How an Action Figure Can Teach Me Not to Overextend Myself

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by Mike Naple |

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When somebody asked me how I was feeling a few weeks ago, I responded, “Well, I feel like Stretch Armstrong being pulled in too many directions.”

Do you remember the action figure toy Stretch Armstrong? You might need to stretch your memory back to your childhood to visualize this toy whose arms, legs, and torso could extend about 5 feet longer than his original form.

I found myself invoking the simile while emailing a friend. I can’t recall if I had a Stretch Armstrong as a kid. Yet the comparison resonated with me for a few reasons, including my pulmonary hypertension (PH) diagnosis.

PH is a rare disease affecting the heart and lungs. When the arterial pressures in the lungs increase, the arteries harden and constrict, which decreases blood flow. We’re not stretching by any means of the imagination in that scenario. Sorry, Mr. Armstrong.

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While our bodies manage symptoms of PH, the world keeps turning and life creates external pressures that demand we stretch ourselves as much as possible. Whether it’s for your job, your family and friends, or other obligations, too often stretching feels like a to-do list that’s never completed.

There’s a reason we have colloquialisms like “I wish I could clone myself,” “If only there were more hours in the day,” or “I could really use an extra pair of hands.” In the next breath, it’s also why we say things like, “I’m burning the candle at both ends,” or stress over how busy we are, as if being busy is a personality trait.

Before my diagnosis, I didn’t think much about stretching myself too thin or beyond my limits. I didn’t feel, at the time, like my body was sapping my energy reserves from the inside. I held down a demanding job, I socialized, I volunteered — overextending without any thought to what damage or harm that might be doing to my body or mind. If I’m being honest, I probably did think being overly scheduled was a desired lifestyle, likely due to the value and worth society puts on productivity and the ability to stretch ourselves.

How do you learn to unstretch yourself? That’s the big question I’ve been trying to answer for the past six years. Stretch Armstrong’s factory settings encourage kids to pull and twist the action figure into a pretzel. What happens when your factory settings change because of a diagnosis like PH, and you can’t stretch yourself because you’ll snap?

The last two years have left many of us in the rare disease, chronic illness, and disability community stretched beyond our means. If you stretch yourself too far, too often, you’re only going to burn out. Beyond that there are health consequences, especially for those of us who are chronically ill or manage a rare illness.

It’s been challenging to come to terms with how chronic illness has changed my ability to stretch without experiencing any health consequences. I know that when I take on too much or feel too much stress, that can cause PH-related symptoms to flare up. And when I experience shortness of breath, chest pains, or an increased heart rate, it is often the case that my body will demand some rest and recovery time to replenish itself.

In addition to managing PH, lingering fatigue, brain fog, and shortness of breath from contracting COVID-19 earlier this year also make it harder to extend myself as I used to do.

While I know that I need to shift my perspective, I realize how difficult that change has been for me to achieve. The urge to do less didn’t come naturally to me. I would argue that’s because there is some misguided and ableist stigma that doing less is associated with being lazy or slothful. Rather, in doing less, what I am actually attempting to do is make more space to prioritize my health and to properly manage my PH diagnosis.

I’d like to think that I am making some progress. For example, instead of responding with a simple “I’m fine,” I gave myself permission to be truthful about being spread too thin. I don’t always give myself the permission or the space. It’s partly why I’ve been slow to readjust my thinking, and one of the reasons I revisit this topic in my writing.

But here’s the thing: I might feel like Stretch Armstrong, but I’m not an action figure. I’m a human. I can’t be purchased again at the store. Those of us in the PH patient community are humans with an unknown shelf life.

If I’m going to compare myself to Stretch Armstrong, let it not be for feeling exhausted, burnt out, and overextended. Let it be for extending my life expectancy and staying one year ahead of this progressive disease.

Follow Mike on Twitter: @mnaple.

Note: Pulmonary Hypertension News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Hypertension News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary hypertension.


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