I was speaking with a friend today and whining about how I didn’t expect my life to be where it is at this age and stage. “I need a new beginning,” I lamented, “but I don’t even know where to start.”
“Start where you are,” she said.
Four simple words that pretty much sum it up. In a nutshell, this is where I am: I’m 54, I’m broke, and I’m broken. Okay, so I’m being somewhat hyperbolic. But that’s what it feels like on my bad days—like today, when both my body and soul ache in equal measure.
It wasn’t always this way. I once had a career that worked pretty well for me: traveled a lot on business, loved interacting with people, received regular promotions and accolades. I once had a body that worked pretty well for me: ran marathons, hiked mountains, ate and drank whatever the hell I wanted, still looked and felt good. My mistake was holding the false notion that things would always be on the upswing, that my star would continue rising because I would continue doing what I was doing.
I didn’t plan for the possibility that I might one day get sick. Sick enough that my body would never be the same again.
Sick enough that my recovery would only go so far before early-onset menopause would halt all progress and serve up a heaping helping of autoimmunity and severe osteoarthritis with a side of cancer just to drive the point home.
I didn’t understand that the medical insurance policies I used to scoff at in my younger years every time I accepted a bigger better position at a new company and went through the process of selecting my benefits package would only go so far when I actually needed them. Didn’t understand how quickly the out-of-pocket costs for every attempt I made to improve my wellness both inside and outside the standard western medicine model would add up.
When I left my last position running an international nonprofit four years ago, I thought the debilitating pain that had become a part of my everyday experience was due to being burned out, that I simply needed a few months to sleep, play, and read all those novels I’d bought but hadn’t cracked. I figured I’d rest up and refuel before finding another position that didn’t require a commute halfway across the country. But as the months—then years—passed, I realized I was getting worse, not better. The doctor visits increased, medications and treatments and surgeries were doled out, new diets and physical therapy approaches were experimented with, and I experienced a constant two steps forward, one step back. On some days, it was one step forward, two steps back.
Over the years I’ve discovered some things that work for me: sleep—and lots of it, fresh whole foods and restrictions on alcohol and crap food (mmmm, pizza), massage and other forms of body work, gentle floor-based yoga, water jogging (yes, I’ve joined those middle-aged women I used to make fun of), pain meds as needed, laughter, friends. I now celebrate when I discover something else in my body that works a little better, or hurts a little less. I measure my physical successes in the small things, like being able to get my arms high enough to put my hair in a ponytail, no longer at the mercy of a stranger in the locker room to clip it up for me.
But the woman I was, that woman who traveled incessantly, ran through airports, gave multiple speeches and media interviews in the same day, who once flew to another city in the middle of a ten-day sales conference to run a marathon—that woman is gone. Forever. As much as I want her back, I know she is never coming back. I need to mourn the loss of her—and move on.
My body will never be where it once was. I’ll never regain the stamina and physicality to undertake the kind of whirlwind speaking tours on which I once thrived. When I’m able to return to work, I will likely need to stop throughout my day to lie on the floor and put my legs up the wall or take a quick nap or meditate. (I can’t even imagine how much the thought of this would’ve made my skin crawl with shame in my 30s, such was my level of smugness regarding my health and go-getterness.)
Instead of cursing the fact that I have handicapped handrails on my toilets at home and a handicapped parking placard hanging from the rearview mirror of my car, I need to see them for what they are—a gift, that tiny bit of extra help when it feels like any one of my joints could snap with the mere flick of a finger.
Some days, I know, I will awaken with more physical pain than usual and will need to simply stay in bed and read a book or, better yet, sleep. Because some days, that’s what my body—very clearly—tells me I need to do. I no longer have the luxury of pushing through and paying the price later. That bill came due years ago.
And so this is where I am. My mind and soul are still strong, but they’re now traveling through life in a vehicle that was in a near-fatal pile-up and will never perform the way it once could. I am reminded of my first literal automobile accident a month after receiving my driver’s license and how the frame of the family station wagon was bent, requiring my mom to replace the car less than two months later. Until full body transplants are available, I don’t have that luxury.
But hey, I’m still here. I still have brains and know-how and plenty of life experience from which to draw. And I’m now sufficiently bored with being “a patient in recovery.” I’m so ready to get back out there, in whatever form that takes. So ready to interact with others, to solve problems that have nothing to do with my health, to create and be creative. To begin anew, even with a body that isn’t so new.
And to do that I will start where I am.