I’m sharing this as a COVID survivor, so if you insist on finding a way to associate my personal story with body image issues, I guess I can’t stop you, but that is not what this is about.
I started 2020 with the declaration that I was going to “get my body back.” At the time, I meant that I had gained weight and it was getting in my way. I had no idea that just a few months later I’d be fighting for my life, and that “getting my body back” would include the ability to walk across the room without hanging on to anything.
Maybe some people can put on weight, and it’s mostly muscle, and it gives them power and vigor. I’m guessing. That was only ever the case for me for a couple of months out of my life, when I was training hard four days a week, right before I got my orange belts in Muay Thai and Krav Maga. I could do fifty burpees!
Usually, on my body and in my life, extra weight represents fatigue and illness.
One of those unfortunate signs has been respiratory issues. At one point I wound up coughing up blood, had to use an inhaler for months, and the nurses kept asking if I was sure I didn’t have asthma. (If I did, nobody told me). I was at least 30 pounds overweight back then.
I made the connection when I was sick with COVID. I spent a lot of time feeling very low and mopey, very much in the mood to blame myself for everything I ever did wrong in my life, wondering how I had brought this on myself. (By going to stupid brunch, that’s how). It occurred to me to wonder if I would have remained asymptomatic if I hadn’t put this extra weight on in the past year.
What the average healthy person does not feel is the sheer weight of having stuff on top of your lungs. It doesn’t matter what it is - a bag of flour, a book, a hefty cat, a pile of laundry, or an impressive pair of bazongas. When you’re having trouble breathing, you feel it. Your chest muscles start working much harder to get air into your lungs, and *shrug* weight-lifting is weight-lifting.
Same with the throat. The single biggest risk factor for sleep apnea is neck circumference, and that is probably why it is common in professional football players. Big necks.
Nobody ever says, Hey, if you drop some weight, your sleep apnea might go away, your asthma might improve. But they probably should. It makes me angry whenever I find out that a doctor has been withholding information from me that I could have used to make different choices.
Anyway. I’m finally starting to feel well enough post-COVID that I decided to try to drop some of this extra weight again.
I resisted Doing the Obvious, which I usually do because The Obvious is always annoying. Otherwise we’d all do it right away. In this case, I knew that keeping a food log was the only thing that ever helped me reach and stay at my goal weight. I did it for an entire year, and maintaining a steady weight was simple and easy. Then I figured I knew what I was doing, so I quit keeping the food log.
Then I started boxing, and I would need a three-hour nap after training, and my husband said, “You need to eat more, babe, you’re putting on muscle.” Nobody ever needs to tell me twice that I need to eat more! Almost instantly I put on 15 pounds.
Almost instantly, I started having health issues. Even as I was kicking butt (literally) in the mat room, working out harder than I ever had in my life, cranking out pushups like a teenage athlete, I started getting every cold and flu. Whatever I was doing, it was demonstrably not helping my immune system.
What a food log would have revealed at the time was a series of double helpings of oatmeal, two-hander sandwiches, energy bars, oh, and, a lot of pizza and Mexican food and donuts.
I’m not eating that way anymore; haven’t been since I quit the martial arts gym. As the months went by, I was stuck at a plateau and I couldn’t figure out why. Surely I eat sensibly!
I had gained ten pounds since I contracted COVID and I had no idea why. It wasn’t like we were going anywhere. No travel, no restaurants.
This is what I found out. It’s easy when you’ve done it before and you’ve learned the basics. It’s easy when you have a sincere desire to learn the truth and you know you are ready to make a change. That readiness usually comes out of frustration, annoyance, and maybe even a certain level of disgust with the current situation, such as: Why do I keep getting sick??
I was eating too much for breakfast.
I was eating too much for lunch.
I was eating an afternoon snack that I probably shouldn’t have been.
I was eating too much for dinner.
I was snacking too much on the weekend.
There ya have it. Same story as last time. Eat 5% too much at every meal and any mammal will steadily gain weight. Will a hummingbird or an iguana do that? Not sure.
I rolled my eyes, sighed passive-aggressively, and determined that I knew what to do. It’s straightforward when there is consistency across a day and across a week. I learned several years ago that it’s a lot easier to do body transformation if you eat basically the same things for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and beverages every day.
I cut back the double helping at breakfast. I cut the afternoon snack. My hubby and I both agreed, since we take turns making dinner, to add in more greens and cut back a little on anything that is not green. I’m giving a side-eye to our weekend popcorn and what exactly goes into Fancy Breakfast, but I’d rather make adjustments on the five days than on the two days.
Sure enough, I finally broke through the plateau that I’ve basically been stuck at since January.
I was so excited that I jumped off the scale, my mouth hanging open. What, already??
Body transformation projects will be different for different people. Mine is mostly about my lived experience, my mood and my energy level and my health results. It’s somewhat about awareness. It’s also about bodily autonomy. This is my vehicle to do with as I will. When I pay more attention to what I’m doing in default mode, I like my results better.
First off, I have to admit that I’m a total coward about donating blood. I tried to donate once, and I passed out when they did the finger stick, and they asked me not to come back “for several years.”
This is part of what helped me get through COVID-19. I had this fantasy that I would spiritually redeem myself by finally donating convalescent plasma, and the fantasy would help me fight my fear.
But then reality hit.
The first problem was how long it took to get better.
When I first got sick, I thought I would go through hell for five days and then I’d basically be over it. I kept seeing pictures of doctors and nurses already back at work after they had it. Okay cool. Back in April, everyone believed that if you got COVID, you got immunity, and you were safe to go out and help other people who had it.
At least once an hour, I would comfort myself by thinking about how safe I would feel once I got better. I’d think about how I could leave our apartment. I’d think about helping other sick people. I’d actually make myself cry, picturing myself doing someone else’s laundry and bringing them soup.
When I thought about donating plasma and potentially helping four people at once, it about did me in.
I really, really wanted all that to happen. It gave me hope like nothing else. To think: there could be a little army of healthy people helping everyone pull through.
But then it just kept dragging on and on and on.
I was sick for weeks, and I felt like I was truly dying, and when I got through the gate I was really just a shell of my former self.
Quite honestly, almost six months later I still haven’t made it past 85%, and that was only for a couple of weeks. I am still occasionally waking in the middle of the night shaking with cold, even under a duvet with a nighttime low of 68 F. My eyelid is still twitching and sometimes my hands still tremble when I’m tired. Sometimes my heart still pounds for no obvious reason.
I still planned to do it, though. I was still totally going to go in and donate convalescent plasma. I wanted to help people, and I wanted to confront my demons. I also figured it would be the best way to get an antibody test.
My husband is still uncertain about whether he really got exposed or not, which makes him worried for himself, and he’d really like to get his antibodies checked too. He has donated plasma before, because unlike me he is quite brave, so that part doesn’t bother him. We were going to go in as a team.
I did some checking. I found that there were a few different places where we could donate. We could also donate our data and be part of various health studies.
Then it turned out there were some rules. The first was that you are supposed to have tested positive for COVID-19. I wasn’t sure about that one, because I was diagnosed as presumptive positive but I wasn’t able to get a test before I had cleared the infection. Of course my plasma would be valuable under any circumstances, so it was still a good idea to donate.
Then there was a rule that you couldn’t have any medication in your system. I was on antibiotics for the opportunistic bacterial infection that attacked me just as I was clearing COVID. Definitely would have to wait until that was gone.
Then they wanted 30 days with no symptoms. (Now I think it’s 14).
That’s what wound up doing me in. I just couldn’t get there. As a matter of fact, I haven’t yet made it a week without some weird health issue or other.
What it comes down to is that I don’t think whatever is or is not in my blood would necessarily help someone else’s immunity. It doesn’t seem to be doing me all that much good!
I’m lucky in most ways. I just turned 45 - that’s it, that’s the tweet - and I’m doing all right. I still have 20/20 vision. My cholesterol is 150 and my blood pressure, blood glucose, etc are all right on target. I’m graced with a cast-iron stomach and decades of reliable digestion. My doctor (before COVID) told me, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”
It’s just that, between March and May 2020, I suddenly started having heart palpitations and serious concerns that I might be having a stroke.
Now, I believe in my body’s innate capacity to heal. Every time I watch a cut gradually fade away I marvel at it all over again. I even cut my eyeball a couple years back, and that healed within days. Just because a virus played Pac-Man in my cells does not mean the damage is permanent. I believe it takes time, rest and sleep and lots of water and cruciferous vegetables.
(And antibiotics and modern pharma, as advised by a mainstream medical professional).
Alas, though, I don’t think I am healing fast enough for my convalescent plasma to be all that useful. There is still a lot of research to be done on this as a treatment, believe it or not, even after a century of speculation and trials. It looks like there is a limited time window, though, for a recovering person’s blood to contain the magic of convalescent plasma.
Also I am still recovering from the case of pneumonia that I got for my birthday.
I mean seriously. I’m not sure whether this saga will ever end. I’d rather that my life is no longer defined by a stupid, pointless disease that I contracted in the dumbest possible way. It’s making me focus inward and inward, trying to heal myself and get myself back to normal, which is boring in the extreme. There is nothing nearly as satisfying in “self-care” as there is in the selfless care for others in need.
Are you braver than I am? Are you tough enough to have a nurse put a little needle in your finger without fainting dead away? Do you have it in you to share that much of yourself? If so, I envy you, and I feel really small in comparison. It haunts me that nothing I will ever do will be quite as charitable as donating blood. I wish that I can be strong enough to try it again one day.
In the meantime, maybe someone with a big heart will think of me and make the call, do the thing that I can’t yet do. Save someone’s life, maybe.
Long-winded, some might say. I was always a person who could go on and on, talking into the space until it was full. I think I’ve demonstrated that I can talk continuously for 24 hours, and if you’ve ever been on a road trip with me then you’re probably nodding right now.
Not long-winded anymore.
A couple years ago, when I was working on public speaking, I had a real issue with talking too fast. My big goal was to work on pausing. Every evaluator I had would suggest the same thing, so I knew it would be valuable. I just couldn’t train myself to do it.
Since COVID and pneumonia, guess what?
Now I can pause.
I mean, I have to. But also I can.
One of the many weird after-effects of this year, which has been so tough on my body, is that it seems to have lowered the register of my voice. It sounds deeper to me. I also notice that I speak more slowly and that I pause all the time.
What was a virus that is no longer detectable in my body - two negative tests so far - has wreaked permanent havoc. I do wonder, though, whether all of the changes are negative.
What if this experience has given me the gravitas I always wanted?
I was always small for my age, always looked younger, and I thought I would always have a high, small voice. This undoubtedly held me back in my career. Now I’m 45 and I probably do look my age. I no longer sound like a teenage girl. Maybe this will be good for me.
Of course there’s the undeniable gravitas of facing death, of living through an experience that many people find... qualifying.
(It turns out that most transformative experiences don’t actually impress people. Either they don’t care, they think you’re whining, they don’t believe you at all, or they don’t understand enough of your situation to realize it matters).
I had a minor nature encounter, back during my first marriage. I smelled and heard a little bobcat while walking in the woods in the pitch dark. It screamed and then I screamed. Activated my limbic system in a big way. I told the story during a safety presentation at work, and I realized partway in that every single person in the room thought I was totally full of it.
Now, a bobcat weighs less than 20 pounds, like a medium-sized dog, and there are around three million of them in Oregon.
For a person like myself who is comfortable in the backwoods, this was a fairly casual anecdote. I wasn’t claiming I raised one from a cub, or that it attacked me and scarred up my throat. I wasn’t even claiming I had seen it! The point of my story was that I was scared senseless, which I thought made me sound like a loser, or at least appropriately humble. Instead, it appeared I had made myself look like a BS artist.
It’s probably going to wind up being the same thing with COVID. Most people who get it will either never know (that they spread it to someone who died) or will be super sick for a few days. Maybe only about 20% will be in my tranche, of people who felt like they were dying but managed to stay out of the hospital.
What, no ventilator? No coma? No amputations? No seizures? Pfft. And you call yourself an invalid.
That’s pronounced INvalid, not inVALid...
I took out the trash just now, and when I came back, I flopped back into the couch, huffing and puffing like a pregnant walrus. My husband looked up from his book. “You made it!”
Then he checked my pulse.
The truth is that I’m still struggling. Most of my lingering symptoms are super dumb, petty annoyances that really don't count in the grand scheme of things. Yet I wonder if, cumulatively, they might add up to a list of things that a young person might find repulsive enough to avoid?
The twitching eyelid - my left eyelid has been twitching for weeks. Will it ever stop? Dunno.
The breakouts - the return of my teenage bad skin. It hasn’t been this bad in 25 years. Compared to the heart palpitations, this is truly nothing, but a 20-year-old might actually care about the boil on my chin or the chest acne. Put your mask on honey. This, you don’t want to happen to you.
The weight gain - yeah, everyone else gained weight eating all that nice sourdough bread during the first months of staying home. I can barely get my pants to zip. Now a ten-minute trip to the parking garage to take out the trash is my new “distance day.” I sincerely have no idea whether I’ll ever be able to work out again. I’ve barely moved in four months and all my boxing muscle has withered away.
The constant sneezing, runny nose, coughing - goodbye romantic life. It’s hard to imagine anything less sexy than a dripping nose, am I right?
The way I’ve become a crashing bore - every topic and every conversation seems to turn back to being ill, or the pandemic, or symptoms, or something COVID- or pneumonia-related. This is why young people avoid elderly people, and it’s also what makes someone “elderly.”
Not that long ago, I was a person who would run up the stairs two at a time. I would do box jumps at the park. You have no idea how many hula hoop tricks I know. In my heart and mind, I am still young and interesting, only now my body is ravaged and lumpy and full of boring things.
I’d say I can’t bear it, but I can. I have to. I’ve been bearing it so far.
COVID ruined my life. Ruined it.
Everything I think of as what makes me myself is not really an option. Can’t travel, can’t go backpacking, can’t go for a run, can’t throw dinner parties, can’t be with my family - most of this applies to everyone - but I also can’t fuss around cleaning my apartment for more than a few minutes a day. Haven’t yet figured out how to make a path for writing or public speaking the way I had planned. Not sleeping well. Can’t even “take a deep breath and relax” because I can’t do the first part anymore and rediscovering that each day is not relaxing whatsoever.
What’s needed is to come up with a new story. Maybe not a long-winded story, not one that is full of detail, but something. A story in a nutshell. A thumbnail sketch. A haiku of a story.
We can’t always talk our way out of things, but maybe we can at least imagine our way out.
I ordered some breathing apparatuses and they were delivered today. As a COVID-19 survivor who is currently trying to recover from bacterial pneumonia, I want to improve my breathing. Like, a lot. I’m starting from a knowledge base of zero and trying to figure it out as I go. What are these things, how do they work, and can I actually start breathing normally again one day?
The first thing I can tell you is that if I get arrested in the near future, it will be because a police officer saw one of these things and assumed it was a weird futuristic vaping tool. I can about guarantee that an airport security guard somewhere in the world would confiscate it. I want to put a tag on it that says ‘NOT DRUG PARAPHERNALIA.’
The other thing looks and acts like a children’s toy.
Actually they both look like children’s toys, in their own way, which is great because I can use some fun in my life.
Relaxation techniques always tell you to focus on your breathing because they assume that is universally relaxing. I’m here to tell you that it would be more relaxing if I could stop focusing on my breathing for a while. It shouldn’t take this much effort. It shouldn’t be in question. I shouldn’t be wondering so much about how long I’ll be doing it or if I’ll accidentally quit while I’m asleep.
I first learned about breathing exercises as a tiny tot, when my mom was in labor with my brother. I remember I kept trying to lean over the seat and help her do her Lamaze breathing, and my dad kept snapping at me to sit down. (We didn’t have car seats in those days). I associated special breathing with the magic of a new baby popping into existence.
The next time was in kundalini class in college, but that’s a story for another time.
I had a less exciting lesson in breathing when I got the respiratory infection that followed me out of university. A nurse had me breathe into a spirometer to measure my lung capacity (52%). This memory is what gave me the idea to buy a device of my own, and that’s what triggered the idea that I could find a gadget to measure my improvement.
The device that the nurse used on me had me exhale as hard as I could into a tube. Apparently what she was measuring was Forced Vital Capacity. When I found out about incentive spirometers, this is what I thought I was getting.
The device I bought (for $9 US) has you inhale through the tube as slowly as you can while trying to keep a little ball suspended in a tube. It’s the exact opposite of what I thought.
What I was hoping for was a percentage capacity measurement like I had 16 years ago. For one, I wanted to compare it to how I measured when I was younger. For another, I wanted a baseline. I’ll admit, though, partly I wanted to show off just what bad a shape I’ve been in.
What I’ve learned, while scouring the internet, is that I would need a trained nurse to do this properly. I can’t really make any official medical claims because I don’t have the proper training and because I don’t even know where to find the correct device, which I might not be able to afford.
All I can do are three things. I can start with a baseline; I can train and compare my later results with this baseline; and I can compare myself with my friendly local husband.
(I had him test everything out before I put my mouth on it. I’m not great at reading instructions at the best of times and he happens to be an engineer).
We both tried the incentive spirometer. After we figured out how it’s supposed to work, and by ‘we’ I mean ‘he,’ we timed each other. Then he did the calculations.
He was able to keep two of the three balls in the air for 9 seconds. (The third ball isn’t supposed to go up).
I was able to keep the first ball in the air for 3 seconds on the first try, and 4 seconds on the second try. No second ball. My head was spinning afterward.
I’m super competitive about this stuff, though. Ordinarily I have the attention span of a... sorry, ran out of analogies. But when I’m fixated on something, I’m like one of those squirrels that never quits going after the supposedly ‘squirrel-proof’ bird feeder. There is now no way I will quit practicing with the incentive spirometer until I can keep the ball up for 10 seconds.
What the times supposedly mean, if we have any even remotely accurate idea of what we’re doing, is that my lung capacity is like 2400 CCs and his is like 5400. The trouble is that we have no idea what’s normal. Also, he is a tall man with a large build, a lifelong athlete who joined the swim team at age 4 and who also played the tuba. I, on the other hand, am of average height with a small frame. I had COVID-19 all through April and I’ve been fighting pneumonia for a week.
The other device that I bought is a special breathing trainer that has apparently been in use since 1980. I can tell you right now, if this was designed in the late Seventies then there’s about 100% chance it was inspired by a hash pipe.
Me: “Do you think you could make this into a bong?”
Him: [glances over] “It is a bong.”
Note: We are straight-edge people by inclination and by profession, and also we plan to retire early so we save our money. But also we live at the beach and that kind of thing is recreationally legal here.
The “Breather,” as it is known, now comes with an app and a training plan. I set it up, but for some mysterious reason it gave me today as an off day, so I don’t know what the exercises are like yet. All I know is that it believes age, height, weight, and gender are relevant. Well, that, and the positive reviews included athletes as well as people with various medical issues.
I’m a diligent person. It makes sense to me to follow medical advice, especially when I paid for it and took time out of my schedule to hear it. I’m the kind of person who carries dental floss in my purse. (Right next to the Blow Pop, the dog clicker, and whatever else I have in there...) I have the patience and the persistence to sit down with these new gadgets and test myself, day after day.
Because if the alternative is to keep being as short of breath as I am today, almost anything is worth trying.
Here’s a little bit of hope for the tired people, the injured, the ill. It can get better. Little by little, it can.
I started recovering from COVID-19 about six weeks ago. I’m back to working out, doing 60 minutes of cardio a day. It feels great!
I just realized today that I couldn’t remember the last time I had vertigo. That was a symptom that lingered for so long, I sort of thought I might just have it for the rest of my life. I figured every time I rolled over in bed, the room would spin, and I’d just have to get used to it.
Then, finally, it went away.
It’s important to notice these small victories, because it’s very easy to start believing in illness and injury as permanent conditions.
The body doesn’t just “get stuck that way.” Sometimes it takes surgical intervention, sometimes it takes prescriptions, sometimes it takes many months of physical therapy. But the body can change and heal. That’s what a body does.
I keep thinking of this as I watch my surgical scar heal. It’s almost completely invisible now, thanks to my obsessive twice-daily slathering with scar cream. What I thought would be a large ugly mark in an unfortunate location is now basically gone six months later. In fact, it looks so good that I’m going to take a picture of it and email it to my surgeon, a nice side-by-side before/after for her records. Satisfaction of a job well done, that is one thing that never goes stale.
Yep, it’s been a rough few months. First the surgery, then COVID. I might also mention that I had quit running several years ago because of an overuse injury to my ankle. Year after year, month after month, there always seems to be a good excuse to roll over and quit.
Legit doctor’s notes!
This isn’t P.E. though. I don’t have a desperate desire to escape gym class any more; now it’s more the opposite. Let me back in!
What do I need to do today to make my body feel at least marginally better?
For me it revolves around quality of sleep. No matter what else is going on, if I’ve slept poorly I feel terrible. I believe that sleep is the main factor for a strong immune system. As a recent COVID survivor, this is understandably high on my list of priorities.
Sleep depends on a few things, which are also very important to me as a person with a parasomnia disorder. (Yeah, I didn’t really appreciate having night terrors WHILE I was sick with the coronavirus, as if I didn’t have enough problems). These things are meal timing, hydration, and cardio.
For night terrors, the absolute most important factor is to stop eating three hours before bedtime. I front-load my calories for the day, making an effort to eat about 3/4 of my fuel by the afternoon. Parents of tiny kids should note this, because night terrors are common in kids and they often get a bedtime snack. I think those things are related.
Hydration is shockingly under-rated for insomniacs. I’ve found that if I’m even a single glass of water short for the day, I just can’t drop off. My sleep quality is dismal. I use an app to track my fluid intake, which is admittedly very boring, but not as boring as lying awake in the middle of the night for hours.
I’ve tried out a bunch of different types of exercise, and they are good for different reasons, but in my experience cardio is the best for mood elevation, pain management, and sleep quality. When I can’t do it for a while, due to schedule, injury, or a cough or whatever, I start to feel the difference within days. There are different types of peace available from other types of workout; for instance, martial arts somehow magically removed my fear of needles and yoga is great for releasing old emotional junk. They just don’t hit the same physiological targets as running, biking, or the elliptical.
It is so good to be back to reconsidering my workout!
In April, I felt like I was dying. Now it’s mid-June and I don’t constantly think about being ill anymore.
I put some effort into small improvements, in a process that is known as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” If you improve something by 5-10%, it may be enough to make a disproportionate difference in your results. For instance, 5% of one hour is three minutes. Getting ready three minutes earlier could be enough to start being on time for most things instead of chronically late. Cutting spending by 5%, as another example, could make the difference between being in debt or financial freedom. Little things can add up quickly.
My small improvements in recovery were:
Increasing our intake of cruciferous vegetables
Tracking my fluid intake
Setting a bedtime alarm
Arguably, starting to work out again was not a small improvement but rather a “keystone habit.” It does tend to make the other steps, (drinking more water and going to bed earlier) just that little bit more attractive.
More sleep. Better quality of nutrition. More water. Hard to argue with this strategy, two parts of which are free of charge.
Right now it’s hard to tell whether my mood has improved so much just because I’m getting well, or because I’m something of a cardio junkie. Does it matter, though? Right now, I have everything I wish I did when I thought I was on my deathbed: my new dream job, the ability to do the laundry without tipping over and crying, maybe even the chance to run an ultramarathon in a few years.
It’s so hard to be seriously ill and feel like it will last forever. It’s so depressing and boring and lonely and exhausting and painful. Every day we’re still here to complain, though, is another day we’ve made it through. Every day is one day closer to feeling better. One day, maybe even so much better that it didn’t even seem possible.
Most of us are probably feeling it, the tangible levels of tension and dread. The restless sleep. The bizarre dreams and outright nightmares.
These are the reasons I run.
Or used to, before the last time I went out and ran myself into a full-blown case of COVID-19.
I’m still recovering, still not totally feeling normal, still having trouble with concentration and focus sometimes. External events are obviously a bigger deal than my private little hassles. Still they are real to me.
We all work with what we’ve got.
I’ve been trying to rebuild my base level of fitness on a cheap, clunky, creaky elliptical machine next to my bed. I skipped a day, and I paid for it.
Wandering around all day with that anxious feeling in the belly, that tax-audit, principal’s office, performance review, collections agency, uhoh Dad’s mad feeling.
Sirens all day
Running feet and panting breath in alley below our apartment
Protestors marching within a mile of us
Helicopters, sirens, helicopters
I smell smoke, where is it coming from??
What the heck is going on, will it ever stop
What can I personally do
Sometimes it isn’t clear at all what you can personally do in a situation. Sometimes it takes time to figure out. Sometimes it’s better to stay out of the way. Sometimes you realize you’re in someone else’s movie, and not only are you not the star, you’re not even an extra, in fact you’re blocking the shot.
Other times, it’s clear that it’s your time to step up, because you’re the one who is accountable, or you are the only person who can really fix something.
Either way, it doesn’t help anyone to have a toxic stew of stress chemicals burning you up from the inside.
Burnout is largely physical.
We have to pace ourselves, and the more that is on the line, the more important it is... yet paradoxically, the harder it is.
The same predictable things happen every time, when we aren’t sleeping, we don’t have enough down time, we aren’t eating right and we have no way of dumping all that cortisol.
Our sleep is disturbed even more
We lose patience
We get snappy, irritable, and mean
We feel weepy and we’re not always sure why (except when we are)
We can’t think straight
We get spun up over even minor decisions
Something that is the same in martial arts training and in leadership is a thing called “stress inoculation.”
It’s possible to gradually train out the stress response in your body, so that you don’t react the same way even in the most intense conditions.
In both roles, you take ownership of yourself as first responder and chief decider. Nobody is coming and it’s your problem to figure out. There is no more time and the moment is now.
Some of this comes from having a plan. Some of it comes from having a formally acknowledged title and clearly defined responsibilities. Some of it is just that training in managing the physical stress response.
After a while, you feel it. You can feel the difference between when your neurochemicals are messing with you and creating the artificial sense of a real problem, or an actual real problem.
For some of us, a crisis is actually less stressful, because it’s obvious what to do. There is a specific issue that might actually go away if the right steps are taken. All this physical anxiety is *for* something.
I felt that way when my husband badly hurt his eye and I needed to get him to the hospital. Weirdly, I’ve also felt this way during the stay-at-home order, and again when I got COVID. “Just get through this, nothing else matters right now.”
Right now, three days into a riot-induced countywide curfew, I have no idea what to do.
So I do what I always do when I don’t have a plan, which is to try to run it off.
Five miles a day, miles of nowhere, going yet more nowhere.
It feels like a metaphor for life right now. Perpetual motion, tension, stress, with no end in sight and nothing to show for it. Like a hamster on a wheel.
For now, at least, the ball of tension is gone. I can chill for an hour or two.
Later tonight, sure, I’ll probably wake myself up every two hours. I’ve been having social distancing nightmares - have you? - including walking down the street six feet apart with my ex-husband, and accidentally bumping into the Plandemic lady on the sidewalk. (We both went UGH). This is in addition to the COVID nightmares - fighting a twelve-foot spider with fireplace tools in each hand, millipedes crawling out of my veins, downloading the virus by wi-fi into all our electronics.
The sleeping nightmares and the waking nightmares.
With all this going on, it’s easy to lose sight of how great it is that I can already do five miles on the elliptical. I survived! I lived through a month of coronavirus and I’m getting my body back! Reclaiming my flesh and staking ownership of myself.
In the midst of everything else, I can hit pause for an hour. I can try to get back into my body. I can try to remember that it’s the only vehicle I have to navigate this dumb old world.
It isn’t wrong to center yourself, or to sleep, or to do whatever you need to do to restore your focus. There are still 16 or 23 hours a day to worry about everything else. World events will keep happening, whatever they are, for good or ill. One of the few things you can control is your interior ability to cope with things.
Three weeks after being ill with COVID-19 for a month, I can finally say that I think I’m better. I’d say I’m back to 80%.
There are still a couple of remnants of this scary period that will hopefully soon be nothing more than a bad memory:
I still have brief moments of vertigo, usually when I roll over in bed.
I had heart palpitations again Saturday morning, and literally all I was doing was lounging in bed reading on my phone (probably something about robots). It was strong enough that I froze and thought, Am I going to have an actual heart attack?
These are the moments when you pause and tune in and check off all the things that are *not* currently going wrong. Okay, no pain, good. No clammy sweat, good. No nausea, good.
Then the moment passes and everything seems fine.
It’s possible that things happened while the coronavirus was romping around in my body. It was in my eyes. It was in my lungs. It was in my heart. It was in my stomach. It was definitely in my nose. Apparently it crossed the blood-brain barrier and spent a few weeks in my brain as well. Chomping around on my cells like an evil Pac-Man.
This at least helps me to explain why I am still so tired and washed out.
All I did for six weeks was languish on the couch, swallow handfuls of pharmaceuticals, lose track of conversations, and think about dying. This isn’t really a great fitness plan. I should probably give myself more credit for simply being able to bathe unassisted, but... I’d much rather there were a greater distance in behavior and abilities between Today Me and 95-Year-Old Me.
Over the past week, I’ve been testing my limits by getting up and around a little more each day. I started with making Fancy Breakfast on the weekend, which felt like about the same level of exertion as my first 5K. Then I started taking my turn to cook dinner. There was a big improvement when I was able to stand for the whole process and not sit down between steps.
I tried sorting the laundry, and my plan was to actually carry it down to the laundry room on the second floor all by myself. But I wound up getting exhausted and overwhelmed to the point that I flopped over sideways and started crying on the couch. (Probably a lot of you can relate).
Waaaah, I’ll never get better!!!
Then I pulled my socks up, and I felt better the next day, and I kept pushing to get a little stronger, a little stronger.
A couple minutes more each day.
One of the toughest physical challenges of the past week has actually been sitting vertical on a hard chair for more of each day. I had been doing a world-class jellyfish imitation on the couch for so long that sitting up straight felt like “fifties.” That’s the exercise we used to do in Krav Maga: fifty jump squats, fifty sit-ups, and fifty push-ups. Sometimes followed by two minutes of jump rope.
I remember myself routinely doing these stunts and it feels like a completely different person, like I’m watching a faithful CGI rendering of myself in an action movie.
Remember that time you hiked past a sub-glacial volcano in Iceland for three days, while wearing a 40-lb backpack? Yeah, I think I saw that one.
Remember that time you ran the marathon? Eh, I fell asleep before the end. 2.5 stars.
When I think of these past exploits, I try to draw forth the grit and determination that served me at the time. That is still there, buried somewhere inside me. There’s a part of me that refuses to quit, hates being told “no, that isn’t for people like you,” and resents being written off as weak or unserious.
There’s another part of me that loves to prove doctors wrong.
If I’m going to be a statistic, I’m going to be an anomaly.
Now I’m going to tell a dirty little secret. While I was still ill enough to be in my pajamas all day, I ordered a low-end elliptical machine. I figured it would take weeks or months to arrive, and it might sit in the box for a while, but that at some point during the next three years, I would want it. I also figured I might not be able to get one even 6 months from now.
(We expect to be staying indoors almost exclusively until maybe mid-2023; it’s psychologically easier to deal with this situation by assuming it will be more or less permanent).
Well, the darn thing showed up two weeks ahead of schedule. My hubby spent three hours putting it together for me, and we moved a few things around so it would fit between my side of the bed and the closet.
I tried it out yesterday.
It was great!
My legs wobbled when I climbed down, but I felt fantastic. That was my first exercise-induced sweat in nearly two months.
I slept an extra hour that night, and then went back to bed for another hour.
No DOMS, no weird heart stuff, as far as I can tell no negative repercussions at all.
During my first marriage, I had some weird heart symptoms. I was collapsing and having dizzy spells. I got an echocardiogram and an ultrasound of my heart. They put me on beta blockers. I was 23 and someone probably should have told me that it’s hard to work full-time, take 17 credit hours, maintain a place on the Dean’s List, and sleep 32 hours a week. What I remember from that time is that riding my bike was reliably the only time and place that I never felt dizzy.
I believe that increasing the circulation of the blood (as long as one is not actively fighting an infection) is the best thing for overall health. I believe that exercise-induced endorphins are a good sign that the body likes what is going on. I believe in my innate capacity to heal. I trust my body. I believe that I will get past this and regain my baseline fitness level.
“I can tell the difference already,” he said. “You’re back up to a seven.”
I’m six weeks into my post-surgery recovery plan, long enough to notice some changes. He’s been out of town just long enough to see that things have changed since he left.
These aren’t physical changes in *me* - it’s everything else. The ripple effect.
I spent four days rearranging our apartment, including the contents of all our closets and cabinets. The place is gleaming from stem to stern. It’s the sort of thing I like to do as a surprise, or at least the sort of thing I like to do when I’m feeling energetic and upbeat.
On the opposite end, one of the first ways I can tell that I’m coming down with something is when I somehow don’t feel like I have enough energy to make the bed. It takes 45 seconds. I’m usually done before I’m even awake enough to realize I’ve done it. If this is disrupted for some reason, it’s a telltale sign that something is off.
I rate my mood and energy level on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 on the low end and 10 on the “someone I like is planning a wedding” end.
After I took up distance running, I started to realize that it had worked some impressive changes in me. Not in my physique per se, but in my general attitude toward life.
“It’s like my baseline mood when I was chronically ill was a 5, or a 4 when I had a migraine. Then when I got better, it was more like a 7. When I’m running it’s like... a 9!”
It’s true. When I’m running twenty or thirty miles a week, I feel like I’m getting ready to go to a parade or something. Everything seems simple or easy and I’m brimming over with fun ideas. I used to say I had so much energy, I felt like I could kick down a fence. Sometimes I would be running, and around the 45-minute mark I would just jog along with my arms over my head in victory. Sometimes I would burst into song.
Then I blew it. I overtrained and borked my ankle.
I had to quit running because I was in so much pain. I would wake up in the middle of the night because it would feel like someone was kicking me in the ankle with a cowboy boot. I had to wear a brace. I had two MRIs and I spent six months in physical therapy. I spent a truly stupid amount of time with my foot in a bucket full of ice cubes.
I was mad at myself and mad at my ankle and mad at asphalt and mad that we had to move away from the regional park where I used to train. I used to see other runners pass by and I felt like a dog on a leash, watching other dogs chase a frisbee.
I changed sports and started getting quite fit doing martial arts. There were physical changes, yes, a different type than the changes that happened when I took up running. It seems that if you dedicate yourself to any one type of training, you can tap into a certain variety of super powers.
Running gave me mood powers and endless energy.
Martial arts permanently removed my needle phobia and the white-knuckled anxiety I used to feel on airplanes. It helped me eliminate my stage fright. Martial arts gave me an extra dimension of executive presence. I finally learned to really use command tone, and my dog suddenly started paying a lot more attention when I spoke. I learned to make a convincing war face, a crazy expression than can quickly cause people to back up a step with little more than a widening of my eyes. My arms and shoulders bulked up. I found that I could suddenly intimidate big dudes twice my size. For superpowers, these are pretty excellent!
I missed the mood effects that I got from running, though.
Then I went through a rough patch. I had minor surgery that resulted in an incision right in the middle of my torso. I couldn’t twist, bend, sit up straight, or even move my arms much. After a month of doing hot compresses every two hours, I had to start a routine of changing bandages. This was all very tiresome, but it did provide a massive surge of motivation to start working out again as soon as I legitimately could.
I got back on the elliptical. We had to sell ours when we downsized, but there is one in our dinky apartment gym. Nobody is ever down there and I get the whole room to myself. I call it the “news machine.”
An hour a night.
The first few nights were rough. Not only had I not been working out, I had barely gotten off the couch in two months. I was out of breath and I wanted to quit after twenty minutes.
I know how to distract myself, though. I had a long news queue to work through. I focused on how much I wanted to “catch up on reading.” I only let myself do this type of reading during my workout. It felt like a reward. After the first week, it was more like playing a game than exercise.
I started getting a taste of the old post-workout glow. If I work out long enough at a high enough level of intensity, I can get an endorphin rush that lasts for two hours or more. It feels awesome, wipes out soreness and fatigue, and helps me sleep better.
I didn’t really notice the change as it happened, but over the next several weeks, my baseline mood and energy level started to improve too.
A couple of months ago, I was at a real low point. I couldn’t do much of anything, three courses of antibiotics made me sick and headachy, and my incision hurt. I would definitely have agreed that my mood hovered around a five most of the time.
Now I’m heading back in the direction where I like to be. I’m starting to feel like the person I think of as the “real me” - upbeat and cheerful. I’m ready to head into Phase Two, where I start running outdoors and enjoying the scenery, hunting for the payoff that keeps all distance runners inspired and motivated. A few months from now, I could be feeling like a nine every day again.
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?
I still haven’t done anything so far this January! I’m proud of this because sometimes it’s a difficult commitment to keep. It’s more important to me to work my goals ten months of the year than it is to try to maintain some kind of “””perfect””” “””streak””” starting on Day One. Because January is a basically impossible time of year to do anything, other than maybe sleep more or spend less money.
The one thing I have done is to reframe one habit by thinking of it as something else entirely. That’s where the News Machine comes in.
I have a terrible habit - actually many of them - and I also have a good habit, or at least one that I can invoke from time to time. This is part of my secret of habit change and personal transformation, the discovery that a good habit can be harnessed to flip over a bad one.
It’s called “anchoring.”
Peanut butter and... jelly.
Socks and... shoes.
Floss and... brush your teeth.
Trampolines and... ice cream cones. (Ooh, messy).
There is a reverse of this, as there is of most things, and that is when two bad habits are anchored together, or when a good habit triggers a bad one. If a pattern like this is recognized, then it’s time to brainstorm and figure out how to separate the two things. Like, every time I walk into the craft store I spend $40, or, every time I get a coffee I also get an ooey gooey pastry.
Usually the “bad” habit is the thing that we feel is an intrinsic part of our very personality. I quite literally AM an ooey gooey pastry! On the molecular level! I don’t ever want to be the kind of person who is not that!
This is why I usually refer to them as cute habits. Not “bad.” We weren’t born bad, we were born interesting!
Okay, so, confession: my cute habit is that I’d rather be reading than doing basically anything else. And the bad version of that habit is that the more I read, the more I bookmark, and the longer my “to read” list gets. The reason this is bad is that it interferes with my enjoyment. I start to think of my favorite thing as a must-do. Rather than having 100% fun, I start to feel like I “need” to get “caught up.”
Do you ever feel that way?
Crafty people often start to feel like they “need” to “finish” projects, like they’re “behind” on scrapbooking or “finishing” a quilt. What is supposed to be nothing at all other than a relaxing hobby somehow transmogrifies into a guilt machine. I promised! I owe! It’s late! Those emotions come from anchoring the hobby to something else, like giving gifts, showing affection to friends and family, trying to save money, or earning approval. The pressure also comes from shopping for materials, where the more focus there is on the hobby, the more accumulation of materials, and the more space they take up in the home. We think the only ways to relieve those practical and social pressures are to craft faster, rather than to stop buying supplies and stop trying to create 100% handmade gifts. Get back to making it about relaxation!
That’s turning into an entire separate piece, but I’m not going to claim that I’ll ever write it because I’m trying to reframe my personal concept of procrastination.
Why do I feel like I’m procrastinating on personal projects? Why do I sometimes feel this way even when there’s no deadline, nobody is asking for anything from me, and literally nobody cares but me?
Is this true for you, for anything in your life?
As with a lot of things, it’s easier to just go with it than it is to try to change the emotion. I recognize that I feel “behind” on my reading, and I figure out what I can do with that feeling that will lead directly to a positive action.
In my case, I use it to work out on the elliptical.
There! I said it!
I lied, I cheated! I’ve actually been crushing it this month down in the workout room!
I just didn’t want to admit it while talking about New Year’s Resolutions, because it makes other people feel bad. Like my weird little goals have anything to do with anyone but me...
I’ve found that I seem to read faster when I’m on the elliptical for some reason. It makes the time pass quickly.
I’ve tried other types of habits to keep me working out. I tried running on the treadmill, and it makes me feel like my brain is slowly dying. (Current gym does not have a treadmill). I tried the exercise bike but it makes me sore and I don’t think it gives me any results. I tried watching TV shows on the elliptical, but it makes me feel like every minute is really 18 minutes. The thing I’ve settled on is that I can read through news articles.
I can’t emphasize this enough. If you think in terms of “supposed to” and “because” and “everyone else” and “not doing it right” and “fail,” you’re stopping yourself before you start. Try thinking in terms of “works for me” and “not sure why, but” and “for some reason.” You like what you like and you’re allowed to like it.
This is why I’m not thinking about my workout as a workout. I’m thinking about it as the News Machine. When I change clothes, I’m thinking about how many articles I’m going to read, and *that* is my personal burn rate. My metric is that I started out with nearly 400 articles in my news queue, and now I’m down to 120. Yay!
After that, there’s my *other* news queue, and then my “read at leisure” email folder, and then my open tabs...
According to my phone, I’m burning 18% more calories per workout after only two weeks. That comes from the feeling that I call “getting the lead out.” Like I threw off some lead weights. If my starting goal had been to “burn calories” or “move faster” I’m sure I would have been discouraged and I would already be feeling like I aimed too high.
Instead, I’m really just excited about finally feeling that elusive satisfaction of being “all caught up.” I can see it, a month or two from now. If I can keep reading this fast, if I can keep getting a spot on the News Machine...
I’ll probably just keep adding more stuff and making my list longer. Because who would I be without a to-do list or a never-ending stack of things to read?
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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