not as smart as I thought I was


not as smart as I thought 01.07.14

I’ve always been lucky when it comes to my health. I rarely missed school because of illness when growing up. Even as I’ve aged and let my body slide into its current state of decay, I almost never reach the point where I can’t function due to whatever malady afflicts me.

But on those rare occasions where I do get laid up – as happened this past weekend – I find myself asking questions about how it portends my eventual journey to the Great Beyond. As I lay awake in bed on Saturday night, shivering uncontrollably under my comforter as my fever spiked, things ran through my head that in retrospect strike me as slightly alarmist. For example, as I felt my heart knocking against my chest in an unfamiliar fashion, I thought, “Huh, that’s different; will it stop beating before I wake up?”

This internal commentary strikes me as significant less for its potential accuracy and more for what it says about where I am in the arc that is my life. Unless scientists discover a way to slow the aging process, I’m now (at best) teeing off on the 10th, moving inexorably towards the great clubhouse in the sky. I find it startling that my mind has seamlessly (and insidiously) made this transition. Even after my near-death experience, I never monitored minor bodily discomfort and concluded that a possible outcome might be The End. Feeling mortal has just … happened.

On the bright side, I did wake up Sunday morning, which allowed me to laugh off my fleeting emotional dance with death. But it allowed me to take stock of my overall physical well-being, and I’ve now realized that I do have real issues to contend with.

*   *   *

Despite the warnings from people more experienced and smarter than I, I spent my late 20’s and much of my 30’s hopping around my house, my backyard – anywhere I happened to be when not wearing my prosthesis. I jogged with my running prosthesis, even as my family and friends asked, “What are the long-term effects of putting that much stress on your good leg?” “I’ll deal with the fallout when I have to deal with the fallout” was the stock response I delivered when taken to task for what I thought of as feats of amazing strength and balance.

Now, less than a year from turning 45, my body whispers to me, “Jackass, maybe they were right.”

This past summer, I tweaked my achilles tendon while running. Stretching and time off the asphalt left me feeling rejuvenated. Until I ran again. Even after shutting down my running for close to two months, it took less than 30 minutes and 3 miles to feel no better after that extended vacation from impact exercise than I had before.

Because I’m an idiot and generally refuse to seek medical attention unless I have symptoms that are overtly life threatening, I did what all idiots who hate doctors do: I turned to the internet. Relying on websites with names that I’d actually heard of, I concluded that I had achilles tendonitis, and made the decision to shut down all impact exercises indefinitely, relegating myself to the gerbil-in-a-wheel world of the elliptical machine. I’ve been doing that for 6 months now and have managed to stay fit. I have taken this as proof that I’m a medical savant and have congratulated myself repeatedly on implementing a successful treatment plan without those annoying medical professionals getting in my way.

Then, in late November, as documented in these e-pages, I attended a Weezer concert at a local venue. Happily, my son and I arrived early enough to score spots just offstage in the General Admission area. Less happily, in order to get that close to the stage I had to stand in place for over three hours, leaving my right foot aching – even though I actively tried to overload my prosthetic side to spare my good foot – with an urgency that left me a bit unnerved. I told myself afterwards that the pain would subside after a few days. A few days later, I revised the timeline to a few weeks. Now, more than a month after the event, I climbed out of my car last evening to the realization that, “son of a … my foot still hurts!”

Turning back to my favorite diagnostic tool – if it’s on the internet, it must be true – I’ve concluded that I’m now suffering from plantar fasciitis, which (not surprisingly), often presents in partnership with achilles tendonitis. While I feel empowered by the fact that I’ve (a) diagnosed myself (b) probably accurately with (c) two entirely non-life-threatening ailments while (d) avoiding the cost and inconvenience of a trip to the doctor, that psychological benefit doesn’t outweigh the gnawing sense that my body, after 17+ years of well-intended abuse, may be on the brink of betraying me. I’m still closer to 40 than 50, but the machismo of the last 17 years has given way to the unsettling possibility that critical components of my right leg might be wearing out faster than those of my titanium and carbon graphite left one.

I don’t have a neat solution to this quandary. I’m generally too clever by half when it comes to problem solving, especially  when fixing my own issues. (See: solving health problems via internet, above.) And so, my plan is no plan at all. I’ll just keep on doing what I’ve been doing, hope the discomfort dissipates, and monitor for signs of further physical erosion.

But I’ve realized something important – and it didn’t occur to me until I’d finished writing everything preceding this sentence. After you’ve lived with limb loss for a year or two, you think you’ve got everything figured out. But the problems you have as an amputee at age 44 aren’t the same as those you had at 27. The issues I’ll face at 65 won’t be the same as those I’ll deal with at 50.

I don’t know why I thought dealing with limb loss should be different from dealing with any other aspect of life: the more you think you know, the less you actually do. I’m just not sure why remembering that fundamental truth is so damn hard. On the bright side, my body will, I suspect, continue to remind me about it (increasingly) in the coming years.

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