the River Trail

bosque cottonwoods

One of the gifts of injuring my hip this fall was that I had to stop running for a while. I didn’t like it, but it shifted things for me. 

First, I ate. A lot. Like crazy. My disordered eating returned after a few blissful months of eating without worry. When I was training this summer, I ate for fuel. My blood sugar felt steady. I ate when I was hungry and didn’t feel hungry when I didn’t need fuel. It was just the way it’s supposed to be, and not the way it often is. 

As I ate, and didn’t run, I gained weight. I probably lost some muscle and strength too. I put on fat around my belly, not much, but enough to shift my hormones. Instead of waking several times a night and instead of being unable to fall asleep, I began to sleep straight through the night. If I woke, I could return to sleep easily. Just the way it’s supposed to be. 

My theory is that training hard and bringing my weight down this summer affected my hormones just enough that my estrogen levels went down. It felt as if I were in menopause and mostly that felt okay. I had hot flushes, which can be more common in warm weather. I was no longer crying at, well, everything. I felt more even in general, though the lack of good sleep was horrible. 

Periods often come and go during perimenopause. When I turned 50, I stopped menstruating for nine months until I went on a trip to California to see my daughter. After two cycles, they stopped again. I kind of figured this summer that I was moving into menopause, that once I got to February it would be a full year and we could call it quits. Almost there. I was feeling good while training about getting stronger and leaner. I could do this menopause thing.

The surgeon who will be operating on me on Monday agreed that the training could have affected my hormone levels. Then a few days after meeting with her and setting a date to remove my ovaries and fallopian tubes, and after seven months without one, I got another period. 

It’s like the poor dears were yelling, “wait! wait! we’re still busy! we still work!” And they do. Even after menopause, our ovaries will continue to pump out some estrogen and androgens. We also get some estrogen from our adrenals and manufacture some in our belly fat. We can ingest estrogens, too, through food, such as soy, or through hormone replacement therapy (HRT). 

I’m feeling nervous about a life without estrogen. Do the adrenals go into overdrive to produce more estrogen? Does that lead to burn out? Do the hunger signals go into overdrive to get more belly fat? How much of my youth will I leave on that table on Monday? Will I return to the pattern of haunted sleep that distressed me so much late this summer?

I really enjoyed being thinner and stronger this summer. It felt great and true to me, though it is not a weight or body composition that I’ve maintained most of my life. I wonder if it’s something I’ll have to give up in my post-menopausal world. I wonder if belly fat is my friend. Here’s what I really wonder: I wonder if I can be-friend my belly fat. 

I wish I hadn’t had this last period. I wish I were removing ovaries and saying to myself, well, they were finished anyway. After learning I had the BRCA2 mutation, I spoke with a genetic counselor in late October. I asked her if I should wait for menopause to have surgery, which at that time I thought I could declare in February. I was asking about waiting four more months. She said, no, don’t wait. 

I heard: do this now! I took less than 24 hours to decide — to know — that I was going to do this surgery. I went to my favorite tarot deck to do a single card reading. I drew the Death card. I don’t care that this card may be signaling a metaphorical death or that it’s talking about the fear of death. I asked about surgery to prevent a life-threatening cancer and I drew the Death card. Come on - how would you have reacted?

My distress grew, yet I was in the middle of my teaching term at CNM and the appointment to meet with a surgeon was still a few weeks away. I ate a lot and played a lot of FreeCell on my iPad. If I’d ever learned positive coping strategies for dealing with stress, I couldn’t access them now. My fear and inability to cope with this stressor embarrassed me.

I returned to the tarot deck after a few weeks and this time did a proper 5 card reading. Right before I drew the fifth card, the one that signals the outcome, I paused. This better not be the Death card again. This better not be. It was.

Once I made an appointment with a surgeon, I was ready to have the surgery as soon as possible.  Seriously, we talked on a Wednesday and I wanted to do it the next week on Monday.  I’d do surgery on Monday, have Thursday and Friday off because it was Thanksgiving, and then go back to work that next week, the final week of the term. 

My husband wisely urged me away from that plan, in part because it wouldn’t give me enough time to recover before I would fly to Mexico to lead a Nia/Yoga retreat at Mar de Jade. I didn’t agree with him, but I calmed down enough to plan the surgery for right after the retreat. We had made plans with his sister for our family to go up to Santa Fe for Christmas Eve celebration, two days after the surgery. In other words, folks, I was treating the surgery as if it were, oh, a teeth cleaning. Why wouldn’t I be fine right away? No big deal. 

I think my surgeon, whom I met just once, is wonderfully kind and gentle. She was patient and empathetic. I liked her immediately. I confessed to her that I didn’t feel as if I were going into surgery to prevent cancer; I had escalated to a deep fear that I already had cancer. She and the intern in the office with us both opened their mouths in that Oh expression that means they are so sorry. Just by saying it, I released some of that fear. After an exam in which she felt up my ovaries and pronounced that everything seemed just fine, I relaxed a bit. The fear of death eased.

My term ended at CNM. I made appointments with the acupuncturist who I have seen for years, who’s supported me through depression, allergies, and this scramble through perimenopause. I bought a few guided visualizations to listen to on my iPhone, hypnosis tracks that help prepare a person for surgery by imagining how well it will go. Without the pressure of going to work each day, I had some space and energy to begin processing what this surgery will mean for me. 

The day before I was supposed to fly to Mexico, I discovered that my passport had expired the year before. I was mortified. How had I not checked this sooner? I was shaking, in shock, and also thinking: okay, this was meant to be. I was supposed to stay grounded, here, in New Mexico, and not be flying around and not be adventuring out in the world. I’m supposed to be here, going inward, settling in.

The day I discovered I wouldn’t be going to Mexico, I went out on a run, and as I ran, I sobbed. Crying and running the trail next to the river, I was in despair over the death of my sister more than 20 years ago. My sister died of breast cancer when she was 30 years old, and 20 years on I still miss her, I still wish she were here, I still wish I could have saved her.

Sara, who goes on the Mexico trip with my daughter instead of with me, tells me I’m saving my life with this surgery. I’m going to live to see my grandchildren, she tells me! I should be so lucky. Still, Sara’s words comfort me. Her deep faith in this surgery helps.

Instead of being in Mexico, I teach Nia and the crowd is enthusiastic, devoted, all in. Class leaves us shining. Their support is so deeply nurturing that for the first time in weeks, I feel stronger. We danced to being human, and it works.

Instead of being in Mexico, I meet Pete, Diane, and the babies at the Railyard Markets. Hugh is holding Liv and he looks like a happy grand-dad, as if the twins are a trial run. 

Instead of being in Mexico, I draw the tarot cards at home, and I am rewarded with a reading rich with symbolism of evolution. Instead of the death card, the final card is the Hanged Man. The deck I am using, the Cosmic Tribe, says the hanged man has surrendered to his situation. He is shamanic. He is connected vitally to both sky and earth. He is unconventional. “Learn to trust the mysterious powers of the universe,” Eric Ganther writes, “and they will provide you with the wherewithal to move through difficulty gracefully.” This card feels one step back from Death. It is enough. 

Friends who have been my friends for more than 45 years  Neil and Susan and Nanette  email me long notes with such kindness, honesty, and support that I feel my heart sing with the connection. 

I call the friend I’ve known the longest and I tell Sheri about the fears I’ve had the longest. 

Further down the bosque, I walk with Kate and talk, processing, like this is a puzzle I will be able to solve. 

At Betty’s I sit in a hot tub with Suzanne and it all pours out of me, every fear, all the sadness. I talk and cry and talk until I’m calm again. 

My husband allows me to cry and tell him every irrational thought and fear and he doesn’t even try to fix me. 

I walk with Diane to the river’s edge where we thank our ovaries for the hard work they’ve done for us. I say goodbye to mine. I feel loss, as if I’m losing someone I love. I feel gratitude. I do not feel ready.

I wish I could back out. Hugh says, no, it’s a done deal. I say, no, not until the anesthesia takes me under. But, he’s right. I’ve just gotten scared, scared of knives cutting into me and cameras probing me, alien-like, entering through my belly button. I’m scared of pain and nausea, scared of blood. Scared of becoming suddenly old. 

Cindy Wu, the acupuncturist, tells me to stay warm for two weeks after surgery. No cold, no cold food, stay warm. I imagine she is telling me to go into a cocoon for those two weeks, a gentle swaddled existence, while I heal from the surgery and I do the important work of adjusting to life without the hormones from my ovaries. 

I’m thankful I didn’t rush into surgery, even as difficult as this anticipation is. I’m thankful even more that I chose the time of year that invites me to stay inside, cuddled up. I’m grateful I had to wait long enough for the surgery that I could realize how important it is not to jump back into work — that is, not to jump backwards into my life. 

What happened before and who I was and how I have been all is prelude. It is not the whole of me. It is, I suppose, the long and complicated first act. What a glorious second act this can be. I wonder what will happen. I wonder what’s next. 

I began this long story by saying that not running had produced some gifts, the first of which was belly fat. The second is that once I began running again, I wasn’t running for time or distance or improvement. I started back from the injury with a few miles and took it easy. Sometimes I’d run two days in a row because that’s what the schedule or weather allowed, and with shorter, easier runs, I didn’t need a recovery day between runs. Instead of spending a lot of time warming up, I could do a quick warm up and head out the door, knowing I’d be back in 30 minutes, 45 at the most. I didn’t need as much recovery time after the run. It all became simpler, shorter. 

Running resets my metabolism. If I’m stressed or I feel as if my blood sugar isn’t steady, a run corrects that. On a run, I do some of the deep emotional and spiritual work that I don’t otherwise do on a regular basis. Running is therapy and it’s transformational. 

The surgeon says I’m not supposed to run for a month after the surgery, which seems like an awful long time to go without this particular therapy. I imagine how it will feel to run again late in January, still cold and dark but not quite as dark as now. I imagine myself coming out of that cocoon and running just a short bit, enough to get started again, the place from which I’ll grow strong again. I will be, truly, a different person in a different body with a different life ahead of me. There are some moments that this change scares me deeply. There are other moments that I think, blessed be.  I think, bring it on.