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Susan J. Demas: What I learned playing through pain


Susan J. Demas: What I learned playing through pain

Apr 21, 2024 | 9:15 am ET
By Susan J. Demas
Susan J. Demas: What I learned playing through pain
Susan J. Demas climbing Buffalo Mountain in Colorado in 2010 | Demas photo

Susan J. Demas: What I learned playing through pain

Welcome to the inaugural weekly newsletter from me, your intrepid (and sometimes exhausted) Michigan Advance Editor-in-Chief. It’s been 20 years since I wrote my first regular political column, back when I first moved to Michigan in my 20s with a toddler in tow. Now both my kids are (somehow) adults and I have been running publications for the last 11 years.

But I’ve never done a newsletter (although I hear they’re all the rage in journalism now), so bear with me as we start this new adventure together.

In my first column for the Advance when we began publishing on Dec. 4, 2018, I compared starting up the publication to my experience solo-hiking the Sierra Nevadas, Rockies, Great Dividing Range and more. I noted, however that I’m “fairly klutzy with little discernible athletic talent,” which turned out to be more prescient than I realized.

Keeping the Advance going through a global pandemic, armed protests at the Michigan Capitol, a tense presidential election, a violent riot at the U.S. Capitol, a nationally watched gubernatorial election and two school shootings wasn’t easy for us. And while I’m thrilled that our outlet rose to the challenge and has been honored with dozens of awards, I know how much these last few years have taken their toll on us all.

My respite has always been the mountains. And in my relatively short hiking career over the last 15 years, I have probably fallen about a hundred times.

Most of them are hardly memorable — although the backdrop has been, like when I developed a shin splint after tripping on the Sentinel Dome hike in Yosemite, which I’d (successfully done) several times before. And no, it wasn’t on the ridiculously steep descent, but rather in the boring, rock-strewn last quarter-mile. I also somehow managed to break my arm in a place only children do (according to my doctor) while stumbling over a root on a basic trail a half-hour from my house.

Many of the falls have been after harrowing ascents to summits — hours after I jumped across a small gorge to ascend Mount Wrightson where you can see clear into Mexico or on some scree at the saddle of Mount Democrat, the first and only Fourteener I’ve bagged.

Susan J. Demas: What I learned playing through pain
Looking down at Kite Lake from the Mt. Democrat summit in 2012 | Susan J. Demas

I can’t even remember the last fall I took, sometime during the haze of the pandemic in 2021. But that one was the one that did me in. My back had had enough and I wasn’t quite sure when I’d ever be able to get back in the backcountry again.

For two years, I spent most of my time horizontal, trying to stave off inexplicable spasms as I taught myself how to write and edit laying down. Most of the time, I would cry through the pain while trying to finish a column. And when I couldn’t, it was beyond demoralizing. It was my own secret shame.

I knew that that millions of people were living in inexplicable, maddening pain from Long COVID — which you were not allowed to speak of, as the world had Moved On, thank you very much — thus bringing into focus how little people with disabilities are valued in our society. And so given what other people were going through, who was I to complain?

I recall telling one of my doctors — who seemed very skeptical that I’d actually scaled some of the tallest peaks in the country — that I was too young to be an invalid (or my version of it) at 45. I needed to get back on the Appalachian Trail; I needed to traverse Yosemite, as I had for so many glorious summers; I needed to do the hundreds of hikes from Denali to the Italian Alps that I’d put off, thinking there was always enough time.

But what if there wasn’t?

And so, just weeks before the 2022 election, I underwent two surgeries. Naturally, I wasn’t magically healed and it has been a very long and often painful road back. I’m not 100% today — and to be honest, I’m not sure when if I ever will be. But I am stubborn, which is why I just spent a week traipsing near (not through) California wildflowers and doing more practical hikes than I wanted through snowy giant Sequoia groves, glacial lakes and the foothills of the Sierras.

Or perhaps if I’m being more charitable to myself, I am determined. For me, failure isn’t an option. That’s something that gets ingrained in you pretty quickly when you’re a single mom (and it doesn’t go away once you get remarried, so I’ve discovered).

So stepping away from the Advance was something I never considered — not even on my worst day; no matter what craziness was crashing through the Capitol. We owe you, our readers, the best journalism we can produce about Michigan’s people, politics and policy and to report on issues and communities that are too often ignored. That’s the mantra that guides our work and that’s our promise to you, especially as we’re in the throes of yet another election where democracy is on the line.

And so, with renewed gratitude, I’d like to thank you again for being part of this journey.

Susan J. Demas: What I learned playing through pain
California wildflowers outside Death Valley National Park in 2024 | Susan J. Demas