Over the course of the last two years, and especially since last summer, my health challenges have begun to recede. I have for the first time in more than a decade gone days at a stretch without pausing to measure my spoons or establish escape routes throughout my day. I saw my primary care physician most recently, not wracked with pain or fever, but at an annual physical. I have weaned myself off gabapentin and other pain meds. Most recently I gambled that my recovering strength and mobility was for real and went to Italy for ten days with my family, our first proper vacation in a long time. And with my wife, no trip is a proper vacation without at least ten miles a day of walking around the city (we hit 14 one 98 degree day in Rome). I think it’s safe to say that things are moving in the right direction.
I am not so foolish as to imagine that all my health challenges are behind me. Most of my problems are chronic, and even now—with the worst of my symptoms in remission—I have to navigate potholes throughout the day. Indeed, part of why I can go stretches without thinking about it is that I have stopped resisting the changes to my body—and to my daily life, building in regular rest and recovery stops. Back surgery in the summer eliminated a sizable amount of acute pain, leaving what remained in its wake manageable and increasingly familiar. All of it can return—indeed, will return, because: mortal coil. But where not long ago I felt as if I had, like Rip van Winkle, awoken in a body overnight decades older, I feel now returned to a body whose decrepitude feels almost age-appropriate.
The turn towards health has meant a return to many things that got short-changed in recent years, family most urgently. But also of course work. I never took medical leave during the course of my adventures, a choice motivated by a reasonable fear that I would need it more desperately down the road. The price of course was to fall endlessly behind in myriad commitments and projects. I have been working like mad to make it up to those that didn’t fire me, as the sane ones did. It feels good, work too often being so important to my sense of self, but I am not unmindful that my over-investment in work (and a nasty habit of saying yes to every interesting project that comes along) played no small role in my physical and emotional health challenges.
One of the biggest changes marked by my return to the “kingdom of the well” has been the greatly diminished time and space for self-reflection. The long silence on this blog is a testament to that. I created Patient Time as a space to work through some of the issues I was wrestling with as I adjusted to chronic physical challenges in a life already a bit busy with chronic anxiety and depression. After all, illness, as Virginia Woolf reminds us, for all its miseries, does provide insights and perspectives not available to us when we are “soldiers in the army of the upright.”: “They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round.”
Having returned to the army of the upright for now, there is simply less looking around—still less looking inward—on a daily basis. I will need to carve that time in the future before I lose what I was able to glean from my time supine. In the meantime, Patient Time reemerges from its dormancy, ready to try some new things—including, as in our next installment, making more space for other voices and perspectives.
Jared Gardner is a professor and patient at the Ohio State University.