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Accepting the Inexplicable
It’s been a tough couple of years. Dealing with breast cancer, chemotherapy, and the residual ailments from treatment has stretched my tolerance for accepting change, pain, and the unknown. I write, probably more often than I should, about resilience and my struggles. In addition, I share my efforts to face life fully, even defiantly, when I’m feeling discouraged and overwhelmed. But I think yesterday I transitioned into a new understanding about life in general and my own life in particular. (I suspect that Keith Lowery’s wonderful post may have subconsciously spoken to me—and I don’t remotely compare my situation to his challenges.)
I call this transformation on my part, “Accepting the Inexplicable.”
One of the most challenging conditions I have encountered in the past year is polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR). The pain is debilitating and the treatment is damaging. The drug of choice is prednisone, a steroid that has wondrous powers against pain but wreaks havoc with other parts of one’s body. Its use can cause bone loss, and since I am taking another drug to remove any vestiges of estrogen in my body (which can also lead to bone loss), I now have osteoporosis. So I’m taking drugs that are destroying my bones, and will be taking other drugs to offset it.
And regarding PMR, nobody knows what causes it.
Yesterday I visited my internist and we discussed my progress with this ailment, along with other maladies. Fortunately, I haven’t had any PMR relapses, but the only way to keep the disease in check has been to reduce the dose gradually. I remember one of our Ricochet members—was it Al French?—who said it took a year for his wife to be free of her illness and the drug.
And at the end of April (13 months since I was diagnosed), I may just be at the end of my treatment, if the blood test indicates that the inflammation has been held in check. That outcome is not certain; and a relapse is possible, too. But I am incredibly relieved to know that this part of my journey may be coming to a close.
I’m meeting that realization, however, with mixed feelings. I understand better than I ever have—not just intellectually but deep in my heart, the fragility of life. Arthritis has also cropped up in my hands. It may seem like a trivial point, but I can no longer put on my wedding ring. The doctor teasingly suggested I try another finger. But it doesn’t fit on any of them. For now, I don’t want to think about another medication. The aching in my fingers reminds me that I am alive—gratefully.
Many months ago I wrote that getting older was about “maintenance,” and that is true. But it’s also about much more than that. It means coming to terms with uncertainty, and instead of dreading it, facing and exploring it. Getting older also means accepting a level of discomfort; all the exercise in the world won’t banish the aches and pains that are emerging, but they, too, are reminders that this body is still forging ahead. Aging also means contracting conditions that will not always be understandable; I can’t always blame some oversight on my own part or some genetic indicator for changes in my health.
But more than anything, I want to remember that life is more than my physical comfort. It is more than being pain-free. It is knowing that an affliction may show up in spite of my efforts to eat healthily and exercise. It is reminding myself that all of this is life unfolding, my unique journey, and that I have the inner strength, with G-d’s help, to meet all of it—sometimes with trepidation, sometimes with frustration, but always with gratitude that I’ve come so far and I’m prepared to do as much as I can to live with grace, dignity, joy, and curiosity, regardless of what may show up.
It means accepting the inexplicable.Published in General
Many of us face a similar situation, but I know of few who have described it so well.
Thanks, Doug. I wish, though, that I had your optimistic view of life. I grew up in a family of depressed people, and have come a long way in emerging from that experience. People like you keep me positive!
What is that great Marine slogan? Embrace the Suck.
I have been so undeservedly healthy for so long that the routine discomforts of aging are as much a surprise as an annoyance. I feel entitled to at least a couple of more decades based on family history alone. The only wild card is that looking at my father’s father’s clan, longevity was inversely proportional to niceness. So I may not yet be obnoxious enough to guarantee a really long life but if I have to…
I have known some genuinely saintly people who regarded their suffering as an opportunity for a unique kind of prayer and gratitude for life itself. I really admire that but at a safe distance.
Big past disasters that I thought I would not survive make me ashamed of all unnecessary drama. Perspective was always subject to my choices even if events are not. My best friend provides an almost infinite moral and emotional ballast. When I finally proposed to her after a number of disrupted plans, the bottle of champagne purchased for the event that had been rolling around in my crappy old car was completely flat. We laughed hard. It was predictive of our married life–not the bad champagne but the loving laughter in response to adversity.
Being loved and having a rich intellectual life means that you are way the hell ahead in the great game, Susan, no matter the health challenges. Embrace the suck and hang around with us for a long time. Cheers.
OB, once again you have touched my heart. Especially the flat champagne. . .
The older I get the more I realize how good my family were to me. I felt a lot of pressure, since they were all such over-achievers, and in fields in which I was hopelessly incompetent, like engineering and playing music. But they were relentlessly cheerful, and from them I learned not to waste time and energy on things I couldn’t change. I tried to pass that on to my kids, and I think I succeeded. My son has been through life experiences that would have embittered other men, and he has built a good life in spite of them. My daughter has chosen wisely between opportunities and run with the ones that worked for her.
The biggest side effect of the therapy I’m on for my cancer is lack of energy and depression. I have addressed it by becoming a coffee snob. When the gloom fights its way through the caffeine, I fall back on one of my dad’s favorite sayings: “You never have to look too far to find someone with worse problems than you’ve got.”
I guess the best one can do is trust in God, and pull your hat down low when riding in the rodeo of this life. Do the best you can with what you got and stay well.
When I began having heart trouble (1987), we spent five years trying to find a diagnosis and were finally sent to the National Heart Institute, NIH. From nearly the first day, my question to God was, “What am I to be learning from this?” I am a Christian, and wasn’t concerned about the outcome — other than possibly leaving my family — I was simply seeking to know what I could learn from the experience.
It turned out that through many tests, I was learning patience and to lean on God.
After many, many tests, it was discovered that I had a myocardial bridge of the left anterior descending artery (LAD, the main one), meaning that artery was imbedded in the heart muscle instead of being on the outer surface. I had surgery to correct the defect, but the surgery left me with about 1/3 of the heart muscle as scar tissue, and heart failure.
So the process of my learning patience and trust in the Lord has now lasted about 36 years… so far. And I’m still learning.
Well done, Jim, well done.
Thanks for sharing your story. Now if we could just bottle patience. . .
Wishing you health and recovery, as I’m sure everyone else here is.
As wonderous and facinating as the human body is, I tend to think of it as a system (more from my job, mechanical systems: pumps, controls, boilers, chillers…). We tend to act as if one treatment or drug won’t have any side effects when it really re-shuffles the whole thing. Everything is related to/connected to everything else – we’re fools to loose sight of that. Medicine is an art. We forget that too.
You are absolutely right, Wi Con. It’s easy to forget the interconnections and that it is an art. And things can change for no apparent reason. I was prescribed a drug I have taken a number of times, even recently. I had a serious reaction to it for the first time. Ah, yes, the inexplicable once more.
I just turned 70 and so can relate to a great many of the details of the story except for the acceptance part.
Interesting, Peter. May I ask, is that a refusal on your part, of are you not able to figure out how? I promise not to lecture you!
Just haven’t gotten there yet! Going to retire soon and so maybe I will have more time to devote to this part of the journey. I meant the comment to be lighthearted and should have add the smile emoji after the comment.
No worries! Thanks for clarifying.
This made me think of a conversation I had recently with a new friend. She has lived almost her whole married life with her husband having a serious heart condition and many times in a touch and go situation. And as you know I am recently bereaved. She said on one of these occasions when she was told that he might not live, that she fell to her knees and prayed “Thy will be done.” Neither of us is religious but she said she was at peace afterward and it really helped me also – an acceptance to bring peace of mind. Suffering is difficult to experience and to watch but our only option is to accept it. And I know fully that there are millions worse off than I.
And on a lighter note re prednisone – it is a miracle drug with undesirable side effects. When I was diagnosed with lupus (during our first year of marriage) I had to stay on it for a year also while we beat the lupus into remission (well azathioprine helped also). And while I have had mild flares it has never come back fully. I hope the same is for your illness.
Thanks so much, justme. It’s always good to hear from you. I hope you are doing okay.
Edit–so glad you’ve connected with someone who understands the nature of suffering.
Such a powerful personal testimony Susan. You are truly an inspiration for so many of us, not just for sharing your challenges and remedies, even when you don’t feel well – but your deep awareness of all the changes and how it is affecting everyone is welcomed and needed…. God bless you !! PS Wear your ring on a chain around your neck and voice activate your typing – that may help. Thank you for all you do!
What a wonderful comment! Thanks so much for your kind words, FSC. And I was waiting to see if someone would suggest wearing the ring on a chain around my neck–just like high school days! It might give me a new lease on life! I may just do that . . . ;-)