Way back in Grade Seven— Dr. Oakley Junior High, Calgary— Keith Gill spat on my bike. He was half my size, but I knew that if I spat on his bike in return that he would beat the shit out of me. That was the whole idea. This was an act of provocation. He was looking for an excuse.
I did not spit on Keith Gill’s bike. I went home, and I started doing push-ups. I got to one-and-a-half before I collapsed.
By that summer, though, I was up to 35. By the time I hit Grade 9 I was doing fifty. First-year university, 75. At the height of my pushing prowess— mid-eighties, doctoral studies at UBC, routinely slinging 25-horsepower Evinrudes across my back and lugging them around in the field like sacks of potatoes— I was doing 125 pushups at a stretch.
There were other elements to the regimen, of course, ranging from the cheesy spring set I inherited from an older brother to the home gym I bought in the nineties. For I while there I actually joined a fitness club; other times I availed myself of the workout facilities at whatever campus I was calling home that year. Running was a constant part of the workout from the early eighties on. These last years, here at the Magic Bungalow, it’s been mainly running and free weights and chin-ups, mixed in with (significantly lower) numbers of push-ups (tougher variants, though— where your feet are on a chair, or you put your hands on stools so your face descends below “floor level” on each dip). Point is, while I’ve never been any kind of athlete, I’ve been in pretty good shape ever since I was a kid. I’ve kept strong. Why, just last Wednesday I ran 10K. I did 13 chin-ups.
This morning I couldn’t hold a half-full pot of coffee without trembling, without feeling as though my forearm was going to snap off. I had to use my thumb to depress the shaving-cream stud, because my finger wasn’t strong enough. I can barely hold a goddamn pen: look what’s happened to my handwriting.
It happened literally overnight. I have no idea why. Nobody does.
Some background: this started about four months ago, around mid-June. The BUG decided that she hated the sandals I’ve been wearing since before we met, dragged me over to Queen Street in search of replacements. I love the BUG— she saved my life, after all— and so did not complain. We each purchased a pair of Birkenstocks, slid them on, and proceeded to walk for 6.5 miles.
Thirty-six hours later I could barely move. Every groinal tendon was on fire. My knees felt like little exploding schematic diagrams of cartilaginous balls and sockets and springs, ready to go sproiiiinnggggg! the moment they folded more than a few degrees off dead-center.
The shoes, right? Those new fucking shoes. They’d screwed with my gait somehow, thrown everything out of balance. Couldn’t be the distance: I routinely ran further than 6.5 miles with no ill effects at all. So I chalked the pain up to experience and reunited with those beloved stinky old plastic sandals that Caitlin hadn’t quite been able to rid me of after all. I’d stressed my body past some limit, but it would self-repair over time; that’s just what bodies did. So the family packed up, and hugged the cats, and headed off to Greece.
Where my body did not self-repair. It got worse.
The stiffness, the frozen range-of motion, the pain, spread to my shoulders. Lifting a leg, bending a knee became an ordeal; pulling on my underpants was now a major event, each foot having to stamp and lift in repeated warm-up maneuvers until inertia and rebound bounced it high enough to crest the elastic of my Joe Fresh gauchies and plunge back down through the leg hole (please God let it be the right leg hole) while the outraged knee, bent briefly past some critical threshold, threatened to explode all over again. Sometimes I couldn’t quite clear the band; my toe would catch in the elastic and I’d topple like a big dumb one-legged redwood, roaring with frustration. The simple act of rising from the bed, sitting on the toilet, of bending over to pick something off the floor— suddenly, they were all spectacles you could charge admission for.
There was no real loss of strength, mind you. The moves hurt, but I could still do them as long as they didn’t require much range of motion. I didn’t have my exercise equipment but I could still do chin-ups from the arched trellis, push-ups by the pool. I could still go on extended futile hikes with the Unicorn Girl, looking for mythical mountain churches (even if what we mostly found was lizards). Some of you may have seen such expeditions documented on facebook; they all happened as described, even if I tended to fall over more often than usual. I did not get flabby or fat, for all the wine we guzzled.
It just— hurt. All the goddamned time. For the first time in my life, I felt old.
Home. Doctor. Referrals. All my subjective symptoms lined up with something called “polymyalgia rheumatica”, which if you go to the original Latin translates as we have no idea what causes this but the symptoms look familiar. No known cure (which goes well with “no known cause”). Goes away on its own after a year, maybe 18 months. Sucks to be you in the meantime, but Prednisone works really well on the symptoms. Mind the side-effects, though: osteoporosis, cataracts, plumpening, loss of muscle mass, meat tenderizing (i.e. your skin bruises if it so much as gets hit by a dandelion seed), penile slough—
OK, so much for the Prednisone. I guess I’ll just grit my teeth through the next year and wait for it to get better.
But then all the blood work came back negative.
Not that it would have told us much anyway. There is no smoking-gun diagnostic for PMR, which is not surprising because— once again— nobody knows what causes it. Mostly the bloods just test for tissue inflammation; RBC sedimentation rate, something called “C-reactive protein”. Those come back positive, and the doctors can say Aha! It is inflammation causing you pain! And while inflammation has a whole shitload of potential causes, today we are going to attribute it to polymyalgia rheumatica on account of where it hurts or something!
But my tests showed no inflammation. Everything came back clean. I’m subjectively experiencing every goddamn symptom of PMR— including, disturbingly, a week of symptoms consistent with Giant Cell arteritis, an equally-mysterious malady that frequently double-dates with PMR and which causes blindness if not treated— and my body doesn’t even have the good grace to show a generic inflammation response. Still, there we were. And things did seem to be manageable. Good days and not-so-good days; I was now officially a crotchety old man but I kept slinging the weights, kept pounding the trails even if I didn’t seem to be taking the 15K route any more. Just sticking it out until things get better, you know? And they would, eventually. Sure the bloods came back negative but those were crap diagnostics anyway; what else could this be?
So just last Friday, the BUG and I decided to walk to one of our favorite restaurants, a distance of about 10K. No big deal, right? I run that far all the time, and this would be a nice leisurely walk. Why, just like the walk we took back in June, after buying those accursed Birkenstocks. Pretty much the same distance, even. And to ensure my own pedular comfort, I wore my running shoes.
Apparently my lips were purple by the time we made it to the restaurant. The BUG didn’t mention it at the time, but then again she didn’t have to: I already knew something was wrong because my fingers had turned to pins and needles. That passed, fortunately. So did the fever and sheet-soaking sweats that kept me awake over the next three nights. Then there’s that mysterious, undiagnosable pain that’s been sitting on my should like a tax audit for the past four months; in the wake of our latest epic walk, it spread to abs and elbows and forearms, to the grinding bones in the heel of my thumbs, to all the places it hadn’t reached back in June when I was first laid low.
And this time, something scary and new. Suddenly I could barely grip a pen, had to use both hands to carry a bowl of cat food onto the porch. Last night I couldn’t even open the screw top on a bottle of wine.
It’s not a loss of muscle mass. There hasn’t been time for me to starting wasting away yet. It’s as though some cousin of Star Trek’s Salt Vampire, some weird hokey rubber alien with peculiar dietary needs, has sucked all the ATP out of my muscles. It took a half hour’s effort at this laptop before I even started hitting the keys reliably.
I seem to be coming back again, bit by bit. The pain seems to be withdrawing to its initial habitat; it’s easier to lift a pot of coffee now than it was when I started writing this 24 hours ago (although typing still provokes a strange exhausting ache in my forearms). I’m no longer terrified of the prospect of standing: whatever my left testicle (and only my left testicle, curiously) was pulling on when those vectors aligned has backed off on its threats to rip my guts out. I hope, in a few more days, to have returned to that state of chronic creaky heartiness that I’ve been clumsily dancing with for the past four months.
But you know the most depressing aspect of this whole damn experience? It’s not the mysterious sudden onset or the acute painful incapacity, which has passed. It’s not the chronic stiffness, which had better fucking pass but which is manageable in the meantime. It’s not even the weakness, which I hope is temporary. It’s the insight that accompanies the weakness. It’s the time travel: this first-person, total-immersion glimpse into a future when there’s no onset or remission, no mystery disease to wonder about, no hope for improvement because I’m not sick: I’m just old, and this is just the way things are. A time when the simple standard baseline of my life is that I lack the strength to write a fucking “3”.
Anyway. I’ve got another appointment with the specialist in early October, although she’s already sampled half my blood volume and come up empty. I get the sense neither she nor I really know where else to go with this thing. So I’m coming here, to the ‘crawl. (I’ve already tried asking the Internet at large, but Google can’t even return a search on “Peter Watts” AND “Starfish” without filling my screen with bad porn; you can imagine what “polymyalgia rheumatica giant-cell arteritis pain stiffness no-inflammation C-reactive-protein” turns up.) Has anyone heard of anything like this— a system-wide gimbal-lock that kicks in when you walk a long distance, but never when you run it? Something that presents every subjective symptom of PMR but causes no detectable inflammation? Something that, you know, can maybe be fixed?
Because the next stop after this is the Healing Power of Crystals page on NewAge.com…