Running Into Umbrellas (October 17, 2014)

I gained almost 15 pounds this past summer, owing to two conflicting influences.

The first was sort of an existential, indulgent temper tantrum over the life changes dictated by my hands. Although the miracle of daily beet juice is controlling the pompholyx eczema to an amazing degree, some of my routines will never be what they were. My two favorite forms of exercise, vinyasa yoga and Russian kettlebell drills, are now a part of the past. The friction is just too much for the delicate, raw skin of the palms. I’ve learned over the years that even if I’d prefer to speed the process, mourning is a course that runs on its own schedule. And so it was that three months elapsed before I finished stomping my internal feet and endeavored to formulate a new plan.

The second and far more pleasant reason for the weight gain revolved around summer fun: travel, outdoor festivals, family gatherings with tons of delectable food, office outings, champagne. After the torturous slog that was Chiberia 2014, I grabbed ye olde summertime by the balls. No regrets.

But now it’s fall. The weather has turned colder and with the recess of summer’s frivolity came a long, hard look in the mirror. A step on the scale confirmed that I weighed more than I have since dropping 60 pounds over 10 years ago. I’ll never be 25 again, but it’s also clear that I can do better than self-defeating eczema protest and unchecked hedonism.

And so in recent weeks, the gauntlet was thrown. What’s it going to be Rebecca? I chose pants that fit.

A three-point exercise strategy developed that involves minimal use of the palms: Tae Bo (I love the 90s!), Pilates (minus The Teaser as the tailbone still can’t handle a full body weight load) and running. The third of these activities I have always practiced in fits and starts. But without the yoga and kettlebells, my muscle tone evaporated. So portfolio diversification it must be.

It’s been a rainy fall in Chicago thus far, the kind of season that breeds lethargy, hot cocoa and fireplaces. But it’s one of my conflicted character traits that once resolve is formed, I’ll let nothing short of death or dismemberment get in the way. There’s no jail or societal prohibition big enough to contain the will. This personality feature is the reason I made it out of childhood intact, yet it’s also proved trying for those who dare to love me. I’ve come to accept the tradeoff. The committed ones have too.

Last week was a more precipitous one than usual in the city. But my favorite way to run is outdoors. The treadmill will do for the winter, but I want to people watch and soak up that precious Vitamin D as long as possible. And so early on a drizzly Monday evening, I tied my laces and hit the streets.

Years ago I told my friend Kelly that the first two blocks are always the hardest. The desire to quit infuses every plodding step. It gets easier when a regular stride develops and the breathing pattern settles. Until then I’m half choking, red faced and irritated. This passes and I become steady, sweaty and single-minded. The finish line. Nothing better break my cadence.

As I approached a familiar crosswalk, I saw the back of a man ambling slowly through the drizzle, carrying a large umbrella. It was apparent from a half block away that I had to slow down and maneuver around him. Failure to do so would result in a human fender bender. There was plenty of time to adjust.

But I didn’t. Not one whit. And we know what happened next. I collided with the rear edges of the gentleman’s parasol. There was no doubt this was purposeful. I’d viewed it as a calculated risk worth taking to protect rhythm. After blinking for a few milliseconds to shake transferred water droplets from my eyelids, the man paused briefly to turn and look at me. Still jogging, I braced myself for a deservedly irritated comment.

Instead, there was a surprise. He said, “Goodness. I am so very sorry.” This did it. The single-mindedness was broken. The stranger was owed something for his decent humanity.

I replied honestly. “You have nothing to apologize for sir. I’m the one who ran into you.” This was the truth, and a wave of shame washed over me, soaking the soul more than the rain ever could. Had I really been rude and fool enough to plow into an umbrella on purpose? Was the delay of two seconds to change pace and work around the man’s personal space more abhorrent than practicing courtesy and common sense? Seems so.

As I resumed running, chastened and more deliberate, it became clear that the scene of moments prior offered an appropriate metaphor for most of my adult life. I’ve been running into umbrellas forever.Seeing collisions approaching with obvious clarity has been no deterrent. Earlier this week, I repeated to Dr. T the questions I’d wrestled with since the incident forced a reckoning. Was I a person destined for road blocks, as I once believed of a seemingly cursed existence, or did I smash into them by choice, despite a variety of clarion alternatives?

There’s no doubt I was born holding an unlucky hand. I’ll allow myself that much. I had no decision in parents or they way they took care (or rather, did not) of my sister and I. But I allowed circumstances to determine the future for far too long. I grew comfortable in the role of long-suffering martyr, the fixer, the burdened, the only adult in the room (even when I was 12). That’s who I was. Woe was always going to be me, right?

Wrong. I had, and have, other options. I don’t need to be the dependent control freak who tries to save other damaged people from themselves. As Al-Anon tells people like me, get your own house in order – with love.

Automated survival mode served me well as a youth, but it’s just stupid now. The threats have long been neutralized. So I am going to leverage that dead-eyed resolution toward something more positive. I will shed that 15 pounds this season, along with a bad habit of running into umbrellas.

Flotsam and Epsom (November 22, 2013)

Several months ago, when the burning, itching, growing blisters on my palms were diagnosed as chronic pompholyx eczema, I lapsed into a funk. I wasn’t ready to accept all the lifestyle changes I had to make, and what’s more, I needed some time to metaphorically stomp my feet and shout “It’s not fair!”

A notorious gym rat with fixed routines that melded strength and cardio training, my two favorite workouts were Russian kettlebell drills and power yoga. However my ravaged hands could no longer handle the friction and metallic contact offered by kettlebells. Likewise, the pressure applied to the palms by balancing my body weight against the floor in yoga practice became too painful. There were some obvious alternatives to these cherished favorites that would allow me to maintain my physique while giving my hands a break (running, Pilates, etc.) but I didn’t care. I wanted things to go back to normal.

Entrenched in this frame of mind, I stopped going to the gym or stepping on the scale. I worked with my dermatologist to test a number of topical steroids and creams to mitigate outbreak symptoms, while adopting an intense drug regiment to try to combat the problem from the inside. To date, there is no cure for pompholyx eczema and these remedies have offered mixed results. But through a period of trial and error, I have learned to adjust to hands that alternate between blistering, cracking and peeling. I’ve become inured to people’s rude but generally benign questions and the consistently “off” appearance of my extremities even on good days. And most importantly, I am coming to understand that my life is not over or without pleasure just because it is different from what I knew. These revelations might sound patently obvious, and I was always able to grasp the words I heard from friends and loved ones. Believing them was an entirely different matter. I still have frustrating, uncomfortable days and know that will be a feature of battling a chronic condition henceforth, but for the most part, I’ve completed the move from mourning to acceptance.

About the same time that acceptance took hold, I looked down one morning as I readied for work and noticed a wine belly beginning to obstruct a view of my feet. It was time to get back in shape. For the last three weeks, I’ve exercised two or more hours per day, at least five times. When I started my new job back in July, an excellent fringe benefit was presented in the form of a gym membership on the second floor of the company’s office building. This 24-hour facility is stocked with cardio equipment of all varieties, as well as numerous hands-free weight machines that I’ve leveraged to try to rebuild my upper body strength. It is gratifying and liberating to witness the changes in my physique, empowering to be able to reclaim control of my physical fitness.

But of course, since I went from zero to 60 with warp speed, I am one sore mofo. And so the actual point of this post is to extol the therapeutic benefits of a product I once wrote off as a geriatric relic from another era – Epsom salts. It turns out that this timeless classic, originally discovered by an English farmer in 1618, has remained a medicine cabinet staple with good reason.

The ailments Epsom salts are purported to relieve are seemingly endless: they can be nebulised to treat asthma and pre-eclampsia, ingested to act as a laxative, prevent artery hardening and blood clots and make insulin more effective, and in my case, added to bath water to reduce inflammation to relieve pain and muscle cramps. This miracle product is also insanely affordable, available to all members of the proletariat for a couple bucks or less. Amazing.

As I said, when my beloved grandfather used to bust out the Epsom for his nightly bath, I scoffed. Poppa suffered from bursitis, arthritis and an unnamed rash in the armpits leftover from his time as a WWII POW. But he was after all, ancient and none of that would ever happen to me!

Ahem, so cut to 2013 and a grown 35 year-old woman afflicted with chronic migraines, a popping left hip and eczema-afflicted hands. While my partner JC originally picked up the Epsom as a bath additive to soothe my sore muscles, I have fallen in love with the soft, silky water effects it generates. Where I used to just wash, rinse and leave, I now linger in silken H2O until I prune. Epsom has also served as an unexpected salve for my palms at their most atrocious cracking and peeling stages. I emerge from the bath relaxed, supple and with skin soft as a baby’s bottom.

Poppa, you were right all along. Epsom salts are the TRUTH. And democratic – out of the reach of pharmaceutical “regulation” (profit reaping). It’s almost too good to be true. It’s a shame that snarky, ageist cynicism caused me to overlook this wonder treatment for so long.