in the midst of winter

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

Albert Camus

This was my favorite quote in college. I loved the juxtaposition of imagery, the metaphor, the pretty syntax. I love summer and I don’t like winter, so I liked the idea that summer is always in you, warmth winning over cold. But it wasn’t until I saw the quote again a couple of weeks ago, in the context of my life in 2021, that I finally got it. Cute little 2004 Lydia didn’t know what strength was, really. Maybe I braved the cold a bit, but there was no deep winter yet. I had no idea the kinds of things the universe could actually hurtle your way, how bleak life could seem.

In spite of all the crazy—usually terrible—things that happened in the world and in my own household, life was pretty good to me in 2020. I took full advantage of lockdown, and really made an effort to improve myself. I took walks every day, ate healthy, took really great care of my skin, learned to meditate, and I even started blogging again. I felt like I finally had the chance to make real change. I was taking myself seriously. A few months into this amped up self-care energy though, my knee started to hurt sometimes on my walks. I ignored it pretty well, except for a couple of weeks after I ran into a cement post at the grocery store. (Listen, it’s not my fault the gourmet cheese section is so damn enticing.) But I pampered it, rested it, and after a couple of weeks I was back to walking an hour a day.

Finally after my birthday in September things seemed like they were calming down pandemic-wise (haha, oops) so I took myself on a self-care retreat to the Indiana Dunes National Park at Lake Michigan, to sit and meditate on the beach and hike the dunes. The dunes in question are the size of the foothills you might find in Tennessee or Boulder, Colorado, except these are made of sand. They’re these weird beach mountains, but forested though…nature is crazy. I did one hike that easy after months of daily walks, often on nature trails. The accomplishment mixed with the pristine landscape was very empowering, so I decided to do another, more challenging one later in the day.

I’ll spare all the details but let’s just say, it did not go well. Were there tears? Yes, but the sweat hid them. Did I text my mom that I loved her because I thought I might be about to die? Yes None of your business. All you need to know is that I tripped on some roots growing on the incline of this steep, sandy death mound, and landed real hard on my left leg, the same one that bothered me over the summer.

Took a quick snap of this pretty hill then broke my body on it one minute later.

Things went downhill after that. Once I got home, my step count kept getting smaller, because walking was causing more and more pain. When I walked for too long, it felt like someone was skewering me in the side of the knee with an iron fire poker. But in addition to those burning, stabbing pains, it hurt all the time. It felt so heavy. It felt…wrong. I stopped being able to sit at my computer desk, the kitchen table, or on any hard wooden chair for longer than it takes to eat a salad. When I wanted to sit in front of my laptop or work on an art project, I had to sit in a recliner so I could kick the leg rest out a bit. My “desk” became a tv tray. It was not a good situation. And when you’re in pain and you’re sedentary all the time, it’s so easy to fall back on comfort food and eating what’s easy instead of what’s good for you. I didn’t gain much weight at least, but the constant leg pain took up all the attention I could give to my body and health.

There was a point, sometime later in the fall, when I had a full anxiety breakdown in SuperTarget, because I had already walked from groceries to school supplies, but I forgot the yogurt so I had to all the way back to the opposite corner of the store again, and I was carrying a heavy basket instead of pushing a cart. The next day I went to the doctor. I couldn’t take it anymore.

I can’t remember now what I thought was wrong with it. I had never been to an orthopedist in my life, but I am a chronic symptom Googler. I think I decided it was a meniscus tear. I certainly did not think I had stage 4 arthritis— a condition usually only found in people collecting social security. But after a physical evaluation and an x-ray, that’s what it turned out to be.

My doctor sent me to an orthopedic surgeon. After he looked at the x-ray, the first thing he asked was whether or not I’d ever considered bariatric surgery. The question caught me totally off guard because I was expecting to talk about physical therapy or medicine or whatever. I told him I hadn’t, and I meant it literally. It never crossed my mind as option. He informed me that my knee was so deteriorated, I needed a knee replacement, but I was way too young, and also way too big. I’d need to lose 180 pounds before they’d even think it was safe to start considering it. In that moment he might as well have told me I’d need to become an astronaut. That number was astronomical.

Defeat took over my senses for the rest of that day. I know he examined my leg, poked, pushed, and folded it in horrible ways, then told me he thought I might have tendinitis and a stress fracture below the knee, but MRIs were expensive and treatments were the same as what I should be doing anyway. The main concern, he assured me, was my extremely premature arthritis and the weight that was causing it. He gave me a steroid injection, printed off some stretches to do at home, and told me to have a nice life.

I cried in the parking lot after I left. Maybe I even had a panic attack, but it’s a blur now. I can’t remember ever seeing a doctor or anyone, who told me catastrophic news without any kind of mitigating or bright side. As far as I could tell he’d told me it was hopeless. I know I waited a while before I left, just sitting there in my car. I felt so lost. So scared. That day, I think, was my deepest midwinter.

After that though, my whole attitude changed. I guess it was like a fight or flight thing, and it’s not like I could flee my body, so I had no choice but to fight. Suddenly losing weight went from an aspiration to a necessity.  It wasn’t about what jeans I could wear or how I looked in pictures, it was about being able to walk and do normal daily things. I couldn’t handle this intense, debilitating pain indefinitely. More than that I was terrified of how much worse it could get if it could never get better. I realized that I needed real changes.

At first I went back to what I did when I lost 25 pounds in 2018. My friend who is a registered dietician made me a nutrition plan and I knew it was effective. I brought it out again, made myself track macronutrients at every meal and follow portion sizes strictly. That wasn’t enough though. In the two years I had that plan it had worked for me four times. It worked…until it didn’t. For some reason I could never make myself keep going. There was something holding me back from ever making enough progress.

I had to do something different. And since it would be hard to do better than what I’d been doing nutritionally, I knew that different had to be a totally new approach. It couldn’t just be about eating. Other elements were missing. Out of ideas, I did something I’ve been scared to do for many years. I decided to ask for help.

I’m feeling very fortunate lately that I’ve surrounded myself with a team of nurturing, vibrant young professional women: a physical therapist, an emotional therapist, and a physician, who have been so supportive in the last few months since I decided to face these challenges. My doctor has been very helpful finding me the right care for my leg. She’s also helping me figure out how to best regulate the thyroid condition that started this entire mess in the first place.

My PT is like my own personal cheerleader, respecting my body for what it is and what it can offer, and celebrating the victories in the context of my own journey. The orthopedist wasn’t the first medical professional I’ve seen that assumed the worst of me because of my health chart and my appearance, and there is nothing more frustrating. Different people are motivated by different things, but I crave positivity. So having someone get excited when I move up from 4 minutes to 5 on the treadmill makes me feel seen and understood. It makes me want to keep on giving her something to be excited over, and so I work harder.

Emotional therapy has been the best success though. I’ve known for a long time that I needed therapy. It occurs to me for the first time while I type this that I might not even have gotten to this point if I had sought help five or ten years ago. But I also think everything happens the way it’s meant to, and I needed a catalyst, a real rock bottom, to finally put my all into recovery.

I found my therapist by searching the Psychology Today database of therapists and counselors who meet whatever criteria you need. I had a short list and by some kind of divine intervention found someone who met all of my needs and who I clicked with. She has a background in yoga and eastern philosophy, which feels like home to me. She’s also a total nerd who has a reading recommendation for basically every theory or observation I mention. And so far, she’s understood every single one of my weird cultural references (Doogie Howser, a specific episode of Sex and the City, Paula Abdul’s Opposites Attract, to name a few.) She’s basically my dream human.

With her, and her reading list, I’ve learned to try to be more mindful both in actions and motivations. These are major changes I’m trying to make. I’m trying to drop an entire adult man from my body weight, and to do so I need to be more aware of my motivations. I’ve been stagnant in my life for a long time and unfortunately there isn’t a switch to fix me right away. If I could control-alt-delete myself I’d do it, but there’s not. In reality, I’m in recovery from all the years of treating myself unfairly, and like many other forms of recovery it’s imperative that I remember to take things one day at a time. One day of pizza and birthday cake doesn’t have to mean 2 months of unproductive behavior. And one day of the cleanest food and perfect macronutrients doesn’t mean my work is done.

So back to Camus: the past few months have taught me that maybe there actually is an invincible summer in me after all. I’m not perfect, my journey will certainly have its snags along the way. Some days are not very good. The pain in my leg leaves me debilitated or my anxiety shows up to bully me or I just cannot be bothered to stay low carb. Still, I have an inherent optimism that is keeping me going, and when I needed it most, I found a strength and determination I had forgotten somewhere along the way.  

What anyone trying to create serious personal change knows is that it’s a process. A holistic process, that requires attention and commitment as well as patience and grace. We have to forgive ourselves, nurture ourselves, and be kind to ourselves. I’ve been trying to ask myself WHY a lot. Why am I eating right now? Why do I think I need this thing? Why am I not doing that? But these questions aren’t coming from a place of judgment, but exploration. I’m not trying to punish myself. I’m looking for answers. I’m trying to heal myself. A wound that won’t heal will continue to irritate, and I’m ready to find relief. I’m not invincible, but there is an invincibility within me to remind me I can’t give up.

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lydiakj

Healthy recipes and all my thoughts about physical and mental health.

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