I agree to receive email.

I Turned Old – Overnight

Karing with walking sticks - April 2023

I went to bed on St Patrick’s Day 2023 in a rosy glow after spending the evening with good friends. When I woke up the next morning, I thought I was drunk.

I couldn’t walk straight, my hearing was off, and as I discovered when I drove my car, my thinking was off. “This red sign I think means stop. How do I do that? These cars coming at me from the right, do they stop?” And so much noise, some of it inside my own head. I could barely follow a conversation, let alone read or watch a movie.

After several days, I called my primary care physician, who urged me to go right to an urgent care since I was out of town.

The doctor immediately said, ‘You’re in A-fib’ and hauled in equipment for an EKG. Then he told me to go to the hospital emergency room across the street. I was offered an ambulance, but declined. Come on, across the street? I thought. But then I wondered if I could make it down the sidewalk. As I slowly stumbled in the ER door, the medical staff hustled me in and did all the usual: Hooked me up with sensors, drew fluids, took scans, rolled me out for tests and back.

Finally the diagnosing physician declared, “There’s nothing wrong with you.”

I don’t think I imagined dismissiveness in his voice. Old lady. Unsteady on her feet. Muffled hearing. Fuzzy thinking.

Welcome to old age? No! At 71, I wasn’t prepared to be dismissed so cavalierly.

Karing doing physical volunteer work - Spring 2022
Volunteer Work – Spring 2022

I had spent decades dynamically aging. I was physically active, building social relationships, improving my diet, meditating, practicing mindfulness, making sure I got quality sleep, managed stress, and kept my weight in a healthy range.

I had always felt good. Actually, I felt great. I had lived an active and healthy life. I decided I just needed to power through whatever this was. So even though I still felt unstable on my feet, I decided to visit an out-of-town friend and go hiking. Then I fell down and injured my ankle. Unfortunately, I erroneously thought it was just sprained. So I iced and elevated it and drove 1,000 miles home to see my own doctor.

My doctor diagnosed the fracture and put me in an ankle boot. But even though the focus was on my fracture and the boot, I knew underneath something else was wrong. Very wrong.

I was working too hard to be normal. I noticed a slurring in my speech, a tremor in my hand. Overnight, my handwriting started to mimic that of an old woman. I could manage driving because the ankle boot was on my left foot. But when I drove, my hearing felt like a sound tunnel.

I found myself on a medical hamster wheel, with medical test after test, but no answers.

Karing hiking in Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho - Fall 2022
Hiking in Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho – Fall 2022

At a Buddhist retreat I attended, I desperately tried to act normal. But I could barely hear the speaker and I felt profoundly disoriented and fearful. I was crying a lot. One of the nurse practitioners at one of my many appointments used the word “ataxia,” which describes a collection of symptoms that can have a variety of causes. Still no diagnosis. There is nothing more frightening than the unknown.

It was spring and I struggled to do yard work, plant a garden, mow, weed. The ankle healed and I ditched the ankle boot. I started using a cane and I quit driving because I couldn’t trust my leg to lift off the gas pedal. But now it was obvious this was way beyond a fractured ankle. I went for MRI’s, vestibular therapy, evaluations. Sick of everything, I decided to visit my sister. But I was afraid to fly – what if I couldn’t handle the distances required to transverse? I ordered a wheelchair at every gate. I had my cane. I did it.

My sister and I made good food together, went out for lunch and laughed. We took short walks because my leg would give out and my foot would start to drag. I did physical therapy exercises. I rested. And I started feeling stronger.

When I returned home, I tested myself driving and it seemed fine, and I avoided traffic.

Karing hiking in Arizona - just before MS episode
Hiking in Arizona just before MS episode

My primary physician, through process of elimination, called it a stroke. So I read My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor. I started to feel grounded, like I had a direction, a plan, a course of action, and the possibility of improvement. I wasn’t heading towards permanent and incurable disability. My daughter visited, bringing cheeriness, support, hope.

Then there were more tests.

Because my suicide screening tests had gone steadily downhill since the whole thing started, eventually I had been referred to a therapist, even though I had started feeling a bit better. I cried the whole time. It had been months since the first symptoms appeared and still no diagnosis.

The next day a friend and I went to a loud, hot, crowded food festival, walking a mile to and from where we parked. I ended up in the ER the following day.

I’ve always been energetic and strong. It was challenging to admit that it just wasn’t there anymore. I had to say no to things I would have done before. Before. I so much just wanted to be the person I was before.

I had another MRI. Then another. My neurologist said something was off and was unwilling to sign off on a stroke. Then, on July 5th, he called with a diagnosis. Multiple sclerosis. I would have to wait three weeks to find out what that meant.

I stayed distracted with loving friends and family visits. But inside my head, I was freaking out.

Multiple sclerosis.

MS is an incurable degenerative neurological disease resulting in disability. My symptoms came on in mid-March and here it was July. Finally, my appointment with my neurologist gave me solid information. I have relapsing/remitting MS, not progressive MS. Researching and reading, I developed a plan. The cause of MS is unknown and there is no cure. But there is medication that can reduce the likelihood of relapse.

My neurologist said that I have had MS for years, possibly decades. My theory is decades of healthy living perhaps prevented an outbreak of symptoms, and perhaps is also responsible for the extent to which I have bounced back.

Karing and brother Thanksgiving 2023 - 4 months after diagnosis
With brother, Thanksgiving 2023 – 4 months after diagnosis

There are still things I cannot do at this point and I don’t know if I will be able to do in the future. Long walks and hiking in the mountains has been one of my lifelong loves, but now I can only walk about a mile at a time and I need my cane towards the end. Grieving the very real things I have lost or experienced is an authentic response to trauma and I give myself permission for that. I will not attempt to placate my soul by saying “Other people have it much worse.”

But they do, of course,

This experience has brought into focus that everyone deals with pain, loss, illness, trauma –– it is the human experience, so I look into the causes of suffering, and honor it. I stopped giving any energy to my part-time retirement business of home organizing because I don’t have the band width or the energy. I dropped my volunteer activities because I realize I can’t do them. My job is to take care of myself. And this pushes every button I’ve got, such as:

“You’re not doing enough.”

“You’re not worth it.”

“You must accomplish something, achieve something, get something done in order to take up space on the planet.”

I was so preoccupied for so long that I became sick of myself, sick of thinking about MS. I had lost my joy for life. It was my first thought when I awoke in the morning and my last thought before sleep.

It’s been nine months since my first incident and I am beginning to find pleasure again. I count myself lucky. I drove to the nearby pond on a recent hot day and walked into the cold water, porpoising around and floating on my back. I looked up at the expanse of sky overhead, rimmed with the foliage of trees and realized I was feeling joy.

Aging is like childbirth. You can choose the kind of birth you want and prepare for it. But when you go into labor, you realize you are not in control. We can prepare for the aging scenario we want but sometimes shit happens. We realize that we cannot control events, we can only control our response. So many of us, as we age, are lucky enough to start a business, travel to exotic locations, fall in love again. But my job – and my only job right now – is to take care of myself. To take care of my space. Take care of my relationships.

Period.

For now.

+ posts

I was born in 1951 and came of age during the hippie era, which I enthusiastically adopted. I became a vegetarian and started practicing yoga. My motto became "natural is best". My father was a lifelong walker, and this continued in my love of hiking and walking. My body was always strong, with a good immune system - I very rarely came down with anything, even the mild colds that would circulate. I became a Montessori pre-school teacher which kept me moving all day long. I honed my diet as new facts were discovered about inflammation and antioxidants. I built my social network, moved to a community where I could be active all year long, and looked forward to healthy and active mature years.

16 Responses

  1. Inspiring. Thank you for sharing your story. Old age is so unpredictable. Courage and commitment, it takes a lot of both.

    1. Your key words “unpredictable “, “courage “, and “commitment “. All so important for dynamic aging. Thank you.

  2. Loved reading this. I can totally relate. (See “On Being Elderly”….one of the earlier Dynamic Aging articles).
    I totally agree with you that those of us who face serious physical challenges are also aging dynamically…aging gracefully….

    I think people who can age and run marathons and never have a sick moment in their life should be celebrated….but the rest of us need to be appreciated for putting on the smiling face and enduring life through unbearable pain (physical, emotional or spiritual). I love that you still do what you can do while understanding your limits. All the best to you.

    1. I’ve had to acknowledge my judgment about people who encounter health issues in older age, thinking it was the result of poor choices they had made. I was so wrong. Being in doctors offices and physical therapy waiting rooms has awakened my compassion for us. So many bodies deal with so many challenges! Thank you and best of aging to you.

  3. A great recount. The body is our challenge, it has its time. Life is permanent, you are keeping its light in the best way. May you be well, blessings.

  4. Thank you for your courage to write your story. This was my story, too, in 1980, which I wrote about for Dynamic Aging in Dec. 2022 (Get out of your head). I can attest to the fact of your excellent diet, exercise, and mental attitude all played a huge part in keeping the MS in check for so many years. I had to learn all this the hard way, at age 30 (I am now 74). After taking 5 months off work after my diagnosis to regain my health I have been diligent about diet, exercise and mental health. When I slack off my body lets me know with some pretty consistent symptoms and I get back on track. As I am aging I have to keep readjusting my “energizer bunny” (husband’s words) self to realize I just don’t have the stamina I used to. It is a hard balance but I keep trying. Your story reminded me how lucky I was to find a good neurologist who gave me something I could focus on (the diet) when no definitive tests or medications were available, and a loving community of family and friends who supported my recovery. May you find peace with your recovery and continue to explore the boundaries of your physical self. Hugs, Cathy Waterman

  5. Cathy, thank you for sharing your story. I’ll read the longer one. I am now able to acknowledge that I am truly lucky. And grateful that I adopted a healthy lifestyle so many years ago.
    And I love your energizer bunny analogy! I’m going to adopt it. I know you won’t mind?.

    1. And Cathy, I forwarded your original essay ‘Get Out of Your Head’ to Karing when she got her original diagnosis. We are all paying it forward with our stories, helping others in ways that we may never know. Thank you, both of you, for taking the time to share your stories here.

  6. Thank you for telling your story. I think we sometimes think if we do everything right, nothing bad can happen and of course that’s not true – in terms of our health, our aging, our family situation, and on and on. (That’s not to say we shouldn’t look after ourselves as best we can!) Things happen and we have to deal with them as best we can, and grieve our losses too. I wish you all the best in your health journey.

    1. Exactly – we think we can control our health, if we do X, then Z won’t happen. Our choices affect our health to a very great extent, but there can still be a wrench tossed into the works. And then our job is to respond to that wrench.
      Thank you for your good wishes.

  7. Thanks so much for writing and sharing your story. You are modeling how to stay with it, believing what you experience and continuing to value your self and your life enough to keep on asking the (many) questions that may lead to (some) answers. May you be well in all the ways that are possible right here and now.

  8. Thank you for your honest story. Too often we think that as long as we eat well, exercise and do other healthy and good things, maladies won’t affect us. We often take our good heath for granted.
    Sure, all of probably know those who abuse their bodies and end up in bad shape. Then there are those who abuse their bodies and live to a ripe old age.
    What is the answer to living long and living well until the end? I wish I knew.
    Maybe the best way to look at aging is to appreciate with deep gratutude, each and every day, the gift that has been given to us – life!

  9. Yes, the outlook I’m cultivating! Each day is a gift, find some beauty, some joy to share with another. Happiness is a choice, it doesn’t depend on circumstances. Aging is success – it means we’re alive!

  10. Thank you for sharing your experience. Hats off to you for sticking with it and getting a diagnosis. A fit Nurse, never sick… I had a similar thing happen and was eventually diagnosed with Functional Neurological Disorder. I was 39. I’m 60 now and have realised, like you, that diet and lifestyle impact symptoms in so many people. I follow Dr Terry Wahls protocol that she developed to get herself out of her wheelchair and back to work as a physician. She has MS but the diet covers my problem too. We have plans and move toward our goals but sometimes stuff happens that makes us old overnight. At 71 or 39…. You have inspired me. Thank you. Look after you and yours. Blessings

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *