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Chronically Upbeat

From Sick to Old

A long battle with chronic illness can make old age arrive too soon.

Last week was a doozy. That was the week that I spent schlepping from doctor to doctor to try to sort out the various surgeries I’m scheduled to have.

First was the ophthalmologist, who announced that I’d need an operation to remove the steroid-induced cataracts from my eyes. Years of steroid use to try to minimize the flare-ups from my MS have made this rendezvous with the laser inevitable, he said.

The next day, I reviewed the results of an MRI of my lower spine from an orthopedic surgeon, who recommended back surgery for the stenosis and extreme pain I experience every day.

Ironically, my poor eyesight is invariably contributing to my lower-back pain. I sit hunched before the computer, my back twisted all out of alignment and my eyes almost flush with the computer — just to see the words on the page. I wrote my last two books like that, and my back is paying the price.  

One definition of getting old is when you spend as much of your time going to doctors as you do going to work. Another definition is when you talk more about your ailments than you do about politics or baseball. Mostly, old is a state of mind that can be born of long skirmishes with illness.

Growing old is not a happy condition. That is especially true when a person thinks the process is moving too fast for his or her age. Maybe that would include just about everybody; it certainly is true for me.

Getting old is different from aging. Aging is the gradual trip, the journey none of us particularly relishes. Being old, or just feeling old beyond our years, is the destination. Many a reluctant man or woman knows this place, as we are overtaken by our failing bodies.

Too often, I find myself feeling old. The more my jaw clenches in pain, the faster the years seem to add up in my head. There can be a mighty thin line between feeling pain and feeling old. How does that changed self-image alter who we are and how we approach our lives? Feeling old is a visceral feeling more than a thought. Feeling old makes me sad.

When I feel old, the excitement of planning the future fades to getting stuck in the happier times of the past. That implicitly suggests there will be no future. It is not the sense that death is approaching and the end is near. Instead, it’s a vague darkness that washes over any optimism that there will be more for me out there.

It sounds like depression, different only because the feelings are more situational than clinical. I have battled MS for almost four decades and am a two-time cancer survivor. I’ve been sad, anxious and scared, but rarely depressed. Thin lines separate those emotions, though. Seeing an old man staring back from the mirror touches off raw feelings, salt in the wound. All of us want to see the flowering youth with limitless possibilities each time we look. Maybe the hurt is our inevitable aging and sense of mortality, compounded by illness.

Being sick pushes me to measure loss. I am not all I was. Missing in action are the tennis racquet and bicycle; absent are the car keys and power of independence. Gone is the swagger born of high confidence and seemingly infinite options. What I used to be able to and can no longer do haunts.

There is no mystery as to why so many individuals with serious chronic illness feel old beyond our years. Loneliness and isolation are common and take their toll. We shut out others and live in our heads. Living effectively alone fertilizes fears and the negative view of self. This is a complicated mind game.

I stopped looking in the mirror long ago. When I shave I have to glance at my cheeks or neck, but that is it. What I do not see won’t hurt me. But face it, the sick do age faster. There is no game that will change that. I think we have to face our lives. We need to be grateful for what we have and stop crying for what is missing. That applies to more than the aging process.

We are who we are and we must find joy in life. The soldier at war knows the same fear and sorrow at what might happen. I repeat what my kids tell me in many contexts: “Get a life.” 

I add my own addendum: “Live and love. Get on with it. Time’s a-wasting.  What are we waiting for?”

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