January 15, 2014. Sitting on the examination table I scan the room. There is a replica of a skeleton in the corner and pictures of the human body showing the skeletal structure, tendons and muscles, and various joints hang on the walls. The paper between me and the table crinkles every time I move.
On the desk is a model of the ankle, one of those where you can see how all the bones and tendons fit worked together. The model is broken.
I think that’s a sign of things to come.
I walk out of the office in what is my first of 4 ankle braces, and 1 cast, I’ll wear in 2014.
Why 4 ankle braces you ask?
The osteoarthritis in my right ankle decided it wanted to make itself be heard…and felt.
From Frustration to Optimism to Disappointment
I went from an active lifestyle of working out, backpacking and fishing, and being relatively pain-free to hardly being able to walk within a few weeks. That was a hell of a surprise. Frustrated, scared and confused doesn’t even begin to describe how I was feeling.
Strangely, I also felt optimistic. I’m stubborn and competitive by nature, so I was certain that I would get through this and find a cure. It didn’t matter what the doctors or “science” said. I overcame so much through my years of playing basketball that I was determined to get through this as well. “To hell with my osteoarthritis.” I said. “I’m going to figure this out. I’ll be fine.”
I wasn’t fine.
My ankle problems date back to playing basketball in college. Back then, I was always spraining my ankle, severely (and VERY painfully), and not taking the time to do the proper physical therapy. Instead, I just did what I could to make sure I was able play in the next game. From tricking the trainers into thinking I was OK to telling my coach that if I sat out the next few practices I would be ready for the game. All I cared about was getting out there doing what I loved, which was to play basketball. I was 21 years old, didn’t know any better and really didn’t care either. At that age, I was smart enough to know I was destined for problems when I got older, but I couldn’t grasp what it meant to be 60 years old with an arthritic ankle, so I carried on. But it turned out I was only 28 when my osteoarthritis flared-up. THAT’S NOT OLD!!
All those problems in college lead up to my first ankle surgery in 2008. As you can see in the x-rays below, my ankle was a mess, there was more than just osteoarthritis happening. If you’re wondering why that x-ray is so blurry – it’s not. That was my ankle after the first surgery back in 2008.
Here’s a normal ankle for comparison.
Looks pretty good huh?
August 21, 2014. 2 weeks before I was scheduled to take my the backpacking trip of my dreams, I had my second serious ankle surgery.
My Dream Hike Diverted
In the past 10 years, osteoarthritis has affected my life in more ways than I care to count. Limited movement, pain, doctor visits, missing out on social activities, and financial expenses quickly came to the top of my mind, so I’m going to stop there so I don’t have to dwell on this piece for too long. But one of the biggest things osteoarthritis has taken away was my dream backpacking trip.
September 06, 2014. That was my scheduled start date for hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT).
Many people consider the JMT one of the most beautiful in America. Starting in Yosemite National Park, home to such iconic features as Half Dome, El Capitan, and Glacier Point, the trail goes south and ends near Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States at 14,505 ft.
After only an hour or two of researching the trail, I had made up my mind. I was going to hike the JMT. I had the job that would allow for the time away and if there was ever going to be a year to take my epic 20 day, 211-mile journey, 2014 would be the year.
By December of 2013 I had my entire itinerary mapped out, as you can see above. I had read just about everything I could about the trail and did a ton of research on meal planning, what backpacking gear to take, and so much more. I felt like I was ready to go. I was so stoked! 10 months from my start date and I was completely giddy. I couldn’t wait for Sept 6, 2014 to arrive. I felt like a little kid waiting for Christmas morning to arrive!
Thanks osteoarthritis! You spoiled my Christmas.
Learning How to Thrive
No doubt about it, 2014 was a rough year. So was 2015. 2016 has ben tough at times too. And not just physically. Suffering from osteoarthritis takes a toll emotionally as well. Everyday when I wake up, the first thing that goes through my mind is “I wonder how my ankle is going to feel today?” Some days it feels great, but there are other days I spend sitting on the couch because my ankle is sore and inflamed, which then causes my knees and hips to feel achy too. Basically, my whole lower body hurts.
Because of how I’m affected by my osteoarthritis, I’ve had to completely change my lifestyle. A new diet, my workouts are different, and I need to plan and prepare for various activities so I have some energy afterward instead of feeling too sore.
I also make it a point to get up a little earlier in the morning so I have time to do some physical therapy exercises. And I ABSOLUTELY HATE doing physical therapy. Sure it helps, but it’s so mind numbing. I suppose if I had actually done the physical therapy in college I wouldn’t be here. But my 38-year-old self is wiser than my 21-year-old self.
I spend at least a few hours each week reading about diets, exercises, treatments, or medical studies hoping I can find something else that I can use to help treat my osteoarthritis. Not everything works, in fact, most don’t even come close and there is no “miracle cure“, but once in awhile, I’ll find something I can use that adds just a little relief or hope. Whether it’s as simple as a new recipe or treatment that’s shown positive results in clinical trials. All those little pieces begin to add up.
Reddit is one of my main resources, believe it or not. The subreddits r/thritis or r/osteoarthritis are great to read and see what other people with arthritis are talking about and what treatments they’ve found helpful. There are A TON of young adults who suffer from OA, and it’s helpful reading about their experiences and knowing I’m not alone in all of this.
To some degree, OA can take you away from the doing what you love and the people you love to be around, so being able to read about and share your experiences with others who are dealing with the same problems is a big relief. That goes a long way in knowing what to expect and how to deal with OA.
Creating New Dreams
Now, if you recall earlier that I mentioned hiking the John Muir Trail. The 211 mile, 20-day hike I had planned to take in 2014. Well, later this year, Sept 2nd, 2016 to be exact (2 years and 4 days before my 2014 start date), I plan on taking that adventure! It’s my dream hike.
It’s basically become my white whale. No joke.
I’m pretty sure the only thing I think about more often than my ankle OA is that hike.
Now, you’re probably thinking “Dude, you’re crazy to take that hike on your ankle!”
And you would be correct.
But now, my dream hike in 2016 is different than my dream hike in 2014. With everything that’s happened and considering my current physical condition, I‘ve had to change what I consider a dream hike.
Would I love to take the hike I planned in 2014? Hell yeah!
Am I able to? Not a chance.
Learning to Accept a New Reality
It’s taken me a very, very long time to accept my limitations. In fact, as recently as 10 days ago (as of writing this), I was planning a 180-mile hike on the JMT. The only reason I didn’t plan on the full 211 miles was because obtaining a permit at the start of the trail would be much harder than securing a permit a little further up the trail at a different trailhead.
I literally just came to accept that I needed to change my expectations about what I can do. Less than 2 years removed from my second serious ankle surgery, walking with a limp, the pain, swelling and stiffness, and everything else! I mentioned that at 38 I’m smarter than what I was at 21, but apparently not by much.
Truthfully though, it’s hard as hell accepting new limitations when you’re still young and active. Like many of you, I want to keep moving and exploring. But when someone, or something like OA, tells you “No, you need to stop now,” it’s almost second nature to figure out a way to break through that barrier and go the extra mile. I can’t quite do that anymore, it’s taking me a long time to learn and accept that. If my math is right…looks like 10 years.
Like my hike in 2014, I’m still ending it 14,505 ft up on the top of Mt. Whitney. And regardless of the weather, I’m waking up early and hiking to the top of the mountain so I can be there for the sunrise over the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. I’m also going to bring a few miniature bottles of scotch as a celebration.
How cool is that!
(I would include a beautiful picture of a sunrise over Mt Whitney, but I’m not going to put one here unless I’m able to take it.)
I’ll still fish along the rivers and lakes, star-gaze, and check out the wildlife. But now the hike is only 110 miles for 11 days. This is more manageable for me. I hope.
Preparing for What’s Ahead
I’ve been through a lot, both physically and emotionally, to be in a position to be able to create a new dream. A lot of this development has taken place only within the past few months. I think planning for the JMT hike has helped me start to accept what I can and cannot do.
I’m not done fully understanding my limitations either. My ankle is going to get worse. It could be a gradual process or happen quickly, I really don’t know. Maybe this hike will make things worse that much faster.
But maybe not.
I might end-up hiking off Mt. Whitney on that final day with only a few aches and pains. What I do know, is that WHEN I’m at the top of that mountain, it’s going to be a huge emotional lift that’ll give me the confidence to face my future OA problems head on.
Keep Calm and Thrive On!
And that’s what I really think this hike is about. It’s not just 10 days of hiking through some of the most beautiful landscape in the country. Although that’s a big part of it. Rather, it’s fighting against the pain, inflammation, anger, soreness, frustration, confusion, and more anger.
It’s trying to squeeze out every last bit I can while knowing in the back of my head that having OA at a young age means decades of fighting to come.
But having osteoarthritis at a young age and wanting to remain active necessitates facing each and every battle head on. Whether it’s drawing motivation through planning your own “dream hike,” or through exercising or being around friends and family or finally making that decision to not let osteoarthritis win; making sure you don’t let OA take over your life is the first step towards learning how to THRIVE!