Last year I wrote little in this blog. As someone who needs to write—to express myself, to untangle my thoughts and feelings, to rave about creative work and ideas that move me, and to interact with friends and followers—my lack of writing left me frustrated and deeply unsatisfied.
It wasn’t writer’s block in the usual sense. I was blocked for two reasons:
- Most of the time, I felt trapped on a hamster wheel of constant demands (mostly from a book editing project) that left me little time for writing.
- The subjects I wanted and needed to write about were too grim.
Last year was a 10-year landmark for me in a few significant ways, and it was part of my frustration and regret that I couldn’t write about this more. It was ten years since I moved into my beloved apartment in Port Moody overlooking Burrard Inlet—the first time in my life I had lived alone. It was ten years since my coach George Gluppe, the single most influential person in my life, had died. For ten years I had written blog posts, starting with weekly posts about my training and racing leading up to the 1988 Olympics, and that life-shaping event itself.
As I think about last year, I’m aware that I’ve arrived at another major transition point in my life, just as I did in the years between 2009 and 2012. During those years, my marriage ended, I took courses to become a professional editor, my son left home for Japan, I started a new relationship, and I moved out of my home of 22 years.
Now I’m ready to write about 2022. I want to write about the struggles, the darkness, and the losses—though only briefly. Some of the most heartbreaking parts can barely be alluded to, because they are other people’s stories, and privacy must be maintained. But part of the point of writing this is to say that even during the hardest times, there were silver linings. I didn’t lose my capacity for joy. I’m starting 2023 with an awareness that I have changed, and that my life will change; there are significant decisions to be made. At age 63, I’ve become mentally stronger, while at the same time becoming more aware of and accepting of my physical decline. I’m ready to welcome the changes that a new stage in my life will bring.
The dominating background of 2022
My life last year was dominated by two situations: my father’s terrible decline in health as his kidney disease progressed; and the constant demands of my freelance job as the project manager and copy editor of a large nursing textbook.
I wrote about my dad in the tribute to him that I wrote after his death in November . The heartbreak of my father’s condition was always in my mind, and it felt like my brothers and I were always a bit behind in our planning for the kinds of help Dad would need as he grew weaker. It didn’t help that he was in denial about the seriousness of his situation. I visited my dad in Toronto five times between May and early October. Each visit was worse than the one before as I saw him becoming ever weaker and less able to function. I struggled with a terrible brew of emotions: sadness, worry, a feeling of impotence, loss—and especially, guilt—guilt not only because of all I was not doing, having the excuse of being the one out of three children who lived far away, but guilt about the negative reactions I had to seeing my father’s skeletal form and other physical manifestations of his disease. Why could I not be tougher emotionally, and more loving? Why could I not find ways to comfort him more when I was there?
However, I was able to accept my limitations. One of the silver linings I gained from the last part of my father’s life was a newfound degree of admiration and love for my younger brother, Mike. Mike lives in Burlington, at least an hour’s drive from where Dad lived, but with a part-time work situation he was able to visit Dad regularly during the last year of his life. On my second-last visit to Toronto, in September, Mike reassured me that he wanted to give Dad whatever help he needed so he could die in his own apartment. That was what Dad wanted. When Mike and I had that conversation (during a break in a bike ride), I could feel his sincerity and the love he felt for Dad. It ended up that either Mike or my other brother, Alan, were with Dad 24/7 during the last few weeks of his life. I couldn’t have done what they did, and I was enormously thankful to them.
I was under constant stress all year long as the nursing textbook project continued. The original online publication date was supposed to be April 2022, but the writing, editing, and design deadlines kept getting pushed to the future as the three book editors and some of the chapter authors struggled with health issues (including severe cases of COVID-19) and other problems. My job with this project includes a lot of responsibility, as I am doing administration and communication roles in addition to copy editing. I couldn’t manage my worries about the ever-delayed deadlines, and this contributed to my chronic insomnia.
During 2022, I was frequently brooding about mortality and getting older, not only because of my father but because of other things going on in my life. This choked my blog writing. Why would people want to read posts about mortality? How could such posts possibly offer any kind of inspiration? Well, maybe you’ll find it at the end of this blog post. Here, I’ll just outline the physical struggles that 2022 brought for my partner Keith, my cat, Tux, and me.
Keith’s health is his own business, but he is fine with my sharing a little. For him, 2022 was just part of a continuing health struggle. The positive part was that he finally started getting treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. This allowed him to go for a few good e-bike rides before his double knee replacement surgery on Nov. 9. (Keith is making good progress now, after enduring a lot of pain!).
My 15-year-old cat, Tux, went in a few months from being a “fat cat” to being a very sick and skinny cat by January 2022. She almost died before spending a couple of days at the vet’s last January. She is on medication now but is still skinny. Although she’s lively and still seems happy, she has worrying symptoms indicating that she may not have too much longer to live.
I’ve thought about how uncanny it was that my father’s extreme weight loss during his final illness was echoed in a minor way not only by Tux, but by me. In 2022, without any change in my diet or workout habits, I lost a few pounds to go from an already-low 88 lbs to 84 lbs, the lightest I’ve been since I was 13 or 14. I’ve mentioned this to my GP, and have had a couple of things checked out with more bloodwork to come. I feel healthy and my workouts have been normal (relatively—see below). However, I had to start taking cholesterol-lowering medication early in 2022, and that plus fairly significant declines in my athletic performance, as well as one very disturbing physical event (see the next section), has made me aware that I can’t take my health or physical fitness for granted. The ultimate finish line for me is unpredictable, and may be closer than I used to believe.
A frightening event: circulation blockage
One day last March, I started warming up for a regular sprint workout with my friend Laurie. After about two minutes of slow jogging, I noticed one leg felt unusually weak. By three minutes, the leg was starting to cramp, especially my calf muscles, and by five minutes the cramping was so severe that I had no choice but to stop and walk. This kind of cramping was no stranger to me; it’s called claudication, and it happens when an artery is blocked and muscles don’t get adequate blood flow to meet their demands. When I was in my thirties, I experienced blockages in the upper part of both femoral arteries (I was told this was due to a rare genetic disease), and without the major bypass surgery I received (left leg at age 34, right leg at age 38), I would never have been able to run again for more than a minute or two at a time.
For several years now, I’ve been experiencing mild claudication in my left leg when I cycle up long hills or do intense running. Since I’m not competing anymore, I haven’t worried about the slight limitations this places on my performance. However, what shocked me at Mundy Park that day when I had to stop was realizing that this severe cramping was occurring in my right leg, which had seemed 100% normal up to that day!
This was not a muscle pull or cramp; I knew that because the leg recovered after a minute or two of rest, as blood slowly flowed back into the deprived muscle cells. When I “tested” the leg, though, by trying to jog again, the same severe cramping came back after two or three minutes. When Laurie arrived, I told her I couldn’t run with her that day, and explained what had happened.
I tried to get an immediate appointment with my vascular surgeon, but was told I’d have to be referred by my GP and it would likely take months.
The next day I tried to do one of my regular workouts, the Coquitlam Crunch, a popular trail that includes about 500 stairs and ~250m of elevation gain. I usually just walk the trail, but I push the stair section hard and run the final 300m or so to the top, then jog/walk down.
My attempt showed that the blockage I suspected was still there. I made it to the top of the stairs in a time only a little slower than normal, but doing so caused all the muscles in my right leg to cramp so badly that I had to rest for a few minutes before I could continue walking.
A few days later I did a running workout of sorts, doing 100m strides on a soccer field with a 2-minute break between each one, during which I did pushups and situps while my leg muscles recovered.
It was 11 days after the initial apparent blockage when I did the Crunch one morning and experienced no cramping. My leg circulation was normal again! I was able to return to my usual running workouts. When I talked to my vascular surgeon on the phone, he told me it was “impossible” that I could have had a blockage that just disappeared like that. He insisted that I must have had a calf muscle injury—a ridiculous diagnosis given my symptoms. Also, while I was still experiencing the blockage, I had an appointment with my GP, who listened to my pulses and confirmed that the weak pulses in my right foot were consistent with a blockage being present in my lower leg.
This incident heightened my awareness of my own physical vulnerability. It was a warning that not only are my speed and strength gradually decreasing (and I’ve noticed significant changes since I turned 60), but a sudden event like this blockage could mean an abrupt change in my life, and it could happen without warning again. If it hadn’t been for my mysterious recovery, I would have been unable to continue cycling up big hills, or do any running other than short sprints.
A psychological turning point
The last two months of 2022 were tough. With my father’s death on November 3 came sadness, but a kind of relief because his suffering was ended. I also had a peculiar sense of loss, not just about my father, but because of the realization that for the first time in 63 years, I would no longer have a home to return to in Toronto.
Throughout all of 2022 I had had Keith’s constant support as I worried about my dad and struggled with my constant book editing challenges. But Keith had challenges of his own. Only six days after Dad’s passing Keith was in hospital for his double knee replacement surgery. I knew he would need lots of help when he got out of the hospital. When his brother Gary brought Keith to my apartment after his hospital stay, I was happy to help him by keeping his ice machine functioning, making his meals, delivering coffee in the morning, encouraging him to do his prescribed leg exercises, and driving him to his physio appointments. Keith was in a lot of pain—it was tough for him, but he was a good patient, and together we kept talking about the long-term benefits of this double-whammy surgery.
Yet having Keith’s care added to my editing work was difficult for me, too. And I missed “strong Keith.” For a while I had to take my turn being the strong one.
All of the pressures were getting to me, and my chronic insomnia was getting worse. My sleeping pill consumption was getting out of control. I hated the physical and emotional side effects these drugs can often cause, and the spectre of becoming totally addicted was always there. There was a night near the end of December, when Keith was much better and back on his own in his place in North Vancouver, when I couldn’t sleep all night and finally phoned him at 3 a.m. That was my lowest point. We talked for an hour. I told him I was starting to think I had no choice but to ask my GP to put me on an anti-anxiety drug. I couldn’t handle my worries and was sleeping so little I couldn’t function well and do my work. That made me worry more—it was a vicious downward spiral. Keith agreed that it might be a good choice for me to go on an anti-anxiety drug for a while.
Talking with Keith had relaxed me. I fell asleep and slept until 8:00, even though it is very rare for me to sleep past 6:30, even on a nearly-sleepless night or a night when I take a sleeping pill.
It’s hard to explain, but after the low point of that insomniac night, I felt a dramatic mental shift within myself.
I felt stronger. I didn’t want to be on a prescription anti-anxiety medication. I already know the undesirable side effects such drugs can have. From deep inside, I suddenly felt the conviction that I could let go of my worrying. I experienced a liberating sense of freedom. And in the past month, I’ve been able to do it! I’m feeling happier, relaxed, and more peaceful.
It’s not as if a miracle has occurred. I’m still taking sleeping pills occasionally—but I’m no longer panicking about it. I’ve made concrete plans about how to address my anxiety and how to reduce my stress, and some of my actions are already underway.
I’m grateful for my good health, while at the same time knowing that health is unpredictable. I have a new acceptance of my fragility. As for my own mortality—before, I accepted it as a scientific fact, but I couldn’t bear it, either rationally or emotionally. Now, I am getting closer to some kind of understanding and acceptance.
Most importantly, I’ve regained my eagerness for life. This year, 2023, is the start of a new phase of my life. My father is gone, and the nursing textbook is almost done. I’ll be looking for new work, and maybe even a new home. I’m starting the year with the confidence that I can make good choices and welcome new adventures.