Limits & what a sort of early retirement is like

When I last wrote I had a rather quick ending to my post. I think that post was perceived as a lot of Gunpoint, and not much Enlightenment. Well, maybe I can get back on track here.

Thanks to everyone who reached out to make sure I was okay and those who gave me advice to help.  Let me catch you up to where I’m at this fall.

I saw my endocrinologist in late July and the visit resulted in a discussion and the order with a battery of blood tests. She warned me that she was going to require a lot of blood to figure things out, and also that additional money would be needed to require the tests she was going to order (on top of the out-of-pocket max I had already met). I was also instructed to buy a reliable blood pressure monitor and record the results at least twice a day.

Two days later I was working on a pipe under our kitchen sink and experienced a mini-seizure. It was very scary– one second I was hunched over white-knuckling a wrench against a PVC pipe and the next my hands were shaking uncontrollably. I was narrating what was happening to me to Paige who was over my shoulder. My words were cryptic to her at first. “I can’t move,” and “my hands are shaking,” it was difficult for me to consciously describe what was happening to me as it was happening.  Eventually Paige helped me to lie on our kitchen floor and got me some towels to rest my head on.

While laying there, I started some deep breathing exercises and I felt a sensation take control of my face. I knew the right side of my face (also the side of both my surgeries) was twitching involuntarily. Paige later told me it only lasted for four to five seconds, but for me it felt like five minutes. I laid there breathing deep for the next half-hour or so until I thought I could sit up. Luckily, I never lost consciousness and did not have to go to a hospital or any doctors offices immediately afterwards. But my mind raced with the possible implications. I messaged my neurologist and endocrinologist about the event. They put me back on the anti-seizure drug I had previously weened off.

I found out the hard way that I can’t “power through” things— physically or mentally. My blood pressure is too low to take on the tasks I previously had. I suspect the low blood pressure had a lot to do with my mini-seizure.

Being powerless and not being able to trust your body is a profound experience. Some people never have to go through this until very late in life, some people not at all. I feel lucky that it had these experiences as a middle-aged adult and not in my youth. It really drives home the point that nothing is guaranteed– nothing is a given. Raising a glass to your health is not an empty gesture.  Disability can happen to you in an instant. If you’re disability-free, find gratitude in that. And try to empathize with those who do have disabilities.

[THIS ALL SOUNDS PRETTY DARK AND BAD, BUT I PROMISE, IT GETS BETTER! JUST WAIT.]

In another two days I was going back to the endocrinologist’s office to start those lab tests. The very first was a simple blood draw lab test. When the results came back I was told I had almost no cortisol (a stress chemical your body needs to function daily) and that I had, in a sense, been running on fumes since I tapered off my cortisol steroids in November of 2021. My directions not were to start a low-dose cortisol steroid called hydrocortisone (you may have this in your house as a topical cream to put on bug bites), and to come back to for more tests soon.

(We also chatted about Neil Gaiman since I had brought a copy of Coraline to read while waiting. She was currently reading American Gods and enjoying it. We haven’t talked about the Sandman show yet but that’ll happen at our next appointment.) 

These results and the implications made sense to me. I had been mentally foggy and exhausted for almost 9 months. It was impossible to gain weight, energy, or strength. No wonder I slogged through work when I tried to go back, why I couldn’t increase my work hours, why I had no motivation to do the things I loved doing with any free time.

Usually, the feeling that a revelation like this brings about middle aged adults is a light-bulb moment. Even when told about a cancer diagnosis, the immediate feeling is not one of resignation, anger, or disbelief but one of clarity. This happened when I was told about the 2.5cm brain tumor in my right-frontal lobe. Suddenly, the headaches and the vomiting all make sense and the mystery was gone. So there are some brief moments of relief when news like this is passed down to a patient. This makes the ensuing feelings of dread, disappointment, and foreboding more agonizing. The questions are answered by more questions.

So as July ends I started taking my low-dose medicine. For the month of August, were no noticeable side-effects. However, I didn’t see any benefits either. I was stuck at my low weight, not gaining any energy or strength.  I was simply told to keep taking the medicine. Then mid-August rolls around and school starts. I had planned on starting work in some sort of educational capacity when school started. But I consciously decided not to rush things or sign up for a bunch of training or workshops since my body isn’t responding to the medicine yet and my daughter is starting middle school.

The first day of school comes, and I can tell that this is going to be a major lifestyle shift. My son is still in elementary school but my daughter is now starting 6th grade at a middle school. The elementary school is our Hobbit Shire. We don’t want to leave our Shire. It’s comfortable, it’s close, and we like the teachers and friends we’ve met there. Mina starting middle school forces us to leave the Shire. Middle school is more like Rohan or Gondor. It’s different, it’s far away, and it’s unknown to us (and probably no “2nd breakfast” or “elevenies”).  By the time I come home from dropping our daughter up, I’m exhausted. And it’s well past the 7:30am mark which is the typical start of an engineering day. It’s past the start of any school day. I am glad I didn’t rush into anything because it wouldn’t have worked. On a positive note however, the longer commute and new routine doesn’t allow me to come home and crash into a morning slumber. I stayed up and drank coffee. I slowly started to be productive.

I found myself walking my dog almost every morning, reading books, playing guitar, and cleaning things around the house. I felt a nagging sense of guilt. “I should be working,” “I should be contributing to our household monetarily,” “I should be contributing to society.” As one friend told me his therapist said, I was “shoulding” all over myself. Eventually I made these voices go away by allowing myself to just have one month off. It’s just one month. Give yourself one month to not think those thoughts and not feel guilt. This ended up being difficult. Our culture does not make this easy. Sometimes I found myself googling employment opportunities of different careers and jobs than the one(s) I’d envisioned. I told myself to join the gig economy one day and then convinced myself to become an entrepreneur the next. At some point while on a post-coffee moment and walking my dog I managed to drown those voices out and take my month off in peace.

Some observations about not working. It’s harder than you think. It’s incredibly lonely, and if you don’t treasure solitude than you’ll be desperate for the social interactions you’re missing. When the topic of what I do comes up with mixed company I dub myself “Mr. Mom.” I made lunches for the kids in the mornings, I act as their chauffeur to schools and back (for Mina). I do the grocery shopping, I try to make dinner (most nights), and struggle finding food the kids like. (Mina tells her friends that my only job is to “feed the dog.”) I plan elaborate projects around the house but tend to neglect routine cleaning. I don’t feel drawn to be a become a PTA parent , or to join any organizations that have attendance commitments. I do want to volunteer for charities here and there. To maintain some sort of social life, I try to organize lunch with a friend once a week. Most of the time people are busy, but I do get to have some good lunches with friends.

Another aspect of taking time off is if you have a working spouse. The concept of retirement that’s been shown to us is a couple enjoying life together with all the time in the world to do everything. But I don’t think that will be the case for most of us. During my time off, I found myself lonely but well rested, meanwhile, my wife Paige is socially fulfilled but exhausted from her daily grind. Time off, or a sort of retirement, is not the “grass is always greener” promise that’s on display during financial investment banking commercials. If you or your spouse really loves their job and it’s a job you don’t typically age out of like teaching or education, or they are ambitious and driven to work until old age, then you may mismatch your timing of retirement or whenever you have extended time off from work. This maybe not a problem if you don’t get along with your spouse, but I want to use my free time to do things together (travel, take walks, baking, crosswords, etc.).  That’s been an unexpected discovery for me during my extended time off.

During my one month, I find that I’m gaining weight. After stepping on the scale everyday and becoming dismayed at seeing the same number, it’s actually increasing. And food is regaining it’s taste. I find myself eating more and looking forward to meals.  A whole 7 lbs! I also realize that my activities reflect a gain in energy. I find myself easily achieving the tasks that require strength. This medicine is actually working! Below are some pictures of my appearance and weight over the past 4 years.

Stages of weight

2018, year before I got sick.
2019-almost 2020–the year I got sick, this picture is after treatment, and I’m wearing my “I kicked cancer’s ass” button. Oh, if I only knew.
2021, after 2nd brain surgery and during tapering down cortisol steroids. Google photos even thought I was a different person!
2022, off of cortisol steroids completely, lowest weight, not good.
2022, on low-dose hydrocortisone for 4 months.

Since I have this time off, I convince myself I should be working out all the time and tearing it up at a gym. If I’m not working, I should be working on my body, right?

I think this is a relatively new social pressure. Two generations ago, the idea of working out only went as far as farm work. I remember my Dad was an avid runner and liked to participate in community races, but it never took over his life. To me, the idea of fitness seems like it’s pushed on us like an all or nothing option. It’s suggested that we need to  workout, and get ripped so you can perform well in extreme races. You need to work out and look like Thor. (I think the pressure is different for women but still very persistent, but I’m not qualified to go into detail on that.) Now that I’m relatively healthy, I need to push it to an extreme, right?

I end up mentally making peace with no extreme exercise for now, but then life ends up made the decision for me.

At exactly my one month mark, I got COVID!

Fortunately, it was mild and only lasted a week and a half, but it did put everything in my life on brakes for a while. The hardest part was the isolation. Paige brought a meal to our bedroom, which turned into my little hotel room. She slept on the couch. Somehow, nobody else in the house got sick. The good part about this timing was that I had gained weight, energy, and strength (and my medicine was working) so having COVID was not debilitating, it was more of an inconvenience. I guess it’s better to get it when not working, rather than the other way around.

The same week I got COVID Paige’s car broke down. One day I ended up picking up both kids from school and Paige from a drop off point (after a carpool with a colleague) while I had COVID. I was masked up, and the windows were down. Again, it’s hard to believe no one else got sick.

This all sounds bad, but somehow it was just annoying. Having your health really helps things.

For all of late September and the month of October were spent figuring out car issues. I would take an Uber to my doctors appointments and the burden of taking the kids everywhere fell to Paige. It was stressful for both of us.

Fortunately, we were able to borrow a family member’s old car indefinitely.

I’ve spent the month of November really preparing to go back into the work force. I’m brushing up on my math by solving problems in various workbooks I have, and I’m lucky to be getting advice from a friend and experienced math teacher back home in Tampa. Another teacher friend advised me to go into substitute teaching for a while in order to gauge schools and administrations before committing to a teaching position. 

Greenville County School District has a program designed for professionals to enter into teaching and become certified. So I plan on applying to that while substitute teaching. I’ve completed my application for substitute teaching and am waiting to hear back from the School District. I’m feeling very good and am trying to take advantage of the time I have left but completing projects around the house and trying to get mentally ready for the vigor of daily work-life routine again. Everything’s looking good- no plot twist around the corner, right?


Oh, and to all of the “healthy lifestyle and weight-loss bloggers”: kindly, get lost. They probably read the first few lines of my last blog post and thought that my goal was to lose weight so I looked like I was in high school or middle school. That’s disturbing. I’ve found out the hard way that weight is tied to cognitive functions and being underweight can leave you in a unhealthy mental fog. I strangely received more WordPress likes from my last blog post than any I can remember (from blog titles like “BestLivingKeto” “yourprovendiet” “lose weight without stress” and lifestylehealthyfit”). That opening was not a humble brag– it was telling everyone that I have a problem. It was a miserable blog post about the agony I’ve been through, yet some people attached themselves to the weight loss aspect of it and thought I was happy about my life? Take things in context before you click “like” on the post.

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