Suffering in silence: my struggle with alopecia areata

Patti's birthday 2014 photo

November 23, 2014. Can you tell I have alopecia areata?

by Patti Fish Stephens

February 9, 2017

This month marks 10 years since I was first diagnosed with the autoimmune disease alopecia areata. And since last week’s discussion topic in my Nar-Anon group was vulnerability, I have decided it is finally time to talk openly about my experiences with this non-life-threatening but emotionally devastating disease. After sharing on this blog about my struggles in dealing with my daughter’s heroin addiction I heard from so many people who appreciated my willingness to share openly about our family’s experiences. If I can share without shame about that, I decided I can share about this as well.

Alopecia is an autoimmune disease that causes a person’s immune system to mistakenly attack their hair follicles, resulting in patchy, partial scalp hair loss (alopecia areata), total scalp hair loss (alopecia totalis), or complete loss of all body hair, including eyelashes (alopecia universalis). According to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation (www.naaf.org), over 6.6 million Americans and over 147 million worldwide have or will develop a form of this disease in their lifetimes. Given current census statistics, this is equivalent to right about 2% of the population, which means you likely know someone who has this disease, whether you realize they have it or not. Odds are, you know more than one person with alopecia.

While it may be visually obvious that a person is missing all of their hair, it may not be apparent why; often, persons with alopecia are assumed to have cancer. Others who are completely or nearly bald wear a wig and so their hair loss may not be obvious. I fall into the category of alopecia areata, meaning I lose my hair in round patches on various locations on my scalp. Because my hair loss has always been on lower or back portions of my head, it has not often been very obvious. I have been lucky so far.

I should note here that there is no cure for alopecia, and it is not fully understood what causes the disease. There are treatments for milder forms, but none for more severe cases. More research is needed. While science has found that there is a genetic component to alopecia, it is believed that multiple genes plus environmental factors (such as a major life stressor) work together to create the right setting for the disease, making it unlikely to be directly passed on to the children of someone with alopecia. There is a lot of misinformation on the internet about the cause of alopecia; many claim that alopecia is caused by stress, which is inaccurate (and, incidentally, blames the victim). My doctor’s best explanation about this is simple: while stress doesn’t cause alopecia, it can likely trigger it, exacerbate it, and provoke recurrent episodes. My anecdotal history with alopecia would support my doctor’s theories.

I was first diagnosed with alopecia areata in the early months of 2007. My hairdresser, who is an exceptionally kind person, found it while cutting my hair. At that time my hair was quite short. She said, “Now, don’t panic, but I want to ask you if you have been pulling your hair?” Of course, the first thing I do when someone says “don’t panic” is to panic, but I told her no and asked why she asked. She knew I had been having a very hard time in the year since my brother’s death from overdose in January 2006. She explained that I had a bald patch on the back of my head about the size of a dime, that she had seen this before, and that I should call my doctor right away to get a professional diagnosis. She was absolutely correct when she explained that stress (such as my brother’s sudden death) could be a trigger for the disease, and that sometimes it will just grow back on its own.

I went to my general practitioner who diagnosed me with alopecia areata. She said there were several treatment options, and that I could be treated by either her or see a specialist (dermatologist). Because the spot was small (although it had grown a bit, it was only about the size of a nickel by now) and isolated, I opted to be treated by my GP. She told me there were many creams and ointments on the market to treat alopecia, but that by and large they didn’t have much effect. She said we could wait and see if the spot got bigger or started growing back on its own. Or we could inject it with a couple shots of cortisone, the only really effective treatment for regrowth, and come back to check its progress in a month. Although the shots sounded awful, I was scared of the bald spot spreading any further, so I opted for the shots and came back in a month. Indeed, the spot had new hair growth, although it was white. She gave me a follow up shot and told me to let her know if I had any recurrences.

I checked the spot from time to time, but I didn’t find any more bald patches and eventually the area of white hair grew back in my natural color. My hairdresser continued to check for new patches each time I visited, and after a year or so with no recurrences, I felt relieved that the alopecia seemed to be gone. By this time I was seeing a bereavement counselor and had made progress in processing my brother’s death. I was inspired to go back to school and pursue my dreams because I knew my brother would have wanted me to. He was always so proud of me no matter what I did, and I wanted to make the most of my life after seeing just how short life could be.

So in 2008 I went back to college part time and continued working part time. After several semesters of taking one or two classes at a time, I calculated how long it would take me to finish at my current rate. My husband and I decided I should quit my job and finish my degree once and for all, so in 2009 I became a full time student again at the age of 39. My son was also in college, so the finances were a real stretch. I pushed on with a full academic load and got involved with the college’s literary magazine and drama department. Although I was constantly exhausted from staying up late to study and write, I loved my coursework and all of the extra activities on campus, and I was grateful to my husband and kids for their support. For the first time since my brother’s death, I felt I was beginning to find my way again.

Then just a few weeks into my senior year, in what was to be my penultimate semester, my 22 year old nephew tragically committed suicide. That was September of 2011. Thus began a series of events which, I believe, caused enough stress to re-trigger my alopecia areata into an active state that has now been going continuously for over four years:  in the spring of 2012 my brother (whose son had just died) was rushed to the hospital with acute onset pancreatitis. We were informed that the mortality rate was approximately 80% or higher in cases like his. Amazingly, he lived, but I spent the last month of my senior year commuting to the hospital every other day to sit with him–terrified that I was losing my only remaining sibling–while juggling my senior thesis, an internship, an independent study course, and family life, all the while continuing to maintain a 4.0 grade point average and finally, graduating first in my college class.

Given the stress-trigger theory of alopecia, it’s no wonder that my hair loss returned with a vengeance that fall, almost exactly a year after my nephew’s suicide. (My brother’s death had also taken just over a year to trigger the active disease.) I had been at a new job just a few months when I started losing hair again, in nearly the same spot as the first time. I dreaded the thought of those shots again, so I ignored it, hoping it would just grow back on its own this time. But it didn’t. Instead, it got worse–much worse. By the time I got in to a dermatologist for treatment, the bald area was at least 2 inches x 2 inches. Every morning I styled my hair so that the bald area in the back was covered with as much hair as possible, then I sprayed it with hairspray until I had a helmet of hair that hopefully shielded my bare scalp from public view.

Because I had let the bald area get so large before going to the doctor; and because this time it was so much worse that my GP referred me to a dermatologist; and because I then had to wait weeks to get into the dermatologist, the area grew to a maximum of about 3 inches by 3 inches. Then, because I still wanted to avoid those shots, the doctor gave me a combination steroid cream and Minoxidil (Rogaine) treatment plan, which I tried for a month before returning for a follow-up exam. The treatment didn’t work, so the doctor recommended cortisone shots as my last remaining option. Thus began my monthly appointments in hell; since the winter of 2012/2013, I have had recurring bald patches for more than 4 years straight.

Most months I have had to receive 20-30 injections directly into my scalp. In the worst  months, I have received nearly 40. Each month, after examining my scalp for regrowth and new active balding areas, the doctor fills the syringes and tells me about how many jabs to expect. Now, here’s the thing about these injections: the website for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation mentions this cortisone shot treatment and states blithely that, “The most common treatment is the injection of cortisone into the bare skin patches. The injections are usually given by a dermatologist who uses a tiny needle to give multiple injections into the skin in and around the bare patches. The injections are repeated once a month. Both the needle prick and the slight tingling are usually well tolerated and there is no discomfort after leaving the doctor’s office.”

In my experience, this description couldn’t be further from the truth. Needle prick? It’s more of a stab. (My dermatologist explained that the injections have to be given at a certain depth to stimulate the hair follicles.) These injections HURT. They are PAINFUL. Sometimes they are downright EXCRUCIATING. But never, ever, would I describe them as being well tolerated. Sometimes a lot of shots are needed all in one area, and other times they need to be spread out all over the scalp. (I still haven’t decided which is worse.) And the part about “no discomfort after leaving the doctor’s office”? I was in so much pain after my last round of injections (only 10 last month!) that I was still having muscle spasms in my neck and shoulders FOUR DAYS LATER.

I have developed a routine which I follow to reduce the pain and lingering effects of my shots each month. First, I take two Aleve pills just before my appointment. Second, when possible, my husband comes with me and while my doctor injects my scalp, I squeeze his hand harder than I ever did in childbirth. It was during one of his visits with me that he asked the doctor if there wasn’t anything she could do to reduce the pain. She offered topical lidocaine, which ended up not being particularly useful; it was difficult to apply because I couldn’t find all of the active areas on my scalp very well OR predict where I would need shots beforehand. Later she began mixing liquid lidocaine into the cortisone so that the shots have a numbing effect, reducing the pain of injections in areas where a lot are needed in close proximity, and helping reduce scalp tenderness after injections.

After my monthly appointment, I often stop and reward my own bravery with a Malley’s Pretzel Crunch bar. When I get home I wrap flexible ice packs in a towel (so that I don’t get blood on my pillow case–did I mention the shots often bleed?) and lay down to ice the injection areas. And for the period of time when I was getting 30+ shots every visit, I also scheduled a massage for either later in the day or the day following my injections, because my neck, shoulders, and back would all be so sore from tensing up during the extremely painful injections. I also have to be careful when washing my hair for a few days after injections, as my scalp feels very tender, like it has bruises all over it.

While what I have written above describes the physical pain from cortisone treatments, it doesn’t begin to touch on the emotional pain of this disease. Because this post is already so long, I will tackle that topic in depth in a later piece, but for now I will say that currently my hardest struggle is with the fact that just a few months ago, I needed so few shots that my doctor and I were both optimistic that I was nearly in remission after 4 years of active alopecia. But this month’s visit made it clear that that is not the case.

Despite my disappointment, I know that I am lucky; my alopecia can be treated. Not everyone responds to the cortisone shots, so those patients have a whole slew of other issues (such as shaving their heads and/or wearing wigs) to contend with. Thus far my alopecia has stayed low enough on my head that it can usually be concealed by wearing my hair one length and parting it strategically to cover the thin areas. My patches always respond to treatment, but as the affected areas begin to regrow, new active areas appear on the periphery of the previously bald areas. This leads to a constant game of chasing the active areas around my head.

I hope this post has given insight into what alopecia areata is and how this autoimmune disease has impacted my life. I welcome questions about my own personal experience and hope that my sharing will further the public conversation about this condition. Most of all, I hope that by reading what I have gone through, it will raise awareness and compassion for others suffering in silence.

Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to receive my posts via email in the future.

Patti Fish Stephens

Advertisements

The importance of self-care when living with a loved one’s addiction (and what this looks like for me)

img_4549-2

Small, simple acts of creative self-indulgence can make an enormous impact on our sense of well-being. This antique wheel barrow was planted with alyssum…to feed the soul.

by Patti Fish Stephens

January 26, 2017

A few months ago I promised a post on self-care for those dealing with the effects of a loved one’s addiction. It has taken me a while to write about this, but I am glad I waited, because recently I happened across another blogger’s post about self-care for persons with depression. Then a reading at a recent Nar-Anon meeting focused on grief. Reading these two pieces helped me to think about the connections among addiction, depression, and grief. I personally have struggled with depression, grieved a complicated grief, and currently live with a recovering addict, so I have had to redefine self-care for myself numerous times. What amazes me is how difficult it can be to practice during the times I most need it, and how similarly the stresses of living with addiction, depression, and grief have affected me. Here I will be sharing what has worked for me; maybe some of it will work for you, too.

On self-care

Before talking about how I personally practice self-care, I want to comment on the term itself. The blogger who wrote about self-care during depression commented that this phrase is thrown around so often in professional development programs for social workers that it has become virtually meaningless. My own experience in the workplace supports that claim; I was one of only three non-nurses in a department of more than twenty full-time and many more part-time nursing instructors at a small college. All of these nurses either had practiced or were currently practicing in area hospitals. During department meetings and professional development programs, self-care would be stressed alongside the statistics of burnout, medical errors, and other major issues of this helping profession. But during these same meetings with exhortations to take good care of ourselves –get plenty of rest, eat healthfully, exercise, drink plenty of water, etc.– I was, on numerous occasions, the recipient of thinly-veiled martyr-complex comments simply because I went to the ladies’ room. Comments like, “I have worked 12 hour shifts without ever taking a bathroom break” and “You’d never make it as a nurse” or “As a nurse you learn to hold it because you have to” were common.

These comments, although generally spoken in good humor, contained an undercurrent of judgement which I found to be not only unkind, but hypocritical. (Now, lest I sound judgemental here myself, I freely confess I have been guilty of the same kind of self-martyring comments from time to time; just ask my husband about the “definition of full handed for moms vs. dads” diatribe I have spouted at him periodically since our kids were in diapers.) Freedom from physical discomfort, including hunger, thirst, cold, heat, need to void, etc., is the most basic human requirement on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. “Holding it” is, therefore, a denial of a most basic human physical need, and is nothing to brag about or shame someone else for not being able to do, especially after encouraging “self-care.”

Meeting the body’s most basic physical needs is self-care, but it is only the beginning. Self-care ideally encompasses the mind and heart and spirit as well as the body, but during crisis mode–such as a bout of clinical depression, the sudden onset of grief, or living with active or recovering addiction–taking care of even the most basic physical needs can be overwhelming. This means self-care will look different not only from person to person but from time to time in the same person’s life.

Over the past year I have sincerely tried to embrace self-care, especially since my daughter’s overdose in March of 2015. When she came home from the hospital I spent so much time taking her to appointments with specialists, driving her back and forth to IOP (Intensive Out Patient therapy) each day, and making sure she took her medicine every 12 hours that I had begun to ignore my own basic needs, as well as the not-so-basic ones. What made this worse was that when she relapsed again just a few weeks after her nearly-fatal overdose, I felt betrayed. I had worked so hard to help her stay healthy. How could she do this to herself–and to me?

Nar-Anon Family Group

This is where Nar-Anon came in for me. My husband and I started attending meetings while my daughter was still in the hospital, and those meetings soon became our lifeline. It was in these meetings that I found the strength to refocus my energy on myself instead of the addict in my life. By listening to the experiences of others in the group, I was able to see that focusing on my own needs–that is, practicing self-care–was truly the only thing I could control in my life. I couldn’t control my daughter, her addiction, her recovery, or others’ response to this crisis in our family. The only thing I can control in my life is my own response to whatever occurs around me. While this has always been true, it took my daughter’s journey through addiction to teach me that this is simply another way to express the core belief of recovery: that I am powerless over anyone else’s life choices.

So, my journey of self-care began at Nar-Anon, but seeds of certain aspects of recovery had been planted before this at family programs we attended at our daughter’s outpatient and inpatient rehab. I have mentioned in previous posts that my daughter had two especially gifted rehab counselors who not only helped her but our whole family. One of these counselors suggested I try, among other things, restorative yoga to help relieve my symptoms of stress, which had reached an all-time high. I was most appreciative of her kindness but highly skeptical of her suggestions, which all sounded like New Age mumbo-jumbo to this WASPy, midwestern, middle-class mom.

Restorative Yoga Classes

It’s funny what you’ll try when you feel you have nothing left to lose.

True story: I cried through most of my first yoga class. I left puddles on my mat on either side of my head where the tears silently dripped off my face as we did “legs up the wall.” Mind you, this was a Gentle 1 yoga class. In other words, the only level below this class would be sleep (which also happens to be highly therapeutic). All of the poses are done on the floor; there are no standing poses. There is nothing highly strenuous–physically or mentally–about a Gentle 1 class, as it is meant to be restorative. Yet the simple act of stretching out my over-stressed body released so much tension that it hurt, both physically and emotionally. We talk about being “stressed-out” in our society, about getting tension headaches. We know that when we are stressed, our shoulders get tight. But what happens to our bodies when we let go of that stress? There has to be a converse reaction (Newton’s third law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction) and this is just as true for our physical bodies as it is in science class experiments and car crashes. So when we release our tension, stress, and emotional pain, it is no surprise that we then feel physical pain, as our bodies are reacting every bit as much as our minds. This is the mind-body connection at work.

Meditation Classes

While attending weekly yoga classes I saw a flyer for six-week meditation sessions offered by the instructor I had come to trust during gentle yoga. I had, for some time, been curious about meditation, but once again my conservative upbringing judged this to be another New-Agey fad. The yoga had helped my stress levels so much, though, that I decided to give it a try. Another true story: I cried through almost my entire first Yoga Nidra session. By now my instructor knew me a little bit and I had shared some of what was going on in my life, so she probably wasn’t too shocked when the pools formed on my mat again. I, however, knew I was crying for more than stress relief: during the guided meditation of Yoga Nidra, I envisioned my brother, who had been dead for ten years by then, and physically felt his presence. New Agey mumbo-jumbo? Sounds like it. But have you ever had a dream about someone you’ve lost that seems so real that you forget for just a moment when you wake up that they are gone? That’s what this was like, except I knew this was just a visit. It was so intense and so real that I could barely contain the noise of my sobbing during the meditation. Meditation, like yoga, has both physical and emotional/mental/spiritual benefits.

Individual Counseling

I had actually begun seeing a therapist several months before my daughter’s addiction came to light. I had been having a difficult time managing several chronic health issues–mostly related to or exacerbated by stress–and had tried everything I could think of on my own. I had implemented an exercise routine, lost a significant amount of weight, and completely changed my eating habits. I had read self-help books, worked through their exercises, and tried to change my mindset in addition to my body. But still my physical symptoms persisted. I was beginning to show signs of depression from dealing with the frustration of so many chronic health issues, and that was the tipping point for me. I had tried to change everything about my self that I could control and I was still stressed beyond reason. Clearly, I needed another perspective. I did some research on the Cleveland Clinic website and found a psychologist who specialized in dealing with chronic health issues and grief, among other things.

From my first meeting with my therapist, I knew I had made the right choice for me. I know that I was lucky, as not everyone develops a good rapport with the first counselor they meet, or even the second. It helped tremendously that I live in a suburban area flush with hospitals and healthcare providers of every stripe. I had a lot of options. Not everyone is so fortunate. I also have excellent, affordable healthcare which allowed me to visit my therapist as often as once a week if necessary. I am aware that many do not have these advantages, and for what I have, I am truly thankful.

I had been seeing my psychologist for several months and just starting to get to the root of some of my issues when my daughter’s addiction came to light. All of my focus turned to dealing with this new challenge in our family. I have, for about two years now, largely been operating in crisis mode. My therapist, in conjunction with my Nar-Anon Family Group, have helped me to focus on taking care of my own needs while also trying to support my daughter in her recovery. It was my therapist who helped me give myself permission to leave a position in a workplace that was so ill-fitting and toxic that I could no longer deny it was the major source of my stress. My daughter’s disease was the factor that tipped the scales and finally gave me the impetus to leave, but it was my psychologist who helped me through the practical steps of actually quitting and embarking on a new kind of life, one that truly suited me and that helped reduce my stress levels despite being in the worst nightmare a parent could imagine.

Gardening

The summer before I left my job I had grown various herbs and tomatoes in containers on my deck. For years I had fantasized about having a garden, but it always seemed to be such an overwhelming task to undertake for someone who hadn’t grown anything since about first grade. The following winter was when our daughter’s addiction came to our attention, and by the first summer of living with her disease, the planting a real garden had taken on a great deal of symbolism in my mind. I needed something to focus on other than the physical and emotional pain I was in. This was during the time of my worst chronic health symptoms, and my therapist fully supported and encouraged planting and tending a garden as a therapeutic exercise. I was still at my job but taking extensive FMLA time to try to get my health issues under control and also deal with my daughter’s ongoing battle with alcohol and heroin addiction.

That summer was a revelation. Planting and tending that garden was truly life-changing for me. Not only did it give me a place to focus my energy, it gave me tomatoes. And basil. And lemon thyme. (How did I ever cook without it?)  And a sense of purpose. And real, living proof that something I invested in did indeed reap a harvest. The garden was a tangible reminder that, despite how long it took to be visible, real growth was occurring, both in me and my daughter. In a word, the garden gave me hope.

Journaling/Writing

The first thing I did upon leaving my job that summer was to start blogging about my garden. It was the smallest of gardens, but that didn’t deter me from sharing my thoughts, experiences, successes, and failures with others. I was done with being self-critical, so I just wrote. My 4 x 4 foot garden plot was worthy of my time and attention, and it contained revelations I had never imagined. Soon I was writing about other things as well: my quest toward minimalism; the whole-food, plant based diet we had adopted; different types of exercise I had experimented with; recipes I concocted and, more recently, my experiences with my daughter’s heroin addiction.

In addition to writing on my blog, I returned to my practice of journal writing. I had kept a journal on and off for 15 or more years, ever since first reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way in the late 1990s, but while working full time I had let go of the habit. Writing just 3 pages first thing in the morning, in longhand, helps me purge my anxieties onto the page, leaving the space in my brain to process and address the more urgent issues in my life that need attention. These journal entries are never meant to see the light of day; they are not structured or planned in any way. They are free-association, stream-of-consciousness babbling with no regard for grammar, punctuation, handwriting, or even logic. They are simply a means to an end: a warm-up exercise for the brain, if you will. And you don’t have to be a writer for this practice to help you. Everyone and anyone can benefit from the practice of Morning Pages. For more information on this practice, check out The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron from your local library or used book store.

Walking in Nature

One of the other things that has helped keep my stress level in check these past few years has been exercise. When I first started my full-time job in 2012, long before my daughter’s addiction was on our radar, I handled the stress of all the changes in my life by hiking almost every day in Cleveland’s MetroParks. Admittedly, we have one of the best and most enviable MetroPark Systems in the country, but anyplace outside with fresh air will do. For me, the benefits were many: first, the fresh air and natural surroundings had a calming effect on me; second, the aerobic exercise was good for my circulatory system, my respiratory system, my weight, and my muscle tone; third, the time with my husband (my hiking partner) helped us stay connected and strengthened our bond; and finally, talking about our respective work days helped us work out our frustrations and celebrate our successes.

Other Exercise

Eventually I added Barre classes to my exercise regimen, and these classes, which combine yoga, pilates, strength training, and ballet, helped me lose a significant amount of weight. I also developed more core strength and muscle tone than I had ever had in my life. My husband and I purchased a pair of bicycles for each other for our 25th anniversary, and we added that to our exercise routines as well. Being active is the best anti-depressant I have ever known, and has at least as many mental/emotional benefits as it does physical benefits. But I suffered a serious injury on my bicycle in June of 2014 which has plagued me ever since, and I have not yet achieved the previous level of physical activity we enjoyed up until that time. After my injury (a tibia bone bruise) hadn’t healed in over a year, I was put in a boot in the summer of 2015. I was supposed to taper off the boot and do physical therapy starting around Labor Day, but my daughter had a major relapse that weekend and I transitioned out of the boot too quickly and delayed my physical therapy. I can see the negative consequences of not making exercise a higher priority in my self-care regimen, and plan to work very hard this spring and summer to get back on track in this area, as I know how much better I feel physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually when I am exercising regularly.

Small Creative Indulgences

I have always been creative. I loved art class in elementary school almost as much as I enjoyed writing and reading. I also loved singing and dancing. But somewhere along the way from junior high to high school, I lost my confidence in doing most of these things (as most adolescent American girls do). I still loved writing, but I felt sure I was no good at anything else. I now know that’s completely untrue, and what’s more, why does it matter if I am any good at it? If I want to draw a totally crappy drawing, who cares? If it makes me happy to paint a terribly cliche, saccharine painting of wildflowers, why shouldn’t I? There is no reason I shouldn’t. And so I have.

A few summers ago (okay, maybe 10 or more) I was at an estate sale where I stumbled upon an old Roger Burrows coloring book from the early 1980s. I was delighted! I had had one of these as a kid and spent hours upon hours coloring the geometric designs with crayons, colored pencils, and markers. I loved the feel of the slick markers on the smooth paper, the waxy smell of the crayons, the pastel subtlety of the pencils, and the planning of what color scheme I would use. If you aren’t familiar with Burrows’s books, they are full of geometric patterns that can be colored in infinite combinations to emphasize certain patterns over others. Long before the adult coloring craze began, I bought this cast-off coloring book and rummaged around our school supply cupboard for some colored pencils and stealthily colored when no one else was home. It felt like stolen bliss. It felt like childhood. So it was no wonder to me when the adult coloring book market exploded a few years ago…my only question was, why did it take so long for others to discover this joy?

The discovery of that Burrows coloring book made me realize something else, though. And it’s that small acts of creative indulgence can go a really long way toward restoring our sanity in this crazy world, especially when we’re dealing with predators as big and scary as  depression, addiction, or grief. I have developed several creative hobbies through the years–chiefly scrapbooking and rubber stamping–and while my craft room is currently a source of stress due to my over-abundance of supplies, I try to take a creative respite at least once a week, even if only for a few minutes, and make something. Lately I’ve been making greeting cards and inspirational bookmarks. Last winter I was into coloring with glitter markers in a snowflake-themed coloring book.

And last summer, I splurged and bought two whole flats of alyssum to fill a trash-picked wooden wheel-barrow with a sea of pastels–just because it made me happy. It made me happy all summer and fall to look out my kitchen window every day and see the delicate lavender, pink, purple and cream blossoms peeking over the edge of the whitewashed wood. And it makes me happy still, every time I look at the photo I took of it. Really, what other purpose is there for us to plant flowers, other than to make us happy? Isn’t that why we buy hyacinths–or alyssum–to feed our souls?

Find what feeds your soul and do it as often as possible.

Practice self-care for your body, mind, heart, and spirit.

And remember, you don’t have to go it alone. Reach out.

***

If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my blog to get email updates about new posts.

If you liked the idea of morning pages, regular walks, and creative indulgences, check out The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

If you want some sweet coloring pages, check out any of Roger Burrows’s geometric design books.

And if you want a reminder that you don’t have to go it alone, listen to “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” by U2. You can find it on YouTube, or on their excellent 2004 album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

 

 

 

 

What the worst year of my life has taught me about gratitude

img_4787By Patti Fish Stephens

A few months ago I wrote a post about what my daughter’s addiction has taught me about unconditional love. At the time I wrote it I thought the worst of this year was over, and I hoped for nothing more fervently than to have an uneventful last few months to 2016 (this is the fondest wish of families of addicts: to live peaceful, even boring lives). It seems the universe had a few more lessons in store for me this year, because within days of posting that blog piece, tragedy struck near us and a series of events unfolded for my son, my daughter, and our friends that would change all of our lives.

The year started off with great hope: my daughter had accumulated four months of clean time and was moving home after living in a sober house for three months, my son was living with a girl he loved and working at a well-paying job he was good at. My husband and I even worked up the courage to plan a trip to Florida to visit my parents and extended family that live there. We rang in the new year with my Florida cousin and her husband, and my daughter found a sober club where she could celebrate. Life was looking up. 2016 was going to be our year.

Our trip to Florida went so well, in fact, that my husband and I decided to return to go someplace I had always wanted to go: Captiva. We had never made the time to venture over there when we were in the Tampa area, so we decided to plan a dedicated trip which would make up for the anniversary weekend we had to cut short a few months earlier when our daughter had relapsed in early September of 2015. The Captiva trip was scheduled for spring break in March of 2016.

A few weeks before we were scheduled to go to Captiva, our daughter celebrated six months of sobriety. We thought this was a good sign that her addiction was “cured” and that she had finally “gotten” how to do sobriety. As anyone who has read my post on unconditional love knows, our daughter relapsed and overdosed while we were on that trip in Captiva. She spent a week in the hospital, developed complications, spent a week in a mental health facility, then came home to outpatient treatment only to relapse again within a few weeks. She then went back to inpatient rehab, and has now been clean for almost eight months.

The emotional agony my husband and I went through while our daughter was in the hospital was overwhelming. It was during that time that we found our Nar-Anon Family Group. We had faithfully attended family education and therapy programs at our daughter’s rehab facility and attended Al-Anon meetings, but it was at our area Nar-Anon meeting that we finally found the support we needed. At our very first meeting, one of the long-time group members told me, after hearing our story, “We’re your family now.” I had no idea how true that statement would end up being as the year progressed. I was just so grateful my daughter was alive and we had found new friends who understood what our new normal was like as the parents of an addict.

As spring turned into summer, our daughter moved from the inpatient rehab facility to a very strict sober house. During this time we spent our weekends driving back and forth to visit her, and after three months at the sober house she moved back home with us. Cleveland had just celebrated the Cavs’ history-making championship win. The Indians were on a winning streak and the city dared to hope that maybe, just maybe, we had another championship win in our future. Just a few weeks before our daughter was to move back home, our son proposed to his girlfriend and we had another happy event to celebrate and be thankful for.

Summer turned into fall and we felt such gratitude that our daughter was alive, clean, and working a good program. Our son was happy and our family had a wedding to look forward to. It was a great time to be a Clevelander. I finally felt I had processed a lot of what had happened in the spring and was able to write about it in the post about unconditional love. My husband and I both got a wonderful response to that post of overwhelming support from friends, family and strangers. I was, once again, filled with gratitude that our daughter had survived her overdose, or I would have been writing a very different kind of blog post.

And then, in a matter of just a few weeks, our dear friends’ son overdosed and died, our son’s engagement was called off and he moved back home with us temporarily, and our daughter discovered she was pregnant. Our hearts broke for our friends who lost their son, and their loss was a reminder to all of us with addicts in our lives that there is no guarantee that our loved ones will stay clean even after extended periods of sobriety. Our son was broken-hearted. And our daughter was overwhelmed by the news of an unexpected pregnancy. There was nothing we could do but love all of these hurting people in our lives. Pretty much the only good thing to happen in October was that our rescue dog, Milton, turned (at least) 15; we celebrated having him in our lives for the last 14 years.

As Thanksgiving approached, my husband and I reflected on our gratitude that both of our children were, despite their present difficulties, alive and in our lives. For the month that our son stayed with us after his break-up, I was reminded how wonderful (and sometimes crowded) it was to have the whole family together, just the four of us, like when the kids were growing up. My son began to heal and it was reassuring to have him physically near to see that he was doing better during that time. We slowly began to absorb the news that our daughter was going to have a baby. Due to her history of addiction as well as the genetic clotting disorder that was found in follow-up testing after her overdose, her pregnancy is solidly in the high-risk category. Within 10 days of finding out she was pregnant, she had quit smoking altogether. She had been trying to quit ever since receiving the diagnosis of the clotting disorder, but it was a difficult battle. The pregnancy gave her the incentive she needed and we were grateful that she was finally able to quit.

So November turned into December, and my husband and I–as well as many of our Nar-Anon friends–commented that we would be so glad to see this awful year end. So much hardship had occurred for members of our group and our family, and we were all looking forward to a brighter 2017. And then last Saturday night, I got a call that my son had been in a car accident and that his car had flipped upside down. It was during a freezing rain storm that blanketed the area in ice. We had just been to lunch with him earlier that day, and I had texted with him hours before; during our texting conversation he had said, “I’m indestructible” as a lighthearted way to tell me he was okay after getting some bad news that afternoon. Apparently the universe agreed, because despite the fact that his car flipped over, the windshield shattered, both windows exploded and both doors were crushed, he crawled out over the glass and walked away from the wreck. His car was totaled, but no one else was hurt and no other cars were involved.

Once again, I had found myself unable to breathe after the phone call from my son’s friend, who had been following my son in his own car. Although he had told me my son was “okay,” I had to see him for myself. He was soaking wet, covered in sleet and blood, and still had glass chips stuck to his clothing, but I never wanted to let him go once we got him back to our house. He kept telling me, “I’m okay, Mom; I’m okay. Mom, I’m okay!” Amazingly, his only injuries appeared to be several long cuts on his left hand. He didn’t show any signs of concussion, and had no broken bones. The cuts didn’t even need stitches, much to our surprise; but we had all suffered a bad scare, and it has taken us days to come down off the accompanying adrenaline rush. We found out the next day that our daughter had also been in the ER early Sunday morning due to possible symptoms of a miscarriage. Thankfully, the baby’s heartbeat was strong and my daughter was sent home.

At our Nar-Anon meeting this week, I shared a bit about our weekend with our group, commenting how grateful I was that both of my children were alive and mostly well. I knew that had things gone just slightly differently in March and December, we could have lost both of our children in the same year. Not twenty-four hours after making this statement, I got the horrible news that another friend’s son had overdosed and died. My heart breaks for her and their whole family. This has served as yet another humble reminder of how fortunate I am to have both of my children not only alive, but in close physical proximity to me as well as in a healthy, loving relationship with me and their dad.

So many of my friends don’t have the luxury of even talking regularly to their addicted loved ones, let alone knowing they are sober or even physically safe. I can never allow myself to forget this and I can never cease to be grateful for the current day in which both of my children are alive. We all know there are no guarantees in life, and with the previous losses our family has suffered (my brother, my nephew), we have been reminded of this again and again. But living with heroin addiction brings this realization home in an even more urgent and terrifying way; life can end in an instant due to this cunning, baffling, and deadly disease of addiction.

We are losing people at an unprecedented rate to overdose; in 2015 alone, more than 52,000 Americans died of overdose, the most ever. That’s over 1000 Americans dying of overdose EACH WEEK of 2015. (For comparison, 37,000 people died in car crashes.) Heroin overdose deaths alone increased 23% to nearly 13,000, making death from heroin overdose now more common than death by gun homicide. And deaths from synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl (which nearly killed my daughter when it was spiked into her heroin) are up a whopping 73%. (Source: CDC death statistics report via CBS news.) What these statistics can’t show is the emotional toll these deaths are taking on our communities. It seems every week my daughter hears of the death of someone with whom she was in treatment, or lived in a sober house, or went to AA meetings. How do you quantify the effects of losing friend after friend from the same disease you have?

We talk about the “opioid epidemic” and we quote statistics, but when people are dying from overdose at such an unprecedented rate, how does it affect the psyche of those left behind? In my case, it creates an atmosphere of constant terror; I can no longer live in a bubble where I haven’t been affected by this epidemic. I nearly lost my daughter to overdose; my husband has attended funerals of former students who died from overdose; my daughter has attended countless funerals of former classmates and friends; and now our support group has lost several loved ones. All of this loss reminds me to be profoundly grateful for every day I have with my daughter, my son, my husband, my parents, my friends, and my extended family. This is a lesson I wish I could have learned some other way, but life didn’t give me that choice. This is my reality, as it is the reality of an unprecedented number of Americans. Please reach out to someone you know who has been affected by addiction and remind them that you are grateful for their life and sorry for their struggles. And hug your loved ones tightly this holiday season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fitness Friday: Like Riding a Bike…

1908026_701012813268617_232152597556097677_n

July 2014. New bike helmet!

Here I am last summer, proudly sporting my brand new bike helmet. Notice the sign behind me? Proceed Without Caution–the Dirty Girl Mud Run slogan. In this particular case, I really should have used more caution, as this bike helmet was the result of a bad spill I took which scared both me and the husband enough that we decided it was time to be grown-ups and wear helmets. Besides, they make us look sportier, like serious cyclers.

10505548_701773249859240_3843211124138369725_n

7/25/2014. Wild Ride at the Cleveland MetroParks Zoo

We had purchased new bicycles together as a 25th anniversary gift to each other at the end of the summer in 2013. We had taken the trip of a lifetime to Oregon (watch Travel Tuesday in the future for details) but wanted to buy ourselves a gift that was a commitment to be more active together. Because our anniversary is at the end of August, and the husband coaches football, this didn’t leave a lot of bicycling time before the weather turned. It was a great time to buy the bikes, though, as they mark them down at the end of the summer, so we got great prices.

Here is a photo from the only organized bicycling event we have attended so far. It was a bit nerve-wracking for me as there was a giant hill that I was worried about conquering after my mishap on a similarly steep hill a month earlier, which resulted in a bone bruise that still bothers me a year later. It was a great time, though, because I was able to reconnect with a dear friend (who would kill me if I put her photo in here) that I hadn’t seen in years.

10343667_718067878229777_3615190563782028813_n

Labor Day weekend 2014. Allegheny National Forest Anniversary Trip.

We took our bikes for their first road trip on the Jeep to the Allegheny National Forest last summer because we had heard and read so many places that it was such a wonderful bicycling area. As novice bikers, what we failed to realize was that it is great for cycling on the road. But we are not experienced at riding on the road, and we stick to paved trails here at home; the trail shown above was really too rough for the tires we had on our bikes, so we didn’t make it very far that day. Our favorite paved trails in our area are: the North Chagrin Reservation of the Cleveland MetroParks; the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail in the Cuyahoga National Park; the Maple Highlands Trail in the Geauga County Park District; and the Summit Metro Parks Bike & Hike Trail, one of the first “rail to trail” conversions in the country. The Maple Highlands Trail is also a rail to trail path.Thanks to our good friends (and world-traveling bicyclers) Pam and Jim for all of the great trail advice!

10614186_718061804897051_6326668506983298245_n

Labor Day Weekend 2014. Allegheny National Forest anniversary trip.

We were able to find just one “paved” trail in the area of the Allegheny National Forest where we stayed, and it was actually packed limestone, like the Canal Towpath Trail we use in Peninsula, Ohio. It wasn’t very long but it was pretty and mostly flat, winding around a little river. It was very difficult to find the trail head and we encountered some very shady characters along the way which will likely find a place in a short story series I have in mind. Watch out for the “Cult of the Primitive Star” stories in the future…we had great fun inventing back stories for the characters we met that weekend on our little adventure.

10678730_718068121563086_7736533518976874212_n

Labor Day weekend 2014.

Although this path was too rough and it was raining most of the weekend, we had a great first adventure with the Jeep and bikes. I am perfectly happy being a paved trail bicycler, and I may never ride on the open road. For me, bicycling is a return to childhood freedom and the pure, unadulterated joy of flying down the hills at top speed, wind in my hair and bugs in my teeth. What more could a girl need?

Therapeutic Thursday: Lessons from My Little Garden

IMG_1979

6/11/2015. Container herb garden: rosemary, lemon thyme, cilantro, basil, basil, chives, flat parsley, and Italian peppermint.

I got all of my herbs into the planter box on the deck this week. The basil is not doing well, and many of my friends have echoed the same lament. Basil was my best grower last year, so I am hoping it turns around. My go-to guy at the garden center said it has been too wet for it this spring and that as soon as it gets hot and dries out a bit it will be fine. I hope he is right. My other problem child in the herb garden is cilantro. It keeps falling over. If anyone has experience with cilantro I would love to hear what I am doing wrong and how to fix it!

I was gazing out the window, trying to decide if I should go out to my little 4×4 foot square garden just one more time to see if anything had miraculously grown or bloomed in the last 3 hours. I was thinking, I wish they would grow faster! when it hit me:  I am just as impatient with my garden plants as I have been with my own personal growth. That got me thinking about the lessons that gardening can teach us wherever we are on our journey of development as human beings. Here are a few I came up with:

IMG_1986

6/11/2015. 4×4 plot: 4 tomato plants, 4 red beauty bell pepper plants, 4 golden bell pepper plants, 2 watermelon plants, ping tung eggplant, calliope eggplant, and a pumpkin plant.

Lessons I am learning from my garden:

  • Be patient when looking for visible signs of growth. Even with the optimal amount of sunshine, rain, and fertilizer, plants can only grow in the correct season and at their own slow and steady pace. They must develop strong root systems, which we cannot see, before they can support large stems and leaves and heavy fruit. We may not be able to see the small increments of growth each day, but as the days and weeks add up, the growth is clearly evident. I must give them their time, and give myself my own time to grow in the areas of life I am trying to improve right now.
IMG_1984

6/11/2015. Cherry Roma tomato plant on the deck.

  • Bask in the sunshine. For those who live in sunnier climates, this lesson may sound trite, but Clevelanders and many others in the northern U. S. simply don’t get enough sunshine for a large portion of the year. When it is sunny I take advantage of it and get my vitamin D each day by going out for about 20 minutes without sunscreen, then applying SPF 30 or higher religiously at all other times. Sunshine always improves my mood and outlook on life.
IMG_1989

6/11/2015. Nessie the garden mascot. Last year a woman at the farmers market told she put rubber snakes in her tomatoes to keep birds out. It worked for us last year, so let’s see if Nessie can protect a whole row of tomato plants this year!

  • Get enough water. Think of what your plants look like when they get parched. They get wilted and the leaves hang listlessly from the stalk, but as soon as water is added they plump back up and stand proud! This one is especially tough for me, but on the days that I sip my water continuously all day, I feel much more awake and alert. Also, it keeps me more active as I have to keep traveling to the rest room to de-water before I can re-water some more! Last summer I discovered Ball’s water infuser kit for their wide-mouth jars. It includes a lid with a seal and an infusing attachment. I much prefer to drink out of glass than plastic, so I love this gadget. My favorite infusing recipe is to combine chopped cucumbers with chopped fresh basil leaves. I use the Ball herb scissors to get the basil leaves cut into thin little ribbons.
IMG_1983

6/11/2015. Elliot blueberry bush which was planted later in the day.

IMG_1982

6/11/2015. Blueray blueberry bush which was planted later in the day. We went with two different varieties as it was recommended for cross-pollination.

  • Live in the fresh air. Plants can, of course, grow indoors–but they do not do so naturally. What I love about being outside more than anything else is the fresh air. I have run in the freezing, pouring October rain not because I am a dedicated athlete but because I desperately needed to be outside and breathe the fresh air. And while breathing in the fresh air, I invariably begin to notice the other sights and sounds and smells of being out in nature, which maybe plants notice and maybe they don’t, but I talk to mine anyway just in case they do. Listening to and watching the birds always reminds me of mornings at my grandma’s house, and I would rather have to take allergy medicine  than miss the amazing and mysterious smells of the flowering blooms in spring and summer.
IMG_1990

6/11/2015. First pumpkin blossom.

  • Roots must grow strong to bear fruit. Underground is where the real action happens in gardening. The soil must be rich and re-fertilized from time to time to add new nutrients for the plants to absorb. The roots must have room to spread out and grow deep. Bugs and other micro-organisms do their part to aerate the soil and make it good for plants. So it is in my life as well. While my roots are going deep into my psyche and soaking up the richness of life–by reading, gardening, walking, doing yoga, or any other activity that feeds my soul–it may look to others like I am doing nothing. I need time to grow and spread my roots before any visible sign of growth–that is “fruit” in the form of writing or other creative productivity–appears above ground. Once I have had enough nutrients and enough time to process them, I will begin to bear blossoms and soon heavy fruit. But all in good time.

IMG_20140727_135812

Thanks for reading today’s post. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on FB or other social media and following my blog for a different topic each day of the week geared toward creating a simpler, healthier, happier life.

Whole Food Wednesday: Why?

Summer 2014 Jeep adventures.

Summer 2014 Jeep adventures.

So my husband and I have recently adopted a whole-foods, plant-based diet, and the most common question I get about it is, Why?

Well, the short answer is that I want to improve my health. But that is not specific, persuasive, or particularly interesting. A longer explanation would include the fact that I would like to live with the highest quality of health possible so that my husband and I can travel the world and have adventures together for many, many years to come.

1378062783494

Green beans, purple beans, and yellow beans from the local farmers market.

The most accurate answer, however, begins with my 16-year struggle with a chronic health disorder called IBS: Irritable Bowel Syndrome. This is essentially what they diagnose you with when they can’t find anything else to explain your symptoms. I was first diagnosed with IBS in 1999, and my internist’s exact words when he diagnosed me (based on my symptom descriptions with no further testing or referral to a specialist) were, You need to reduce chocolate, caffeine, dairy and stress in your life. My exact response was:

But I need the chocolate and the caffeine to deal with the stress in my life!

My doctor was not amused by my response. I was not the most compliant patient. I could go months without any symptoms (while consuming chocolate, caffeine, and dairy) and then seemingly out of nowhere I would suffer a barrage of debilitating symptoms that could last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. I finally accepted that I was probably lactose-intolerant and stopped eating dairy, which helped. I never gave up chocolate, but I did eventually give up coffee and most caffeinated sodas. I now drink only tea and the occasional diet soda (this is my biggest weakness). But about that stress…

IMG_20140730_094134

Uh-oh. I left the lemon and cucumber together in the produce bin and look what I found the next day…lemon cucumber twins! Apparently, cousin squash is not a great chaperone. Thanks to our friends Mike and Carol for the awesome lemon cucumbers, which I used in my infused water for weeks.

When I was originally diagnosed I had just finished my first year of college as a full-time non-traditional student. I took 15 hours (5 classes) both semesters and kept a 4.0 while being a wife and mother of a 6 year old and an 11 year old. Add housekeeping and a part-time direct sales job (to help pay tuition) and it was a recipe for constant stress overload. My symptoms began after finals week at the end of my freshman year and continued to resurface at times of high stress or poor eating habits.

Fast forward to April 2014. For years I had kept the IBS in check with varying degrees of success. I had started exercising regularly in the summer/fall of 2013 and my weight loss had just reached the 30 pound mark. I was trying to “eat better” as well, which basically meant not partaking of the constant barrage of candy, desserts, and other junk foods at work. I thought I was doing really well–right up until I wasn’t. I got sick on a Saturday morning and the first bout lasted 5 days. After several more weeks of misery and a self-imposed period of eating no gluten (which made no difference), I made an appointment with my new GP who disagreed with my original diagnosis of IBS and referred me to a Gastroenterologist for further testing.

1381601062862

Thinly sliced tender Japanese eggplants, both purple and white, water sauteed with grape tomatoes for a simple and delicious pasta topping.

The tests were uncomfortable, time-consuming, and ultimately inconclusive. They did reveal that I was not lactose-intolerant, but my GI cautioned me that dairy still aggravated my symptoms, so I should avoid it. I will admit that I did not complete all of the tests, as they were beginning to add to my stress level which–ironically–increased the severity and frequency of my symptoms. Talking to the GI, however, did make me realize just how sensitive a person’s gut can be. I began again reducing carbonated drinks, caffeine, artificial sweeteners, and refined flours. I could definitely see a difference when I was vigilant about these things, especially the caffeine. I started shopping at the farmers market more often, trying to increase my fiber intake with fresh fruits and vegetables as my internist had also suggested in 1999.

I was becoming aware on a deeper level that I really needed to consistently improve my eating habits. I went to the library and started checking out books, but as my symptoms waned, so did my interest in changing my eating patterns. It is easy to ignore a chronic illness when you are not actively sick. As the year progressed and I couldn’t seem to lose any more weight, I began to research in earnest different types of eating plans. I wasn’t interested in any fad diets, and I knew I needed to make permanent changes instead of eating well for a while then getting lax as my symptoms abated.

IMG_1975

My new whole foods pantry, spring 2015.

Around this time someone recommended the Forks Over Knives documentary to me. I watched it on Netflix that very evening. Then I went to the library and checked out the books that had followed the documentary. I also started reading The China Study, which was the evidential basis for the Forks Over Knives movement. While I am not trying to persuade anyone that their way of eating is wrong or mine is the only right way, I do recommend the documentary and books mentioned above if you want to know more about the evidence which led me to the decision to adopt a whole-food, plant-based diet.

After my husband watched Forks Over Knives he was completely on board, which was a major relief to me since I had tried to move toward a whole-foods lifestyle in the early 90s, but the husband and kids didn’t much care for it then. It was also much harder to find things like whole wheat pastry flour in a regular grocery store back then. (Thank goodness that is no longer the case.) Back in the 90s I had used Nikki and David Goldbeck’s American Wholefoods Cuisine cookbook, but that became problematic as time went on due to the amount of dairy products in many of their recipes.

IMG_1978

The cupboard where I stashed all of my old cookbooks and processed oils while we cautiously converted to a whole-food, plant-based diet.

So we jumped in with both feet and started the Forks Over Knives way of eating. The simplest way to explain what that means is that we only eat foods that are whole and come from plants, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Little or no meat, dairy, processed oils, refined flours or sugars, or artificial ingredients of any kind. While that may sound drastic, after struggling with IBS for 16 years, it was a small price to pay for better health. We did a 3-week transition into the eating plan, changing just one meal a day each week. This allowed us to slowly process the lifestyle change mentally, emotionally, and physically. But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, so…did the diet help my IBS?

Unequivocally, YES! In the first 8 weeks we were on the whole-food, plant-based diet I had NO IBS symptoms at all!  Add to that the fact that we had a major life stressor occur during this time, and it was downright miraculous that my IBS didn’t kick back in. The only times I have had IBS symptoms since we started the program occurred when I went off the plan and ate processed foods full of sugar, refined flour, and fat.

I use the plastic freezer lids on my canning jars and label them to store all of our new whole food ingredients.

I use the plastic freezer lids on my canning jars and label them to store all of our new whole food ingredients.

So…that is the main reason in a very long answer to why I have changed to a whole-food, plant-based diet. There are other reasons and things to discuss about our progress on the diet, but I will save those for another Wednesday. Thanks for reading, and if you liked this post please comment or follow my blog for a different topic each day of the week. Happy Hump Day!

Fitness Friday: On Running

I run slower than turtles stampeding through peanut butterFirst of all, turtles are not as slow as you might think.  Have you ever actually seen one run? We adopted a turtle for our daughter and almost lost her in our yard before our daughter ever got to meet her. Petrie liked to explore, and would walk very slowly at first, then pick up the pace and take off; for the size of their short, fat little legs, turtles can really move! Compared to other four -legged creatures they may be slow, but given their heavy bodies and short legs, they are performing quite a feat at the speed they travel.

I can totally relate to Petrie’s plight. I have short, thick legs as well (my son affectionately calls me “Stumpy” when he has to reach the high cupboards for me), and no matter how fast I want them to move, they can only do their best. I am probably never going to run a marathon, but I have run a 5k and a 4miler, and I hope to do a 10k in the future. I wasn’t fast, but I did it.

IMG_20130520_185458

The fact that I run at all is a major accomplishment for me. I am not naturally athletic; I never participated in any sports in school, nor were any of the female role models I had growing up particularly into fitness. Just as I was about to join the track team in 7th grade, I broke my foot by slipping on the ice in a parking lot. It took the entire season for it to heal, and by 8th grade I felt behind so I never went out for the team again. As fate would have it, I married a track coach.

But even my track coach husband couldn’t keep me from hurting myself every time I attempted to take up running. I always did too much too soon or ran in worn out or non-supportive shoes. For one glorious summer in 1998, I ran nearly every day–with shin splints–but I ran and lost weight and toned up while doing it.

Fast forward to 2012. Good Morning America was running a “Most Beautiful Places in America” contest and featured Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan. We chose to go there for a short vacation, but when we got to the dunes, I was so out of shape and overweight that I could barely climb the smallest ones to see the gorgeous views. I was so disappointed in myself that I vowed then and there that I would start hiking as soon as we got home, and I asked my husband to help me stay accountable. For the rest of the summer and into the fall, we hiked regularly at the beautiful North Chagrin Reservation of the Cleveland Metro Park system. As I got stronger, I asked my husband (also my hiking guide) to choose harder and steeper trails. Within a few months, we were hiking 5 mile trails four to five times a week–but my weight was barely budging.

IMG_20131214_113057

Petrie giving me attitude over her dinner. Apparently she didn’t want peppers that day. She loved anything juicy and red: raspberries, strawberries, bell pepper, tomatoes.

By April 2013, life had weighed me down, quite literally, and I still carried over 200 pounds on a 5 foot 4 inch small/medium frame. That spring I realized that I was the exact same age–43 years, 4 months, and 16 days–as my brother was when he had died in 2006. I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, This was all the time my brother got. But I am alive, and do I want to live this way for the rest of my life, possibly 40 or more years?

I realized I wanted to live–not just exist. My weight was a tangible representation of the grief I carried after my brother’s overdose in 2006 and my nephew’s suicide in 2011. I wanted to change my life and my weight; I wanted to feel joy again. Around this time, a coworker told me about the Dirty Girl Mud Run races. Now, to say this sort of event was out of my comfort zone was a major understatement, but something about their tagline–Proceed Without Caution–resonated with me at just that time. My coworker and I corralled several more women and put together a team.

Proceed without caution

The only way our teammates would join was if we agreed to walk the course instead of running it. This was fine by me! We had a great time getting muddy, but I got pretty banged up, including scrapes, bruises, and general aches and pains all over my body. It took me days to recuperate physically, and that was when I realized I was ready to set my next goal: to run a race.

1374330424662

July 20, 2013: Dirty Girl Mud Run (Ohio)

Another friend had told me about the Couch to 5k app, and since I knew my ability was so low to begin with, I thought it would be a great starting point for me. I strongly recommend this app to anyone who is a novice runner. At over 200 pounds, I started running 3 times a week and NEVER hurt myself! No shin splints, no pulled muscles, no injuries of any kind. It was a revelation to me that I could run without injury. The program uses progressive interval training and a realistic plan of running three times a week (not on back to back days) to let each runner start where she is. Seriously, I was so slow when I started that my track coach husband looked like he was running in place–or even backwards–to stay at my pace!

I started the 9 week Couch to 5k program in late August 2013 with a goal of running the Christmas Story House 5k in December 2013. My coworker who I walked with regularly then invited us to do the Ohio State 4 Miler that November, so although I wasn’t quite finished with the 9 weeks, we went down to Columbus for the event. I wasn’t able to run the entire time (I walked some), and it was freakishly cold that morning, but I was proud to finish my first race on the Ohio State Buckeyes’ 50 yard line.

1463943_594454577257775_1540579402_n

November 2013: Ohio State 4 Miler (Columbus)

Finally, December 2013 arrived and I was ready to run my first 5k race. I learned the hard way at the Ohio State 4 Miler that I really needed to buy some thermal running tights. It was brutally cold on the day of the race, but this is Cleveland, so I was prepared. I was layered up over my running tights and socks, and they worked their magic. My feet never got too cold for comfort and even on the 14th Street bridge, I never stopped running that day!  I ran the entire 5k and finished with a 13 minute mile average, which I was pretty pleased with, given how cold it was and how many icy spots, pink nightmares, elves, leg lamps and “FRAGILE” crates I had to dodge that day!

IMG_20131207_095208

December 2013: Christmas Story House 5k (Cleveland)

My husband and I continued to run at the gym over the winter of 2013-2014, and I lost a total of 30 pounds while running 2-3 times per week and attending barre classes 3 times per week. I am now on my fourth cycle of the Couch to 5k app. I also use the MapMyRun app as well to track my distance more accurately with GPS, and I just started wearing the FitBit Charge HR to help push me to work out at higher intensity. Because I was injured (not running) in early June of 2014, I was unable to run any races last season, but I am back at it now with a goal of losing 30 more pounds. So if you happen to see a short-legged runner with a clumsy gait gasping for air on the trail someday, just remember: we have to work with what we’ve got. I might be slow, BUT I RUN.