Filling In the Gaps

It’s no surprise (and sort of sad) that the last post here in my journal is from early January when I was in Austin. The road has been a bit rocky for me since. So in the interest of filling this time gap, and maintaining my creative journal, here is an update from the last 8 months. Hopefully this both explains my lack of writing, and also provides a mile marker for me to look back on someday.

Leading up to Cyclocross Nationals in Austin, I’d been dealing with a nagging pain that started in my shoulder, and radiated down to my tingling fingers. I wasn’t entirely sure what caused it. Possibly too much time sleeping on my stomach, soft beds, bad posture, general stress about nothing in particular, or sitting in the basement pedaling away on my trainer in preparation for my big race on January 9th. The frequent pain had been keeping me from sleeping in the weeks leading up to the race, and I was feeling pretty drained on race day. By the second lap, I knew that it wasn’t going to be a good day.  By the third lap, I was taking beer handups and making the most of my lackluster performance. I finished 53rd out of 120 in the Mens’ 40-44 group. 

Once I returned from Austin, the pain got much worse, often coming on in waves at night, sometimes making me wince and clench my jaw, looking for a sleeping position that would make it go away. I didn’t know what was happening, but my sleep sharply decreased, while my frustration and anxiety increased.  After a month, I was having trouble staying focused on work, hanging out with Kate and the girls, or doing anything that was normally enjoyable. 

Over the next 2-3 months, I started a long, expensive, circuitous journey in search of a treatment. I saw Physical Therapists, Chiropractors, Massage Therapists, and Acupuncturists that all seemed to either have no effect, or make it worse. Finally I paid $600 for an MRI, which revealed a severely inflamed C6 and C7. The joints around these vertebrae had closed down, pinching off the nerves that travel down my arm to my hand. Best case treatments include PT or steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, while worst cases require surgery and/or cervical fusion. 

I was 43 and until then had been fortunate to stay healthy and physically able. But the news of the MRI and my crappy C6/C7 sent me into a downward spiral. Of course I was going to live, and it could certainly be worse. But there was an element of having to consider my mortality and the inevitable physical decline that precedes it. I have always felt young, and this was my first true taste of what it’s like to feel old. It was a difficult thing to ignore, because the pain was my constant reminder.

It was May, and I hadn’t been on a bike since my race on 1/9, as I was physically unable to ride. It didn’t take long for me to realize that cycling is a huge part of my life — one that keeps me focused, balanced, and positive.  After four months off my bike, I was very unhappy and pretty depressed. I eventually found my way to Nancy Harrison at Functional PT, who was able to see the bigger anatomical picture, and make some forward progress with me. Over the next 6 weeks, she and her staff got my problem treated. They helped my knees feel a lot better too, another issue that no one else has been able to understand. 

While working with Functional PT got me much closer to being better, I still wasn’t there. I was cleared to get back on my bike in late May, and I showed up at a friend’s birthday party where we’d go for a fun ride followed by pizza, beers, and a piñata. The ride was both the best and worst ride I’ve ever been on — my lungs burned and my legs felt like cement, but I was so happy to be riding it cancelled out the bad stuff. Unfortunately, by the end of the ride I was back in a lot of pain, and started to worry about never being able to ride again.

I remember standing there, my arm throbbing, watching Evan obliterate his birthday piñata, imagining myself either never riding again, or having to get cervical fusion surgery. I decided it was time to try something more, and started a 5 day course of oral Prednisone, a powerful steroidal anti-inflammatory. I had been carrying a prescription around for several weeks, and was hoping to avoid taking it, as there are some negative side effects, and I have never liked taking drugs. Within literally minutes I felt better, and a wave of relief washed over my body. 

But the following week was strange. I lost a job to another photographer on which I had [foolishly] pinned too many hopes, and it made me so angry I felt like I wanted to smash something. I have never (ever) been one to smash things, and I had this anger simmering inside me which I couldn’t explain. I felt like a victim, and that nothing was going my way. It had been six months since Austin, and I felt like I didn’t have anywhere to put all the anger and frustration that had been accumulating in my body.

I did and said some things during those dark months that I regret. It turns out that rage (aka “roid rage”) is a known side effect of Prednisone, but I never imagined that it would affect me. The difficult part is that those words and actions were the direct source of how I felt. And those feelings were really there, but I wasn’t thinking or feeling clearly. I realized that it was time to stop everything I was doing and hit the reset button.  

July would be the month for me to start over. We rented out our house in Boulder for the month (thank you AirBnb) and relocated to my family’s place in Snowmass. It would be a time for me to renew physically, creatively, emotionally, and spiritually. Thanks to continued work with the PT, and the drugs, my body seemed to be better, so I started the month by riding with Evan from Boulder to Snowmass over two huge days. While in Snowmass, I ditched the iPad in favor of paper books. Turned my phone off and left it off as much as possible. Took a break from social media. Spent many enjoyable hours building the next body of work for Alpine Modern, and shot a bunch of personal work in and around Aspen and Snowmass. Discovered the podcast, and listened to talks on philosophy, religion, politics, and art. I slept well, and slept a lot. For the first time, I began a regular meditation practice, starting every day with 10-15 minutes of mindfulness. I spent long hours with Kate and the girls, by the pool, on a hike, or just enjoying family meals.  

That month has had a profound effect on my life. By the end of July, I felt great, and was spending a lot of time just appreciating my good fortune and life in general. I capped the month on my 44th birthday with some good friends that joined me for a long, hard mountain bike race from Snowmass to Aspen. Around three hours into the race, I was climbing toward the top of Aspen Highlands, when I started to think about my girls, my wife, my family and friends, my incredibly restorative month, and all the frustration that led up to it. Suddenly, I started crying.  And I couldn’t stop. They were tears of joy, gratitude, pain, and frustration all mixed together, and they came pouring out all at once, until there weren’t any left.

Going back to work in August was more difficult than I thought. In the process of hitting the reset button, I seem to have re-calibrated my compass, and am now thinking about taking my professional, personal, and spiritual life in a more considered direction.

Coincidentally, I’ve spent the last few months preparing a talk for Caffeinated Mornings on 9/4 (RSVP here) which has been a great exercise in terms of determining that direction. My talk is based on looking back at all the images (by other artists) that have shaped my experience as a photographer, from high school newspaper shooter to full time pro. But looking back, I am realizing, is ultimately about looking forward.

The first half of 2015 was pretty rough for me. But now that I’m on the other side, and am feeling great, with renewed clarity and vision for where I want to go, I’m able to see those 6 months as a gift.

Jamie KripkeComment