Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Blessing of an Arthritic Hip

Much like Ben Stiller's Josh in the movie While We're Young, I greeted the news that I had the beginnings of arthritis with disbelief verging on denial.

I was in the office of Dr. Liu, my acupuncturist, wearing running shorts, a towel covering my chest and belly. He bent my right leg this way and that.

"OWWWW!" I shouted. "Why does that hurt so much?!!!!"

"You misled me," scolded Dr. Liu who had told me just last week that I had bursitis. After four treatments failed to heal the inflamed hip, he investigated further, pelting me with questions about the specific nature and location of the pain and expertly prodding me in my hip, my thigh, my lower back as I yelped in affirmation of painful spots he hit.

"Arthritis!" he pronounced as I immediately envisioned myself in a motorized wheelchair, wizened, determined, steely-haired, careening down Broadway, zipping in and out of traffic.

Me? The party animal? The hiker? The dancer? The singer after hours? The gym rat? The traveler? The drinker of tequila?

But the diagnosis of arthritis -- arthritis arthritis! -- did make sense. For the past month, my right hip hurt as I ran up stairs and now, late in the day, the pain had started to radiate down my thigh to my knee.

I searched frantically for reasons to blame myself for this affliction. If I had caused it, perhaps I could remove it!

"Should I change my diet?? I semi-wailed as Dr. Liu progressed to inserting needles into the soft skin just to the side of my hip bone. A vibrating electrical current went through my leg and something else deep and horrible.

"Yow!!!" I howled.

Though I have been know to vocalize at Dr. Liu's office -- where regularly moans emanate from behind closed doors -- I had never made a sound like this, which was akin to a female Moose in labor.

He instantly looked concerned and patted my shoulder, withdrawing the needle.

"Don't worry," he said kindly. "We will fix."


What the...!!!!!!!

"Seriously...what should I do differently?" I asked Dr. Liu. I had a jumpstart on the nutritional no-no's of arthritis, as I obsessively read health manuals. "Can I still exercise? Should I cut out the inflammation-causing foods-- dairy, nightshades, wheat, meat, sugar..." I paused and gulped. "Alcohol?"

"Alcohol," he said, gravely. "It causes necrosis."

Though I wasn't sure what necrosis was, exactly, it scared me. It started with "nec," which I'm pretty sure has to do with death. Could there be something dead or dying inside my hip joint? And could I have caused it with my late-in-life love of...well, getting drunk?

As I limped out of Dr. Liu's office, I was fueled by a coked-up optimism: I would grab the arthritis bull by the horns, continue acupuncture, eliminate inflammation-causing foods, take supplements and vitamins, seek physical therapy, read everything I could find and modify my exercise, which he told me I could still do, just not at crazy intensity.

I had been using the elliptical at a rather challenging setting lately. Could that have caused this? I fretted.

Heading to a Vitamin Shoppe to stock up on anti-inflammation goods in their Joints aisle, I found the wind knocked out of my sails by a singular thought. I ate fairly well and was active. My weight was good. I was mostly gluten-free.

But I would be kidding myself if I denied that in the past few years -- and especially recently -- drinking had become a fun, new habit. What started as once every month became weekly and then several times a week.

Yes, I was a cheap drunk, getting wasted on two glasses of wine or two shots of tequila. I would note everyone else guzzling so much more than me but Dr. Liu sounded unambiguous.

No alcohol.

Digesting the news of my diagnosis of arthritis, I wondered: could I have brought harm to my body through this indulgence?

And what would it be like to no longer have my reliable party friends -- Pinot Grigio and silver tequila -- in my life?  What will I discover without the hazy embrace of that altered consciousness that I so crave at the end of a long day, the recklessness that it invites, the conversations that it enables, the inconvenient, uncomfortable truths that it blurs until the next day?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Emergence or the Essence of Spring

After two days of dazzling sunshine -- long overdue -- the rain arrived, heralded by a nippy wind that dismayed us as we rushed from our friends' house last night on West 106th Street to our car, parked on Amsterdam Avenue in front of a karaoke bar where a twenty-something guy was drunkenly belting out a Backstreet Boys hit from 15 years ago.

It was the tail end of a complex Sunday constructed with the colliding stuff of life: a funeral on the West Side, a birthday party on the banks of the Hudson, a visit to an old beloved friend in a northern New York suburb, a lecture on the East Side, numerous phone conversations with family and friends and finally, the ritual of watching MadMen with dear friends, which we have been doing for the past three years.

After a winter of unprecedented harshness, New Yorkers were treated to a Saturday of sterling perfection: clear skies, temperatures near 80, abundant light, the kindness of strangers liberated from the prison of extreme weather. Jolted out of bed by an optimism and lightness of spirit I hadn't felt since my  trip (#4 this winter) to Florida last month, I made the most of the gift of sudden spring, walking the dogs at leisure, strolling to my gym in Harlem (instead of bolting there, hands dug deep into the pockets of my North Face parka, nose numb, eyes tearing), eschewing shul for the much-needed communion with sunshine in the form of an impromptu hangout on the lawn of the Columbia campus with book, water and a beach towel.

Following numerous false starts and broken promises, spring officially arrived in winter-scarred Manhattan. Returning from his shul, HOBB found me on the campus (I left a minimalistic message -- "outside" -- made of Scrabble tiles on the dining room table, just next to the challah), we ate a light lunch, played a round of Scrabble and then propelled ourselves outdoors, virtually sprinting to Riverside Park to join the jillions of joyous humans, dogs and others creatures who were walking, running, climbing, cavorting, ambling, rambling, scrambling, shedding themselves of the too-tight skin of this recently departed season.

In midday, Riverside Park resembled nothing more than a grand, public rehabilitation facility.

Along the river, we walked down to the 79th Street Boat Basin and back uptown, bumping into innumerable friends, joining the crowded, grungy party that is the Boat Basin Cafe, witnessing a bike accident, dodging speeding cyclists to avoid getting hit ourselves, holding hands, allowing conversation to flow freely, punctuated by periods of placid silence.

Recalling Saturday -- the most perfect urban Shabbat in recent memory -- I find the strength to face the backsliding temperatures of today and revive my habit of documenting my life in this public forum.

Why have I not written this winter in this, my online home, repository of my musings, struggles, activities, inspirations? (Full disclosure: I have written elsewhere and for others but not here. Just two weeks ago, I published a rather naked essay on the Huffington Post. And I have pounded the keyboard of my laptop in pain, despair, fury, frustration and the quest for transcendence since my last meandering, meditative post, two seasons ago, choosing to keep my thoughts sealed and concealed in my personal files. Some things are too private or perhaps it is simply too soon to examine them publicly.)

When I stopped at the home of my former neighbor in New Rochelle yesterday -- a soul sister of sorts -- she asked me this very question: why my blog went into blackout mode.

The winter, I answered, meaning more than the weather.

Which she instantly understood.

Earlier that day, at the birthday party I attended at Wave Hill, I met a musician and psychologist with whom I spoke for close to two hours. Given to spontaneous connections with strangers, the fact of our impromptu conversation was not unusual but the substance of it was so significant and relevant to me that I had to wonder about angels placing us at the same time and place in order to connect.

Among the many things we spoke about was creativity and mood. A third person joined the conversation, also an artist. We discussed the importance of the ebb and flow of our feelings, the deep dive into difficult introspection that leads to breakthrough and outpouring.

Heads bent inward, we excitedly shared our accounts of the ways in which we managed our moods, our conviction that feeling all ends of the emotional spectrum was essential to the integrity of our artistry and the emergence of our authentic selves.

Twenty four hours later, I feel myself transported to a faraway galaxy with the warmth of the sun on my bare legs a distant memory. "Taking the dogs out today was an act of animal abuse," reported HOBB, returning with two miserably soaked pooches just a short while ago, his canvas Crocs sloshy.

I dried and fed the dogs. Outside our window overlooking Amsterdam Avenue, I saw cars and trucks driving through a downpour, tires turning on wet pavement. Dreamily, I drifted back to my bedroom. The sound and scene chilled me, made me burrow into my blankets.

But my allotted time for self-expression has come to an end and the demands of the workday begin.

It is time to get out of bed, where I have cozily arranged myself -- laptop on pillow, a mug of Zabar's coffee on my night table -- in response to the weather that reminds me of the recently-departed winter.

Today forces a close and candid examination of what transpired over the past few months.

It was an ordeal but there was insight, beauty, new bonds, self-knowledge and discovery.

It was an assault but the absence of pain is a form of pleasure.

There was adventure because I crave and create it; there was escape and travel and sunshine. I cannot misrepresent reality. While new acts of insane and cruel religious extremism were broadcast into our lives from faraway places -- destabilizing us as human beings, recalling the potential for destruction, terrifying us -- I had the luxury to slip into sadness, to sit in dissatisfaction, to taste disappointment, to dream.

Perhaps because I so love the essence of paradox, I prefer to view the Winter of 2015 through that particular prism.

Gazing reluctantly backwards, I feel like a survivor, brushing myself off, stepping gingerly but with spirit and great dignity over the Finish Line, moving towards the rising sun, palms raised, heart open, face tilted upwards.