Progress not perfection

I am just back from the climbing gym. Once again, I am suddenly climbing significantly harder than I have been: harder grades, more climbs in a session and a longer session. It is so exciting to move this fluidly and freely. Not just because I am progressing and progress is awesome (I am definitely a part of the “Aim for progress not perfection” camp!) but because, for so long, I couldn’t progress. For years, I never got beyond beginner level at anything: I could not learn anything new and I had forgotten much of what I had once known. This is your brain (and body) on Lyme. No forward progress. Having to learn the same things over and over and over. And the body, too. It doesn’t heal well, recover well and doesn’t build muscle memory. Lyme, besides the obvious reasons, is an incredibly frustrating disease to have. Everything I wanted to do, I plateaued at, but at the very initial stages of learning it. I don’t know how many beginning salsa, Spanish and guitar classes I took in the time that I was really sick.

Over the past year, I’ve been steadily getting better, in leaps and bounds, rather than in the meager and bitter steps forward I had been used to before. And climbing progress is a huge way of knowing just how much better I am. I have a few climbing trips coming up and I can not wait to see how I can do on the rock.

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Catching the Heart Up with the Body

When I was 24, first diagnosed with Lyme, suddenly living in suburbia with my parents and swallowing down more pills each day than I had taken my entire life, I couldn’t let myself fully know how sick I was. If I did, I wouldn’t have been able to keep putting one foot in front of the other. So I told myself, daily, that I would be back to life on my terms in a few months, six at the most.

Nine months later, I had a P.I.C.C. line in and was on I.V. antibiotics. I ate breakfast and dinner with my drip going. Still, I told myself that I would be able to pick up where I had left off from my life in NYC. Ok, I had told myself a year in to living back in suburbia, I’ll be back to life in six more months, in another year, tops.

But it takes time to get as sick as I did and it would take another decade to get fully better. Over the years, I spent most of my time and money and energy trying to get better. Over the years, I slowly stripped away symptoms as I unraveled the layers of illnesses. I lived a half-life out of necessity. My health, or my approximation of it, was in delicate balance. If I pushed too hard in any aspect of my life, my health would collapse. I felt like a house of cards and the slightest thing outside of my routine—a missed meal, a forgotten hat and scarf on a cold day, a too late night, relationship strife—would knock me down.

I spent a lot of time in bed, waiting. I held myself back from living as hard as I wanted to, telling myself that once I was healthy, I’d have everything.

During that decade of living small and contained, I told myself that I would have everything once I had my health. I told myself that it wouldn’t matter how little I had done over the years; once I had my health I could approach everything in life with the vigor I wanted to. Now I am where I once only dreamed of being and feeling. And though life without illness is so much better and easier and thought I am doing everything that I want to be doing, I am surprised to find that the underlying emotions for me are a dull sadness and defeat. It is because, only now, in being healthy, do I understand just how very sick I was and can I know just how much I missed out on.

I am surprised to find that I am not just living in a state of elated joy, which is what I thought that I’d be doing once I got better. I’d have everything, remember? Of course I have to work through the dull sadness of loss. I fill the time that used to be filled with taking care of myself with meditation and long walks and fostering friendships. I am taking it easy and gently this winter and making sure to cook up soups and stews and ciders that are rich in color, scent and taste.

Resting, in order to move foreward

I took three weeks, nearly four, off of working out. I didn’t plan it (there is so little that I plan. For years, I’d try to plan and plan events, workouts, careers, but everything always fell by the wayside of chronically ill), it just happened because I was traveling but now that I am back to training, stronger than I was before I left, I’ll be scheduling in longer periods of rest in the future.

Rest is a key factor in training and in healing from an injury or illness. The body doesn’t grow stronger when you workout but when you are at rest. The body repairs itself during sleep and if you don’t rest and sleep, you don’t get stronger, you don’t recover from illness or injury fully, you don’t heal completely.

I preach rest and sleep to my clients all the time. The ones who don’t get nearly enough sleep are all chronically injured and have layers and layers of injury (this is not to say that the casue of chronic injury and illness is due to solely to sleep nor that every person with chronic conditions doesn’t get enough but that this is my experience with my clients) Not by the arbitrary “everyone needs 8 hours of sleep a night” rule (ahem. I need 9 at least, 10 if I am working out but my brother doesn’t need more than 6) but by their own admission. When people come in to see me and every session they tell me, I am so tired or I just want to take a nap, well then, its clear that they are not getting enough rest.

I just took nearly four weeks off of any sort of training. I climbed twice in Kenya, once outside and once at Blue Sky’s climbing gym in Nairobi, I went on a hike outside of Moshi and I did yoga twice. I wasn’t completely inactive but I was hardly training. Besides that, I had a lot of 12 and 18 hour days of just sitting. I am used to biking anywhere from 5-12 miles a day, just commuting, and running, climbing, yoga-ing on top of that. On my second day back to climbing, I moved up a whole grade and comfortably climbed 5.10b all evening. Two days later, I was comfortably climbing one more grade up and tackling some 5.10d problems. Not only that but when my feet slipped off and before, where I would have either fallen or had to take a break, my feet would slip off and I’d pull myself up again and keep going. It felt fantastic to be so refreshed and back on the wall. I wasn’t particularly surprised, though. When my clients who train hard and often take 2-3 week breaks, even though they go into them fretting about ‘losing ground’ or gaining weight, they generally come back stronger. Obviously, in a two-three week break, the body has time to fully recover but I notice that something else happens as well. People come back more coordinated than they were before, nailing the choreography on a move or exercise sequence that had been just out of reach for them previously, as if their brain and body have finally had a chance to catch up to each other.

For me, I also made massive strides forward in healing from Lyme Disease when I began to sleep whenever I needed to. Initially, I slept all the time. 14, 18 hours a day. It was a really hard decision to make as rest is hard to take, especially in a society that values doing and accomplishing. When I finally put getting better at the top of my list of priorities, I had to take a giant step back from life. I stopped going out, worked half-time or less, just to sleep a lot. When I first changed my lifestyle, there were many days when I’d go to sleep at 4pm and sleep straight through until 8 or 9am. For about a year, I’d sleep 12 or 14 hours straight two or three times a week.

With people who are chronically ill or injured, I think that rest is even more important. You have to keep challenging your body to do more, but in a careful, cautious way so as not to trigger a flareup even while continuing to work through flareups and sleep enough to heal from the challenge of workout and illness or injury.

Going backwards in order to go forwards, or: Trusting the process

Once again, I have had to sideline my life as medical appointments take center stage. It is so hard to trust that I am doing the right thing. I have mostly been doing really well for these past several years and, because of that, I’ve been moving and growing in so many areas of my life. Now, once again, I find myself putting these things to the side so that I can focus on my health.

Lyme and tick-borne infections are so hard to heal from. There is no one, established direct route to health. For me, it has very much been like peeling an onion: I deal with one thing and get better, only to discover another layer beneath that needs an altogether different sort of attention and treatment. I am doing so much better—the years when I spent most of my life in bed are long behind me and I hardly worry about flare-ups anymore. It’s been two really fun things that got me motivated to keep going: a trip to NYC and an upcoming trip to Kenya.

I’ve limited travel in my life for years, even though I love it, mainly because, since I got Lyme disease, it’s been really hard on my body. And even though I climbed Mt Shasta and Half Dome (up Snake Dike) last summer and was fine, when I flew to San Diego a few weeks after my Yosemite trip, I ended up in bed for days. So having many long flights looming made me realize that I needed to figure out what it was about travel that limited me so much. My Lyme specialist pointed out that all my symptoms coincide with a lack of oxygen, so I started Hyperbaric Oxygen sessions and my flight to NYC was fine. The flight was a breeze for me, I had no Lyme symptoms or even any fatigue at all. It was like flying used to be for me: just get on a plane and go. So I am committed to the hyperbaric Oxygen treatments in these final weeks before I head off to Kenya—I am so much brighter and more awake with them—but as I shunt the central parts of my life off to the side to make room for daily sessions (and lets face it, with getting to the office, getting setup, having a 90 minute session and then getting home, it’s a full three hours of my day), I find myself nervous and anxious about all the things that I am not doing: the book I am not writing, the friends and lover I am not seeing, my art projects that sit in a pile in my mind, wondering when I get them done. Schedule-wise, I am back to where I was years ago, when all I did was go to work, go to doctors’ appointments and sleep. These days, I am again running a narrow circuit in my life and the things that give me the most joy, the things that I value so much are left by the wayside. It is true, I know, that without health, I have nothing. I have experienced that already and this is why I am once more fully engaged in treatments that are working (and incredibly, without side-effects, if you can imagine that): because I know that I without my full health, I won’t be able to do the things I most want to do and enjoy and engage in. But it is so hard to be in the middle of letting go of the things that matter in order to take care of health concerns that don’t bother me in my daily life. It is hard to trust the process, hard to trust that I’ll get through these next six weeks and my life will still be waiting for me at the other end.

Six weeks isn’t long, I know, but it’s once again a return to where I was so many years ago. I was living in NYC when I was diagnosed and left to move in with my parents because I was so very sick. I got through so many years of sick with the belief, that somehow, when it was all over, I could just go back and pick up where I left off. And then I visited NYC last month, a full decade after I left, and finally had to face that I still fostered some fairytale belief that this whole Lyme diapause thing has all been a terrible dream. The city has changed; I have changed. I am no longer 24, my friends have moved on. So jumping into six weeks of treatments, six weeks of putting my life on hold, is terrifying. What happens at the end? Do I have to rebuild my life from the ground up? Intellectually, I know that this is an absurd fear, that six weeks is nothing, but in my heart, it’s me once again grappling with the world moving by while I sit and wait for my body to heal.