“You’re like a car that’s been driving around on a flat tire for years on end,” physical therapist Jeanna -Viramontes, MPT, told me. “That’s why you’re so out of whack.”
Over a period of 14 months, I had seen three orthopedic specialists, gotten two sets of x-rays, and submitted to an MRI. Yet, until I visited with Jeanna in the spring of 2012, no one could explain why, nearly a decade after a surgeon cleaned my right knee of shredded meniscus, I not only had residual achiness in the joint, but both my ankles were swollen stiff, I had shooting pain in my quadriceps, and I couldn’t lift my left arm over my head.
Despite how bad I felt in that moment, though, Jeanna’s commonsensical analogy made me smile. In large part this was because it got me thinking about a beat-up, light-blue Chevy Malibu that I owned in college. Like me, it was comically misaligned — an accident waiting to happen.
At the age of 45, I was steadily gaining weight and fast falling out of shape. The soreness in my ankles and knees, while not crippling, was bad enough to interrupt my sleep and keep me from walking more than a few blocks at a time without wincing. Suddenly, simple pleasures like playing with my dog or seeing a show with friends proved arduous enough that I began to come up with excuses to stay on the couch. Used to being on the go, I felt cooped up and simultaneously anxious and exhausted — a perfect storm that sometimes resulted in a suffocating wave of depression.
“So my wheels are shot?” I asked Jeanna, still smiling but only half-joking.
No, she answered, the wheels could be salvaged. But I needed some serious bodywork.
Jeanna and I spent the bulk of our first two sessions road-testing shoes. I’d buy a few pairs, walk up and down her hallway, and she’d tell me which ones provided the most support. Between appointments, I started a regimen of gentle stretches and, instead of beating myself up for not being able to walk a half-mile without getting sore, I’d walk a quarter-mile and try to revel in the accomplishment.
Eventually, we began to work on building muscle. We also went over dietary choices that contributed to inflammation and discussed meditation techniques to help fortify my sleep. After three months at a stroller’s pace, my joints still conspired to keep me awake after a busy day. The intensity of the discomfort had lessened, though, and I found myself less fixated on the pain.
In retrospect, I know that Jeanna’s primary focus during those early days was managing my expectations, mainly because I was wired to equate victory with speed. To her, progress didn’t require bursting out of the gates with a head of steam, brimming with confidence, consequences be damned. It meant carefully — sometimes even gingerly — laying the foundation for another solid step forward, at the tempo circumstances demanded.
When we first began work on this issue of Experience Life, it occurred to me that the cover line “Start Strong” might seem like an oxymoron, especially for those readers contemplating a life change.
It’s at the beginning of an expedition that we’re the most likely to feel unsure of ourselves, after all. And, in many cases, the reason we’ve chosen to pursue a different path in the first place is because something has left us feeling vulnerable.
After reflecting on the last two years of my life, though — during which time I’ve managed to lose 30 pounds and find my way back to the gym — I decided that combining the words “start” and “strong” was an appropriate way to kick off the new year. It also provided an opportunity to revisit the way I used to think about the concept of strength, and how that understanding had to change for me to — slowly and steadily — find my way back toward a healthier way of life.
It also seemed appropriate because we just tweaked the title of our most popular department, “How I Did It,” to “How I’m Doing It”, an acknowledgment that our journey toward better health is a lifelong pursuit, and that we should take time to celebrate each and every clumsy advance.
David Schimke is Experience Life’s editor in chief.