Vivia Kieswetter: lay minister

My relationship with my body has had twists and turns. I have a chronic pain condition. Most of the time, I’m invisibly disabled, but I carry a cane when I’m particularly wobbly. I’ve had migraines and seizures since I was a child and I was only diagnosed with arthritis seven years ago. I got a lot of “It’s all in your head.” Women with chronic pain are often treated that way.

I thought I could muscle my way out of pain, so I worked out between three and four hours a day. I tracked everything I ate and went to the gym and calculated that I burned exactly that many calories. I did that for five or six years. I felt crazy. I would look in the mirror and any tiny little flaw was all I could see. I tied up a lot of my self-worth in that instead of thinking of myself as a divine creature that deserves pleasure in the midst of all this pain.

My diagnosis was a big part of breaking that cycle. In 2010, I had a complex migraine, which mimics the symptoms of a stroke. I went to the emergency room and saw everybody around me panicking. I sat there very calmly thinking I was dying. After that experience, I realized my conditions were real. I use the phrase “mind over matter” and I realized that the matter mattered.

So I went out and got my first tattoo. It was a skull with wings, which is an old Christian symbol for immortal life and mortality, and in Latin it says “Remember this body is mortal.” It was a reminder that I’m just flesh. 

I got it on the fleshy part of my inner right arm because I was constantly getting blood work and I wanted it to be there when they were putting needles in my arm. When they took blood, I wanted a reminder that I was okay. But it was also a reminder of the sense of urgency to love myself and to love others. 

I couldn’t stop at one. I’m now pretty much covered. I was always a rock ’n’ roll child at heart but I presented as a “good girl.” I decided to let the exterior match the interior a lot more.

Every day I wake up in a different body. My energy and pain levels are different. My level of physicality is different. Having the diagnosis is validating but it’s still difficult to not be ableist toward myself – to not think of my disability as weakness or laziness. 

I work at a church at Avenue and Dupont where I run an outreach café that is a not-for-profit space. I hope people will let go of the notion that all people who do Christian ministry are prudish. God made me this way. I used to fight the idea that my body was aging – a lot – and I feel pretty bangin’ at 46 in a way that I didn’t feel, even though my body may have been more conventionally attractive, at 26. I critiqued it all the time instead of loving its juiciness in the way that I do now.


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See last year’s Body Issue here.

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