The winding, sometimes frustrating comeback trail, and the valuable lessons I'm learning
Monday, 4:30 am. In little more than an hour, I will be driving through Oregon's cool, wet October morning to the tallest building in town. It's sixteen stories high, built right next to the railroad tracks.
I'm going to go walk the stairs. No idea how many I can do. It's been since 2019 since I did thousands of them a week at Red Rocks.
Part of me can't wait. While I would vastly prefer to be doing this outside on the local mountain trails, I can't yet. It's the "yet" that drives me batty, as my eager innards ache to return to adventurous living.
Not yet I can't.
After multiple surgeries and endless PT, I still have another thirteen months to go before my reconstructed feet have their feeling back.
Same for my hands. Nerves take a long time to heal. I break a lot of china around my house.
Meanwhile, I damaged a toe joint trying to hike steep hills too early last May.
That pig-headed stunt put me back at least six months if not more.
Last Friday I was walking a treadmill, and managed to damage that same toe joint because I had put the incline too high. I have no idea how much I pushed my comeback to the back burner again.
You can understand the irritation. Two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes three steps back. There's a time to push and there's a time to push back against that push.
When will I learn to be more forgiving of my body's unique timeline?
I'm seventy, and I still haven't learned to just let the body find its way.
This is far less an issue of age than it is an issue of patience, and giving the body permission to heal on its own time. The habits which got us this far, the foods we eat and whether or not we smoke and drink and more, all those have an impact on how well we heal.
To say nothing of how we deal with how we heal.
Recently I was sitting in my podiatrist's office with several other people. Always one to get a lively conversation going (we love to discuss our bodies, right?) I was moved by this story: one elderly woman wearing one of those clumsy healing boots revealed that she's had to wear it on and off for three years now.
My god, three years?
Bunion surgery, which keeps cracking open again, revealing the screws in her foot. How awful, I thought. Then she revealed that she's been a heavy smoker all her life.
Of course, smoking seriously interferes with the healing process.
This woman effectively guarantees her misery for the rest of her life, if she won't quit. She won't, either- and there's the tragedy. My dad paid that price as well, so convinced was he that the rules didn't affect him.
Dad was bitterly resentful when cancer finally came after him after decades of filterless Marlboros and way too much booze.
Oh, and that booze part? (forgive the ad, just read the facts)
I've made that mistake too. I'd never have GI tract issues from pain meds, until I did. I'd never break my hip, until I did.
The Universe loves to deliver humble pie. I keep a can of whipped cream in the fridge for just such occasions.
For every one of us willing to do the hard, slogging labor on the comeback trail, there are thousands/millions who won't, or in all fairness, some who simply can't. I am addressing the former here.
It takes some of us, and my hand is way up here, a very long time to respect our bodies as the miracles they are, and to treat them as such. Whipsawed by societal norms to be thin or to be cool, we can develop habits and make choices which ruin our health.
I have smoked, starved myself, overeaten, eaten poorly, over-exercised, and above all, committed the crime of self-hate, which doesn't do anyone any good.
But we can learn.
A lot of us learn a little late, and then there's this bum rush to try to fix everything all at once.
Ever do this?
After months of eating candy as a kid, I stood in the bathroom scrubbing my teeth diligently just before heading to the dentist. By then, my mother would intone, it was way too late. Pain lay ahead.
Then I'd go back to my candy. Sound familiar?
Natural Grocers and Whole Foods are jam-packed with smug Millennials and Gen-Yers swerving their carts around desperate Boomers. I've watched those grey hairs- including myself- try to make sense of the overpriced supplements which promise to give them a better body, the (questionable) organic products promising to return their youth, magical miracle cures which simply cannot repair the damage done over decades.
No cure in a bottle can undo what we've done to ourselves. Of course some of those folks believed that drinking bleach will cure Covid, so there's that. For that we have Darwin Awards.
For the rest of us, there is a path. Once we're past fifty, that path can get a lot harder.
“If you have the aspiration of kicking ass when you’re 85, you can’t afford to be average when you’re 50.” —Peter Attia
By midlife, whatever insults we've heaped on this body have come home to roost. Even so, many of us can slide to sixty-five without paying too high a price. According to Attia, once we hit our mid-seventies, it's a terrific drop over a cliff if we haven't created healthy lifestyle habits.
For my part, I had developed some much-improved food and exercise habits but had injured myself pretty spectacularly. Years of those injuries lead to major repairs, and those led to losing some- okay, a lot- of what I'd built.
While I'm not foolish enough to expect to get all my hard body back (truth, I might get an even better one back, it all depends) I am at least wise enough to acknowledge that achieving relative "kick-ass" is going to take considerable work.
To that, then:
Monday, 8:40 am John, my stair host, met me at the front door of our building, and we started the stairs. Four floors, walk across the building, four more, over and over. Twice all the way up and down, eighteen floors. John invited me to do another lap if I wished.
I did wish. So I walked up eighteen more flights, no stops. Honestly didn't know I had it in me.
This is the part I celebrate. For any of us who has ever trained, lost our fitness, and returned to training no matter how old, the body remembers.
The body remembers.
It may not reward you with the sleek thighs and slim waist of youth, but it will reward you with functional fitness. Strength. Endurance.
This stair hike is part of my recovery program so that eventually I can climb mountains again. But that's just part of it.
At the gym, my hands hurt from being asked to do the same kinds of work with fewer bones, support and less dexterity.
They hurt from being asked to do lots of pushups on handles instead of my flat palms. Pull ups hurt the repaired ligaments in my hands.
My shoulders sometimes hurt from being asked to do the same kinds of work after three rotator cuff surgeries.
My hip hurts from the screws inserted when I busted my femur neck in July. It barks when I climb sand dunes and stairs.
Sometimes my feet hurt so much I can barely walk. Then I sit down and do an hour of massage and PT, which also hurts, to ask the feet to stretch, heal and lengthen.
I'm hurting because I'm healing.
This is what it looks like when it's working.
Of course it's uncomfortable.
What's that line? If it were easy everybody would be doing it?
This is by no means a complaint. The soreness that I feel, the pain and the barky bits are part of the weeds I walk if I am going to return to the kind of health and fitness level I wish.
Those of you who have ever gone through a major body event, and you know who you are, can attest to this journey. It is deeply humbling, and every single inch you regain is to be celebrated.
At this point I have no clue what awaits me, what I might have lost. What I might gain. What changes I will need to incorporate. What needs to be tabled for now, or trashed forever.
I have a series of soft adventures coming up in December which will allow me to get a handle on how far I've come. Part of me can't wait; another part of me doesn't want to know. We all know that part, but we must know it if we are to move forth with any kind of courage.
As for those stairs? I recommend them. If you can, trash the elevator every single time. Here's why:
Right now I'm so damned grateful that I even CAN hike the stairs. Combine that with a building willing to let me do it, supervised, several times a week, what a gift.
My surgeons promised me nothing, other than the repairs would give me a shot at coming back.
The rest, as they say, is up to me. And right now, the road is up.
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