Monday, October 29, 2018

Thoughts on Unruly Bodies

Hiking above Heart Lake on Sunday. It's truly shoulder season here — warm, incredibly windy, and weird snow conditions

I know, I know, I said I wasn't going to write any more blog posts about slumps. This is only about that on the periphery. Also, I lied. 

Earlier this year, the wonderful author Roxane Gay compiled an online anthology called “Unruly Bodies.” In this series, 25 writers explored emotional, cultural and scientific connections with their bodies, with titles such as “The Body That Understands What Fullness Is” and “The Body That’s Too Asian and Too Sick for America.” Each essay offered new insight into the different ways individuals experience the world because of the bodies in which they reside.

A woman with a progressive neuromuscular disease, Kelly Davio, contributed “The Body That Can’t Run Marathons.” Kelly’s essay was about coping with chronic pain and disability. More broadly, it was about the fantasy of discipline.

 “I understand the temptation to look at the body as a thing that can be disciplined out of its unruly ways — something that, with the application of enough will or moral fortitude can be made to behave, to be quiet, to stop its complaining,” she wrote. “After all, I broke my own bones over the fantasy that I could will my body to be something that its very cells are incapable of becoming.”

Kelly didn’t even want to run marathons. She just wanted to run. Even after repeated warnings from her doctor about her porous bones, she stepped onto a treadmill. She jogged, just a little, to see how it felt. Then her ankle snapped.

“The body has its own rules," she concluded. "Its logic doesn’t hinge on America’s moral panic over pain, just as it doesn’t hinge on my daydreams about achieving transcendence on a treadmill.”

Wind and snow conditions on the Divide looked a little too iffy to risk ascending the headwall
I’ve been thinking about this anthology recently, because so much of it refutes athletic dogma: What the mind can conceive, the body can achieve. Goals are not deserved, goals are made. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Pain is weakness leaving the body. We’re all capable, as long as we put in the work.

I’m guilty of embracing such dogma. “If I can do it, anyone can,” is something I’ve said, because I’ve never been an natural athlete. But I also didn’t fully recognize my own socioeconomic and health privilege that allowed me to invest the necessary time and energy into pursuing my goals. “I can do anything,” is also something I nearly believed, before life rightly trampled all over my ego. Now I agree with Kelly. The body has its own rules, and its logic doesn't hinge on self-righteous platitudes.

It’s not that I no longer believe we should strive toward goals — life is all about striving. But there’s a certain tranquility in accepting inevitable limitations, and in doing so, better understanding our uniquely unruly selves.

I told Beat I wasn't feeling strong enough to endure the wind. We still went for an off-trail excursion to a nearby ridge.

I’m a little tired of my unruly self. All of these new little problems build on past little problems, like compounding interest. There’s a little bruise on my right shin. It’s been there for more than two months, since I fell into a boulder on my birthday. The leg still feels tender when I run downhill, but the pain is minor, not worth fussing about. Still ... two months. I fell because of my rickety left ankle. It causes instability on the most benign terrain, but I become especially clumsy on the chaotic slopes of the mountains I love. I injured this ankle badly when I was 19 — probably broke it. Never had it set. Beat thinks I should have this looked at. Maybe it's a problem that can still be corrected.

Surgery for a 20-year-old injury seems absurd, especially when I can still take my wobbly body wherever I please. Still, the bruises and scars continue to accumulate. I feel them when it’s cold, when the wind blows, when I’m teetering on some ledge. I startle and struggle to catch my breath.

Sometimes my breathing is just bad. It’s so bad that I can’t even boost my heart rate out of zone 2 before I’m winded. I start gasping when I walk up the stairs. I become dizzy and despondent. For three years, this what I’ve invested in — dozens of hours and thousands of health care dollars — to find a solution. I agreed to be injected with what feels like poison to me — allergen immunotherapy — on average once a week since October 2016. Another doctor treats me for thyroid disease, with a liver-damaging drug. Am I measurably less thyrotoxic and less allergic to things now? Yes. But sometimes my breathing is still bad.

Recently, the distant but familiar anxiety episodes of my early 20s re-emerged. Do I need a psychiatrist now? More drugs? Maybe I just need more time to heal, but I’m losing faith that any treatment will solve these issues. At this point I’m just waiting to be diagnosed with functional illness, which is another way for the medical profession to tell me they can’t help me. At least then, I’ll be that much closer to acceptance of my unruly body.

I enjoyed the scenic diversion, but I was annoyed by how weak I felt, and embarrassed that I was holding Beat back.

As much as I want to discipline my mind toward acceptance, wild hope will likely persist. I may venture down the rabbit hole of holistic medicine, which is similar to athletic dogma in that it offers unconvincingly simple solutions to complex problems. But there is wisdom buried within.

Traditional Chinese medicine embraces an intrinsic connection between emotions and organs. This tradition teaches that people hold grief in their lungs. What would I need to grieve? Nothing right now. The people I love are mostly healthy and happy. My life is good. I’m undeniably lucky. But as I process current events, studies about climate change, and the increasingly volatile state of nature, I think, “This is what I’m grieving. The world I love has been given a terminal diagnosis."

The whole world is a big thing to grieve, and bodies can only hold so much grief. So I close out of news sites and promise myself limited exposure to online commentary for at least a week. Hopefully I’ll start sleeping better, stop sweating at night, start breathing with my whole set of lungs. I do recognize that my body still enjoys a lot of privilege, especially when I read essays like Kelly’s. But that isn’t the point of the Unruly Bodies series. It wasn’t created to help the normals feel better about themselves. It’s there to illustrate that none of us are truly normal. It’s futile to try to fit ourselves and our uniquely unruly bodies into tidy molds.

I’m tempted to toss all of my striving to the wind and just run free, as free as I can, for as long as I’m able.


  1. Of course I must comment immediately. Because my unruliness is the knowledge that old age is lurking. If you even say that people pounce: look at so and so, still skiing at 70! Don't tell yourself you are old and you won't be! Pshaw, you're still young! maybe some kernels of truth, but the reality is that sooner than I'd like, I will have to accept limitations. I don't have any answers to this or what you are going through.

    1. I know a fair number of 60-something and 70-something folks in my circles who still run 100-milers, multi-day bikepacking, etc. Doubtlessly there's some genetic luck involved, although I'd have to include my own father among the impressively fit 60-somethings, so I can still hope there's some active longevity in my blood. He went through a number of health problems in his 30s and 40s, so that gives me hope as well.

      But yes, accepting increasing limitations is daunting. My pessimism about the future runs quite dark at times. I battle it constantly, but when I'm experiencing a low, it gets away from me. During these times, I think if I actually live to see 60 and the world isn't literally on fire, it will be a huge win.

  2. Jill, I wholeheartedly agree with avoiding the insane/inane 24 hour news cycle. It all just brings me down and makes me depressed. I think I will follow you in checking out of that madness.

  3. Read The Circadian Code. Dr. Satchin Panda, PhD

  4. I guess how we view our bodies may also depend on the purpose of our lives. Perhaps Steven Hawking thought of his wheelchair bound body as means to supply oxygen to his genius brain? And perhaps he was happy with that, who knows? I'm myself perfectly happy with my allergy, asthma and extra fat laden body to take me through 60 hours a week of corporate madness (I mean finding a cure for cancer ;), just to allow me for a 25 mile bike ride or 10 mile run on a weekend. If I asked my body to carry me across winter Alaska, I know how unruly it would become very quickly. Self actualization...OK, I lied about the extra fat, not happy at all!

    1. I remember reading that Hawking was told in his teens that he only had a couple more years to live. He considered every year after that a bonus ... and it's amazing what he was able to contribute in those decades.

      For years I was happy believing my body was just a budget-model vehicle that I drove around to experience the world. But recent, rapid swings in my mood and thoughts revealed that there's no real line where the vehicle ends and I begin. My body drives me. And I resent that.

      Would I be happier if my purpose was curing cancer? Perhaps. During my slumps it takes most of my mental energy to go through the necessary motions of routine and not succumb to despair about the state of the world. The silly running and biking is still my best outlet for joy.

  5. Thanks a ton for sharing the anthology. I will definitely read those. Hang in there. I definitely admire your commitment to the adventure lifestyle and hear your struggles with your health.

  6. As to injuries, I am living (as are we all) the fact that pretty much all the injuries from our past will come back to haunt us. That stuff adds up and comes back with a vengeance. Sprained ankles, dislocated shoulders, whiplash (ESPECIALLY WHIPLASH) WILL come back and say HELLO, and then take up permanent residency as an unwelcome squatter in your body. But then again, there's that old saying about "crossing the final finishing line sliding across sideways, shouting YE HAW, WHAT A RIDE!", with your body all broken-down and used up, rather than having played it safe all your life.

    1. One of my favorite lyrics, from a song called "Leave the Lights On" by Field Report:

      "And the body remembers what the mind forgets
      Archives every heartbreak and cigarette
      And these reset bones, they might not hold
      Yeah but they might yet."

  7. Going on a mere 5 days, sitting here in God's Playground nursing a partially torn hamstring from a misstep while trying to snake up through a slot canyon full of choke stones and deep pools of water. Your lament resonates with at least a degree of understanding regarding frustration and, well, the Hell of less than full speed ahead. Every step is fraught with pain and thoughts of a detached tendon, surgery and is this the beginning of the end.
    I could only tolerate a single day of rest; after all, I am in Heaven and it needs to be explored Seeing you continue to be Jill Outside in spite of your slump...less distance, slower pace and all...I followed your example and limp off. It sucks, but it beats sitting around. Hopefully time will hold all the answers, right? In the meantime, "toss all of my striving to the wind and just run free, as free as I can, for as long as I’m able." YES!

    1. Torn hamstring ... ouch! I've had a number of injuries in past years that I was able to play through, for the most part, utilizing one of my two sports — running when I had carpal tunnel, cycling when I had a torn LCL, gym time when I'm particularly bruised and battered from a trail-running fall. My Achilles has been giving me on-off grief since June, and I fear more focused running efforts could bring on full-blown tendonitis. Luckily I'm still happy to switch it up. I hope you heal up soon, no surgery needed.

  8. Hey Jill. I've found the prevalence of the 'you can do anything if you train/try/believe hard enough' idea a little nauseating in endurance endeavors. It is an interesting subject because willpower and pushing through 'limits' is a necessary part of the process, for certain. But there are limitations. There always are. I think we talked about the "Sports Gene" book while running outside Boulder last year. The stories it tells are fascinating by themselves, but put together it's a huge pile of evidence against the athletic dogma that anyone can do anything. Anyway, I hope you can work through the slumps and make them less frequent.

    1. I remember that conversation. I still need to read that book. I agree, endurance culture can become tiresome. I can understand why some folks walk away. Problem is, I'm not quite ready for that yet. I believe these kinks in my mental health could vastly benefit from some good old-fashioned self-transcendence. Right now I'm trying to settle on just looking away from the current ongoing train wreck of current events.

    2. I think one can still participate in the endurance world while not subscribing to the commonly held beliefs. Though I do think running, in general, suffers the most from the 'you can do anything' delusion. I still like running though. :)

      Here are more unsolicited book suggestions, but I try to focus on the long term trends rather than the current blips of badness happening. In the big picture there is much to be hopeful for, while still readily admitting that there is much yet to do. Rational Optimism is one term for it. Factfulness by Hans Rosling and Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker are two books I'd highly recommend to everyone.


Feedback is always appreciated!