I could write a book about knees. So many stock sayings come quickly to mind: “bee’s knees” “knee high to a grasshopper” “fall on your knees” “knee deep” “knee jerk” “knee high by the Fourth of July.” Despite the ubiquity of this part of my anatomy in so many idiomatic phrases, I have to admit that other than thinking that a woman of my mature years should probably keep hers covered, I haven’t paid these essential joints much mind.
All of that changed several months ago when I awoke one morning barely able to take the thirty or so steps to the bathroom. My right knee screamed at me in a tone of voice reserved for a cranky, antisocial shut-in confronted by a door-to-door evangelist with a briefcase full of religious pamphlets.
At my age, it is not uncommon to awaken, get out of bed and take an inventory of all my body parts to see who is feeling uncooperative this morning. Usually a little stretching and a cup of coffee convince the laggard body part to get with the program.
But this morning was different. I felt pain, not discomfort. I tried to remember whether I had gotten any hints in previous days — ignored of course — that something was amiss. I did remember that while demonstrating a particular arm balance in yoga class my knee had a bit of a twinge when bent in a particular way. I also remembered that several weeks earlier I had in fact experienced some knee pain after walking through the streets of Florence with my backpack on my back, then sitting terrified for two hours in a van driven by a crazy woman texting while she chattered to us in Italian and English on our way to our retreat in Tuscany. But all had subsided quickly afterward and just as quickly the knee was forgotten.
Now here I was, thinking OMG, have I really done something to myself this time? For the next two weeks I skipped yoga and doubled up on my personal training sessions. Casey, my trainer, is a rehab specialist who knows my body like a good auto mechanic knows his own car. As he always points out to me, the site of the pain is not usually the cause of the pain. A life lesson, that. By this point my IT band, my quad, my hip flexor and my piriformis were all petulant. Two weeks of very specific exercises and lots of foam rolling placated each, one at a time. I felt better, although the knee still hurt and I still wasn’t going to yoga, so my emotional balance was completely off kilter. I started to feel a bit depressed. I missed those endorphins big time.
I had to really dig deep into myself to understand why I was feeling so low. Gradually, I realized that at base I was afraid and angry. I had worked so hard to be in the shape I was in, to have the flexibility that I had, the cut arms, firm abs, yoga butt. I was on the edge of really getting my handstand in the middle of the room. What if I lost it all? A piece of the me that I was constructing post-divorce, post-retirement, post-Medicare was feeling really vulnerable. Even though I was assured that whatever I had done to myself (and we pretty much settled on an injury of my medial collateral ligament) it wasn’t about aging, but about overuse like that any athlete who trains too much can sustain. That made me feel a bit better, but I still had the nagging fear that I was beginning the descent into frailty, as unrealistic as that seemed. Clearly, I was more insecure about being a senior citizen than I wanted to admit.
I was determined to remove the carpet in my upstairs hallway before Thanksgiving, and I was supposed to be in a yoga video in mid-December. In my own mind, I couldn’t afford to be in any way incapacitated during the holiday season when all of my immediate family would be home, or at less than my best for my big yoga moment. I iced. I rolled. I elevated. But, like a dieter sneaking forbidden snacks I also vacuumed, did some yoga (no warriors, but still), and otherwise cheated my recovery. Each day that my knee whimpered rather than screamed I pushed myself, convinced that the worst was over. It wasn’t.
At about week four Casey put it to me.
“You are either a bad patient, or a slow healer,” he said as he tested the knee once again, finding it still inflamed.
He knows me too well. His words ringing in my ears after I left the gym, I had to admit the fact that I am probably a bit of both, but more on the bad patient side of the scale, unwilling to admit that I have limits.
After Thanksgiving, which aggravated the hell out of my knee due to standing at the stove for hours for several days straight, I saw my doctor. She confirmed Casey’s diagnosis, told me to bike or swim to keep up my fitness rather than lying on the couch, to stretch, to roll and to chill out. She was sure I would be fine for the video. No X-ray, no MRI, no consult with the surgeon … just time and patience. Now it was official. I just needed to be a good patient. There’s a reason why people who visit doctors are called patients and not clients, and it has to do with letting time do some of the work of healing.
Patience!!! Not my strong suit. The next day my yoga teacher reminded me in an email that yoga is a lot more than postures. I was being given an opportunity to work on the other parts of my practice during this time-out from asanas. Casey repeatedly reminded me that the world would not end if I took time off from yoga and gym workouts, that I would regain everything I had lost in a matter of a couple of weeks at most, and in the meantime I needed to drink more water.
The video went fine, although I haven’t seen the outtakes yet. I’m back to my regular workout regimen, and this week, I actually forgot about my knee for several days in a row. I haven’t, however, forgotten the lessons that I learned from this experience. I need to keep things in perspective. I am really, really strong and fit, and even though I am not young, I won’t lose that easily. Nonetheless, I’m afraid of aging, of becoming frail, of losing my sense of independence and indefatigability, of becoming dependent. I need to understand that ignoring my limits is counterproductive, not to mention neurotic, given that everyone has them, whatever his or her age. And I need to work on my ego, which was actually more bruised than my knee ever was when I had to stop being such a badass. In other words, I need, truth be told, to practice my yoga off the mat more!
I’ve decided to really work on my patience, and to delve deeper into my fears. I’ve constructed an identity based on being competent, always in control. While that’s a good thing in general, it becomes toxic when not combined with compassion for my body and a willingness to do less without feeling less than. At least for a little while I have accepted that I don’t have to prove anything to anyone, least of all myself. My hope is that this awareness doesn’t melt with the winter snow. My knee, rather than being my enemy, an alien body part challenging my very self-worth, has given me a gift, making me take stock, making me recognize my demons. I need to listen to my body, my heart, my mentors. As we say in yoga, I have to be more of a “human being” and less of a “human doing.” I need, sometimes, to just take a knee.