advice · death · disability · Fear · health · self care

8 Lessons for Living with Uncertainty From a Perennially Vulnerable Adult

I get it. You’re facing down the barrel of your mortality right now, and the mortalities of your parents, grandparents, children and other people you care for. It sucks. Random, horrible things can happen and change your life forever. Or end it. But this isn’t news. Life can change in an instant, and it can be completely out of your control, and that has always been true. The only difference is now you are being forced to face the reality you could comfortably deny as long as your life was banally humming along. Welcome to my world.

At the age of 24 I went from a healthy, active person to someone with a disabling, life-threatening immune condition. Random chance, totally bad luck, threw me a curve ball that kept me in the hospital for a month, left me missing a big chunk of one lung and unable to walk up a flight of stairs without assistance. I spent 8 months on high-dose Prednisone and three years after that on weekly chemotherapy drugs to keep my body from attacking itself and killing me. I hate stories about how some horrible cancer diagnosis “was the best thing that ever happened to her” or how some terrifying ordeal “helped him have gratitude for the important things in life.” I don’t think my immune conditions (I’ve developed more over the years) have made me a wiser, better person. But I have learned from the experience, and I’d like to offer you these potentially comforting observations I’ve noted along the way.

The hardest part is the not knowing. It took about half a year before I had a diagnosis. Even with a diagnosis, the prognosis was up in the air. At one point I was told that I had only a 50% chance of living past 5 years. Later on, I was told they really didn’t know, there was just too little data to base any predictions upon. I believe that knowing is always easier than not knowing. How do you live your life day to day when you can’t plan for the future? You will make very different decisions when you know that something is temporary than when it may be indefinite. Coming to a place of accepting that you don’t know, living in the moment while planning for the future is the best balance I can suggest. For me, I have had to learn over the years to consider my barriers and limitations as flexible unknowns–I have to push against the boundaries to test them–is this a real limitation or simply something I feared would limit me? It’s a constantly moving target, and I’ve learned to be flexible as situations have changed.

Your life is at increased risk. You can get used to it. In fact, if you are going to get on with your life, you have to get used to it. We can only hit the pause button for so long, and then we need to get back into the swing of things. You will need groceries, a paycheck, a new pack of underwear. I live my life every day with the awareness that my condition can come back. Every time I have a cough, I have to consider, “Does this feel more serious than just a cold? Am I being irresponsible if I wait it out before going to the doctor?” Every little aberration in how my body moves and feels carries a heightened awareness to it, and yet, I don’t go around constantly anxious about my future. I notice it, I pay attention, and then I move on. Most of the answers to my questions come with time and patience. If you can avoid insisting on instant reassurance, you will find that you fare better.

Most people facing their own mortality don’t have the benefit of a social circle that understands. Don’t take it for granted. When I got sick, I was alone. Only about 6000 people in the entire United States have been diagnosed with the condition I’m facing. Not to mention, my peers at the time of 20-somethings could not even kind of relate to my ordeal. Lucky for you, pretty much everyone around you is dealing with some version of the same fear right now. You can support each other because you understand your shared uncertainties. On the other hand, you are at higher risk than I was for “social contagion.” The downside of collective awareness is that your anxieties can compound upon each other, fear can beget more fear, and as social animals, we are built to mirror each other’s emotions. Compassion and empathy are important, but I encourage you to temper them with calm and mindful acts of support.

It isn’t helpful to let the current situation dominate your thoughts. Practice the discipline of reframing your thinking, and you will experience less stress. This would be an excellent time to limit your exposure to social media, too. You don’t need other people’s fear speaking voices in your head. For those of you who like that woo-woo shit, feel free to increase your focus on your “gratitude practice” right now. Me, I’m going to limit my exposure to the news and increase work on some neglected projects around the house. This seems like an excellent time to begin planning my basement remodel. This sort of intentional shift of focus gives me something productive to put my energies towards rather than stirring up fears of the unknown.

On a related note, don’t let fear be your guiding principal. Consider making important decisions when your mind is feeling more calm–like right after a good meal with some satisfying, slow-digesting carbohydrates in it. Your fear-based decision might be making people like me less safe, if it means you switch to antibacterial soap, for example, and increase the likelihood of superbugs. The panic that has led to emptying store shelves isn’t doing the community any good, either. Consider finding other ways to take care of yourself than giving in to the hedonic needs of your fear.

If someone near you gets sick, when it is safe to do so, literally embrace them and return them back into your life. I developed mysterious lung symptoms and a persistent, low grade fever just about the same time SARS was in all the news. When I was released from the hospital, we didn’t know why I had nearly died, but we did know it wasn’t an infectious process. Despite this, I was treated like a pariah. No one would hug me, hold my hand, pat my shoulder. People would literally take a step back when I told them what had happened to me. It was like they were afraid that my near-death would rub off on them. It was exceptionally isolating in an experience that already left me alone in so many ways. So I ask that you please, please, welcome back the folks who become sick. Love and support them, touch their hands, kiss them on the cheek, and help to reintegrate them back into your world.

You don’t know what’s going to get you. That’s always been true, you’re just now having to face it. I used to feel like I knew better than most people what was likely to kill me. However, even when my condition was quite severe, I still could get hit by the proverbial bus. That hasn’t changed, and it’s true for all of us. None of us know what is going to get us in the end. We can’t live our lives dancing around the edges, hoping nothing will ever take us down. We have to live the best life we can with the life we’ve been given. Uncertainty will always be a part of the equation. Part of making the best of it is keeping that in mind and keeping it in perspective. That’s how I live my life every day, and I encourage you to do the same.

Photo description: Two wrinkled hands, one bare and one with a black and white checkered sleeve, holding each other over a leather background.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them down again, and wondering when the gym will be closed, in Portland, Oregon.

#deanslife · death · monthly check in · motivation

Sam is Checking in for December, #monthlycheckin

A red and pink heart shaped rock, resting on fall leaves on the ground, sprinkled with snow. It’s hand painted and the black letters read “every day is a fresh start.”


You can read all my past monthly check-in posts here.  They all have a content warning for discussions of weight loss, including this one.

What’s up? (and down?):  I’m working out a fair bit. I’m going to easily make my goal of 218 workouts in 2018. I’m doing lots of different things and enjoying them. But something feels different now. It’s catch as catch can. I don’t mean that in a bad way but I’m not training. It’s not purposeful. It’s fun and it feels good but I’m learning that, for me, that’s not enough motivation. It’s got me thinking about life and plans and what makes me tick.

On the one hand I’m impressed that I’m managing to work out while dean-ing, but on the other, I want to achieve something. I need goals, people. Big goals. Like being the fittest by fifty! But not that. I’ve been there and done that and co-written the book. You can buy it here

I’m a type A goal achieving sort of person and I need that in my fitness if it’s going to be fun.

But there’s only so much Type A my life can take. And Dean-ing is a big job. I don’t mean that just in terms of hours. It’s also about scope of responsibility and making big plans. It’s no surprise that my big fitness burst took place during my break from academic admin roles. I was Chair of Philosophy at Western from 2002-2011 (with a year off for good behavior somewhere in the middle, hello Australia!). I started Dean-ing in 2018. The fittest by fifty challenge and this blog began in 2012. Tracy and I turned 50 in 2014.

So big ambitious jobs and big ambitious fitness goals aren’t fitting together very well for me. That might be just fine.  The one, modest but very important goal I do have concerns my knee. It’s a lot of work!  All of this damaged knee maintenance is wearing me down. Yes, I’m doing the thing. I’m losing weight. I’m doing physio. I’m so far successful at wearing the knee brace when I am doing long walks. 

And fitness is still fun but I’m also still sad about all the things I miss: No more running. (See sad bye bye running post.) Definitely no more soccer. I’ve  also said goodbye to Aikido, but not here on the blog. I’ve been too sad to even write about that loss. I’ve got a post in the drafts folder about how I miss throwing people around but I can’t finish it. 

I keep  thinking I should just stop blogging about fitness-y things, make it a less central part of who I am.  Blog about dean-ing? Or, sometimes I keep looking for big fitness goals I can do, like riding and lifting. Or continue to make progress with swimming. Or new things I want to try like horseback riding.

Basically, I’m a bit at sea with things, still struggling, and not sure how it will all turn out.  December is also a sad time. It’s the third anniversary of my father’s death. My uncle in England just died.  I still think this doesn’t get easier, losing people. See One of the hardest parts of getting older: Friends, family, illness, and death.

Oh and it’s dark, really dark. We’ve got the earliest sunsets right about now. And some days it doesn’t ever seem to get light at all.

On the bright side, I’m really loving my new job. I love the College and all the exciting work that’s being done here. I also love Guelph. You can come check it out in January at the Night at the Museum Event. Register here.


Obviously, I’m still thinking this all through. The one thing I do know is that I’ve got some big bike goals for 2019. I am reading about kicking my cycling goals into high gear.

And I might schedule knee surgery–partial knee replacement–for the future. If I could choose the date it’d be fall 2019.

Have you ever had “at sea” times? Big life changes? Tough stuff but I’m thinking it through!

I share lots of #sportsselfies but here’s a #deanselfie to balance it out!

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#officeselfie #deanatwork #feministselfie @uog_arts

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death · diets

Death and diet culture

Michelle Allison, the Fat Nutritionist, wrote on Twitter, “I first made the connection between social hierarchy, health, and the fear of death many years ago, as a teenager, but it became really explicit to me in online arguments about body weight and health just a few years back. It was so obvious that people constructed hierarchies……of “better” and “worse” people (along lines of body weight, presumed lifestyle choices, and other health indices) as a way of convincing themselves that they wouldn’t ever do something as gauche as GET SICK AND DIE. A lot of this came from various alt-right types and corners….I remember one of my twitter friends responding in the most perfect way ever to these attempts at bullying with “That’s right, in this land of immortal highlanders only the weak die,” or something like that. It cracked me the hell up, but it also pointed to something crucial……which is a theme running through alt-right and neoreactionary ideas, a sort of ubermensch or superhuman ideal, but in the updated format of transhumanism or the technological singularity. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s okay, I kind of wish I didn’t.)”

I’m interested too in the extent to which fear of fat is really just a version of fear of death.

I teach courses on death, and on feminism and death, and as someone who shares the feeling, I’m interested in our fear of death.

If that’s where our fear of fat comes from, fear of death, those of us who preach body positivity have our work cut out for us.

See the full thread on Twitter here.

 

A skull, side view, white on black
Photo by Mathew MacQuarrie on Unsplash