Every time my right foot contacts the ground, a surge of pain makes me wince.
Despite the ache, I keep running because I want this run. In fact, I need this run.
Running is how I subdue the stress of running a business and a household that would otherwise overtake me. I’ve been a runner for three-quarters of my life. I can’t imagine living without it.
And yet, the pain in my foot is warning me of what’s to come. The pain is telling me, at age 41, I must consider a future in which running is not always possible. That there will be times that the pain is so great I must not run or risk worse consequences, like permanently damaged bones and joints.
I’m a runner who’s just been told she has psoriatic arthritis. This type of arthritis is a chronic auto-immune disease in which my immune system attacks the body, creating unnecessary inflammation in the joints and makes my toes swell up like little sausages.
This is devastating news. Not the part about having an auto-immune disease, because, you see, that part isn’t new to me. I’ve lived with another auto-immune disease, psoriasis of the skin, for 20 years. But at least that disease hasn’t really stop me from living my life. Despite having red patches of unsightly, flakey skin all over my body, I’ve done things like worn a bikini at the beach and appeared on the cover of a magazine.
But now a damned disease is affecting my life in a way that really matters. It’s stopping me from running. And that is simply not O.K.
I recall the words of my yoga teacher in yesterday’s class: “Work with what you have.” It’s such a cliché—one I’ve heard countless times—and yet this time it gives me real pause.
I’ve been struggling with my psoriatic arthritis diagnosis for several tear-filled weeks. I felt my life as a runner—and the running retreat business I’ve built around it—slipping away. What would my future hold if running isn’t a part of it?
Continuing to run one pain-filled step at a time, my yoga teacher’s words echo in my mind like a mantra: “work with what you have; work with what you have…”
I wonder what working with my arthritis would look like. “Well, I wouldn’t run right now because it hurts,” I think to myself. So I stop. Right there in the middle of street, I stop still, take a deep breath and turn around. Rather than feeling forced to stop, it simply feels like the right choice.
I spend the next mile limping home, wondering, “What else would working with my arthritis look like?”
It occurs to me that there will be times when the inflammation in my joints subsides and running will feel good. And at other times when it flares, I can still cycle, swim and strength train in the gym.
But how do I earn a living leading running retreats around the world when I can’t count on being able to run? An answer immediately comes to mind, as if it has been waiting there all along. The future of my business involves working with the most inspiring, experienced and highly qualified experts in running and women’s wellness I know.
I would lead a few retreats a year while they led all the rest, effectively expanding the company’s ability to serve more runners by offering more and varied retreat experiences. The solution is so right and so simple. I feel a surge of relief come over me.
So I ask myself again, “What else would working with my arthritis look like?”
“It would involve more self-compassion,” I think to myself. From my mindfulness studies over the past six years, I am familiar with the concept of self-compassion for general well-being. It occurs to me that this diagnosis is the ultimate test of whether I have fully grasped the self-compassion lesson.
I recall the work of self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor Human Development and Culture, Educational Psychology Department at the University of Texas. “People cannot always be or get exactly what they want,” she says. “When this reality is denied or fought against, suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism. Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time [as when you have all you want].”
Her words give me insight about the emotional upheaval I’d been experiencing since my diagnosis.
It’s been so upsetting because my disease not only threatens my ability to run; it threatens my identity as a runner.
But by continuing a mindfulness practice centered on self-compassion, I can lessen arthritis’ threat.
I can still be a runner, just a different runner than the one I’ve been for the past 30 years.
And that is O.K..