Good Health: The choice is yours

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As I lay on the gurney, the anesthesiologist, who looks young enough to be a junior in high school, asks me how my pain level is.  I tell her it is at eight. She asks, “Are you sure it is not higher. You seem awfully uncomfortable.”

I tell her there is no single spot that stands out. “I am feeling lots of different types of pain from head to toe. There’s not a part of me that does not hurt”

She informs me along with the usual drug they give me for my procedure she intends to give me a little Fentanyl to knock out the pain. “Great, they’re going Michael Jackson on me,” I say to myself.

Making matters worse, I have been off my anti-inflammatory for a week so along with this flare up of nerve pain from a neck injury, I am feeling all my arthritic joints thanks to years of beating myself up playing sports and working out. I may still look good from outward appearance, but there are days I feel like I am crumbling inside.

My doctor comes in and we talk a bit. He’s a great doctor who takes time to listen and explain things. He tells me he hopes today’s epidural lasts longer than my previous one which did its job for about two months. He wants to know if I have consulted with a surgeon regarding the prospect of fusion surgery for my neck. He explains to me there is not a lot they can do for the thoracic spine due to it being so difficult to get to.

We talk a bit about exercise. I tell him how much I have enjoyed returning to running the past year when he says, “About that. Your stenosis in your neck is worse. Each time your foot takes a stride the impact is adding to the problem. It’s your choice if you continue, but if you are looking to avoid neck surgery, you might want to stop.”

At least it was not an order which I do not do well with. The last time I was ordered to stop running was after the accident that has led me to this point in life. I lost ten years of running, but spent each day thinking of the day I could return to my favorite activity. Actually, make that my favorite drug. When I finally got my body functioning to the point I could run again and when I got the green light to give it a try, I was like an alcoholic being told I could drink beer just so long as I lay off the hard stuff.

In my case, the hard stuff meant pavement. I returned to running sticking to just the soft thick grass and dirt at my local park and was amazed at how quickly and naturally it came back to me. For my birthday this summer, I celebrated with a two hour run. Yes, I was hooked again.

Climbing the hills are some of the best challenges for runners and bicyclists, on the road or in the dirt.

Now, I have to ask myself whether or not I am willing to live the cycle of life I have been on that allows me to enjoy an early morning run while my spine and I feel fresh and elongated, knowing by days end it will be compressed, burning, and sending me messages of pain down my arms, or do I give it up just as I have had to give up lifting weights?  For the normal person, this is an easy decision to make. For the junkie, it is extremely difficult.

I have relied on running all my life. It is no surprise to me the ten most depressing years of my life were the ones spent away from it. By depressing, I mean depression in the worst sort of way. It’s been something I battled with since childhood and without knowing so at the time, it was why running was such a part of me. Running laps by myself while my classmates played kickball during PE in elementary school allowed me to turn inward and tune out the world. It released the endorphins I needed to balance what my brain was lacking to help me remain happy, at least in the eyes of others.

Now that I am older, I tell my doctor the reason I really want to run now is to help my bones stay healthy. Since I can’t lift weights, he doesn’t even want me to haul in heavy bags of groceries which is embarrassing for me, I need an activity with some sort of impact to keep my bones from turning brittle. He tells me to use a bike or elliptical machine, both of which I have, and to walk.

I want to plead my case, but inside, I know he is right. It’s time I face the music and pay one costlier bill for the life I have lived. I’ll stop running.

Then again, maybe I will stop once I wear out the new Nike shoes I purchased last month. I tell myself, “Are you serious? Do you hear what you are saying?  If you do not quit now, you never will.”

Yesterday was my first day run free. I did not go to the park as I would normally have done. Instead, after my runner’s warm up, I turned on some music and hopped up on my elliptical. For 40 minutes I tuned out altogether. I focused on the same spot on the side door of my garage and just worked away my frustration in much of the same manner as I did when my 5thgrade class would head out to play kickball.

Then I climbed onto my stationary bike and began peddling away for another hour. Yes, I had a lot to work out inside my head. After, I did some stretching before cleaning up and heading off to one of my three part time jobs, teaching PE to a group of 7thand 8thgraders at a small charter school.

When I returned home, it was about 4pm, the bewitching hour, or the time of day when I begin to really feel all my pain. There was a very slight burning in my mid back but otherwise I felt pretty good. No neck pain. No arm discomfort. No knee stiffness which was something I felt only on the days I ran.

It was just the first day of my own personal recovery, but it was a successful one even though I had thoughts of wanting to run today after watching my students go through a running workout. I arrived home in a much better mood and felt no need to run to the medicine cabinet where my Vicodin and muscle relaxants await.

It was a victory for me, but I know it was just the first day. The challenge will come on days when I have been away from running long enough to forget how it was hurting my spine more than helping my spirit. Winter looms and I will grow tired of being confined to my gym in my garage. I will want to get out and enjoy the cold air, gray skis, or morning mist and run.

Running will always be a part of me. It has allowed me to make it this far in life. Now, I have to say goodbye to it which is painful. To lose something you love as much as I love to run is not easy. I am reminded of the pain I have felt when it was time to say goodbye to a pet. You hate having to face the harsh reality of the finality of what will be missing from your life, but I tell myself there will still be more life ahead.

I remind myself this is my decision to make and think of what I often have told students over the course of my teaching career, “We live and die by the choices we make.” I am choosing to live a new life, knowing it is, in the long run, the best choice for me.

Goodbye my friend.  You will be missed, but you will always be a part of me.

Photos by Tim Forkes