I did my first solo hike of spring, and the state forest was exactly what I needed. Pitcher plants were in bloom, a young water moccasin let me pass without incident, and the swamp was loaded with turtles. I love being in the woods without smog and cell phones. I didn’t camp this trip, but I hiked for three hours and wished I could’ve stayed longer.
I recently saw a bumper sticker that said “you live your life how you live your days.” It’s simplistic and true. I tend to spend a lot of time regretting past mistakes and anticipating the future. The forest always humbles and grounds me and reminds me to take deep breaths and appreciate the gifts in my life instead of focusing on stress.
It’s easy to feel stuck. Career worries, astronomical health insurance premiums, past choices that haunt the present… my list of ulcer-inducing thoughts goes on and on. But doesn’t everyone’s? The choice I have—every minute of every day—is this: what am I going to do right now?
Feeling stuck, I think, is a symptom of ignoring my blessings. Is my life perfectly how I want it to be? No, but I’m damn lucky for the love and adventures that surround me every day, and I feel better physically and emotionally when I celebrate the good things rather than wringing my hands over the bad.
Love can’t beat chronic pain, but it’s some of the best medicine available. Last week we adopted a little puppy who’d spent her entire life in a cage at the county animal shelter. She was terrified when I first set her down on the grass, but when I rubbed her back and encouraged her with kind words, she jumped up and down and spun around like a maniac.
It took her a few days to get used to a real home, but now she’s blending in beautifully and doing all the adorable and troublesome things young puppies do. She and our 10-year-old beagle, Otis, have already bonded pretty well, and even our grumpy old terrier, Abbie, has played with her a few times. All three dogs are asleep right now and it’s a beautiful sight.
We needed two days to settle on a name for her and finally chose Roo, like kangaroo, since she has long back legs and jumps like she’s made of rubber. She’s a sweet, sweet girl, and we already love her very much. Rubbing her soft belly or massaging her chubby paws is very calming to me and beats the hell out of any painkiller I’ve ever been prescribed.
Our midweek camping trip at the beach was the perfect impromptu escape. Luckily the National Seashore had a cancelation and we were able to make a last-minute reservation on our favorite camping loop near the Gulf of Mexico.
The weather was almost perfect—seventies in the day, sixties at night—but the wind was incredible. Our tent almost took off several times while we pitched it, and the rainfly stood up like a parachute. We finally got everything secured and set off for a two-hour hike on the Florida Trail. We usually hike 4+ hours, but my wife is still in recovery from a hoverboard accident and two hours on her feet was a major victory.
At the turtle bridge near the northern terminus of the Florida Trail, we saw one of the coolest things we’ve ever seen—a large snake swimming across the water. The snake was incredibly fluid and silent along the top of the water, and as city-dwellers, we were mind-blown.
We finished our hike and made lunch, and my back suddenly started to hurt. Pain shot down my right leg almost to my foot. I worried I’d have a sleepless night, but decided to put my shoes back on and go for a trail run. It doesn’t make sense within normal parameters, but often a run makes my back feel much better, almost like the pounding helps return everything to where it’s supposed to be.
The wind was so stiff that I sometimes felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, but it was a great 45-minute run. I saw a thru-hiker finishing his walk and a mile or so later I was charged by an armadillo who didn’t realize I was on the trail. He took off to root through the remnants of a fallen tree before we played a full game of chicken, and it was fun to watch his short legs propel his oval body toward me.
Running through the campground proved no less entertaining. It’s normal to see dogs tied up at campsites, but someone in a truck camper had their cat tied to their rig. The cat was quite fat and seemed immensely happy. He wore a collar with a bell and was attached to the camper by a harness and retractable leash. I love random animal sightings while running.
When I got back to our tent, my back pain had greatly receded and was down to a dull ache. I did a few more exercises from my core routine (I’d done the others earlier) and stretched a few key muscles, and even after cooling down my back pain stayed very low. I am a wholehearted believer in using exercise as a weapon against chronic pain.
I cooked fresh salmon, dill, and white quinoa for dinner (we eat healthily even while camping!) and we got into our tent at eight o’clock because bugs were eating up our ankles. I hesitantly stretched out on my camping mattress and was pleasantly surprised to find all the radiating pain completely gone from my leg and even the centralized pain in my back was barely there. The wind blew so hard all night that we thought the tent might collapse, but we both got some sleep and awoke to the sounds of Gulf waves crashing on a beautiful morning.
I was miserable Monday and Tuesday, but a very talented massage therapist relaxed the muscles around my sprained ankle Tuesday night. The gastrocnemius and soleus were very tight, and since they form a common tendon (the Achilles), I was hurting pretty bad. Working some toxins out of the calf muscles and massaging the rest of my legs took away more than half the pain in my ankle and Achillles.
Wednesday morning I asked my boss and chiropractor to look at my ankle. He said it looked surprisingly good for the heavy roll I’d given it, but said a few small bones in my feet were locked. I don’t like anybody touching my feet but I let him adjust the mid-foot, and man, what a difference. I was almost immediately pain free and able to walk for 45 minutes at lunch.
Today is Thursday, four days after the initial injury. I used KT Tape to stabilize my ankle and Achilles then gave it a quick test on a 3-mile easy run. No hills, no off-road, nothing tricky. The ankle did great with only a little Achilles soreness.
This was my first time using KT Tape. I’m an athlete from way back when rigid white athletic tape and non-breathable under-wrap were the only answers to taping an ankle. I’m now hooked on the KT Tape. The online videos KT Tape are very helpful in explaining and demonstrating everything for various applications. I chose to do a combination of the ankle tape and Achilles tape, so mine doesn’t look exactly like the manufacturer recommends, but it works for me. Bonus: it’s bright purple, the color of my undergrad alma mater.
The tape survived the 3-mile run just fine, and I’ve been wearing it since this morning and there’s no slippage or friction or anything irritating. The Pro version, which I bought, is supposed to last four days, and hopefully by then my ankle won’t need any help. The roll I bought is plenty big to wrap it a few more times if necessary, though. I anticipate my battle now being more common sense than anything. I have a hard time resting when the weather is beautiful, but I know I still need to ice and elevate the ankle a few times per day. I’m so happy this sprain didn’t turn into anything major!
I woke up at 7:59 this morning with my back in alignment and my neck mostly mobile. My wife and dogs snored lightly in rhythm, and as I took stock of my body and nothing hurt, I knew it would be a great day.
I decided to go for eight miles instead of ten, partly because I’d recently fought a sinus infection and partly because I wanted to get back home ASAP and deal with my visions of waffles and bacon (although I eventually ate roasted chicken and mixed greens).
The air was colder and windier than I’d hoped, but the sun made my goose bumps lie flat, and by the fourth mile, I was actually sweating while wearing shorts in February.
I rounded a corner near a cemetery and the bright yellow butt of a plastic pony stuck out of the dirt like a beacon. I didn’t know how badly she was wounded, but I knew we needed each other. I tugged on her back legs and plucked her like a mushroom out of the dirt. Dirt dulled her sheen and filled the swoop between her pink hair and yellow face. The turquoise paint that colored her eyes was partly worn away and she had linear cuts through her plastic flesh. One of her ears was almost shorn off. She’d obviously been hit by a mower, but she was beautiful.
I ran with the little plastic pony in my palm, the space between her legs and belly perfectly suited for my fingers to grip her securely. I resisted the urge to talk to her as the miles ticked by. I didn’t just feel good—I felt great, like I didn’t really have chronic pain anymore. I felt like a normal, healthy runner, and I smiled with every footfall. A real, entire night of sleep is rare for me, but last night I’d scored one, and the difference in my body and mind was incredible.
I dodged potholes and broken sidewalks and thought about the last couple of years of rebuilding my writing career that I threw away for a long list of stupid reasons. I thought about how those same years haven’t been good to my body, despite my addiction to health food and exercise. I’ve busted my ass and scored new writing and editing jobs, but I still work in healthcare to pay my bills. I used to obsess over wanting to rewind my life to that moment when I walked away from a potentially awesome book contract, but recently I realized that the anxiety over what could have been was literally killing me. My body hurt anyway, but when I thought about what I’d given up, my muscles went into lockdown and I slipped into misery. My fingers curled around the plastic pony and I realized I’d buried myself headfirst in dirt and hit myself with a mower. You dumbass, I thought, not for the first time.
Of course I’d known for years (and beaten myself up for it daily) that I’d made poor choices and possibly squandered the rest of my life as a writer, but only recently did I understand that I have to move on. Not just want to move on—I have to move on. Maybe a combination of friends’ Facebook-posted internet memes—I particularly like the ones that tell you to go after what you want no matter what—and my erratic health helped me see the light. While I may never forgive myself for some of my questionable choices, the worst choice of all would be to give up again just as I start to rebuild.
I stared into the shabby eye of my new pony as I rounded out the eighth mile of the morning run. I realized I’d pulled my own head out of the sand when I decided to reclaim my health and writing career. Lots of days I feel like I’ve been hit by a mower, but so what? Life is short whether I feel well or not, so I might as well live it wide open.
I love to hike. Getting outside and walking for hours is one of my favorite ways to clear my mind and put aside worries about chronic pain, money, and whatever else is bothering me. My wife and I’ve had some interesting hikes lately, the most recent of which involved hunting season and unhappy rednecks “running dogs” where we wanted to hike. Despite that unpleasantness, we had a great afternoon and even found a tiny cemetery from the 1800s.
No matter what’s going on in my life, I always feel better if I spend time in the woods. We live within a few miles of several sections of the Florida Trail and have seen every mile of it in the panhandle, but we’ve also hiked all over the United States. Both of us were hikers before we met, and I still solo-hike from time to time. Here’re some pictures from some of my latest adventures.
I’ll hike anywhere in any weather. Some of my best memories are from a 2001 Appalachian Trail group hike in miserable rain and cold. I don’t miss the bone-chilling nights, but the memories of that hike are eternal. My chronic health problems make it more difficult to deal with extreme cold now, but I’m still up for almost any adventure. Visiting a much-loved friend in Massachusetts this fall provided some excellent hiking scenery.
Most people prefer the Gulf side, but I like the sound side at Ft. Pickens inside the National Seashore. I almost never see anyone else out there, and solitude is good for my mental health. I like to be able to sing out loud without witnesses.
Some of y’all asked what I’m eating these days. I thought it’d be easier to show some pictures with captions rather than making a boring list. I’m a true believer in fighting chronic pain and fibromyalgia with whole foods as the primary weapon. I stay away from processed food and almost never eat refined sugar. I don’t adhere to one specific diet but instead choose foods that make me feel good rather than those that make me sick. I almost never go out to eat, but when I do, I’m finicky about which restaurants and what I order. In general, I stay away from wheat, dairy, added sugar, and processed meat.
Keeping my core muscles strong has been a lifesaver. Not only am I able to run again, but I’ve started sleeping again because I’m not in as much pain when I lie down. My low back and pelvis and hips were in so much pain for more than a year that I was terrified it would become a lifetime issue.
I already deal with chronic pain and felt like I couldn’t stand a new addition to my pain resume’. The core exercises help my pelvis stay in proper alignment, which relieves the once-constant pain in my back and hips. The picture of my notebook shows what a daily core workout looks like for me. I change things up each day but always do the basics.
I work multiple jobs, none of which provide benefits of any kind—no insurance, no paid days off, no freebies. Other than health insurance, groceries can be my largest bill if I’m not careful. I’m a major believer in health food and clean eating, and over the years I’ve figured out what works best for my body. I stay away from gluten, processed foods, and added sugar. I’ve done Whole30 (a month-long challenge to go very strict paleo), been vegan, and been vegetarian. After all is said and done, I realized I function best on a mixture of the three. That may sound crazy—mixing paleo and vegan—but some of the basics are the same. Only whole foods. No crap. Vegan is a lot easier on a budget than paleo, and the extra carbs in vegan meals help fuel my long runs and hikes. Here’s how I eat clean, healthy foods on a very small budget:
Bulk bins are your friend. I got a hearty, organic soup mix full of barley and beans for only a couple bucks. If the same soup mix had been pre-packaged, I’d have paid a lot more. I added my own seasonings and the result was fantastic.
Communicate. Get to know the produce person in your market, and talk with the store manager. Ask them to split a head of cabbage if it’s priced by the pound, then only buy half since that’s all most people can use anyway. Find out what days certain foods are most likely to be discounted. I’ve saved a ton this way. My local co-op often has half-price produce on Sundays, and I get lots of organic mushrooms and salad greens for cheap.
Check for matching grants. Some local farmers’ markets get grants that double food stamp dollars. That means every EBT dollar buys $2 worth of food at a matching farmers’ market. You can eat clean, local food without blowing your entire month’s benefit on one shopping trip.
Don’t ignore frozen food. Frozen broccoli is some of the nastiest food I’ve ever put in my mouth, but other frozen veggies and fruits are delicious. I can usually buy frozen, organic strawberries for way less money than their fresh counterparts.
Use salad bars for meat. Organic salad bars often have cooked chicken breast as a salad topping. Organic meat is super expensive, but if you add some on top of a salad at a pay-by-the-pound bar, you can come out with a great meal for just a few bucks. I once calculated that I got a huge salad with lots of fancy toppings like red bell peppers and chicken breast for less money that I would’ve spent on one organic bell pepper. No kidding.
I have some great news! I’m able to run again. I’ve actually been running for a couple of weeks, but I waited to share until I was sure I was going to be able to return to running consistently. I took a picture of my watch this morning to help me document my celebration. That’s 40 minutes of running! This is a huge victory for me. I already feel my sanity returning and my thoughts clearing.
In other news, I’m battling hives again. Do any other fibromyalgia patients get unexplained skin issues? I’ve had two punch biopsies (ouch!) over the years. One dermatologist said the hives are an allergic reaction. To what, he didn’t know. The other dermatologist said I have guttate psoriasis. I tend to disbelieve both of them. Either way, my hives itch. They’re currently on my trunk, elbows, wrists, left breast, and right knee pit. Luckily they’re not nearly as bad as they have been in the past, although I wish they’d go away. It’s so much easier to deal with the hives since I’m running again. There’s something about running that makes me feel like I can take on anything.
I’m not sure what my next running goals are. I’m hesitant to make any new goals since I’m still just grateful to be able to get out there and run. The core exercises that I do every day have made a huge difference in my life. I’m convinced that increasing my core strength and stability has helped stabilize my SI joints. The spinal support offered by strong muscles is fantastic. And the proof is in my return to running. Planks suck, but they work. I have to be very careful with my movements to keep my back pain-free, but I’m running again, so I feel pretty damn good.