Not-Running

Over the years, I’ve posted a lot here about running, from chronicling my marathon training to pondering my deep ambivalence (if not flat out reluctance) about the act. Like writing here, I’ve stopped and started and stopped again, and issued myself new directives to get going once more.

This is a different sort of post, in which in which I am trying not to make myself do anything but instead to accommodate myself to the current situation, and to motivate myself to make as much of it as I can. It’s attempting what Tara Brach describes as the start of a process of recognition and acceptance, a moment of looking around and saying, “Oh, it’s like this.”

The situation is this: my left knee has been acting up for the last several months, mostly in a mid-grade way but at a couple of points acutely enough that I took to my bed with an ice pack, pretty worried that I might have actually damaged something. I finally persuaded myself to go see a sports medicine doctor and get it checked out. And of course, just like when you take your car to the mechanic, it wouldn’t make the noise. Or, rather, it did make the noise (“wow, that’s a lot of crackling,” my doctor said) but it didn’t hurt, it didn’t stick, it didn’t threaten to buckle. So she pushed and prodded and said that there didn’t appear to be anything structural wrong with it, and she sent me off for x-rays.

Which, as I should have known to expect, showed a bunch of arthritis. She sent me a prescription for physical therapy, and she advised me to lay off the high-impact exercise, at least for the time being. “I’m not saying you can’t run ever again,” she said. “But for now.”

My physical therapist, however, was a good bit more solidly in the running-is-over camp. And I’m finding myself there as well. It’s partially because the thing going on in my knee seems to be degenerative, and as the PT said, it can’t be reversed or even really stopped. But it’s also partially because it gives me permission to stop bashing my head against that particular wall. Deciding that running is over lets me stop feeling bad about not running, and about not wanting to run, and it opens up some space for me to focus on doing some other things.

So for the last few weeks I’ve been all about the stationary bikes at my gym, and I’ve even taken a few spinning classes. (I’ve also been advised to back off on those until we strengthen things around my knees a bit — but that feels like something to look forward to.) And I’m doing my PT and working with a personal trainer to try to strengthen more generally.

I wanted to write about this today because it feels a bit emblematic, capturing something about how I’ve been trying to approach change over the last few years, finding ways not to fight the things that can’t be fought, ways to hold onto the meaningful parts of the past and to let go of what cannot be. It’s a mode of being in the world that I’m trying to bring to my work as well: recognizing, for instance, that whatever writing I’m doing is likely to go way more slowly than I want it to, and that my wanting it to go faster won’t change that. And that recognition — “Oh, it’s like this” — is the first step toward figuring out how to make the most of the slowness.

Must

There are the things you know you ought to do, that are hard to do, in part because the “ought to” of them is pretty abstract, especially when they are surrounded by so many other pressing, concrete demands. For me, a whole lot of stuff has long fallen into that category, and particularly things that have to do with taking care of myself. I ought to eat a little better. I ought to drop that five pounds. I ought to get more sleep. I ought to exercise more regularly. I know all of those statements are true, and I really do try to do the things they urge, but it’s often easier to let those things drop when competing demands arise.

And honestly, when don’t competing demands arise.

But I’m finding myself squarely in front of one of those moments when the world sends a no-kidding message: That “ought to”? You should maybe interpret as “must.”

Last week, right near the end of the DH conference, I started getting some pain in my left shoulder. I’ve got some kind recurrent tendonitis in both my shoulders, and with all the hauling of suitcases and carrying around of laptops, I figured I’d triggered it, which promised an aggravating few days ahead.

A week later, however, things had not gotten better. In fact, they were much worse: the pain was no longer localized in my shoulder, but was radiating both up my neck and down my arm. My small stash of Aleve was running out fast, and weirdly, given the range of things you can buy OTC here in Paris, naproxen is unavailable without a prescription. So R. talked me into seeing a doctor, and got a friend to make an appointment for me.

My experience of the French medical system is not the point of this post, but I should note how good it was: I got an appointment with a very good doctor for the very next day. She discussed the problem with me, did an examination, explained her diagnosis, and wrote me three prescriptions. The cost of the examination, for someone who was for all intents and purposes uninsured, was 50 euros. The cost of the three prescriptions, 15 euros. The doctor also said I should go get an x-ray, which I’m going to do while I’m here, both because I’m here for another three weeks and because it’ll be cheaper to pay out-of-pocket for it here than it will be to handle it through my insurance back home.1

What I need the x-ray for is more to the point of the post: the doctor diagnosed me with a pinched nerve in my neck, almost certainly produced by une arthrose — cervical osteoarthritis.2

My first response to this was annoyance. I am way too freaking young to have arthritis in my neck.

My second response was something much more akin to terror: if it feels like this in my mid-forties, what will it feel like in my sixties? My eighties?3

And following fairly quickly on the heels of that was a fairly predictable conviction: I have got to start taking better care of myself.

What this means, however, is turning all those ought tos into musts. In particular, I must make more time for more regular exercise, to become as strong as I can in preparation for whatever the coming years are going to bring my way. And this is going to require two things of me:

First, I must reprioritize. It’s useless to say “I have to get more exercise” when my calendar and my to-do list simply cannot take more being crammed in. Something, in other words, must go — and it can no longer be the things that have always seemed too (literally) self-centered. What that something will be, I’m not entirely sure — but I am starting to recognize that where ambition or accomplishment gets in the way of basic physical health and well-being, maybe it deserves a little more critical examination.4

And second, I need some kind of accountability, a means of ensuring that I actually follow through on what could turn out to be no more than a whole lot of good intentions, particularly once the pain fully recedes. So I’m hoping that maybe my internet friends will help hold me to these changes, and maybe even come along for the ride. If you use Runkeeper, I’m kfitz there. I’ll try to post some here about how I’m doing as well.

I’m determined to be that wiry little old lady still running in the park when I’m 80. And I’m weirdly grateful, I think, for this last week-plus, which has made abundantly clear that that absolutely is not going to happen without some really determined decision-making on my part.

Reluctant Is Just the Word

Boone captures something here that I really needed to have drilled into my head: that if I’m going to get over my recent dread w/r/t running, I probably need to (a) know something about how hard the running I’m doing really is (rather than how hard I think it ought to be), and (b) make it way less hard, so that I feel less beaten up afterward. Heart rate monitor obtained, and now used for two days. The resulting info was highly instructive, and I’m feeling pretty motivated, which is a decided improvement.

Intention

A few weeks ago, as I wrote my last post about balance as not-falling, I very much had yoga on my mind; I’d gone with a friend a few weeks before that to the first class I’d taken in years. (How many years? I just did a search to check; according to this blog, at least, it’s been nearly 5 years since I’ve practiced at all consistently, which means probably 4.5 years since I’ve been to a class at all.)

In any case, that one class with my friend made clear how much every part of me had tightened and weakened, how much range of motion I’d lost, how generally contracted I’d become. And so I had in my head the idea that I needed to get myself back into a yoga studio, one I could walk to, one I would walk to, one that might help me find my way toward a better way of being in my body again. And then, a day or so before that post, I had a conversation that began to close the circuit, the one about rebalancing my priorities in a way that would not be once and for all, but would be part of an ongoing process of coming to value my life outside of work as much as (if not even more than) my work itself.

So when Sean responded to my hints about yoga by reminding me that physically balance is about limbering and strengthening in order to create a basis for stability, it was the final push I needed. I found my yoga studio, a pleasant four-block walk from home, went for my first class, and was almost instantly convinced that I’d found something crucial to my overall wellbeing.

I’ve gone to four or five classes a week since then, classes of different styles and levels of difficulty, some of which were more satisfying and others of which were more challenging. I’ve worked through different kinds of soreness, uncovered some surprising places in which I’ve stored a lot of tension over the last few years, and have generally begun to find my way toward a quieter, calmer mind.

I think that calmer mind had a great deal to do with the amazing week I just finished at work. Some of the week’s amazingness was pretty far outside my control; difficult situations resolved themselves positively in ways that I could not have forced. But other parts of my feeling about the week had everything to do with my ability to let go of the hard bits, to begin to relax a bit more in difficult positions, to recognize that whatever unpleasantness there might be can be worked through. That none of it is a permanent condition.

One of my favorite instructors in my new yoga studio has a practice of asking us to set an intention at the beginning of each class, something that we can draw our focus back to whenever we find our thoughts running back to our to-do lists or the other worries we’ve left outside the room. I’ve tried to use that process both in and outside of class as a means of reminding myself to be here now, rather than falling back into the past or pushing forward into the future, to feel what I am feeling without the fear that it will last forever and without worrying about what’s coming next.

I’m facing a number of uncertainties in what’s coming next, and I’m not at all sure what choices I’m going to make or where they’ll lead me. But learning to focus on being here, now, is allowing me to consider those uncertainties with a bit of distance, and even a bit of excitement.

The Flu and You

This semester has thus far not gone according to plan. We’re on the cusp of what is technically the fourth week of classes, and I’ve been in the classroom precisely twice: once on Wednesday, September 2, for the first day introduction and syllabus discussion, and once on Monday, September 7, for an actual teaching day. I had a meeting in New York starting on Thursday of that week, and so had already cancelled classes for Wednesday the 9th, building that absence into my class schedules.

What I hadn’t counted on was developing a cough about 30 seconds after I finished teaching on the 2nd, as noted in my last post. This cough started as what I assumed was irritation from all the smoke in the air from the Station Fire to our west, and then turned into the dry tickle-in-your-throat cough produced by post-nasal drip. Which is what it still was on the 9th, as I headed for New York.

By the time I got to New York, though, the cough had begun to turn — no longer dry but wet and awful, a racking, nasty cough accompanied by an octave-plus drop in my voice which left me sounding like a long-term pack-a-day smoker. I assumed that the cough had turned into a bronchial infection, and when I continued getting worse on Friday, I called my doctor back home and wheedled my way into an appointment on Tuesday afternoon.

Saturday, though, as I made my way through the subway, Penn Station, the NJ Transit train, the AirTrain, the Newark airport, the Houston airport, and so on, it started to become clear that Something was Wrong. My voice was almost shot, my cough was getting worse and worse, and I was exhausted, easily winded when walking, and just generally felt like crap. I got home that night, expecting to spend all day Sunday in bed assessing whether or not I could teach on Monday.

Sunday morning I woke up with all of the same symptoms as Saturday, plus the addition of horrible abdominal cramps, cramps which started just under my ribcage and twisted down through my muscles and organs without — well, without producing any of the expected resolutions involved in abdominal cramps. It was at this point that I started thinking, okay, what if this bronchial infection has turned into pneumonia, and what if it’s spreading into some more systemic infection?

I live alone right now. And so I had to get myself to the urgent care place while I knew that I was in reasonable shape to drive myself there, and to drive myself back. So I set about the process of getting permission to go to the urgent care place: I called my doctor’s office and left a message with the answering service, who paged the on-call doctor, who called me and said yes, she was worried that this was turning into pneumonia, too, and that I should go to the ER or to urgent care.

Nothing is simple, of course: the medical group that I’m assigned to under my HMO is in a dispute with the nearest hospital, which is now refusing to provide service to us based on the HMO’s refusal to pay a sufficient percentage of what it owes them. And I’ve never been to the next-nearest hospital — honestly don’t even know where it is, and didn’t feel like this was the moment to try to find out. So I ruled out the ER and started trying to figure out if a nearby urgent care place accepts my insurance; happily, they did, so I was on the way.

On one level, it turned out to be a good choice: Sunday around noon, the only patients in there were me, one guy with a lower-leg injury, and one guy trying to get a vaccination of some sort. So they took me right back, were able to do a chest x-ray then and there, did a pretty thorough examination, and wound up both giving me a prescription for antibiotics and high-end cough syrup and swabbing me for H1N1.

Here’s the downside, though; as of this morning, nearly a full week later, I still didn’t know the outcome of that test. The lab picked the test up on Monday, and I was told I’d have the results by Thursday, but I’d called every day since then to no avail. One key difference between “urgent” and “emergent” is, I guess, the speed of the lab results.

In the interim, though, I basically operated under the assumption that this was in fact H1N1. The antibiotics helped some of my symptoms very quickly, but not all of them, by any means. And the more I saw about H1N1’s onset — dry cough, followed by a brief period of feeling better, followed by wet cough and a sudden turn into feeling much, much worse — the more familiar it all sounded.

But I just got the results — 11 am, Saturday — and they’re negative. Which means I’m back to assuming that this is bronchitis, probably of a viral kind, since the antibiotics helped but did not entirely clear up the problems. And I think I may have bruised a rib with all the coughing, as one spot on my rib cage has just been killing me since yesterday.

When it might be swine flu, my course of action was clear: stay home and away from everyone until the coughing goes away. But now… it’s not swine flu, and the coughing’s not going away. Is the course of action the same? I was able to manage staying home last week — how, exactly, I’ll discuss in the next post — but I’m not sure I can do it again.

Ick

The semester started here just shy of a week ago, but because my classes fall on Monday and Wednesday, today’s my first real day of teaching. Labor Day. Usually (where “usually” = about 4 out of 10 years) classes here start the day after Labor Day; when they start the week before, we still start on Tuesday, and then teach on Labor Day. Which continues to make no sense to me at all.

I wouldn’t even mind that so much — I’m really fired up about my classes, which include a seminar on Marxism and Cultural Studies that I haven’t gotten to teach in several years, and a new class on television authorship; I’ve got piles of work ahead of me, but it ought to be great fun — except for the fact that I managed to get about two hours of sleep last night due to the stupid cough I’ve developed from the lousy air quality out here in the wake of the fires to our west.

The annoying part is that I’m actually getting better, just as I’m feeling worse. Last Wednesday afternoon, just after classes ended, I suddenly felt as though I’d chain-smoked a pack of cigarettes, and my lungs griped and complained for several days after. Now, my lungs feel more or less fine, but that incessant tickle deep in the back of my throat has set in, probably a sign of healing tissue or something, but it’s driving me batty. It will not let you not cough, though coughing of course aggravates it. It will wake you up out of a dead sleep to make sure you know you need to cough. And no combination of cough drops and throat sprays will calm it down.

This is not what I want to be thinking about right now, but the combination of non-stop coughing and lack of sleep have me unable to contemplate much else.

Chicken, Meet Egg

Here’s a bit of irony*: Chest pain is a primary symptom of a heart attack. A panic attack can produce chest pain that mimics that of a heart attack. But other kinds of chest pain can produce the symptoms of a panic attack, as you freak out over what their cause could be.

The situation: I went to the gym twice this weekend, for the first time in perhaps six weeks; after a several week layoff during all that travel, and then several more weeks of just doing Bikram yoga, I decided it was time to go do a little round of lifting and cardio again. And it was pretty fabulous.

Of course, I’m sore as all hell today. And I think I’m having a periodic muscle spasm/twitch somewhere in the muscles on the left side of my chest. It comes and goes. Jabbing or pinching, not pressure. No other symptoms. So I’m positive I’m not having a cardiac event of any variety. And I certainly wasn’t having a panic attack, at least not until the stabbing pain inconveniently located Right Over My Heart began. But the thought of what it could be produces the leading edge of the kind of panic that results in racing pulse, shortness of breath, and other symptoms that I really don’t want to be having right now, thanks much.

Back to work, so I can stop thinking about this already.

—–

* I recognize that this isn’t really irony. But what is it? A conundrum? A paradox? Colloquially, it’s a catch-22, perhaps, but what it is rhetorically?

Bikram Update

I’ve been attending relatively regular Bikram yoga classes since late May, and it occurred to me yesterday that the time might have come to take stock of my practice and reflect on how it’s going.

I took extremely well to Bikram right off the bat; the intensity of the heat and humidity took some getting used to, but the poses were largely familiar from past yoga experiences, and, with a few exceptions, my body likes them. I had a fair bit of soreness for the first couple of weeks, mostly in small connective tissues that hadn’t really been worked to that extent before. Like the muscles that hold your rib cage together; most of my back was fine, but those tiny little muscles between my ribs ached like mad.

That soreness has since faded, as has the tendency to feel completely dopey and out of gas after class. I’m still going to late-afternoon classes, mostly because that’s best for my summer work schedule, but I’m optimistic about my ability to attend morning classes in the fall and still manage to be functional during the day.

I realized yesterday that I’m learning something new — something small, but clear — at almost every class of late, that there’s some moment at which I make a tiny adjustment and the lightbulb goes off over my head: “oh, that’s what he’s talking about!” Yesterday it was, in a couple of the back-bending postures, that I wasn’t really letting my head fall back as far as I could. I thought I was; I thought that’s all the backward bend my neck had. But, in fact, I was protecting something, keeping myself from letting go. Yesterday, for the first time, I really relaxed, and really let my head fall back, and it completely changed the feeling of the poses.

There’s a lot of physical stuff left for me to work on yet — my hips, for instance, have always been a problem; they simply will not open. But there’s also a lot of non-physical stuff that it would be good for me to focus on — how much of my ego, for starters, is bound up in the idea of being good at this; how much of my mind is focused on invidious comparisons with the other students in the room. Physically, the bikram is doing very good things for me (honestly, between the yoga and the weightlifting I’ve been doing, I think I’m in the best shape of my life), but I could stand to let it do a bit more psychic work for me, I think, letting go of some of the thought patterns that protect me, too.

Bikram, Day 2

90 minutes is much, much longer than 60. It’s pretty rough at that moment, when my yogalates classes would have been wrapping up, to realize that there’s still a third of the class yet to go.

On the other hand, it all feels good, with the exception of my left elbow, which is a bit sore.

Which is not much to complain about, on the whole.

Bikram, Day 1

Holy moly. Having settled back in here in Claremont, and having spent the last five days mourning the loss of my beloved yogalates class, I managed to cart myself down to the Bikram place a few blocks from here. And I’m not sure I’m going to be terribly articulate about the class and how it felt yet–today’s state of yoga brain took a couple of hours to arrive after class ended, but arrive it did, apparently with enough supplies for a lengthy stay.

I’m positively dopey. In a good way.

Anyhow, class was amazing. The instructor was sitting at the front desk when I arrived, and was instantly welcoming, friendly, and informative, with lots of good advice for how to approach this first class. Even so, though, when I walked into the studio, I was immediately terrified–it was entirely like walking into a sauna, and I just couldn’t imagine being in the room for 90 minutes, much less doing strenuous yoga. But I adjusted to the temperature fairly quickly while waiting for class to start. And once class began, I was quite hot, and clearly working hard, but really fine.

It turns out that the yoga portions of the yogalates classes I was taking were quite Bikram-inspired; many of the poses were the same, as were several of the sequences. But because the class had a slightly slower pace, and of course because of that heat, I was able to get farther into several poses than I ever have before. And the way that the instructor talked us into and out of poses made me understand them quite differently than I have in the past.

The studio has a special week-long introductory rate, so I’ve got six more days pre-paid; I’m looking forward to seeing how these classes feel in the coming days. But I’m pretty sure I’m already hooked. The trick is going to be figuring out whether I can, say, think afterward.