Embracing My MRI Results!
On a glorious San Diego day last September, I started my running app and took my first few jogging steps, just as I have thousands of times over the past 40 years. But on this day, on my first step, a sharp twinge shot up my left knee, the same knee where I had ACL surgery 25 years prior. I brazenly denied the reality that I am in my 50s (not 20s), and convinced myself that I’d run it off, just like I did so many times before.
By the time I got home, the pain was so intense that I was limping. Even after weeks of persistent knee pain, an x-ray didn’t show anything unusual. So for months, I iced, stretched, modified exercise, took anti-inflammatories, went to an acupuncturist, chiropractor, and PT, all to no avail.
It wasn’t until four months later that an MRI explained the issue: two different areas of my knee were grinding bone on bone, and I had two meniscal tears. And the worst of it was hearing that the only treatment would be an eventual knee replacement, which was not yet recommended due to my age. My doctor’s advice was to retire my running shoes, minimize my hiking, ban squats and lunges, and take up swimming. I was also advised to sit in a chair, rather than cross-legged on the floor, when meditating.
I was as stunned as I would be if I were hit by a brick. Retire from running? I’m a runner. It’s part of my identity. I’ve been running since I was 12. I just ran my 20th half marathon this previous June. My running shoes go with me everywhere. It’s how I start every Thanksgiving and birthday, and how I explore new cities on vacation. I was devastated.
No doubt many of you can relate to unwanted physical changes and limitations . It’s familiar territory for being in the middle. So are wrinkles, hot flashes, weight “re-distribution,” aches and pains, aging or passing parents and empty nests.
These challenges, in fact, were real-time for each of the participants in last weekend’s Embracing the Middle Workshop. Some voiced frustration with and aversion towards their bodies, while others emotionally grappled with their parent’s mortality. As they shared, I was moved by their honestly and vulnerability. I related whole-heartedly to each of them as well as to the woman who cancelled at the last minute because she had to bring her father to the doctor –another reality of being in the middle.
We all get to face midlife challenges, regardless of who we are or where we came from; they are universal. Even though we can’t choose if and when changes happen, we can choose how we respond to them. The typical response to unwanted changes is to fight them. We criticize and reject our bodies and spend fortunes on products “guaranteed” to keep us young. We deny our parents mortality and avoid having “those” conversations or taking the heirlooms (and junk) they saved for us. We tighten the leash around our kids, hoping to control their choices and behavior. These strategies may work temporarily, but they don’t change what’s actually happening. And, what’s worse, they often backfire. Avoiding reality keeps us from enjoying the present and feeds our underlying fears – the fears of loss, of lack of control, of aging – that are just below the surface.
Rather than avoid our reality, I propose that we become more empowered by embracing our midlife changes. This form of embracing is NOT the same as embracing a loved one. I’m definitely not happy about my knee situation or my extra five pounds, my waning eye sight, and my mom’s dementia. The embracing I’m referring to is accepting our reality but without giving up. I accept, for example, that I’m five pounds heavier, AND I continue to exercise and eat in order to hopefully shed the pounds. I’m not giving up on the effort to lose weight, but I’m not hating my body or myself in the process (or giving up chocolate)! This acceptance empowers me to appreciate other aspects of my body, mind, and spirit that I’m happy with while still continuing to strive towards my best. I’ve spent decades rejecting and cruelly judging my body. Arriving at this place of acceptance has been refreshing and liberating.
If you are struggling with unwanted midlife changes, try some of these tips:
- Recognize the emotional challenge of the situation and extend yourself some self-compassion. Change is hard for most; and unwanted changed is, well, unwanted.
- Be kind to your body in words and actions. It has worked hard to get you to this point and you are in this life together for the duration.
- Try to make the best of your challenges – notice the parts of your body you like, appreciate the time you have with your elderly relatives; trust your kids to spread their wings.
- And remember to be grateful for those parts of your life that are going well.
In terms of my knee, I am working towards accepting my reality. It makes me sad to think I’ll never run again but I’m not foolish enough to challenge the doctor’s advice and risk further injury. I am back to hiking but use a walking stick and haven’t ventured on any long trails. I hope to sit cross-legged for some of the meditation periods at my retreat this weekend but will sit in a chair when needed. I was already registered to run next June’s Rock and Roll Half Marathon. But rather than my initial plan to leave town and avoid looking at Facebook for that weekend, I am planning to walk the event. You know why? Because that is Embracing the Middle!