When Your Body Breaks
Have you ever felt like you were gaining a little momentum and getting some traction in some area of your life, and then it all falls apart? There you are, trucking along, and Bam!...the universe sends you off the rails with a chuckle. I know you have. We all have.
When it happens, we are left to pick up the pieces and begin the long trudge back. We hope we can regain our lost momentum. We try not to focus on how much time and energy has been invested and lost. We try to stay positive. Sometimes, that doesn’t work. Sometimes we are just done. We decide it’s not worth the expenditure of energy and move on.
I’m closing in on the five year anniversary of a pretty nasty injury, and it got me thinking about this as it relates to exercise. You see this in sports a lot. An athlete worked so hard getting ready to complete and then they get hurt. All that preparation and hope for a great season, and in a moment, it’s stripped away. They’re left with the grind of rehab and the hope that it will all work out better next year. Athlete or not, it’s a rough thing to deal with.
Have you ever noticed that when you make a commitment to bettering yourself, the universe immediately tests your resolve? You start a new exercise program and three days later you get sick. You join a softball team and pull your hamstring on the third practice. You sign up at the gym and then your work schedule goes insane and it feels impossible to get there.
We know these things are going to happen. It’s simply a matter of time. And yet it’s important to keep at it if we want to be our best selves. Regular exercise is crucial. And it can be so difficult to sustain sometimes. We know how important it is, yet we struggle with our sedentary environments and competing responsibilities.
“Just do it” sounds great, but how do we bounce back from the inevitable setbacks?
What if there was a better way to approach this seemingly never ending cycle of effort - challenge - effort that is as inevitable in our lives as gravity?
This, of course, got me thinking.
On Thanksgiving morning of 2015, I went for run. It was a beautiful morning, and Gracie (my golden retriever) had decided we needed to get an interval training session in before filling up on turkey and stuffing. We had a beautiful trail that we walked and ran regularly, so off we went.
I was sprinting hard, Gracie was galloping along beside me, and I was thinking of the unfairness of her having four legs when I only had two. I still don’t know what she saw (probably a squirrel), but she suddenly cut in front of me and I went right over the top of her.
This wasn’t really a big deal, as I had been diving over kid’s heads on their birthday for years, so I was skilled at shoulder rolls. *Side note - if you don’t know me, it is a tradition on kids birthdays in our martial arts school to give them a “one to grow on”. I don’t just randomly run around jumping over kids heads.
Anyway, I was holding Gracie’s leash, and it pulled tight right before I could tuck and roll. I came down directly on the top of my shoulder and heard a distinct “pop”. When I stood up, my arm was not where it should be. And then the pain hit. Holy crap did it hurt.
So after a mile trudge back to the car and a trip to the emergency room and an x-ray, I found out that I had a grade 3 AC tear. Basically all of the ligaments that held my arm attached to my collarbone has sheered through. Fun.
With this type of injury, you are faced with two choices: have it surgically repaired with a titanium wire that lashes your shoulder back to your collarbone, or let it “scar up”. That means pretty much holding your arm in place for six months or so, until scar tissue has replaced the destroyed ligaments and hopefully the arm reattaches.
I chose to avoid surgery and see if I could heal naturally. Worse case scenario I had up to nine months to opt for surgery if things didn’t go well. Here’s what happened over the next nine months:
First of all, it’s a little disconcerting to see the end of your collarbone rising up and stretching the skin on the top of your shoulder. Slings don’t really help, so you have to get your other hand under your elbow and push up until the joint aligns and hold it there. You use pillows when you sit, countertops while you brush your teeth, and if you forget for a moment it will slide right back down and up pops your collarbone. The first three or four months are the worst, but its pretty bad for six. If you so much as pick up a gallon of milk, you’re going to tear all that scar tissue up and you’re back to square one.
It’s amazing how difficult simple things become when you only have one functioning arm. Getting dressed took forever. (Try putting your socks on with one hand...it’s a hilarious adventure). Showering was challenging because I had to keep my arm braced against my thigh the whole time or it would slide out of position.
All of the gains from decades of training felt like they went right out the window. I lost 15 pounds of muscle, and the right side of my chest and arm wasted away. I developed tendinitis in my left elbow from months of holding my right arm in place so it could heal.
I’m a side sleeper, which was impossible, so I’d lay on my back and try to position my arm in place. If I moved at all, a jolt of pain would wake me up and I’d have to start all over. I slept in sixty minute bursts or so for about six months. This left me in a constant state of brain fog and I started getting sick a lot.
Questers’ Way was supposed to be open by this time, but delay after delay kept setting us back and we were still months away from being able to open. The stress was intense, and all of the daily practices I had relied on didn’t feel even remotely possible. I also had no idea if my right arm would ever be the same again. It really took a toll on me physically, mentally and emotionally.
Here’s the thing: I got through it. It took three years, but I got all of the functionality back, built back the muscle, and other than a slight bump on the top of my shoulder, you’d never know it had happened.
Some how, some way, if it doesn’t outright kill us, we get through it, don’t we?
We’ve all had conversations with people who dealt with much worse than what I experienced. We all know people who survived horrific car crashes, hereditary genetic disorders, unexpected illnesses, and all kinds of things we wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Maybe you’ve personally had something happen in your life that has you sitting there thinking “He thinks that’s bad? Amateur .” Whatever happens to us, we may be a mess on the other side of it, but we get through it.
Some people do lot more than get through the setbacks. They’re even stronger on the other side. They have amazing stories.
What’s that about? In my case, once the injury happened, I wasn’t doing anything different from what anyone else would do. I had a better than expected result though. Even the doctor was a little surprised based on my age that it scarred up as well as it did.
What made the difference, and how can we use that to help us strengthen ourselves when the storm hits?
Knowing that at the very least we’ll get through, how do we set ourselves up to do better than that? How do we do more than just survive and weather that storm? How do we come back stronger, with even more momentum?
How do we use the adversity as fuel that forges us?
I believe the key lies in what you do to prepare in advance. It’s the little investments we make in ourselves each day that shift the odds in our favor.
Prior to my injury, I had invested decades in exercise. In fact, I was in unusually good shape at the time. We had been building and teaching our AIM fitness program for the better part of a year, so I was doing a lot of functional strength training. The doctor said I had a good shot at healing well because I was already in good shape when I got hurt.
I had been on a single ingredient nutrition plan in preparation for opening the cafe in the center. I was educating myself about healthy eating and measuring the impact it would have on my overall wellness. I’m sure that helped with healing on a cellular level.
When it was time to begin physical therapy (with my most amazing and dear friend Chris W), the decades of martial arts and tai chi helped me really tune in to my body and get the most from the exercises she gave me.
I had inadvertently done a lot of work in advance, not knowing what was coming, and it paid off in so many ways.
It seems like how well we get through has a whole lot to do with what we did before life punched us in the face.
Here’s my dream for you today.
That you do a little in advance every day. Make a small deposit into your own well being. Do it before you get hurt, or sick, or whatever chaos is lying in wait for you. If nothing else, you will continue to age, and that will lead to its own set of challenges. (Unless that guy who wrote Lifespan figures out how to cure it...we can hope!)
Practice for the game and know that when it’s time, you’ll be as ready as possible to play. Go for a walk. Take a yoga class. Do a few body weight exercises. Invest whatever you can, whenever you can. Drop a few pennies in the jar. They add up.
Make it fun when you can, and when you can’t, do it anyway. Take care of yourself as best you can, and be gentle with yourself when you can’t. Invest the time, and take what your body gives you. You don’t have to run a marathon. Run one mile. Build up to the marathon if that interests you.
You’ve got this. You’re not too old, or too young. You’re not too uncoordinated, or out of shape. And no, you don’t get a pass if you’ve worked out your entire life.
Keep at it.
Invest in yourself.
I think you’re worth it :)