3 Women on How Age Helped Them Redefine What 'Healthy' Looks Like
"I'm Finally Listening to My Body"
It took an eye-opening biopsy for Jessica Ciencin Henriquez, 35, to quiet all the noise and tune in to herself.
Last spring, my doctor found a lump on my thyroid. I would have laughed at the irony if I wasn't so scared. Like many others, I'd spent the first year of the pandemic trying not to cry; a lump in my throat felt appropriate.
My doctor tried to offer assurance. "It's probably nothing, but because of its size, you'll need a biopsy." The mass, nestled just under the skin above my collarbone, was the size of a quarter. It felt too big to be nothing.
With a clipboard in her hand, she worked her way down a checklist. Did I feel tired, depressed, irritable? I didn't know anyone who didn't. Weren't those side effects of living through a pandemic?
Had my periods been irregular? Had I lost weight? Had my skin and hair changed? Yes to all of those questions. I'd assumed midlife hormones were to blame—that "second puberty" older women had warned me about. But as my doctor ran through the signs of thyroid cancer, it was hard to deny that something had been going on with my body long before she detected the lump.
I'm a single mother, working full time while trying to juggle the minutiae of the day-to-day: buying toothpaste, separating the recycling, dating just often enough to lessen the odds that I'll die alone. The truth is, I had mastered the art of silencing symptoms because I didn't have the time or energy to deal with them.
Whispers and Murmurs
When I called to make an appointment for a pre-biopsy ultrasound, I asked for a slot in the summer, when my son was out of school and I'd have more time to recover if it turned out there was something I'd need to recover from.
"Summer? It's March," the receptionist said. "This can't wait a few months. This can't even wait a few weeks."
I took the next available appointment. I was scanned and pricked. I bled and bruised, and then I waited. "Whatever you do, don't google," my doctor insisted, but I'd already begun.
Thyroid cancer is the most common endocrine cancer in the U.S., and I fit right in the middle of the typical age range for diagnosis: 20 to 55. While the disease is usually not fatal, treatment typically involves surgical removal of the gland and hormone replacement therapy for life.
As the days ticked by, I scolded myself for taking my health for granted—for all the times I grabbed a granola bar and called it lunch, for skipping workouts and vitamins, for downloading a period tracker and consistently forgetting to use it. There were canceled therapy sessions, months of missed medications, journals I never filled. There was always something to do that seemed more important than taking care of me.
I conducted an inventory of warnings I was in the habit of dismissing: constant exhaustion that I temporarily cured with caffeine. Flutters in my chest, triggered by stress. Headaches that made me want to lie down. Had I been ignoring my body's whispers for so long it was forced to scream?
When my doctor's call finally came, I crumbled at the word benign. The what-ifs that had been weighing on me lifted. This experience was a gift, a second chance to treat myself with the kindness I deserved. Now it was time to think of my body as a blessing instead of a burden.
I'd need another ultrasound in six months to confirm that the nodule wasn't growing. In the meantime, I could start slowing down. I scaled back my schedule. I taught two classes each week instead of five; I stopped volunteering for carpool and let my kid ride with someone else. I checked in with myself often to see what I needed. Tired? Sleep. Anxious? Journal. Stressed? Meditate. Tense? Run. I changed my diet and fed myself like I was feeding my son: veggies, fresh-squeezed juice, mostly whole foods.
And soon, I felt attuned to my body. I knew what it needed because I was no longer speeding through my life. Halfway through my fourth decade, I am giving my body the care and consideration it has been quietly demanding all along.
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"Doing Nothing Is a Newfound Skill"
Kristin van Ogtrop, 57, stumbled upon the key to her mental health somewhere she never expected: in front of the TV.
A few years after I entered my 50s—that decade when many people assume they have learned nearly everything there is to know about themselves—I made a discovery that rocked my sense of self and made me question the way I had spent my entire adulthood.
I discovered TV.
I come from a long line of judgmental souls who take the "Don't you have something better to do?" approach to television. When I was in high school, one of my friends was allowed to watch General Hospital every afternoon, but when I asked my mother whether I could do the same, it was as if I had requested a gin fizz with my after-school snack. Watching General Hospital was as unthinkable as wearing Candie's shoes, the other 1970s cultural touchstone embraced by the cool girls in high school that was deemed entirely too corrupting for me.
In my house, there was always something "better" to do than watch TV: read a book, iron a shirt, brush the dog, water a plant, fold your laundry, practice the piano. Something productive. "Mindless TV"—a phrase that I'm pretty sure my mother invented—was junk food but for your brain; meaning, the road to hell was paved with Wheel of Fortune and Doritos Nacho Cheese. Both delicious; both off-limits.
Thus brainwashed by my family, I grew up to be an adult who felt mildly superior to people—i.e., most of my friends and much of the rest of the world—who watched TV after dinner instead of, say, writing a libretto or making a patchwork quilt out of old baby clothes (not that I've done either of those things, but they're on my list). I did worry—occasionally, vaguely—that I never learned how to relax. Relaxing just made me feel guilty. I'd sit with the newspaper on a Sunday morning and, although I would appear to be reading, I was actually staring at the page while thinking about cleaning out the garage. Later, after the garage was clean and organized, I'd be filled with a sense of accomplishment that felt fundamental to optimal mental health.
So imagine my astonishment when 2020 came along and I realized that a faster—not to mention much more fun—route to optimal mental health was through Schitt's Creek.
During the brief period when the forced isolation of the coronavirus pandemic made many of us feel like we were on a weird sudden staycation, I watched all six seasons of Schitt's Creek. Yes, I get it, everybody loved Schitt's Creek. But where the show's other fans regarded it as excellent entertainment, for me, it was much more: It changed my life. Schitt's Creek—where adversity becomes triumph, dysfunctional families find harmony, and there's never a cloud in the sky—brought me happiness at a particular time and life stage when I needed it most.
Schitt's Creek made me feel good, both by what it was and what it represented. And what it represented—a break, a time-out, a restful interlude of quieting down the body and mind—lasted long after that bittersweet final episode. Those more than 30 hours of TV provided a permission slip for my middle-aged self; I sat on the sofa with a dog and a fuzzy blanket and allowed myself to be still. To relax! In turning on the television, I could turn off the buzzing in my brain that wanted me to accomplish something. It took me decades, but I finally understood that the mindlessness in mindless TV could be an accomplishment in itself.
I realize other effective methods to quiet the body and mind exist that don't involve staring at a screen (looking at you, meditation!). So perhaps there are still many "better" ways I can spend my time, even with mindless relaxation as my goal. Maybe one day I will be evolved enough that I will move on to those. But I've just watched the trailer for the second season of Ted Lasso, and I think I hear the sofa calling my name.
"Our Connections Are Vital"
Marita Golden, 71, draws strength from her bonds with other women—and also her commitment to herself.
Both of my parents died in their early 60s. Before I was 23, I had lost my mother to a stroke and my father to a heart attack. Their deaths, which took place in the space of a year and a half, were a shock and a warning. In my grief, I vowed that I would be healthy, live healthy, and outlive them both. I have.
I learned early on that the body was both incredibly strong and fragile. It was an organism that I had to honor and care for, not simply inhabit and use. I have been in a lifelong relationship with my body, learning from it, always on the lookout for trends and discoveries old and new that would strengthen it.
Spoiler alert: I have high blood pressure, which I treat with medication. A cancerous tumor was discovered in my rectum and removed after a colonoscopy. When I began suffering from insomnia and snoring, my ear, nose, and throat specialist recommended a sleep study, which revealed I had sleep apnea. So yes, I need a machine to get a good night's sleep.
And I have never felt better. I don't have the physical energy of the 20-year-old me. Rather, I possess a mindset about life and living that energizes me in a different and yet deeply replenishing way.
I engage in some form of exercise daily, have an annual checkup, eat healthily, and weigh less than I did in high school. But just as important, I have a wide and diverse network of friends. Creating community—being "in community"—has been a major source of my strength.
Because I lost my parents on the cusp of adulthood, I have joined surrogate families that have allowed me to find fellowship, and to give and receive compassion and love. After I divorced my first husband, I started a single parent's group, six women and one man who met monthly to share challenges and trade what was working for us and what wasn't as we raised our children. (One member of the group introduced me to the man who became my second husband and soul mate.)
I have had to dismantle my cultural inheritance of the Strong Black Woman complex, which dictates that in response to the pervasive and ongoing impact of racial discrimination, we can and must do everything, be everything to everyone, carry all burdens, save our race, and not ask for help. I am now a Black woman who does not have to always be strong. In high-pressure jobs, I have formed support groups with other women who, like me, felt marginalized and disempowered. We kept one another balanced, and strategized responses to festering workplace problems. And we didn't do it alone.
Since the start of the pandemic, I have had a weekly Zoom meeting with a group of women from my church. We check in on one another. We seek advice. We celebrate one another. We offer advice. We laugh. We share. And those meetings give me a boost that lasts for hours. A boost I often didn't know I needed.
But for me, it is my spirit that has kept me most healthy—those inner forces that lend me energy and a sense of vigor. Spirit is also what connects me to life-giving and lifesaving people and relationships and passions.
As I have aged, I have become increasingly aware of the power of my mind, thoughts, and feelings. I call all of that spirit.
It is my spirit that has led me to seek mental health counseling when my soul is in tatters, to make silent retreats and days of silence an integral part of my mental health regimen. The silence gives me respite from my cell phone, the news, my work. My spirit inspired me to conquer my fear of swimming in deep water. I now look forward to swimming laps in the 13-foot deep end of the pool.
Each morning, I begin my day with a poem, an affirmation/prayer, and meditation. This spiritual work, this spiritual practice, has made me smarter, wiser, more patient. Combined with my proactive relationship with my body and living in community, honoring my spirit is why and how I am growing old without fear and with a sense of curiosity and wonder about what tomorrow will bring, and even about what awaits me on the other side.
This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
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