May 8, 2007 at 4:39 pm (Uncategorized)

Spring is coming to Montana. A few wild flowers are poking their fragile purple heads through the detritus of winter. The grass on the surrounding hills is turning a little greener each day. Unfortunately, at intervals much less predictable than the swing of the seasons, so am I. Just this morning, I had a terrible green attack at the gym, and no, I don’t mean that I was blooming along with the lawn. I was jealous.

Under the guidance of a physical therapist, one who knew me when I was a competitive cyclist, I’ve been slowly re-conditioning myself. It’s tough and slow going, especially since I’ve lost so much fitness and mobility in the wake of my sarcoidosis-induced joint inflammation. I’m impatient to regain all my strength and endurance quickly. Fortunately, Don, the physical therapist, is astute enough to recognize that plopping a former athlete on a recumbent bicycle with the generic words of wisdom to “go as long as you can without hurting yourself” (which is what I’ve heard from other physical therapists in the past), is like hobbling a cheetah’s or a greyhound’s front leg and then admonishing the animal to run, but not too fast. Before I started seeing Don I was oscillating between hour-long punishment sessions on the elliptical trainer and days of post-exercise, throbbing, swollen joints that compelled me stay away from the gym.

Don established some ground rules: 1.) No heart rate monitor allowed. Amazingly, this non-MD has been the first and only person among the host of cardiologists, rheumatologists, pulmonologists, electrophysiologists, and makeyouinsaneologists I count as my specialists, to tell me that taking a beta blocker like Toprol, as I do, makes workout heart rates irrelevant. It’s not like I didn’t inform anyone else that I used a heart rate monitor. I did, and they all instructed me simply to lower my target heart rate by twenty or so beats. Well, working out with my heart rate at this prescribed 120 beats per minutes turned my face a frightening shade of magenta and made me feel like I would go into cardiac arrest. Now, without the heart rate monitor, I am able to pay closer attention to the exertion of my own body, and I don’t feel light-headed when I leave the gym. Even better, I can come back for more exercise the next day. 2.) Start with twenty minute sessions, three times a week. Even if I felt good at the end of that period, I was still to stop. This rule is the most difficult for me. For dozens of years, I trained my mind and body to never be satisfied with an exercise status quo. However far and fast I was going, my urge was (and is) to go further and faster. “No, no,” said Don. “Stop listening to your old self. You just can’t do that now.” 3.) If I do anything that causes me pain that lingers for 48 hours after an activity, I’ve done too much and need to back off at the next session. With the exception of the three-hour hike last weekend that made my feet feel as though the bones had been pulverized for a good four days, I’ve been successful with this injunction.

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles. A little common sense has led to a whole lot less suffering. After three weeks on the sanity exercise plan (as compared to the self-flagellation “ride til you keel over” plan I devised for myself), I’ve built up from twenty minutes on the bike to thirty-five, and I’ve even added ten minutes on the arm bicycle to loosen my upper body joints. I’m not going to be setting land speed records anytime soon, but I do feel like my fitness is returning to me gradually–and that with time, and a small amount of sense, I’ll be back in healthier routines soon. Yes, I’m still seriously overweight. Yes, I’m still grievously out of shape. But, if I put one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, it’s enough. Right?

Truthfully, I can keep this perspective for about 12.3 percent of the time. And then I see someone else – someone who reminds me of how I used to be, or someone who I want to be, or someone who I think I should be, and my mind descends into chaos. In the midst of a green attack, I lose sight of who I am now and where I am now. For example, yesterday at the gym, I was contentedly spinning on the recumbent bicycle, admonishing myself not to go too hard, and happily listening to truly atrocious Romanian dance music on my iPod, when I looked up and saw a heavily pregnant woman walking briskly on the treadmill. She was slim (except for her baby belly) and dressed in clinging, black lycra. She looked fit and beautiful. And in one foul instant, I hated her, for being lovely and fecund all at once, and hated myself, for being unlovely and unfecund, just fat. “I should ride for two hours,” I thought to myself. “I have got to lose more weight.”

After my jealous fit passed, I grew sad, not only because it’s silly to double over with hate at the sight of a strong and healthy woman, but also because I used to be a strong and healthy woman and it was never enough for me. When I was pregnant with my son, Andrew, who is now three, I worked out five days a week; I took classes towards my master’s degree (in fact, I finished a final exam on Shakespeare’s tragedies as Andrew kicked me in the kidneys a few days before he was born); I worked on paid writing projects; I cooked and shopped and cleaned the house because Jay was working long hours in private practice; I walked the dogs twice a day; I wrote a birth plan and stockpiled food. I even had clingy lycra workout clothes. And did I see myself as the slim, powerful, lovely, busy woman I was? Nope. I was too busy finding faults with myself. One particular episode sticks in my mind. When I was about five months pregnant, Jay and I went for a hike in northern California. I was just beginning to develop a whopping case of sciatica because of Andrew’s in-utero position. We hiked for ten miles, and then I felt like such an out-of-shape wimp because that’s all I could do. Really, I’m not exaggerating how absurd I was.

My primary doctor here in Helena, a caring and methodical practitioner named Dr. Samuel, was herself diagnosed with a chronic illness and had to take a massive dose of prednisone for over a year. She’s better now, but she still carries an extra fifty pounds of steroid memories. One office visit, she asked me if I sometimes felt like I didn’t recognize the person in the mirror any more– after sarcoidosis and prednisone have wrought their changes on me. This is the kind of question that only someone who has experienced the shape shifting (both inner and outer) of illness could think to ask. “Yes,” I told her. “I wonder who this bloated person is staring back at me.”

However, after pondering my jealousy attack at the gym, I wonder if I have ever been able to recognize the competent and attractive person staring back at me in the mirror. Or have I always found my visage too fat, too lazy, too needy, too something? Even when I rode my bike one hundred miles and maniacally maintained a body fat of twelve percent (no mean feat for a young woman), I told myself I was too chubby. Even when I attended one of the best colleges in the country and got good grades, I told myself I wasn’t smart enough. Even when I got articles published and co-authored a book, I told myself I wasn’t really a writer. And now, even when I juggle motherhood, illness, work, a marriage, and other obligations, I tell myself I’m not doing enough, or I’m too fat, or if I somehow tried harder I could make this disease go away.

It occurred to me at the gym, as the atrocious Romanian dance tune on my iPod segued into an equally atrocious Polish dance tune and my feet kept spinning in time on the pedals of the recumbent bike, that I need to cultivate a new way of seeing myself and my place in the world. Perhaps the green of spring can connote more than the green-eyed monster of jealousy –the one that eyes all the sporty folks in our mountain town jogging up two thousand foot climbs on their lunch breaks – and wants to break their backs and then break my own trying to run up that hill. But this is not where I am now. Don is right. I do indeed need to stop listening to my old self. Let the green of spring bring in a freshness, a new light in my eyes – one that can recognize what an accomplishment it is for me to ride in place for thirty-five minutes, care for my son, walk with my husband around the block, and write an article. Now is the time to be green. And alive.

1 Comment

  1. Kristina Hellman said,

    I’m not sure if you remember me — I met Jay when I spent weeks with my judge in a trial in Montana –but I wanted to write because this posting has stuck with me ever since I read it. Yesterday and today when I was running around, getting everything done, striving to be that “perfect woman,” I had a moment when I paused to be really thankful and grateful for the fact that I could do what I was doing and for how things were right now. They aren’t perfect, but they are OK. And that moment is 100% due to the fact that you were honest to write what you did. So thank you.

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