On 6 June 2018, I made the decision to leave my two roles—web architect within the digital communications team and warden of Agnes Blackadder Hall within student services—at the University of St Andrews and strike out on a new adventure.
My plan, such as it was, was to take a few months out to focus on my health before plunging back into gainful employment. The previous two years had been rather brutal on my health
Those plans came to a shuddering halt two weeks later while my (now late) mother was visiting. As I got up off the sofa I felt an excruciating pain across my lower back and I dropped to the floor in agony. I couldn’t stand up; I crawled upstairs to bed. I knew that something terrible had happened. A few days later my physio confirmed that I had herniated a disc in my spine. L5.
This morning, having picked up my latest medication prescription from Brown’s Pharmacy on Anstruther’s Shore Street, I took a walk along the pier deep in thought.
I found myself about halfway along the pier, staring at the beach wondering if the tide was going out or just coming in, realising that despite the fact that my maternal grandfather was in the Royal Navy, I have never been particularly drawn to the sea. I prefer rivers and forests; I grew up on the edge of the ancient Ettrick forest in a town split in two by the Ettrick river.
For the past eight weeks or so, I have been signed off work with a combination of ailments. Underlying it all: exhaustion. I’ve pushed myself too far these past 16 months or so, since leaving home. On top of that, like layers of an onion, a low-grade prostate infection—something that I’ve had before, in 2013, that is likely caused by my kidney condition. And then an upper respiratory infection—a URI but not the ones I encounter in my digital communications day job—that kept returning. Earache, a sore throat, and a chest infection that defied two courses of antibiotics but finally succumbed to the third. What a relief.
This morning I woke up feeling awful, afraid that the URI had returned for a fourth time. It felt like someone had been poking needles into my ears, the glands in my throat felt tender, and I was short of breath.
I’m not one who likes to cause a fuss about myself. I will often go a week in pain just to see if my immune system will deal with it, or to fully test whether it’s viral before I call on the health professionals to wade in with their antibiotics. I have echoing in my head the messages of so many health campaigns: use fewer antibiotics, don’t visit the GP if it’s a mild viral infection but rest, drink plenty of fluids and take paracetamol. I did that in March. I got worse. Nervously, I telephoned the GP practice. About 20 minutes later the on-call GP phoned me back, listened to my woes and invited me in to get checked out.
To my relief, it turns out there is no sign of any of the infections. The pains I feel may simply be my body returning to normal after weeks of fighting on four or five fronts, like floorboards creaking after an earth tremor. My blood pressure was the most normal it has been for about two months (142/90), and my temperature a little on the high side of normal (37.1°C), but then I don’t actually know what my normal is.
Having thought twice before that the URI had been conquered, only to have it return a few days later, I felt palpably relieved. It was as though the doctor had given me permission to finally relax and now recuperate, build strength and recover.
What has struck me over the last couple of months is how patient I have been. Most of the time, anyway. Over the years, through various ailments—back injuries, meningitis, shingles, etc., as well as the usual bouts of flu—I have learned that when your body is sick it is telling you something. And so it’s important to listen to it.
When I told the doctor last week that I had been sleeping loads, I realised that by “loads” I meant maybe eight or nine hours a day. That’s a normal amount of sleep but about twice what I usually get.
I have realised just how much I push myself above and beyond what other people expect. I take work home, when I should be relaxing; I work more hours than I’m paid for at hall, when I could hand things over to others. These few weeks have been a good lesson that I am not indispensable: many things can be done by others.
I’ve known for a long time that I need to find a better work/life balance. I’ve known for a long time that I need to make time for exercise and eating properly. A read a few months ago something along the lines of: if you don’t make time for exercise then you will need to make time for illness. That really struck home this month.
I’m signed off until Friday 26 May. For the next week and a half, I’m committing myself to work on a better, more healthy rule of life of prayer, and relaxation, of reading and eating, and plenty of sleep. And when I have a little more strength of exercise too.
On Friday afternoon I attended my bi-annual renal outpatients’ clinic at Ninewells hospital in Dundee. My appointments usually follow the same script.
Doctor: Hello, come in, sit down… how are you?
Me: Fine, thanks.
Doctor: Good. How have your kidneys been over the last six months? Any problems?
Me: Fine, no problems.
Doctor: Your blood pressure is a bit high, but you’ve probably been rushing to get here. Let’s take it again… Hmm… still a bit high. You’ve put on more weight, I see. You really need to lose weight. That will help with your blood pressure.
And off I’m sent with a slap on the wrist, a ticket to get my bloods taken, and an appointment for six months’ time.
Change of script
Well, dear reader, not this time. This time we had a change of script. I was in and out in about five minutes. No reprimand, my blood pressure was looking good, just a a request for bloods and to return in not six but nine months’ time (always a good sign when they don’t want to see you quite as soon).
The reason: over the last five months I have been exercising. A lot. And yesterday afternoon I discovered just now much weight I’ve lost: 6 kilogrammes (13.2 lbs).
I knew it must have been quite a bit: I am now back into my XXL t-shirts, and my 38″ jeans.
The last seven years have been in many ways the most brutal, the more difficult that I’ve ever experienced:
sleep deprivation (twins and then singleton) for about four or five years
two back injuries
two neck injuries
Whenever I did exercise (walking, cycling or light dumbbell weights) invariably I’d get ill pretty quickly, within a few days I’d come down with someone, or I’d overdo it and pick up an injury.
And with a regular pattern like that comes fear. And so I ended up avoiding exercise because I didn’t want to get ill.
In June of this year I knew that something had to change. I was experiencing major headaches again, comparable with the ones I had experienced during last year’s meningitis. I knew that I’d put on more weight, I was already in XXXL t-shirts and these were beginning to feel a little tight. I was feeling so unfit and so ashamed of my size that I knew that I had to do something about it. It actually got so bad that I felt I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror.
I knew that I could do it, I’d done it before, after I’d moved from Edinburgh to Fife. I just wished that I had written down what I’d done so that I could do it again.
So I committed to the following:
Eat less (especially, cut out unnecessary sugars and sweets).
Lift weights more.
With the exercise I committed myself to a little, often. And with that I got on my bike and tackled a familiar circuit that I used to do: home to Kilrenny, up the farm track to the main road, then back home. I knew that it would take me about 13 minutes to reach the top of the farm track, up a gently hill, and about 26 minutes to complete the loop and get back home.
A few weeks in, I started lifting weights again. A little and often. Squats, preacher curls, bench presses. I hit major muscle groups. I followed a couple of Men’s Health dumbbell guides that I’d collected over the years.
Then I went back out on my bike, and was amazed that I could go significantly faster. The weight lifting had given my legs strength. Who knew?!
The clocks changed and I continued to go out in the dark. I have fabulously powerful LED bike lights that illuminate the road ahead. And that’s when I realised that one of my biggest enemies, one of the things that had been holding me back, was myself.
When I cycle during the day and hit the bottom of a climb there is a small, nagging voice in the back of my mind that says, “You’ll never make that climb!” And coupled with the fear of getting ill, or pulling an injury, my brain gives in and replies, “Yeah… you’re probably right”, and I slow down and don’t push myself quite as much.
But at night… at night I can’t see the top of the hill. And so I don’t hear the nagging voices. I’m in the moment, and I just keep going, until I find the top of the hill.
So, I set myself a goal: get from my house to the top of the hill in under 10 minutes. A week in to my challenge I got it down to 10′ 52″.
I then realised that I was taking it too easy getting from my home to the bottom of the hill, so a couple of weeks ago I set out with the attitude of going for broke.
I pushed myself harder than I had in a long time, through the pain, up the hill, pulling on my pedals when pushing hurt too much, pushing when that started to ache.
At the top of the hill I slumped over the handlebars, out of breath, my heartbeat in my ears, sweat turning to steam in the cool night air.
I unclipped my bike computer and held it in front of my front light. Five minutes fifty-six seconds. What?! 5′ 56″.
Well… that’s under 10 minutes.
The next year or two are going to contain a lot of changes, big and small. Some I will have little control over, others I will grasp with two hands. This is one of them. I’m getting back on track (metaphorically and literally), getting fit and regaining my confidence.
Yesterday’s renal appointment was a significant milestone. Let’s see just how much fitter I can be in nine months’ time when I present myself to the clinic once again.
I wish I’d discovered this exercise earlier. Last year we had a huge reunion down in the Scottish Borders where family from California met up with folks here in Scotland, some meeting for the first time. This would have been tremendous fun and a great way to share our stories and see where our lives interacted and if there were any common themes.