This two-piece essay is from a five-part series about the emotions, challenges, and events surrounding my body, from my 32nd birthday to my 33rd. Read the first, second, and third & fourth pieces in the links.
My surgery is in a few weeks and I am trying to run as much as I can before I am forced to take a break for several months. I recently adopted a puppy, Annie, and she and I run up and down a stretch of four blocks near my house. I have never liked running with someone else before, but Annie is not judging my pace. She cares only about the array of smells around her. She couldn’t care less that I am there, and that’s why she is my favorite running partner.
These are not real runs, rather slight jobs with my dog up and down our streets. No, I lost running this year. In the year that I should be running for a marathon, my body has decided to quit on me. Entire Saturday mornings spent on Chicago’s Lake Shore Path are gone. So are the dreams of running another ultra marathon in the Pacific Northwest and maybe one day qualifying for the Boston Marathon. For years, I pushed my body to go further, to be smaller, to be better. I was never the fastest or thinnest runner, but I was the one who could run for seven hours without walking or stopping. I was the one who ran the races others couldn’t and wouldn’t. It was my edge over other people, what made me special, and now my body has taken that from me. It’s broken, aging, and sad.
My body also stole from me the only thing that made me feel beautiful. Even though I often treated running as a punishment for eating too much pizza the night before, running never made lose a great deal of weight. Rather, it made me strong and resilient. When I hit my stride and my legs were moving faster than the rest of me could keep up, I felt bolder and more courageous than any kind of mantra, yoga, or religion. Running was my spiritual practice.
Now, I don’t have it. I feel ugly, empty, and scared that I might never get it my back. My body has failed me.
I’m nervous about my surgery. I have never been under anesthesia before. I have been blacked out from drinking, but I doubt it is the same, and for some reason, this feels scarier. I am nervous that I will gain weight from lounging around the house and eating whatever I want. I am annoyed that from now on, when at the doctor’s appointment, I will no longer be able to speed past the medical history section. I worry that I am taking too much time off of work for the procedure but also not enough. My worst fear, though, is that I will have to ask for help. I will not be able to shower or put shoes on my own. I will need someone to bring me food and water. I will be forced to ask friends to come over to my house to socialize instead of meeting them where they are. I will be an inconvenience to people.
Two weeks before my surgery, my boyfriend of two years purposes. He takes me to dinner then we walk along the beach, stopping at a bench. He tells me he wants to go on adventures forever, and then grabs my hand. Crying, I say yes. He then takes me for ice cream where a bunch of my friends from Chicago are waiting. I will order as much ice cream as I want, thinking to myself that this is the perfect night to indulge. I get a free pass for the extra scoop of double chocolate, everyone will say..
My friends snap a few photos of the evening. My face looks happy, but I am distracted by the girth of my waistline. No matter how loose my jeans feel or how small my profile looks in a slanted mirror, pictures always bring me to reality. I am definitely not thin, and it’s foolish to ever think I was. Losing weight before the wedding is a fresh worry planted into my head.
The following week, I attend yet another wedding of one of my friends Peace Corps. During two years as a volunteer, I wasted journal pages with emotional dribble about being the fattest in my group and grand schemes to get thin. Each time I met with my Peace Corps group, I waited for people to tell me how thin I had gotten in the last few months, for them to recognize that I was really a thick girl hiding under pounds of stress and discomfort in being an unfamiliar place. That was four years ago, and I have lost some weight since then, but not enough for pride. I had a specific weight number in mind that I wanted to be at that for this wedding, for no other reason that I didn’t want to be the fattest one again. I have not hit that number.
At the wedding, a couple of people do compliment my looks, saying I look great. “Oh, I am probably just losing muscle mass from not running.”
I drink before a full year of sobriety is up. Knowing that I would be heavily medicated with serious opioids when my birthday comes around, I flirt with the idea of ending my year-long sobriety at the wedding.
The wedding weekend kicks off with a welcome party at a brewery. My boyfriend and I show up late because of a delayed flight, so by the time we got there, I am so excited to catch up with my friends that I end up not ordering a drink. I wasn’t sure if I was going to (I decided to make a game-time decision), but seeing my friends seems more important than the drink.
The next day, though, when I am offered a glass of prosecco, I take it. I have another glass of wine at the wedding and then three beers. Five drinks in all.
Drinking again is underwhelming. I don’t feel changed at all after a year of sobriety. I feel guilty, sure, but mostly because I worry what others may think of me since I didn’t technically make it to the full year. Also, there is less joy in drinking than I remember, but I didn’t go as hard as I usually would under those circumstances. I guess there lies in the change.
What does one wear to surgery? I bring sweatpants specifically for the procedure and then I debate about which t-shirt to pair with them. Part of me wants to wear a race shirt from one of the marathons that I’ve run, to prove to the nurses that there is something special about me. But, most of those shirts are tighter than I probably need for surgery, so I select an old swimming shirt. When the nurses and doctor assistants ask how I tore my labral, I say running but immediately regret it. I don’t feel like a real runner who does so many miles she tore a tissue in her hip.
The nurse sticks an IV in me, and I tell the doctor that my pain is at 2, when it’s really a 5. My hand hurts with the IV, and I can’t stop thinking about how this is only the beginning of several painful months.
Eventually, I am wheeled into the operating room and the doctor’s assistant, the nurse, and the anesthesiologist surround me like I am something they are dissecting, and I guess I am. The anesthesiologist puts a mask over my face and tells me to take in big deep breaths.
“Think of a warm paradise,” she says.
I think of an old tree that was near my village in Peace Corps. I’d pass it when I was walking to a nearby village for supplies or to collect my mail. I always dreamt of sitting under that tree and reading a book or watching the clouds, but I never did. I never had time to acknowledge its beauty, or rather, I never took the time.
The next thing I remember is the nurse bringing me back to consciousness. I asked her about her ring and then I tell her that I am recently engaged. I am disappointed in her lack of reaction. She brings my body back to the real world, first by feeding it crackers and lemon tea, then by dressing me and finally putting me on crutches.
At home, for the next few days, I move from the couch to the bed. I strap an ice machine to my body to prevent blood clots. I put my foot into a machine that slowly moves my leg for four hours a day. I need my boyfriend to help me get up from every position. I am not strong enough to make myself a sandwich. I lay in my bed, getting more sleep than I’ve had in months.
Three days after my surgery, I watch coverage of the Chicago Marathon from my couch. There is less emotional pain than I thought there would be. I am not sad. My hip feels OK at this point, and after 11 months of pain, I start to think about what pain-free running would be like. Maybe I will run again. Maybe not marathons, but other races. Maybe my body and I can find that love we had for each other in physical movement again. Maybe I can remember running as something I did for my heart and not my waistline. That’s what I want more than anything.
It’s my 33rd birthday, and my goal for the day is to leave the house for the first time since the surgery to get a hot meal and ice cream. But, instead, I spend most of the day on the toilet. A rough bout of constipation leaves me in a weird limbo. I go to the toilet hoping for movement, and after an hour, move back to the bed where I sit in a fetal position. This lasts seven hours. I am nauseous and in pain.
In the next year, I will worry about my weight and the flubber of my arms as I prepare to walk down the aisle. I will try to return to running and yoga, but with persistent hip pain. There will not be a marathon, or even much running for me, in this year. Rather, my body and I will need to come up with a new agreement. I will push it and it will respond with pain. I will decide the only way to enjoy my body is to love it, and that takes way more acceptance of and kindness towards my body that I know how to give.
At the end of the day, my body no longer aches. The pills worked their way through my system and all the waste has exited. I pick at the sushi my boyfriend brought home for me, but a few hours later, I devour it. I crumble into bed like a soft cheese. My mother and boyfriend prepare me for sleep by strapping on an ice machine that inflates with a cooling water to my back. They then force both of my feet into styrofoam boots that are then fastened to a large cylinder with strips of velcro, all of this to keep me from turning on my side. I’m exhausted, mostly from trying to do normal things people do with their bodies every day. I fall asleep easily.
I am 33 today.