we weren’t doing that, we wouldn’t be doing God’s will, dying to self, and truly living out our vocation.
And yet, what happens when we put ourselves last, dead last, for too long? At what point does our lowliness lead to our self-annihilation? Does the “martyr mom” really finish first in the end? Or are we being detrimental to ourselves and our families — who need us to be happy and healthy for our sakes and theirs.
I learned this lesson the hard way, after years and years of self-forgetfulness, and round-the-clock care of my family. It came to a point where my body was pulsing in pain, and my brain was stuck in trauma-mode. A decade of extraordinary stress, intense medical issues and a few near-death experiences with my special needs kids took its toll and started unequivocally communicating that I was making myself literally sick by not taking care of myself.
First incorrectly diagnosed with Lyme disease, I went through six months of antibiotics with no relief. I was sure I was doomed to a lifetime of headaches, body pains, nerve twinges, physical exhaustion, brain fog, sleep disturbances and the accompanying anxiety and depression. Providentially, I ended up at the Mayo Clinic, where I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia within minutes of my physical exam. I was a textbook case, with all of the boxes checked. According to the Mayo Clinic website, fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. Symptoms often begin after an event, such as physical trauma, surgery, infection or significant psychological stress.
I attended a special three-day clinic to learn all about my condition. The nurses didn’t push pharmaceuticals, which would never “cure” me. What they promoted was methodical, intentional self-care: healthy diet, low-impact exercise, prayer, personal counseling. Of course, someone with chronic fatigue can barely muster the energy to imagine doing all of those things consistently, but in the last few years, by the grace of God, they have fallen into place.
I’ve found that following a keto, anti-inflammatory diet significantly reduces my joint aches. I’ve continued my morning prayer time of reflecting on the daily Mass readings and writing in my prayer journal. I know now that I need to swim (low-key bird flaps on my back) multiple times a week to reduce my head, neck, shoulder and lower-back pain. And six months of counseling helped me turn off my amygdala — the “fire alarm,” trauma center in the brain.
It’s not always easy keeping these things up while also tending to my family. But it’s always worth it. I know now that if I don’t, I’m not doing any of us any favors.
Annamarie Adkins has been many things: world-traveling college student, restaurant reviewer, Catholic journalist, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd catechist, and most recently, a substitute teacher. She and her husband live with their four children in Saint Paul, Minn.