What if all our scars and pain could be seen . . . in full view for everyone to see? All our pain we survived, right there on the surface, exposed.
Sometimes I really wish this the case. The games we play to hide the things that could only move us closer to one another, relate to one another, respect one another or understand each other a lot better. Immediately.
The title of my blog is “what is strong?” And I’m going to start by going back.
I was born in 1970. It was the time that men started walking on the moon. Like after the invention of the airplane, impossible turned possible again. When I was 7, Star Wars had hit the theatres. It consumed me like any other boy around that age. On the smaller screen, I watched television shows like Transformers, He-Man, The Dukes of Hazard and even the risqué Benny Hill show that aired on UHF, the brand new 4th TV channel. What an exciting time it was indeed . . . a 4th TV channel!
And then another television series caught my full attention. The Incredible Hulk, starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. The first season in particular. I, like the lead character in the show, was fascinated with the concept of tapping into the “hidden strength that all humans have”. And as silly as it may sound, the end of the opening credits still gives me chills. And thanks to McKay’s books in Nashville, I own the first season proudly.
The program showcased the unexplained and incredible stories of strength that people had reportedly shown under extreme duress. For example, an adult who lifts a car off a child trapped underneath. Someone untrained. Someone unassuming. These stories were also born from truth. I believed in it, I wanted to understand it and I wanted it too. Although anyone watching the show today would find it “Incredibly Laughable” with the cheesy lines, the dated clothes and the awful special effects, it was the premise behind it all that I fell in love with. I became more envious of the physical strength the Hulk‘s character had and daydreamed how wonderful it would feel to release anger and rage like he did. To smash. I wanted that too.
So was it muscles that made you strong, or could those be trumped completely by something like adrenaline . . . or something else yet unseen?
This was such a great age and a great time to be a kid.
It was also the time my parents were going through a divorce.
I was only 10 years old. And at this age you cannot process these emotions “properly”. Therefore, traumatic significant events to a child reveal a fork in the road. One road leads to seclusion. The other leads to danger seeking behavior.
I apparently chose the danger.
A child’s brain is simply not mature enough to process certain trauma. In many ways it’s why kids are also seen as so resilient. However, it is not by their choice. Not the strength of the child as they so often get credit for, but the state of the brain in development. And for EVERYTHING you see as a strength, the weakness is attached, whether you see it or not. . . there is always a cost. There is always that balance. An emotion that must be repressed before it learns how to be expressed is an example of such a cost.
Growing up back then, I spent time trying to understand both sides: the investment of strength and the cost of weakness. My definitions of strength were evolving and expanding.
From Junior high school through college, my risk taking behavior grew. And I enjoyed it. Like all teens, I was all knowing and invincible. I was the risk taker. I did things to myself back then . . . with knives, with fire, with glass, to prove my ability to control pain, and to quiet my mind from emotions I could not understand. Emotions that scared me. Emotions that made me feel out of control. I played that game until I won every test I took and had the scars to prove it.
Some tests were so extreme I almost lost the lower half of my left arm in the process. That was a turning point for me to stop this form of coping on my own. I just needed that close call I guess. But I won. I thought. I achieved a new level of what I KNEW I could do, what I could endure. The skill set intimidated others. I felt strong. And in many ways, I absolutely was.
Mind control with the ability to handle physical pain. Add that to the adrenaline and muscles. That was even stronger. At my age, I had more strength than I could ever use or need. At my age . . . and at my experience level . . . of life. But I was still young. So I was still naïve to the strength that life requires.
I was becoming a strong soldier, I thought. Like my brother I looked up to in the Special Forces. But the strength I would need for life still eluded me. I just didn’t know it yet.
After college I moved to TN where my brother was stationed in nearby Fort Campbell. We started a Hot Air Balloon business, both serving as commercial pilots. I worked as a Fitness Director for the Clarksville Athletic Club. A few years, few fitness certifications and a Masters degree later, life brought me to Nashville TN. Full speed with fitness and leaving my flying days behind.
Married and living in Nashville. I took a leap from Fitness Director to starting my own business. Royka’s InnerStrength LLC. Wife pregnant with our first child. Wife working in family business. First house. First born son. Healthy. Everything ideal and moving forward. I start filming for an abdominal video series I had developed in attempt to take to market. Life truly was wonderful. Full of hope.
Until it wasn’t.
On the night my wife turned 29, we were in Vanderbilt Children’s emergency room with our son and didn’t leave the hospital for 7 weeks. Bacterial meningitis came into our world like lightning. A random chaotic but natural order had hurt our son so very badly and devastated our brand new family.
When your child is sick, you get sick. When your child is this type of hurt, you start to die. In the years that followed, we fought for him more than we fought for us. Seven years later, we divorced. And 12 years and 343 days later, we lost him. We lost our son.
My son was gone. My identity was gone. And my company suffered greatly in my years of absence. And now I was left with the grief every parent fears most and had to learn how to pick up the pieces. Everyone knew this. But what I hadn’t shared with everyone was what I was suffering with behind the scenes for almost as long as Max had been alive. Something I even hid from my surviving son. A disease that had been eating away at my brain and my body for years. A disease with no treatment and no cure. A disease that was so cruel to my life, profession and passions. A disease called Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy.
Written by Matt Royka
InnerStrength’s founder, in Nashville, TN
follow me @innerstrengthTN