Growing old


About a month ago, I went through a heavy training load that left me feeling sore and weary pretty well every day. I pushed on, knowing that my body was adjusting to the stresses I was exerting upon it, but there were days when I felt such an old man that I had to have a break to allow my body the chance to properly recover. In truth, the breaks between sessions are as important as the sessions themselves. In the month since, I’ve dialled it back quite a bit – psychologically, as well as physically, it’s hard to maintain such a high level, but then we’re not meant to.

That’s all well and good, but I’ve found the few days getting out of bed that I’m as creaky as an old gate. I feel every fibre of every muscle; it seems to take me minutes to properly straighten up, and I tread lightly as if upon eggs. I’m pretty fine after about an hour, but this weariness is unexpected and without obvious justification.

The other night I met up with an acquaintance within a group of friends. As you do, I asked her how she was, the sort of anodyne pap that fulfils a meaningless convention whereby the respondent is supposed to respond with a “fine” or a “not bad”, regardless of whether they’ve just had a leg amputated or been diagnosed with scurvy. Of course, she failed to follow convention and instead began telling me about the mysterious pains in the back of her head, which no doctor can help her diagnose. Rather helpfully, I thought, I suggested it might be a brain tumour.

Now, this not a person I’m particularly close to or fond of. She’s one of those people who take pleasure in being outrageous or provocative, something which I’ve always found a little tedious – but I’m happy to share her company in a convivial group. She has a history of ailments that baffle medical science. For many years now, she has complained of many symptoms that don’t really marry up to any particular disease, and tests on her are inconclusive. One doctor at least, an expert in his field, thinks it’s all in her mind, and much of her family think likewise. I’ve never had an opinion on the matter. I was never that close to her to really care, and it seemed largely immaterial to me.

The other night as she reported her latest ailment, I began to think that perhaps it is imaginary, though I’m too ignorant of these things to be confident of that. What if it is, though? What does it mean? Is it some cry for help, for attention? Or is it more simply a case of common symptoms becoming exaggerated in grandiose terms in her head? Sure, there’s a small pain there, but it’s only small and the sort of thing that most people will feel at some point without giving it a second thought. It’s not a brain tumour, Mildred.

The reality is that as you grow older, the aches and pains increase. There should be no surprise in that. Wear and tear are almost a given in nature, and we are part of nature. Years of exerting ourselves, of stressing our system with random exercise and inadequate diets, of simple and consistent use, must have consequences. I’m strong and reasonably fit, but these muscles have been well used over the years. They’ll report for duty, but sometimes they’re slower to get there.

Likewise, in the little bugs, infections and ailments along the way. We all know people who find cause for concern, even panic, in these mostly trivial complaints. I may be blase, but I see those things as being pretty much a part of normal life. When are you ever 100% healthy? Just about never. I’ll take them in my stride, as most people do, unless they become so intrusive as to impact my quality of life.

Perhaps that’s the situation with this girl. Perhaps her ailments are real enough and painful enough that normal life becomes difficult. But perhaps what she is suffering from is not really much different from anyone else. Others accept it; she has not, or will not, for whatever reason: there must be something wrong? Maybe it’s a situation where she has not come to terms with or understood that the body does age. This is a part of the script. Or maybe she does have a brain tumour.

I’ll never again be as fit and as healthy as I was 20 years. I may rue that some days, mostly on behalf of my vanity, but I’m sensible enough to realise that it’s a fact of life. Generally, I’m well and better off than many people. The aches and pains of recent days are tiresome and a tad surprising, but soon enough, I expect I’ll be back to my normal state of being. And, like much in life, there is a trade-off. I may get wearier as I get older and feel muscles I never knew I had before, but I also know more. Up to a point – a scary point – as the body declines, the mind becomes sharper. And that makes up for a lot.