Putting the FOCUS on 2016

Putting the FOCUS on 2016, or, the Gully Rat returns to the gullies!

I’ve always been an outdoorsy type person. Hiking, biking, trail riding, kayaking in the summer, cross country skiing and ice skating in the winter – that was my life outside of school and later work. Then I met and married my very UN athletic (now ex) husband, and all that changed. For over 10 years I repressed that side of myself and spent most of my time doing the things he wanted to do – going out to eat, going to movies, sitting at home reading or in front of the television. Or just plain sitting home alone because he was always at work. Rarely was I able to get him interested in the kinds of things I preferred. In fact, he even insisted we end our honeymoon early because he wasn’t enjoying the Adirondack camping trip we had decided on together. I can count on one hand the number of times, other than that honeymoon trip, that we did something “outdoorsy” together. Most of them he managed to injure (or at least pretend to injure) himself so that we would cut the trips short and end up in some fancy restaurant instead. But I never realized how it was affecting my health – both physical and emotional – until my marriage had fallen apart, for reasons totally removed from our lack of shared interests.

It seems crazy now. Here I was, reasonably fit even after close to 10 years away from my previous active lifestyle. Health was good, weight was right where it should be, when I did get a chance to do active things with other people, it was never a problem. Here he was, well over 250 pounds by the time he was 30, working 16 hour days, hardly ever sleeping, smoking 2 packs a day, eating 2 meals a day in restaurants. Unbeknownst to me, there were also illegal drugs in the mix, but I didn’t find that out until after he left. So what happened came as a shock – at only 33 years old, *I* had a massive heart attack. Took my lungs, kidney, and liver with it. Turns out it had nothing to do with my health or lifestyle. I had a heart defect I didn’t know I had until it sidelined and almost killed me. Cardiomyopathy, that was the diagnosis. A disease usually reserved for people far older than I was at the time. They told me the damage to my heart muscle was so bad I probably had less than a year to live, unless I had a heart transplant. And that option was off the table, because I’m dangerously allergic to general anesthesia. That was way back in 2003. Seems like a long time ago now – and yet it seems like yesterday.

The fact that I’m writing this in January of 2016 tells you that the doctors were – thankfully – wrong. My son, who wasn’t even a year old when I got sick, is now 12 years old. My life is very different now from before my illness began. My husband left not long after my diagnosis – he made it very clear to me he had no interest in taking care of both a baby and a disabled, possibly dying, wife. We lost our lovely new house in the suburbs, both of us ending up living back at home with our parents. I learned to be a single mother and to cope with a disability that kept me from doing everything I had once loved. How I regretted those years where I allowed my husband to keep me from doing them. Had I known I might never have the chance to do them again, maybe I wouldn’t have been so quick to give in.

But modern medicine is a wonderful thing. A combination of several new heart medications combined with cardiac rehab and almost 2 years of “taking it easy” slowly got me back on my feet. My heart stabilized along with the rest of my body. But oh, what a change it had dealt me. I couldn’t climb stairs without getting winded. I couldn’t play catch with my son and his cousins. I could no longer spend hours hiking the beautiful local trails I so loved, or exploring the world around me. I couldn’t hold a job because my doctors wouldn’t allow me to drive or to be on my feet for more than a few hours a day. It was 2007 before I was considered safe to drive again and they removed my driving restriction, and 2009 before they authorized me to go back to work. Those years were rough – I felt guilty, like I was sponging off my parents and contributing next to nothing to our household. Despite the severity of my illness, I was denied disability so I didn’t even have that for income, just minimal (and begrudging) child support from a husband who barely bothered to visit us after the first couple of years.

I had lost so much weight when I was first sick. I went from 125 pounds, which was healthy for my height, to about 105. It took about 2 years for my weight to normalize. Unfortunately, due to the restrictions on my activity levels, my weight kept climbing. It was only when I finally went back to work, in mid-2009, that I was on my feet enough to lose some of it again. Even then, it took me until 2012 to get back to about 130, which my doctor said was about right for me. Being back to work was great even though I couldn’t go back to my earlier career because I wasn’t strong enough to handle the stress of the Information Technology world I had worked in prior to my illness. 3 retail jobs in a row, followed by a position as a dishwasher and housekeeper at a local hotel, got me not only back on my feet but back to health. I was not only able to work physical jobs, I was back to my old active self. Hiking the local gorges, taking nature photographs, playing baseball and football with my son and his friends – life was getting back to normal. Even when I had bad days they only lasted a little while, and a day or two in bed was enough to get me going again.

It’s a funny thing about people. We take things for granted when we have them. Even when we lose them, and say we’ll never take them for granted again, we do, once we’ve had them back for a while. And I started taking my health for granted again. Last summer, I pushed myself too hard. I decided I wanted to go back to my professional IT career, so I started taking some online classes and signed up for an unpaid IT internship. I couldn’t afford to not work for pay, however, so I continued at my housekeeping job. Between the two positions, I was working 70+ hours a week, 7 days per week. The internship lasted for 3 months, pretty much the entirety of last summer. And the lack of any time off took its toll. I started out the summer with several hikes in my local area, and felt great. By the time fall rolled back around, I was exhausted. I couldn’t have gone for even the shortest hike, I was that dead on my feet. I ended up quitting the housekeeping job after the internship turned into a long-term position, but my health had taken quite a hit by then, and even the 35 hours a week I was now working felt like too much sometimes. I made the mistake of coping by taking it TOO easy and eating too much again. Without the housekeeping job to keep me active, I put on 20 pounds in just 4 months. I felt worse, so I did less and ate more. Vicious cycle!

So here we are in January. Resolution time. But I can’t keep resolutions more than a few days. Too much junk food in the house from the holidays, too cold outside to try to start walking again. Always excuses. I’m so sick of excuses. I’m so sick of feeling lousy all the time, always sick to my stomach, always tired, constant digestive problems. I can feel my health failing again and unlike last time, this time it’s my own fault.

For years I’ve made the mistake of telling myself at the beginning of the year that by May (or June, or July) I was going to get my weight down enough to feel comfortable in a bathing suit. It’s NEVER worked. Even telling myself that I was going to improve my health – lower my blood pressure, lower my blood sugar levels – has never been enough. They weren’t the incentives I needed. So what was?

This year, I’ve decided on a different focus. I’ve been working on improving my digital photography skills, and I’ve decided I want to be able to combine them with my old love of hiking and exploring nature. And right at the moment, I know that if spring/summer comes and my weight and health are where they are right now, it’s not going to be possible for me to hike the steep trails and explore the deep gullys I love so much. So instead of focusing on weight or even health, my goal is to simply get myself to a point where I can do those things I love once again.

So this is my resolution. In the summer of 2012, I was healthy enough to go rock climbing in the 1000 Islands region. In the summer of 2014, I was healthy enough to walk the entire length of the Watkins Glen gorge trail, including the incredibly long, steep set of stairs at the end of it. By the summer of 2015, I could barely do anything other than go to work and sleep. Never again. Not if I can help it. I’m setting a goal here and now, to be strong and fit enough by summer that I will be able to do all the things I had originally planned to do last summer and didn’t. Hike Letchworth Falls State Park. Explore a couple of the gorges close to home that I’ve been told have some glorious waterfalls that few people have ever seen because they’re way back in the woods. Go white water rafting in Ausable Chasm. Go ziplining at Greek Peak. See if I’m any good at ropes courses or slacklining. Basically, learn how to have fun again! But first, my body has to be healthy enough that I can safely do all these things without risking putting myself back in the hospital.

So, small steps. Get up and walk around the house a couple of times per hour. Play with the dog more. Walk around outside when it’s not too cold. Cut back on sugar and snacks. Not easy when the rest of the family is constantly bringing them into the house. But I need to focus if I’m going to make this happen. Focus on the goals. Goals like this:

(Taughannock Falls State Park, Ithaca, NY)


And this: (Great Gully Gorge & Upper Falls, Union Springs, NY)


And maybe even this: (Watkins Glen State Park, which has a 200 step staircase)


So that’s my “buzz” word for 2016: FOCUS! Because without it, it’s going to be just another year – over before I know it, no memories made worth making, and no going back for a do-over either.


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