The Fortysomething Report: From Illness to Wellness


by By Jeanne Faulkner /

Posted on June 1, 2009 at 8:07 AM

Updated Thursday, Oct 22 at 4:28 PM

About the Author

Jeanne Faulkner is a freelance writer and registered nurse in Portland, Ore. Her work appears regularly in Pregnancy and Fit Pregnancy, and she has contributed articles to the Oregonian, Better Homes & Gardens, Shape and other magazines.

Not long ago, I had a serious wake-up call about the direction my health was going. Despite a healthy diet and moderate exercise, I'd accumulated quite a laundry list:  asthma, insomnia, arthritis, irritable bowel, allergies. All that at 46, just seven years past the cancer trilogy: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I've spent hours, years and tons of money in doctor's offices, but the last round of arthritis treatment finally set me in a new direction--toward wellness instead of illness. 

With arthritis in my hands, I explained to my occupational therapist that I make my living as a writer and a nurse. He strapped some ugly, black "joint immobilization" gloves on me. Cinching the Velcro tight, he advised loosening them up if my fingers went numb. I thought about those fingerless gloves Madonna used to wear and wondered how I'd gotten here. Yes, my hands hurt. So did my back and shoulders. I'd hoped therapy would bring me back to my healthy old self--OK, maybe not exactly "like a virgin," but at least able to work, play and function like a reasonable fortysomething. Instead, my hands felt hobbled, hot and itchy. 

"How am I supposed to work, wash my hands, take care of patients, type, cook?"  I didn't actually say, "or wipe my butt," but I thought it.

"Don't worry, you'll get used to them," my OT answered. "Wear them whenever you're not doing patient care. You want to avoid using the affected joints to protect them from deterioration."

He showed me a catalogue for home-health supplies: "disability knives" and special toilet paper grabbers for people with minimal use of their hands. He gave me silicone jar openers to use "until things get worse. We're all getting older. There's no cure for arthritis; we just adapt to it." 

Uh-uh. I don't think so. I prefer "use it or lose it" when it comes to my hands. 

My physical therapy sessions were for pain in my shoulders made worse by exercise and unrelieved by medication. I'm an active woman: swimming, Pilates, yoga, bike riding, raising children. I like grownup exercise--the kind that makes you sweaty. Right away, the PT assigned me two weeks of rest, but when I returned two weeks later, I still hurt. She planned a series of "baby" exercises (like spider-walking my fingers up the wall) to build up my strength. Frustrated and disappointed, I looked around the room at people in wheelchairs and those bent to 90 degrees with back injuries. Compared to them, I knew I was lucky to be in the shape I was in, but I wanted to swim, not spider-walk. The PT advised me to modify my activities to accommodate the pain. 

That was the wake-up call. "Accommodate the pain."  That's what I was doing--taking really good care of the pain. I'd hoped that with medication and therapy it might eventually go away--or maybe I'd get used to it. Uh-uh. I don't think so. Call it denial or determination: I wasn't willing to quit being active to accommodate pain. 

Around this time, a bookmark for a yoga studio popped up on my computer. I didn't put it there. My family didn't cop to it. It just appeared. I double-clicked and determined I didn't have time, energy, money or bravery to start classes. Or did I? If I had time for discouraging, "pain accommodating" therapy, maybe I had time for properly guided yoga. I pulled on my stretch pants and started to get well.

The difference between a DVD at home and a well-taught class is this: at home, you don't have a really big mirror to see what you're doing or a teacher to point out that your knee isn't properly aligned; you don't have someone with gentle, well-trained hands to adjust your shoulders without straining them. If something hurts, the teacher shows you modifications and, to accommodate your body, strengthening and skill-building as you go. They also keep you working for the whole darn hour, not just until you feel like quitting or a phone call comes in.

The first month was a little painful and clumsy. By the second month, my shoulders, back and hands no longer hurt. By the third month, I actually had defined muscles in my arms and abs (not exactly a six-pack, but maybe a two-pack). It's a paradigm shift. It's not therapy. It's exercise. It's not illness. It's wellness. And it's gentle yet strenuous, and wildly effective. I'm just like Madonna now. Uh-huh, that's right, she's into yoga too.