I Feel It When I Lose a Coping Mechanism for Stress
How a caregiver handles her mental health when she suddenly can't exercise
“Are you ever going to go faster, Mom?” my 12-year-old son, Isaac, asked earlier this summer when I caught up to him at the bottom of a hill, where he was waiting for me. I enjoy mountain biking with him. At times I ease off the brakes on a smooth stretch of downhill trail, but even though I feel a rush of adrenaline when I do so, admittedly, I’m not going very fast.
“I’m getting old,” I told him. I have no intention of going faster. I’m happy if I can make it down a hill without falling.
Mountain biking has become one of my favorite activities since I took it up last summer. I don’t think about my husband’s ALS while I’m concentrating to round a berm or navigate over and around roots and rocks. Focusing on the trail in front of me is a good mental break from my daily caregiving responsibilities, and being out in nature feeds my soul. Exercise — walking, skiing, biking, or exercising indoors on my elliptical machine — lifts my spirits.
But a couple weeks ago, I took a spill on my bike.
I’d already made it down a hill, and I’d stopped to rest and talk to Isaac at a point where the trail widened out and connected to another one. Isaac started down a steep crosscut, and I was just trying to start when I fell to the ground, whacking my leg on a pedal. I cried out, and Isaac came back to check on me.
I stood up and felt OK — a little shaken, but nothing was broken.
“You need to lower your dropper post,” Isaac instructed me. “It’s hard to start when you’re so high on the seat.”
We finished our bike ride, and I didn’t think that much about the fall until the next day, when my ankle hurt to even walk. I knew I’d need to give it a rest for a few days, and that bummed me out because exercise has been one of the primary ways I’ve dealt with stress since my husband, Todd, was diagnosed with ALS 12 years ago.
Instead of exercising, I tried to nourish my soul just through noticing beauty. I sat on our patio and surveyed the field behind our house. I talked Todd into coming out with me. He reclined in his wheelchair and took a nap, so I don’t know how much of the view he took in, but he seemed to like being outside in the sun.
As he slept, I thought about how much ALS has taken from him. My ankle was sore, but I knew the pain and physical limitations were temporary. If I babied it, I’d get better and back on the bike trail. I was bummed that I had to deal with a blip, a temporary loss of a coping mechanism and source of joy. Todd’s losses are permanent.
It was almost a week before I could walk without discomfort, and finally, a couple of days ago, Isaac and I biked on the trails again. I descended the hill and took a break before I got to the section where I’d fallen. I felt apprehension before starting down again. But I dropped my seat and felt the thrill of the hill, trailing behind Isaac but still on my bike.
I’m glad I again have that source of joy.
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