I’m still struggling and it’s been over two weeks since I got over COVID-19. My mood and energy level from day to day, or hour to hour, have everything to do with whether I am proud of my body, or frustrated with it.
Is my body a miraculous healing machine
Is it my adversary?
On good days, I think, Wow, my immune system is incredible! Great job! How fantastic is it that a brand-new virus got inside me and my body figured out what to do?
On bad days, I think, Why is this taking so long? Why can’t my tired old carcass keep up with my brain? Am I just... old now?
It would help if I had something familiar. Then I could hit the books and figure out what to do. This worked well when I was diagnosed with a thyroid nodule. I went directly from my appointment with the endocrinologist to the public library, where I checked out a couple of books on thyroid function. I’d already read a few chapters before my bus made it home.
(That was before Wikipedia and Google, if you can believe that! And smartphones of course)
My way of dealing with physical distress is to compartmentalize it. Try to ignore discomfort and distracting sensations. Get into a clean blank head space and try to figure out a plan.
The trouble with this method is that it can start to take over, until “the body” starts to feel like a separate entity. It can be like the head is a floating balloon, or like the mind is a driver riding around in a car. This is when we start to see “the body” as a stranger, or worse, an enemy.
Then again, the advantage is that it’s possible to ingest new ideas and new frameworks. We can take in new information that changes our perspective. We can also learn from other people and try out things they do.
One example of this is that my husband’s doctor told him not just to drink fluids, which everyone knows, but *why* it matters that we drink more fluids than normal when we’re ill. Mucus gets dry and stringy, and that makes coughing, sneezing, and stuffy noses much worse. Water, herbal tea, etc keep it moist and help keep it from building up. Now that I know that, I have been focusing much more on keeping a mug of tea next to me.
Another example would be a little more mystical, the sort of idea that takes more imagination and less practical effort. This approach tends to work more on the emotional aspects of illness, which is important because being sick can cause sadness and pessimism.
It’s one thing to intellectually grasp that you have a statistical chance of certain outcomes, such as being loaded into an ambulance, put on a ventilator, or going into a coma.
It’s another thing to physically feel your life force draining away, to have a continual stream of new sensations worsening day by day.
It’s yet another thing to confront the emotions brought up by this, almost all of which were dark and unhelpful, at least in my case. The combination of alarming research data and severe illness defaulted to a low mood and fatalistic thoughts.
Overcoming those black tides took considerable effort.
One of the ideas that came to me in the second week, when I thought I would be dead in another day or two, was the concept of “hiring” the virus. I kept getting warfare imagery, from the media and from personal advice, and it was awful for my morale. Advice in general was awful for my morale. It contributed to my overall sense of shame and failure for getting sick.
(Can’t people just send sweet photos or share memories of better times?? I mean, ARE YOU A DOCTOR??)
I liked the idea of hiring the virus much better. It made me feel like a founder or a CEO. Yes, I’ve hired this special consultant to teach me how to make antibodies for COVID-19, potentially one of the most precious commodities in the world in this year of grace 2020.
Then something else occurred to me, something I had been thinking back in December, when I had a terrifying drug-resistant bacterial infection that led to surgery. I had to take three courses of antibiotics, and I wasn’t thrilled about that, but I chose to reframe it.
MAGIC BLOOD, MAGIC BLOOD, I HAVE MAGIC BLOOD
I would just keep repeating this to myself as I went through the day, especially when I was swallowing the pills. I visualized the antibiotics flowing through my body and making me glow in golden light. Magic blood!
Not the same scenario, but in the context of potentially donating convalescent plasma, that same blood of mine suddenly became that much more magical!
Could it be?? Blood that I make inside my own body, without conscious effort, could save the lives of up to four people?? Doctors and nurses? Talk about magic!
The idea that I might be able to generate a life-saving elixir was sometimes the only thing that kept me going. I thought, if this works, it might even be worth it. (Not really, but...)
An irony of my illness is that I’m still tending the surgical scar, rubbing cream on it twice a day. I was able to watch it slowly, visibly healing. External proof of my body’s sorcery at work. The irony came in because I thought that infection and the surgery and the half-inch scar in my midsection were so scary and painful. Now they were barely noticeable. I could laugh at myself a little for being a coward, while at the same time appreciating that I had come such a long way and gained so much grit.
If you pray for strength be sure that’s what you really want.
I’ve resented so much of this process, felt so impatient and frustrated and disappointed in myself. I’ve watched my physical decline, from multi-sport athlete to dizzy, weak softbody, and it has made me dejected and miserable. I want my old body back and I want it immediately, not months or years from now!
At the same time, I recognize that hundreds of thousands of people confronted the same challenge that I did... and did not prevail. There is really no other response than to be awed, impressed, and grateful that my body did all this, alone, with no instruction manual. I’ve overcome other health challenges, and it’s when I feel I’ve won that I feel total unity with my body and what I consider to be my self.
I had to take my husband to the emergency room on Friday night. This is the year that I turn 45 and he turns 52, so it’s unsurprising, right? Two middle-aged people in the ER?
What may be more surprising is that, as usual, we were in there for a sports injury.
Friday night is sparring at our martial arts school. Muay Thai. We also have an MMA team. The rest of the time slots are for organized classes, and sparring is the one time that students have license to fight “for reals.” My husband took a boxing glove to the surface of his eye, probably the thumb but maybe part of the strap. It happens.
That’s dangerous! I’m thinking it so I know that everyone else is.
It’s his body to ruin, though. Bodily autonomy means we accept one another’s right to get tattoos, donate blood, have cosmetic dentistry, and, yeah, sign the waiver to get punched in the eye if we want.
The guy who “did it” is my husband’s good friend. He doesn’t know yet that his errant blow put my hubby in the hospital. We probably won’t tell him because he would be horrified. He’s a middle-aged dad and he certainly didn’t do it on purpose.
The injury was a corneal abrasion. It will likely heal so completely that a couple of weeks from now there will be no evidence that anything ever happened. The copays for the ER visit and the antibiotic eye drops were under $100. No harm no foul.
We accept these types of outcomes as acceptable risks for our hobbies.
What’s strange to me is that most people would shy away from such a dangerous sport, and yet the likelihood of being in the emergency room on a Friday night is far higher for other, more ordinary, types of activities.
I would have assumed: bar fights, car accidents, maybe an overdose or alcohol poisoning?
It hadn’t occurred to me how full the room would be simply due to flu season. There was also a large notice on the door in red ink, giving special instructions to anyone who might have MEASLES.
Oh great. One of us gets punched in the eye wrong and now we’re both at risk of exposure to freaking measles because a bunch of our neighbors can’t comprehend the concept of herd immunity. Get your shots, people!
It seems obvious to both of us that infectious disease epidemics, or pandemics, are far more dangerous and deadly than a punch in the eye. It’s just that we’ve all seen a lot of action films but, in our generation, we haven’t yet seen many of our relatives, neighbors, and coworkers DIE from measles, whooping cough, mumps, influenza, etc. Not yet anyway.
The other thing it’s hard not to notice is that we are likely the only people in the ER who got there due to a sports injury.
In our culture right now, it’s almost impossible to say anything true and useful about my observations without risking an affront to someone’s sensibilities. Instead I’ll try to skirt around it.
At our age, nobody would be surprised, at all, if either my husband or I had to go to the emergency room due to a heart attack, stroke, or other coronary type event. I know that’s true because we hear about this kind of thing all the time in our social group, among our colleagues and neighbors. After age forty nobody is surprised by anything.
When we go to the doctor, they ask us what medications we’re on. I can still pass for somewhere in my thirties, so I can say ‘none’ without pushback. When my husband says ‘none,’ they always assume he didn’t understand the question. “NO, what PRESCRIPTIONS are you on??” “NONE!” Medical professionals can’t believe that my husband, in his early fifties, doesn’t take anything. At his age he’s supposed to be on statins and a raft of other stuff, at least five separate prescriptions on average.
With his heart rate, blood pressure, and cholesterol level, it doesn’t compute. They think there’s no way that a guy of his age group can have those results without medication.
I can also say that nobody is asking the right questions. I’ve been plant-based for nearly thirty years, since I was a teenager, and my hubby has been 98% plant-based for the past decade or so. It literally never comes up. Nobody is testing us, or enrolling us in any studies, or even asking, “So, what do you eat?” There are absolutely no data being generated about our lifestyle for the rest of the world to ponder.
We’ll just keep waiting. If he’s still practicing Muay Thai in his seventies, like our friend B, maybe then they’ll ask. If I’m still out trail running in my sixties, maybe then they’ll ask, but I sincerely doubt it because all kinds of people run ultras at well above that age.
The data come from the people with the worst outcomes. Data come from “patients,” not from healthy people. Not from men who can kick a target six feet off the ground in their fifties. Not from women who can crank out fifty full push-ups in their forties.
Why? Because people hate hearing about it!
I think this is because we aren’t able to connect emotionally with the image of Old Me. We can’t truly imagine ourselves being elderly. It’s also very, very difficult to extrapolate from our minor daily behaviors to any kind of decade-long trend line. We hate nothing more than the idea that what we do today can add up to trouble at a later point. It’s preachy! Stop talking about it!
When we think of bodily autonomy, and the concept that it’s “my body to ruin,” what we mean is “hey, everyone buzz off and leave me alone” as far as body image, habits, food intake, sleep schedule, how dirty my coffee mug looks, or anything else, anything else at all. I DO WHAT I WANT DO WHAT I WANT. It’s much harder to think of in terms of, “I have the full and total right to wreck myself doing burpees in the mud, sparring, and going on wilderness expeditions.”
We think exertion is more dangerous than what everyone else is doing. Though personally I’d rather go blind from martial arts than from diabetes.
One thing I did notice in the emergency room was that almost everyone had a buddy. A spouse, kids, grandkids - everyone had someone to call and ask for help. Everyone had at least one person who was willing to sit with them in the middle of the night on a Friday. Probably what is really dangerous is to become isolated, to refuse to connect or engage, to avoid ever asking for help.
It’s worth thinking about. What do we think is truly dangerous, and how do we structure our lives to include or avoid certain things because of our perceptions?
Sitting around with sutures in my midsection has given me a lot of time to think. All sorts of things have been on my mind, but they always circle back to my current situation and how bored and restless I feel. I’ve also been contemplating how completely and totally this stupid medical issue has managed to derail my workout goals.
I think it’s the fitness stuff, more than anything else, that makes people quit making New Year’s Resolutions.
Naturally the cruddy winter weather and holiday feeding frenzy have most of us at our most well-padded at the changing of the year. We completely forget what it feels like when the weather is fine and our schedules aren’t triple-booked. Skip winter and only count the other three seasons.
(It’s the opposite for those of us in hot climates, when winter is actually the best time for outdoor workouts and summer is the one we need to skip).
I had this great idea that I was going to win 2019 by spending the last two months in the gym, finishing the year on a high note. I was going to start running again! I was going to train for a race in March!
Literally two days later, I woke up with a weird hard spot, spent a month on antibiotics, gained 7 pounds in 5 days, had surgery, and then spent nearly two weeks changing bandages and trying not to move. Now I’m waiting for the nurse to call me back because this special butterfly bandage fell off, and it was supposed to last ten days.
No running. No yoga. No bending or twisting. Actually no sweating.
I feel exactly like a display butterfly with a pin through its thorax.
I was talking to a friend who has (totally unwarranted) body image issues. I told her, Whatever you feel that you look like, at least you don’t look like a surgical incision with sutures poking out.
Anything and everything is better looking than an open wound.
Enforced gratitude is universally annoying, but hey. Why is it that we insist on taking what we have for granted? We always have to seek out whatever it is that bothers us, and harp on it, no matter what else is going well in our lives.
Waaa, waaa, I hate going to the gym, everyone snivels. All the time. Well at least you can go if you want to. At least you’re allowed.
Go for me, will ya? Someone? Use my energetic voucher, it’s just floating around out there.
I’m climbing the walls over here, figuratively, because I can’t actually climb anything in the near future. The thing I would most like to do is to sprint up a staircase, like in the Metro station. But I can’t even get down and do a plank.
Not that I “can’t” do a plank - I can probably still hold plank position for a full minute - just that this wound in my midriff is still trying to heal.
It’s been a rough year for me. While we finally moved and I’m starting to recover, a year of chronic sleep disruption and deprivation was really affecting my health. I was exhausted all the time, having migraines and night terrors again, and coming down with a cold once or twice a month. I put on weight and that only seemed to make it worse.
Some people claim that they feel their best, happiest, and most powerful when they’re bigger. Good for them. Must be nice. Enjoy in good health.
For me, weight gain is always a symptom that something is wrong. I think it has to do with my thyroid. The more I gain, the more I feel chilly, tired, sad, and prone to headaches. The first sign is when I’m so tired that I don’t bother to make the bed.
As I turn it around again, which so far I have always managed to do, I start to feel more alert, cheerful, and busy. It’s like a spell wearing off.
This is why I’m on a plan to get my weight back down even though I still have to try to move as little as possible. It just isn’t helping. For whatever reason I magically enlarged while on antibiotics, it’s not making my life any easier.
The most obvious reaction to a situation like mine would be, “I couldn’t help it, what do you expect me to do about it?” Shut up and leave me alone, right?
I see it differently. I see it as an alien interloper trying to claim my poor middle-aged carcass as some kind of host. I’ve seen too many Alien movies to think that’s any kind of good idea. Get the heck out of my body! Begone!
“Me” is my spirit, the part of me that thinks and speaks. Whatever my body is doing at the moment is changeable. My physical vessel looks a bit different from year to year, similar to the way I might change my wardrobe and hair style. I don’t identify with *looking* a certain way, I identify with *feeling* a certain way. I prefer the upbeat energy level to the mopey, tired level.
I’ve taken off 5 of the 7 attack pounds already. Nod to the restoration of my normal balance, now that the antibiotics are out of my system. Also, I have been diligent in staying on track with what I eat, ignoring the typical background noise of cookie, candies, and other holiday treats.
I saw a cookie and I didn’t put it in my mouth. Santa Claus fainted and the reindeer crash-landed in a tree. The North Pole tipped over and rusted out. It was me, I did it.
It just so happens that I should be good to go just in time for New Year’s Eve. Nothing more than a coincidence. Every day is just as good as any other for reclaiming your body and your physical power base. I see it as a sign, though. The first day that I can, I’m lacing up my shoes and getting my beat back. Just because I had a do-nothing year of exhaustion, does not have to make it permanent. When I look back thirty years from now, it will just have been a fitness speedbump.
Spending time with a group of people that includes a 40-year spread of ages is so revealing. We were talking about where we were in 2010 and where we see ourselves in 2030. One person said, “Ten years ago, I was fourteen?”
Thank goodness, I thought, I’ll never have to go through my teens or twenties again. My skin alone!
On the other hand, the most senior member of the group was a bit discomfited by the topic. That happens when you perceive yourself to be closer to the end of your life than the beginning, and at sixty-plus that’s statistically true.
(Although such a long way to a 114th birthday, which is possible though still newsworthy).
Younger people tend to be very focused on how they look and whether other people think they are good-looking. Probably because they’ve spent their entire lives being photographed. Middle-aged and elderly people tend to be more accepting, or at least philosophical, about their appearance. It can be relaxing. Older people always think you look young and refreshed.
My experience with becoming middle-aged has been great. My body has been and looked a lot of ways over the years, enough that I know change is not just possible but inevitable.
The trick is that we can conduct body transformation willfully. We can choose to transform our bodies in so many ways.
For some reason, our culture seems to revolve around this suspicion that OTHER PEOPLE ARE STARING and that everyone is J U D G I N G.
OMG who cares
Ride mass transit long enough and you will soon feel like one of the best-looking people of world history. Visit a hospice, or just a nursing home. Just be glad at your relative healthfulness for once.
The trick is to turn inward. Direct your attention away from the external and ask yourself what you think of yourself on the inside. How does it feel to be you, to stand up and walk around as you?
If it looks culturally beautiful but feels physically terrible, then forget about it.
Look at all the paintings of medieval women with high round foreheads, no eyebrows, and big swaying pregnant-looking bellies. That’s what they found attractive. Shave your hairline up to the top of the head, hawt! Then put on a tall pointy hat.
Our century of stiletto heels is one day going to look just as ridiculous. Why did all those people limp around bow-legged, grimacing in pain? Why did they carry their shoes and walk barefoot down the sidewalk on festive occasions? What did they wear for warm outer layers? You can’t convince me they just stood in line shivering in the rain. The archaeological record must simply be missing some key garments.
This is how I feel about whatever supposed social pressure about how my body is supposed to look: Get back to me after you’ve read my monograph.
I read “body acceptance” and “body positivity” now all the time, and what I understand it to mean is “be big enough.” I don’t feel that it literally means “be proud, strong, and muddy.” I truly don’t feel that it means “thin and small is okay too.” I haven’t felt that it includes me or other women like me.
That’s okay, though, because I don’t honestly care that much!
I don’t care because I’ve felt my own body transformations over the years. I have lived a body that is different from one year to the next, sometimes by accident, sometimes through intense bouts of purpose. There is no way I’m going to trade my strong body for a weaker version just because it’s trendy.
Twenty years ago, I wore a clothing size that was six to eight sizes bigger than I wear today. Weirdly, my body weight is only about ten pounds lower. That’s because I dropped about forty pounds of body fat and built about thirty pounds of muscle.
It sounds hard to believe. I should probably dig up some old photos and spreadsheets for documentation. Again, though, it’s my body to live in and inhabit, and my body is not an object for society to critique. It’s my home.
In my early twenties, I was ill. I went to a lot of doctors who did not have a lot of answers. I felt tired and ill all the time. I fainted at the grocery store a couple times. I saw black spots when I walked up a flight of stairs. For a young woman, I felt like an old woman, one who clutched railings.
Now I’m in my forties, old enough to be the mother of my younger self. I feel like I could pick up Younger Me and carry her up the stairs. Maybe not a fireman’s carry but certainly a piggyback.
Younger Me would have been angry and hurt to feel so judged by Today Me. Get up, get up, I want to tell her. Don’t quit! There is still time for you!
I look how I look, she thought, just like I do today. At the time, though, she believed in a fixed body. That how we look is a million percent genetic. That the head of anyone who thinks differently should simply explode, because nothing is stronger than my internal rebellion or determination of my identity, of what counts as me.
It turns out that that same resistant feeling was exactly what I needed to propel me up a lot of hills, along thousands of miles, through hundreds of burpees and all the rest. My rage at anyone who dared tell me about my body or criticize my personal autonomy, that was the fire that consumed Young Me. Stubborn, I found myself a warrior of sorts.
When I was young, I felt just as judged as any other young woman. As an adult, I find it hilarious to walk around covered in mud, or carrying my kali stick. Men, even very very large men, get very squirmy and nervous when they find out I do martial arts. “Just don’t attack me and you’ll be fine,” I say, which usually makes it worse.
Posture is what makes the change. A vertical posture says a lot. A comfortable stance says more. I reside in a strong body and I can use it to do some pretty surprising things. Ten years ago, none of that was true, because I hadn’t yet seized ownership of my identity as a midlife athlete. Today, I feel that I will be stronger at sixty than I was at thirty. I know it will be true because I know how to make decisions and I know how it is done.
Keep watch on your own lie and examine it every hour, every minute. Who am I quoting?
That’s Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov. It’s my favorite literary quote and I keep it inscribed in my journal. That doesn’t, of course, make me any less susceptible to fooling myself or giving myself BS explanations of my behavior. It just reminds me to check in more often.
Right now I’m confronting my own sketchy stories about this supposed goal that I have and how much progress I’m making, which is... not much.
There are a bunch of different types of goals, of course. There are:
Other people’s goals for us, type 1, that we think we want but really don’t
Other people’s goals for us, type 2, that we pretend to want even though we know we don’t
Other people’s goals for us, type 3, against which we rebel rather than pursue our own plans
Goals we know how to reach
Goals we don’t know how to reach
Goals we hold in tandem with mutually exclusive goals
Goals we try to reach simultaneously with other very demanding goals
Goals we publicly set without privately forming a clear plan
At this moment, I am supposedly doing something that I already know how to do, which I have successfully done before, and that is to drop excess weight. I have made zero progress in the last week, even though I set myself a really appealing incentive.
See, I lost my AirPods in Belgium. This has been driving me up a tree. My daily routine is built around listening to audio books, and now I have to do it with cords dangling down my torso, just like the bad old days. They keep catching on every single door handle and drawer pull. I can’t help but notice several times a day that one of my favorite personal objects is now gone.
I decided I would wait to replace them until I hit a certain body weight milestone. Not the ultimate one, which is “healthy weight for my height,” but the closest that ends in a zero.
This incentive is very lively and real to me. These are two things I want, so let’s go! *clap clap* Get a move on!
What is happening is a classic example of a hollow goal without a system.
I have the clearly defined metric. I have the highly desirable incentive. I know both how to reach the goal and how to attain the incentive. I have the next steps of the plan laid out.
(Get replacement AirPods, start outdoor running again as soon as fall temperatures kick in any week now)
What I have not done is the one thing that I know really works, which is to keep a food log and write down everything I eat. I did this meticulously for over a year, out of sheer interest, and then I quit, and then I gradually gained weight again.
There are a lot of cute little lies that many people tell ourselves. The crowd will join in. “It’s muscle!” they cry. Uh, no. “You don’t need to lose any weight!” they cry. I could make a bingo card with all the predictable responses. Everyone understands a bunch of things that pop culture demands of us around body image and women’s body transformation, to wit, adding weight makes people smarter and sexier, losing weight drives women insane. Simple, right?
In my case, I understand that gaining weight on my own personal body, the body that I inhabit and which is my only possession in this world, causes me suffering. It is highly correlated with migraine and night terrors. I was free of both of these conditions for four years, and then I gained weight, and then at a predictable level, they came back. I snapped awake with night terrors again just last night.
The Venn diagrams of “body image” and “quality of life” don’t overlap in my world.
How can I care whether other people think I look cute during a migraine? OR during night terrors?
That’s not what this is about.
What it’s about is whether I do the things that make sense to me and whether I can tolerate the consequences.
It’s true that there is a lot going on in my life right now. We just moved, and we had a chaotic summer, and our dog has been ill, and my husband has been traveling a lot for work, and our schedule is all over the place. Those are elements of background information, not explanations.
The root cause of my problem is that I don’t want to spend three minutes a day writing down what I eat.
Then I remind myself that night terrors are also annoying, and through my inaction I have bought myself an extra week of stasis.
This is where self-compassion comes in. It is more compassionate of me, toward myself, to work toward inner peace. That comes not from ignoring my body or tolerating the intolerable, but from caring for my body.
I could try to fake some level of pretense that I don’t really mind night terrors, that at least it isn’t something else. Actually no. In the moment, my limbic system is busy telling me I’m being chased by bears and wolves and snakes and I’m about to die. There is nothing further from inner peace. It is the worst feeling that I have in my life.
I just don’t think about it much when I’m on vacation, eating dessert every day.
I’m always going to be a “live to eat” person and I’m always going to be tempted by the whole package. Large portions! Desserts! French fries! Five meals a day! I have the appetites of a backpacker, boxer, and distance runner even when I haven’t done any of those activities in months or years. I have to balance that against reality, my desires in the context of my behaviors.
I have to keep watch on my own lie, every hour, every minute, either that or scratch those lines out of my journal.
I like a good euphemism, especially for self-talk. When I tried to come up with a better way to think about oral surgery, the term “dental reset” came to mind. Works for me. There’s a lot going on, and I wish it was already over (and paid for), and grouping several procedures into one batch is helping me deal with it.
Dentistry is amazing from an historical perspective. I remind myself of this. Not very long in the past, the best available option for even the wealthiest person would be to have a tooth removed without anesthesia of any kind, that or let it decay in place over a few years. Poor dentistry was probably a factor in decreased longevity because of infection and the difficulty of eating while mostly toothless.
That’s why I can still smile while signing off on a copay of over a thousand dollars just to not be awake for all this.
I’m straightedge, I won’t drink a beer, but go on ahead with that IV and the oxygen!
My image of a root canal, before I had my first one last month, was a vague and nameless horror. People speak reverently of root canals in the same way they do of automotive collisions. All I knew to expect was misery. IT WASN’T THAT BAD THOUGH!
Resorption repair: not that bad either.
In neither of these procedures in my dental reset have I been offered painkillers, which is great because I wouldn’t want them anyway. I was prescribed Vicodin for the extraction of my wisdom teeth, and I quit taking it on the second day because it made me feel so ill. That, and my mom found me passed out on the bathroom floor... In my opinion, painkillers don’t treat pain, they just make a person too incoherent to complain about it.
Sometimes you have a problem. Then you get a prescription and you have two things: the original problem plus a pill problem.
I woke up in the same dental chair where I started, which was an improvement over my wisdom tooth experience. Then I had been taken to another room and laid out on a cot, which was disorienting and upsetting. Waking up alone in a strange room without being told this would happen! This is why I think one of two things. Either anesthesia has improved as a practice over the past 25 years, or I’m better at tolerating it.
Or my endodontist is a genius, which is likely in either case.
Okay, so the anxiety. We got home from the airport after 11 PM, knowing I would have to be in the dental chair at 8 AM the next day. The first thing they told me was that they might not be able to save the tooth and we’d have to deal with that later.
Hitting all my buttons:
Large bills, due in full
Dying under anesthesia
Being moved around while unconscious
Going around toothless, even for a day
Wondering how much more of this I will confront in the next 40-50 years
Teeth are the sine qua non of the middle class. I really didn’t want to be losing three teeth, especially not on the same row, and I didn’t feel all that impressed with the alternatives. Isn’t 43 a little young for a bridge?
Basically what happens with resorption is that the tooth starts to sort of dissolve. It doesn’t hurt and you can’t see it with the naked eye, so the only way to find out it’s going on is with an x-ray and a smart dentist. I love horror movies but come on. The procedure involves cutting into the gum tissue to fix the damaged root and then voila, sutures in your gums.
The biggest struggle with willpower that I have ever had in my life has been to keep my tongue away from those sutures.
I sat in the dental chair and, I kid you not, the song playing was “Band on the Run.” Paul McCartney singing:
IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE
I woke up and they helped me into a wheelchair, where I immediately started shivering, an aftereffect of sedation.
I felt basically fine, though I think my appearance alarmed the rideshare driver.
My husband had to take the day off work to be with me, which was actually good because he was able to catch up on work email accrued during our trip. It turns out it was also helpful because he paid attention and remembered all the specific details about flossing and brushing and anti-inflammatories and the prescription medicated mouthwash.
I didn’t realize until about twelve hours later, after sleeping off the residual anesthetic and reading all my brochures, that there are a lot of reasons why someone can’t be alone right after this stuff. Apparently anesthesia makes a lot of people violently ill and it can even make you stop breathing. Yikes!
In actual fact, I had some of the best sleep I’ve had all year and woke up feeling refreshed. I went to check myself out in the mirror, expecting bruising and puffiness and circles under my eyes. Since all I did all day was drink fluids and nap on and off, I looked... rather dewy. If anything, if there is any swelling, it seems to be making me look younger.
If you’ve been contemplating this kind of endodontic magic, obviously your experience might not be the same as mine, but don’t be scared. I haven’t really been sore, or dizzy, or nauseated. I’m hungry and not loving the soft foods diet, and the suture is mildly distracting, but I’m sleeping fine. I can get the stitches out next week.
It seems fair to mention that, especially for my age, I’m in pretty great shape. I didn’t have any of the health problems listed on the intake form, such as diabetes or heart disease. I’m at a healthy weight. I work out. Circulation and respiration matter here. I also suspect that I’m having a relatively easy time because I’ve been a vegan for 22 years. I may not be experiencing the standard amount of inflammation as someone who regularly takes in a lot of sugar, coffee, alcohol, salt, and saturated fat. No idea.
They were able to save my tooth! Sweeter words were never heard. This is probably the best and smartest thing I’ve spent money on all year.
Root canal: Fine
Resorption surgery: No big deal
Crown: To be scheduled
My first gray hair showed up at age seventeen. That’s typical in my family, and I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised when my younger brother would come up behind me and pluck gray hairs from the back of my head, but not when I saw them in the mirror. I associated the salt-and-pepper look with maturity and gravitas.
People assumed I was much younger than I was through at least my mid-thirties. In my early twenties, I feel like it was a huge hindrance in my career. At forty-two, I was suggested as a mentor for another woman who protested that she was hoping for someone older. “How old do you think I am?” I asked her. “Thirty?” she guessed. “I’ll be forty-three next month,” I confided, at which point she accepted the match.
I’d been hanging onto my gray because I felt like it was my best hope for being heard and taken seriously. Apparently it wasn’t working.
I have a small frame and a high voice.
Inside me is a sword-swinging hairy beast of a warrior poet, unfortunately trapped in the body of a girl with doll hands.
First impressions are stupid. They’re usually wrong. I have had to correct my erroneous first impressions of other people many times, which is great, because they usually turn out to be much more competent, bright, and easy to work with than I had guessed. Do other people put in the thought and focus to revise their first impressions favorably? Hard to say.
I had a funny moment at a panel interview recently. They told me I could make an opening statement. “In that case,” I said, “let’s get started.” I stood up and took off my cardigan, revealing my arms, and - I am not joking - everyone sat back and a few people said WHOA. I’m not jacked like Madonna or anything, but I do have some muscle definition from boxing.
I guess nobody expects that small girl with doll hands and the high voice to have these triceps or these trapezius muscles.
There are other ways of carrying gravitas, it turns out, than just gray hair.
Three years ago I set out to master my stage fright and become a confident public speaker. Somewhere along the way, it started to work. Then it seems that it started to work everywhere in my life. When I walk into a room, I know why I’m there and I know what I want to accomplish. I’m not looking for permission.
Permission? Permission to go into a shop or a cafe or a restaurant, where they are seeking my custom? Permission to go into a conference room where I am an invited guest? Permission to run a meeting that I scheduled?
I can’t quite figure out why I used to be so shy and nervous. I remember that I was, but I don’t remember why.
People are grateful to have someone in charge who has a plan. Most people hate making decisions. They want nothing to do with being in the spotlight, speaking in front of groups, or being held accountable for budgets and deadlines. They actively run screaming from evaluations. They’ll tolerate taskmasters and harsh disciplinarians, so long as it’s clear what they need to do. If someone who is actually a nice person steps up and shoulders those burdens, they’ll cheerfully cooperate.
When I was younger, I never felt that anyone would listen to me. It drove me crazy. I would have a good idea and I would share it and everyone would ignore it. On rare occasions, I would say something and the person next to me would repeat it, word for word, only louder. That person would get the credit. My ex-husband used to repeat my jokes that way, but it happened at work, too. I couldn’t figure out what to do to get people to listen to me.
I set out to earn credentials. Dean’s List in college. Race medals. Best Speaker ribbons. I put on my profile that I’m a marathon runner, a Mensan, and I study two martial arts. What does it take to intimidate people, anyway?? It’s not so much that I need to be the best; I don’t. I’m not all that competitive. It’s a matter of people not assuming that I’m the receptionist or customer service everywhere I go.
What I was looking for was something called ‘executive presence.’
Some of this gravitas known as executive presence comes from formal authority. If you’re the boss, you get introduced as the boss. Some of it comes from earned authority, as you gradually earn the respect of the people who know you. That comes from how you behave and how you communicate. What I’ve started to realize is that a major component of executive presence comes from external appearance.
I might have been able to get my ideas across as a younger person if I had realized how much I was communicating (or miscommunicating) through my wardrobe and general grooming.
I thought it was my age, my voice, my small stature. Maybe that played a part, but most of those factors are still the same. I thought aging and graying would help, and maybe they did, but also maybe not as much as I used to wish.
I hung onto my gray hair until I felt like I didn’t need it anymore. I’m finally the age that I always wanted to be.
First off, don’t get in the van. This is an R-rated post about physical danger and self-defense. When you read the phrase “Get in the van,” hear it in a grim and menacing voice, the voice of a highly trained sadist and criminal who intends to do you great harm.
If you’re looking for motivation, here is your motivation.
Someone might try to throw you in a van one day. Worse, they might grab a child, your child, your friend’s child, and throw the kid in the van right in front of you. What are you prepared to do about it?
I train in Krav Maga, a system of martial arts designed for smaller, weaker people to fight larger, stronger people. A core training goal is the fighting mindset, to continue to fight when you are physically exhausted and confused and demoralized and experiencing a massive adrenalin dump. Part of our discipline is to vividly imagine specific physical threats and then confront them.
As a result, I have practiced several ways of getting out of chokeholds and wrestling my way out from under attackers. I have practiced gun and knife disarms. I have practiced fighting with knives, hammers, screwdrivers, and ink pens. I can throw eight different kinds of elbow strikes, and that’s just to the rear. I have fought five people at once. I have fought with my hands duct-taped together. I have fought in the dark. I have fought with a sack over my head.
(You have to pay extra for that, though).
The owner of our school is a man so physically imposing that it’s impossible not to notice. He trains police officers and soldiers and military contractors. He has the natural ease and stance of pure confidence. It’s arresting. He holds the room effortlessly. This is what he has to say about training in self-defense.
There are predators in this world. They’re angry because they didn’t get what they wanted in childhood and they’re looking to take it out on someone. They pick on women because we’re easier targets. We’re smarter, but we’re smaller and weaker and we don’t have the same drive for aggression. We’re also distracted by our constant multitasking, and that makes us easy marks.
We should be on the lookout, aware at all times of who is within fifty feet of us. We should have our eyes up and our hands free. We should hold our keys so that we’re ready to unlock the door, not to fight with them, because punching with keys hurts and because you might break your keys. You need them to get away.
Even though intellectually we know that we should be alert, rather than distracted, we let ourselves get distracted. We’re distracted by our phones, our music, our to-do lists, our many bags, our children, and all the other things that distract the typical multitasking, busy woman. We don’t look up even when we know we should, and we have our eyes down when we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
That’s one takeaway. No matter how else you feel about anything else I write, please take away that anyone is capable of being more alert. At least a minute or two each day, keep your eyes up and your hands free when you’re going between your door and your vehicle.
Let’s think about predators and prey. What do prey animals do? How does a predator choose its prey?
Prey are weaker. Slower, older, younger, less physically capable. A predator cuts them away from the safety of the herd and takes them to a secluded area. A predator is excited when the prey animal runs faster, getting tired and further isolated.
How do we stop acting like prey? Stay alert, yes, but what else?
Take care of ourselves.
In the context of self-defense, this should not be considered controversial. It is a basic, quantifiable measure. Fitness literally means the ability to physically survive. By definition it is a biological survival trait. It applies to a vole or a sparrow just as it applies to us.
When someone yells RUN FOR YOUR LIVES, can you? (Wildfire, flash flood, gas leak, tsunami, tornado, terrorist, bomb threat, active shooter, home invader, serial rapist, murderer). How far can you run? When is the last time you tested that ability in yourself?
How much of what we do is visualization, the momentary excitement of watching a tense sequence in an action film? How much of what we do is physical, real action in real conditions?
I know how fast I can run up a flight of stairs because I run up flights of stairs every week. I know how fast I can sprint down the street because I sprint down the street. I know I can fight five people because I train it in class. I don’t have to imagine what it’s like to get my wrists taped together because I just did it.
I do have to imagine someone trying to kidnap a child right in front of me, because fortunately that has not happened. I have, though, had to sprint to grab a child (more than once) because little kids suddenly try to run out in the street or into danger. If I were slower I can’t say what might have happened.
This doesn’t have to do with body image. I don’t concern myself much with that. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to leave the house with a black eye and a big bruise on my face. People Will Think: my husband did it, I have no self-esteem, anything other than “she is a kickboxer.” It’s none of my business what other people think about my body and what my body looks like. If they notice me at all, they must have nothing better to do, and that’s boring and sad.
What I do concern myself with is what my body can do. How much energy do I have? How capable do I feel? The feeling of “no, no, I can’t” extends everywhere, into every part of life.
No, no, I can’t try for that promotion.
No, no, I can’t update my resume.
No, no, I can’t afford X, Y, or Z.
No, no, I can’t get sweaty or dirty.
No, no, I can’t set boundaries with other people.
No, no, I can’t make a fuss or inconvenience anyone.
No, no, I can’t make a mean face.
No, no, I can’t raise my voice and yell BACK OFF.
No, no, I can’t make a fist.
When someone yells at me to get in the van, I’ll get in the van, and there I’ll join the endless parade of dead women, made beautiful in their final photo, sainted and martyred by senseless violence. Even better, the photo of the little lost child who was stolen right in front of me, that photo will look great on the news. It’ll be a movie of the week.
“There was nothing I could do,” I’ll say, weeping prettily, because I never knew I could. I never knew there was something I could do.
That’s a visual that is motivating to me. I run through pictures in my mind, images of children who are important to me, laughing and happy, and then I picture the hands of an experienced predator grabbing at them. It gets my blood up.
There’s another visual that is motivating to me. It comes from horror films and it’s reinforced by true crime. I sometimes watch movies or TV episodes before I go to class, while I’m eating the large, heavy meals I eat before I train. A man, a scary man. Chases a woman, grabs a woman, chokes a woman. Stabs a woman. Pop culture runs almost purely on images of vulnerable femininity, and this is useful for training purposes. Picture that it’s you. Picture that it’s your friend. Notice a pregnant woman out in the world, and picture yourself standing between her and danger. I got you, honey, now RUN!
The fastest I ever ran was out with my husband, trail running in our favorite park at sunset. I slapped his butt and took off, and he sped up and came after me. I imagined he was an axe murderer, coming at me through the trees as the sun went down. It was exhilarating. I could hear his heavy tread behind me, his big boots thudding as we both ran as fast as we could. He couldn’t catch me and I got away. When I explained later what I was doing, he laughed and shook his head. “Whatever it takes,” he said.
I don’t give a damn about body image. If I do, it’s because I like to make people flinch when they see my big arms. I can ballroom dance backward in high heels, I can bring a crowd-pleasing lasagna to a potluck, I can plan a wedding, I can carry a child to bed without waking her up. I can also fight five dudes with my hands taped together. All of these images are consistent with womanhood. It is a core duty of an adult female to protect children, and fighting like a crazy bitch from hell can easily be integrated with that.
I hope at least one thing I have written here makes you angry. I hope it gets under your skin and that you can’t stop muttering about it. I hope it gets your attention enough that you make a change to your default behavior, and that if you pick only one, it is to keep your eyes up and your hands free.
I also hope it gives you cause to reconsider your relationship with your physical energy level and your body image. Come join me and lace up your gloves. You can hit me first if you want, I don’t mind.
Have you ever looked in the mirror and freaked out? Has your morning face ever made you recoil, perhaps because you didn’t know you had blue ink on your mouth? (Just asking).
I woke up, wandered into the bathroom, and thought, “What have I done? I’m orange!”
A friend talked me into getting a makeover. This is probably something that most people did at some point as teenagers, or maybe even grade-school kids. Playing dress-up, trying new hairstyles, playing with makeup - none of that was really a part of my life. I’m honestly more comfortable looking at car engines than I am standing in front of a cosmetics counter.
Has anyone thought about this? I’ve done mise-en-place for four-course meals that had fewer ingredients than the number of bottles, jars, and palettes that some people have for their makeup routine. It’s terrifying!
Let’s not even talk about all the mysterious weirdness of getting... [looks up how to spell] balayage for the first time.
Confusion, intimidation, stretches of boredom, curiosity, anticipation, utter lack of idea what to expect - that’s me in a chair with a bunch of plastic wrap on my hair.
I thought getting my hair colored would mean going dark. I had nearly black hair when I was younger, in Oregon in the winter at least. It turns out that dark hair dye is really high maintenance because you wind up with a high-contrast gray stripe on top of your head every six weeks. I don’t care about having naturally gray hair, I don’t care about that at all, but I do care about adding one more recurring appointment to my calendar.
Apparently you get to an age where you don’t really get to be a brunette anymore. Either nature takes care of it for you, or you color it, and if you try to keep the dark locks of your youth then it gets to be progressively more complicated. Brows, lashes, skin tone. Eh, let it go.
If I had to choose, I’d probably opt to go silver or white or even iron-gray all over rather than Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, with pale roots.
Maybe it’ll be a thing. I probably won’t notice because I don’t spend much time clocking in as the Fashion Police.
After three hours, I got the reveal on the hair. Certainly not black, not silver, not the strawberry-blonde (???) suggested by the colorist, but... bronze? It looked amazing. A professional blowout is generally going to look amazing.
It looked so good that I got to meet the salon owner and we took pictures together.
Then we went down the street to the cosmetics counter, where I had a genuine makeup artist choose products and do my face. They wouldn’t let me look at myself until she was done.
When I turned to the mirror, I started crying. I didn’t look that good at my wedding. Or my other wedding.
“I look like Christie Brinkley!” I cried, “Don’t tell her I said that!”
Here’s what’s funny about this whole thing. I’m a size two. I can rock a bikini and get entire groups of middle-aged men to turn their heads as I walk by, not that I care, because I’m married and I’m not there for them. I do, though, have an enviable fitness level, especially for a woman my age. I know because I sometimes catch other women giving me dirty looks. I’ve been cussed out by friends. I’m like, I’ll work out with you any time you like, it’s not zero-sum. If you want to do two hundred squats or pushups with me at our next martial arts promotion, come on down. This is not genetic.
I have seen my physique as something I’ve earned through focus and hard work. I’ve seen my body as the battleground of several health issues, and the muscle I have now is the sign that I’m winning. I’m not robust enough to live the Standard American Lifestyle with the Standard American Body. I didn’t put all these years in or do all these pushups on my fingertips out of vanity but out of necessity.
The cosmetic stuff? That feels completely different.
You can run a marathon in less time than it takes to get balayage on your hair.
If you spend even twenty minutes a day on hair and makeup, that’s enough time to do a very professional, knee-wobbling HIIT workout and run a mile.
The time that goes in to applying perfect eyeliner, it all gets wiped off and washed down the drain twelve hours later.
That’s more or less what happened overnight, after all the hugging and crying and picture-snapping.
I looked lovely as a flower for a couple of hours, and then I woke up. Then I woke up and looked just like my normal self, only with bedhead and a radically different hair color.
There is a certain adjustment to radically changing your physical appearance. For a while, you might catch sight of yourself in a window reflection and think it’s someone else. Sometimes, when I first lost my weight, I would catch sight of myself and think, WHOA. I kept gravitating to the size tens and twelves on the clothing rack, years after they no longer fit (as a fourteen, and also going the other direction). The “real me” got to wear a certain style of clothes and look a certain way.
What happens to the “real me” that was? What happens when, objectively, the “real me” looks like a different person from outside?
“It’s the new you!” People kept telling me that. Um, no, you can’t just go to a salon and buy a new personality. Same me, different hair. Same me plus some eye shadow.
I came home to my husband with my salon makeover. He’s an engineer and I think he saw it as a sort of chemical, industrial process, like powder coat or electroplating. He commented that it looked more natural than my ordinary hair, which is usually reddish at the last two inches and three shades of gray on top. He’s right, and I can quit complaining about how it looks when I clip it up now. “It’s not orange,” he says (you dolt), “it’s auburn.”
After waking up in distress at the aftermath of my radical new look, I pulled my socks up and got it together. I styled my hair and tested out my new makeup samples. I am by no means an expert at that sort of thing, but it worked. I felt normal-looking again. I went out and did four pitch meetings and got everything I asked for and more.
It annoys me that most people seem so very responsive to physical presentation. That a kind-hearted person might be overlooked in favor of a rude but attractive person, that someone polished might go farther than someone brilliant. But then, how brilliant is it of me to ignore something so obvious? To disregard something that is a relatively uncomplicated technical skill? I got better results in life when I started working out, I got better results when I really learned to cook, and now I suppose I’ll get better results in life by learning what other people consider to be a basic life skill. I’ll get used to how it looks eventually, just like I got used to my gradually graying hair and my gradually firming arms and shoulders.
I got a makeover. A pretty major one, this is a makeover of such a scale that it’s really messing with my head.
How is it that changing something about your external appearance can make such a huge difference in how other people see you, and in how you see yourself?
“You look thirty years younger!” cries the cosmetics artist. Thirty, really? I’m forty-three! That would imply that I’ve been going around looking older than my chronological age. Either that, or I now look like a middle-schooler, in which case I’m going to have to start listening to much peppier music.
I relish my privacy and, as a writer, I like to think of myself as invisible. I’ve felt that it pays to be modest, maybe even inconspicuous. I can walk around the city and get a free pass from panhandlers, who nod courteously as I go by.
Invisibility, though, isn’t our choice.
My friend and mentor tells me, in no uncertain terms, that just because I feel invisible does not mean I am. “People notice you and make judgments about you, whether you realize it or not.”
This is a harsh truth, but I am a proponent of radical honesty and I take it in.
Whatever was true for me at other stages of life, today I am forty-three. I have aspirations that will not be met at my current level. If my goal is to perform in front of an audience, then I need to look suited to the task. I need to be stage-ready, and, arguably, I am not.
The whole point of my existence up to this point has been about avoiding attention and staying out of the spotlight. Changing my look is letting go of that sense I have had, that feeling that I have the option to hang out in the shadows and be a passive observer.
It’s been hard enough dealing with the physical changes I made as I became a midlife athlete. I went from a size fourteen to a size two. I can get away with wearing a bikini in public. When I do, I feel like I’m adopting a temporary persona: Vacation Pool Babe. Wearing a bikini in public in Las Vegas is not the same as wearing business casual at home.
That’s my avenue to adjusting to my new post-makeover look. I can pretend that I’m someone else. I need a stage-ready persona that helps me feel like these are mere surface-level changes, that I have gained rather than lost options.
I can still find privacy when I need it. I don’t have to physically be on stage and in front of people every minute of the day. There are no requirements to this new look other than maintenance a few times a year.
Well, that, and the not inconsiderable technical skills involved in applying cosmetics.
I remind myself that men wear stage makeup, too. Some men wear cosmetics every day, because they like it. I remind myself that a lot of people think this is fun!
Honestly, having fun and looking pretty both feel like work to me. That might sound sad. What I mean is that when these come down as external requirements, it becomes self-conscious. It’s supposed to be “fun” to go to nightclubs, or watch team sports, but neither of those fun things are my style. I find myself asking, “Am I doing this right?”
I’m more comfortable doing things that probably sound un-fun, like mud runs, martial arts, or public speaking. It’s definitely better not to wear makeup in martial arts, since it gets in your eyes, although I have worked out in a cocktail dress and a rhinestone bib necklace, and a stiletto heel can make a respectable improvised weapon. Not in the mat room, though.
I remind myself that I wasn’t comfortable when I started any of those things, either. Surely eyeliner is no worse than a real black eye! Hair color is no worse than surfacing out of a water obstacle, dripping with mud. Public speaking as a hobby is what got me into this whole mess.
The point of the first impression is that it carries so many unspoken messages. Did you show up prepared and on time? Do you look glad to be there? Do you know how to shake hands properly? Is your hair three colors of gray on top, but reddish at the tips for some unknown reason? Now I have to accept the reality that I’m also being evaluated on not just my clothes and shoes, but my hair and makeup as well.
The terrible thing about all this is that I look fantastic. Objectively. My husband loves it. My best friend started squealing and hugged me. Even my barista noticed.
Once upon a time, I was a chronically ill, broke, overweight, underemployed, divorced, sad brunette who lived in a cold, rainy climate.
Now I’m a successful, fit, happily married... attractive redhead? Does “auburn” make you a redhead?
Nearly twenty years later, I look younger than I did at twenty-five. This hair color makes my eyes look enormous, which is disconcerting, a feature that should properly have gone to an extreme extrovert who loves attention. My big blue eyes have always felt like something of an unfair burden, traits that I can’t put away or hide on demand. I myself can’t hide on demand, not really.
I’m a writer transforming into a public performer. Many performers would like to go the other direction, developing their skills as lyricists, poets, playwrights, or memoirists. They can’t just put on glasses and some kind of special writer hat and make it happen. (If there were a special writer hat, I would definitely be wearing one, even in the shower). I remind myself that I’m lucky that all I really have left to do is to learn to live up to this made-over image.
With the image reset comes the attitude reset. Can I inhabit the body of an objectively attractive person? Can I learn to handle the constant 21st-century expectations of photography and video, the headshots and the spontaneous selfies?
We’re here to participate in the culture of our time. I want a meaningful existence in which I can contribute at the highest possible level. I want my legacy to be bigger than myself. If I have to be better-looking for that to happen, I suppose that’s a sacrifice I’ll have to make.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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