Learning Acceptance

I could no longer deny that my body was falling apart when I awoke in a Washington D.C. hotel to go to work at my job with the Foundation for America’s Blood Centers and I couldn’t walk. Couldn’t get out of bed without excruciating pain. After popping a few ibuprofen and finally, and in great discomfort, wall-walking my way to the bathroom, I got back in bed and remained there for several days before flying back to my home in Boulder, Colorado, without so much as five minutes spent at the D.C. offices. A month or so later I realized I had to resign my position as the president of that nonprofit, the same organization whose members had helped save my life eleven years earlier with a plethora of safe and available blood. I had already been dealing with a “frozen” shoulder for a decade and now it appeared my feet and ankles were going as well. My knees, one of which had already undergone arthroscopic surgery, were aching more, sometimes compounded by sharp shooting pains. Hips, still holding their own, though without much range of motion. I was in my 40s at that point, and certain that someday I’d be one of those cool old ladies who runs 10Ks with her younger pals. Um, nope. 

The arthroscopic surgeries began to pile up, until there was nothing left to scope. Then the injections of synthetic synovial fluid began. When they no longer worked, I turned to cortisone injections. When their efficacy eroded, I stopped taking walks, still in deep denial about what was happening to my major joints, still convinced I could reverse end-stage osteoarthritis and whatever autoimmune illness I had – one doc said ankylosing spondylitis; another said fibromyalgia – with all the green juice and seated yoga I was doing. Denial knows no bounds, am I right?

My husband, daughter, and I were in Michigan visiting my in-laws over Christmas of 2016 and I could barely pull myself up the stairs from our lower level bedrooms to the main floor. My pain level during that visit finally flipped a switch within me, shifting from denial to acceptance regarding the reality of my deteriorating joints. I returned to Boulder and set up an appointment with my orthopedic doc, a great guy who’d been warning me for years that I likely wouldn’t be leaving this world without at least 4-6 joint replacements. I’ll bet you ten bucks I can fix this without replacements was my standard response. I hope you win that bet was his.

 “I owe you ten bucks,” I said when he walked into the examination room.

“Keep it,” he said. “Let’s just get you set up to meet with some joint replacement surgeons and get you some shiny new parts.”

And so my journey of becoming bionic began. Within 19 months, I had undergone four total joint replacements: an ankle, a shoulder, and both knees. The other ankle needs replacing too, as soon as my new shoulder is strong enough to bear my weight on crutches. The other shoulder is beginning to show the telltale signs of end-stage degeneration, and one of my hips is acting up as well, though I suspect I’ll get another five years out of them before active discussions of hip replacements are necessary. 

Becoming bionic was not a part of my plan; and trust me when I say that most of my life I’ve been a girl with a plan. Lots of plans in fact. Big plans! But you know the old saying: We plan, God laughs. And so I finally surrendered to the reality of my life. My plans for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and completing an Ironman were definitely off the table now. And I continue to learn from this entire experience of the slow, chronic loss of mobility and my efforts to regain what I can in the way of pain-free movement.

I’m learning to work with what I have versus what I wish I had. 

I’m learning to focus on all the richness in my life, even if that richness comes with a wonky walk, neuropathy in my feet, occasional surgeries, lots of physical therapy, and a deep fear of any walking surface that appears slippery: shiny tile floors, icy patches on sidewalks, snow, rain, mud. 

I’m learning to seek the inspiration I receive from those who’ve walked before me, especially the inspiration I receive regularly from my sister-in-law, Val, who is in her 23rd year with chronic progressive MS and is completely frozen except for her face, mind, and sense of humor. 

I am learning to value the lessons that come with Life’s challenges.

I’m learning acceptance.               

Liz Gave Me the Boot

When my daughter and I arrived in Los Angeles last Saturday afternoon for college interviews, we drove straight to her Fake Aunt Liz’s home in Laguna Beach. (Well, we might’ve made one quick pitstop at Del Taco so Clare could experience one of her mother’s fast food cravings from my LA days.)

The thing about Liz is this: as long as we’ve been friends (24 years) she’s always wanted what she called her “Granny Cottage” – a small, efficient and impeccably furnished dwelling, the complete opposite of her former Berkeley mansion that was something straight out of Architectural Digest.

Her Laguna Beach home is just that: a tiny two-bedroom cottage with an even tinier back patio. Yet the feeling in her home is what I’d call zen elegance. She really has a knack for turning any ordinary house into a stylish home. (I’ve been the recipient of her “Drunk Shui” talents in several dwellings. A few glasses of a dry Provencal rose, and Liz starts rearranging your furniture, books and knick-knacks, ordering you onto Craigslist to find this or that. Once, she even Drunk Shui-ed our entire living room a week after foot surgery.)

To maintain her Granny Cottage lifestyle, Liz lives like the minimalist she is. If something doesn’t get worn in, say, a couple months, she passes it along to someone else. If she doesn’t like something she bought, even if it’s only a few days old, it too shall be passed along. So when Clare and I arrived and Liz said, “I was cleaning out my closets yesterday,” I laughed. Her closets are already as neat and tidy as the non-closet areas of her home. What the hell else was left to clean out?!

“I was cleaning out my closets yesterday and found the boot from my bunion surgeries two years ago.” Then she ducked into the guest bedroom and emerged with said boot in hand. “Would this be helpful to you at all?”

I’ve been the recipient of some of Liz’s cast-offs in the past – blouses, yoga pants, etc. – but she’s never offered me an orthopedic boot before. Then again, Liz has watched me these past six months as I underwent first an ankle surgery followed by a total left knee replacement followed by a total right knee replacement. She also knows my ankles are next in line for joint replacements, which cannot commence until I’ve recovered and strengthened myself adequately following the back-to-back knee replacements. And frankly, I’m thrilled my surgeon said as much because the thought of going under the knife one more time this year was a bit daunting.

As much as I’m happy to wait until January to begin the ankle replacement surgeries, I’ve been limping around in pain due to the lack of cartilage in both ankles. The left one, in particular, is remarkably messed up despite already having had four loose bone bits removed during March’s surgery. I’ve tried braces and shoe inserts and even new orthopedic shoes that are so ugly you just know they have to be good for you, right?

None of them alleviated the severe pain in my left ankle.

“Let’s give it a try,” I said, hiking my pant legs up and tearing at the velcro straps of my ineffectual ankle braces.

With my crappier ankle completely immobilized by the boot, I stood, my cane in hand. Tentatively, I walked across the room. Then I walked back, this time without the cane. I noticed I was standing straighter, even able to roll through my booted foot as I stepped – a feat that, heretofore, would’ve brought on stabbing pain and more than a few f-bombs.

I wore Liz’s hand-me-down boot the rest of that visit and by the end of four days was thrilled with my ability to walk – almost like a normal person. I brought it back to Boulder with me and have been wearing it ever since. And guess what? Now I can walk anywhere, more or less, without my cane. Just me, my boot and one heavily cushioned Hoka sneaker.

A few days ago I noticed something fairly significant. For the first time in years, I was not in pain while moving through my day. Sure, my new knees still feel alien and stiff and tend to ache by bedtime. But the pain from joints so worn down there was actually a hole in one of my knee bones where there isn’t supposed to be a hole? Gone. The pain in my Really Bad Ankle (as opposed to my Moderately Bad Ankle)? Gone. At least while wearing my new favorite boot. And that’s good enough for me.

You see, in a word, pain sucks. It makes frustrated sourpusses of the most optimistic among us. It often prevents us from working or traveling or even focusing on anything other than, well, pain. And when that pain comes in the middle of the night, when it wakes us from sleep, it tends to bring dark thoughts: that the pain will never end, that recovery is impossible so what’s the point in even trying.

Twice since getting my new knees, I attempted to do the grocery shopping only to abandon ship partway through due to ankle pain. Yet three days ago I went to Whole Foods – the big one – with my new boot and no cane, and made it all the way through the task, including carrying the grocery bags inside once home.

I almost cried with relief over this palpable sign of my life returning to me after more than five years of being sidelined: leaving my full-time work, minimal travel, experimentation with countless approaches to healing that didn’t heal me, withdrawing from the world, and rarely making plans for fear I’d have to cancel anyway because it might turn out to be a Bad Day thanks to autoimmunity or osteoarthritis or both. In other words, five years of working really hard to maintain a positive outlook when inside I felt anything but.

I can’t believe I’m actually writing a story about a freaking orthopedic boot. But truly – this silly, ugly, clunky boot feels like a gift from the gods (assuming the gods are all named Liz). It feels like a preview of better – pain-free! – times to come.

It feels like hope.

Liz and me. Duh.

* * * * * * *

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren’s memoir, Zuzu’s Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, free.  Click here and go to the link below the “Buy the Book” button.  Zuzu’s Petals is also available on Kindle.  Hardcover signed and inscribed copies are available at  www.laurenwardlarsen.com. Happy reading!