11 Months

I just received an email indicating that I am now fully back to work with no modifications or restrictions or graduated hours. When I texted my husband to let him know, he asked if this was good or bad news. Overall, I consider it good news indeed! My only hesitation is rooted in the fear of the ‘what if’ possibilities lurking around dark corners. Since I still have symptoms and pain, what if things get worse? As much as I am eager to be free of the modifications and restrictions, they have also been both a safety net and a leash. It has been reassuring to know that I had support and valid excuses to be careful about what I do at work, and it’s also been good to have others keep me in check when I have wanted to do more than I possibly should. I suppose that I won’t truly lose those supports now that I am not deemed a medical risk at work, but somehow having that piece of paper made it easier for me to be kind to myself.

But that’s just mental stuff.

I am quite relieved and excited to be done dealing with the Leave of Absence people. They have been pleasant and helpful, but I am so done with paperwork and waiting to hear what they have determined about my situation every few weeks. There is a thick file folder in my desk that contains almost all of the paperwork and medical receipts for the past eleven months of dealing with this injury. And now that I won’t need to submit another functional abilities form, perhaps I won’t need to check in with my doctor quite so often either!

Although the restrictions are officially over, my doctor has placed a small restriction on bending. This is the one thing that I know will cause me a great deal of pain if I do it too much during a shift. It’s not that I cannot bend at all, but a few hours of constant bending will leave me hobbling and hunched over like a 90 year old woman. I can deal with the limitation. Most of the time. There will be days when I have little choice but to bend often, and hopefully the back will tolerate more over time.

It’s been 11 months today since herniating my disc, and I went on medical leave 10 months ago, not ever thinking that my return to full work duties and hours would be such a long and arduous process. Of course, I also didn’t think I would still be dealing with the injury at this point in time either.

Eleven months ago, I broke a World record with a 253 pound squat. Today I set a post-injury PR with a 65 pound goblet squat. One day. Some day.

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Post-Injury Fear

I did a thing yesterday. Rack pulls. It’s no big deal really, as I have been doing rack pulls since my chiropractor gave the okay a couple of weeks ago. The weight started low with a 20-25 pounds jump each week. The weights and reps leading up to yesterday had felt good, but yesterday’s program had me pulling 205 pounds for five sets of three. Being given the green light to add more exercises to my training makes me happy and excited, makes me feel as if I am stepping closer to being a powerlifter once more, but that’s still a ways off yet. Permission to do rack pulls feels like finding the golden ticket. This is the first time I’ve been allowed to do any lifting resembling a deadlift since herniating a disc ten months ago!

Pulling 200 pounds yesterday was exciting, but I also approached the bar with some trepidation. Feeling the heaviness of the loaded bar during the first set did little to calm the flutters in my stomach or stop the doubts from invading my head. Still, I plugged away at my reps until the fourth set, when I started to feel soreness in my low back and my rhythm broke after the second rep. I tried to refocus to do the final rep, but it didn’t feel right and I stopped, rested, and then completed the final set.

It’s been a long time since I’ve picked up that much weight and doing it yesterday was so exciting, but getting the work done didn’t stop the doubts and fears. The low back felt a bit achy during the rack pulls, and the discomfort I felt increased for a while after and then held. My first instinct was that this was the normal post-deadlift muscle soreness, but lurking in the corners of my thoughts was the possibility of having hurt my back again. This ache didn’t feel quite the same as how the back feels after a day of bending at work, but it’s been so long since I have deadlifted that I wasn’t confident in my ability to discern the difference. What if I had aggravated the disc? What if I had pissed off my SI joints? The pain doctor suspects a joint problem…what if? Did I use too much back and not enough legs to pull the weight? Was I going to have to drop the weight? Would I have to stop the rack pulls completely?

As much as I tend to say that my training has been light and easy in these months since herniating my disc, that is true only in comparison to what my training looked like prior to the injury. Before the injury I would squat and deadlift weights heavy enough to impress my non-powerlifter friends. Some training days would see me moving more than 10, 000 pounds of weight over the course of a work out. With the injury came drastic changes to every aspect of my life. I went from squatting and deadlifting to performing breathing exercises and basic body-weight movements, gradually adding in some upper body work and light weights as healing slowly progressed. Those have been basically simple exercises, and yet, they haven’t always been easy to perform and I have worked very hard to progress as much (or seemingly as little) as I have. Yesterday’s rack pulls seemed like a milestone, or perhaps an important test I had to pass. And while I think I did ultimately pass the test, the taking of it also revealed a weakness.

This weakness is not physical, although I am certainly still healing, still struggling with constant pain and other symptoms in my legs. No, this weakness is mental. It is the fear of re-injury and all that would come with that…more pain, more suffering, more set-backs.

The opportunity to add exercises and weight back into my training is exciting. This is part of the progress I want to see, but I really don’t want to regress. The fact that I am still dealing with pain and a partially numb foot means I’m not keen to make things worse, but I also have to accept that some discomfort and aches will come from taking those forward steps. The stiffness I’m feeling in my low back is most likely simple muscle soreness, because that has been normal for me after pulling and I haven’t used those muscles like this for a long time! There is a measure of comfort in realizing this is probably normal, but that won’t stop the fears from surfacing again.

For anyone involved in a sport, the mental game is just as important as the conditioning and physical training, even more so when coming back from injury, I think. I experienced this on a smaller scale last year when I had issues with my SI joints for the first half of 2017. Recovering from that issue was an up and down affair, and things didn’t always go the way I wanted. I did get through that issue though and was stronger as a result, both physically and mentally. Then I broke a World record and had an excellent competition. I also herniated a disc. I will get through this stronger…again.

Here is an article I saved a few months ago which talks about this same thing:  https://www.girlsgonestrong.com/blog/mindset/overcoming-fear-injury/

Sock It To Me

“Bit by bit she felt order restored to her soul. Everything was going to be okay.”

~Karen Kingsbury

For the first time in a long time, I have a morning shift tomorrow, and it is also the longest shift I will have since going on medical leave last December. I’ll be honest in saying that I’m slightly nervous about the shift, since mornings are our busiest time of day and I have a lot of rust when it comes to working at that time; however, I am also looking forward to it. While I don’t mind working later in the day or evening, I do enjoy the mornings, too, and I have missed the hurried pace. Since I like to be organized and prepared, I have been making preparations for tomorrow throughout today.

Mondays are typically training days for me. Having worked so many shifts later in the day since returning from medical leave, I have become accustomed to training first thing in the morning. That won’t happen tomorrow. Instead I will go to the gym after work and before dinner. As I laid out my clothes for work in the morning, I also packed workout clothes into my gym bag. But I packed something different this time. When I opened my sock drawer this afternoon, I pulled out a pair of knee length socks with a word down each length. A pair of Soxbox socks…one pair out of the many I own and used to wear religiously to the gym. But I haven’t worn a pair to the gym for ten months, not since I herniated my disc.

I’m not entirely certain why I stopped wearing my beloved socks after my injury, but a lot of things changed with that injury. I also started wearing leggings to train in instead of shorts. My training program went from squats, bench press, and deadlifts to the most basic of stretches and movements. Overnight, I went from having a World Record squat to being unable to even put a pair of socks on my feet. Maybe that’s how it started, with being physically unable to put on a pair of socks, especially compression-like knee length socks! It was simply easier to wear yoga pants or leggings and a pair of anklet socks, and I say that remembering full well how difficult it was to even put on (or take off) the anklet socks! More than once I had to explain my struggles to someone in the women’s change room as I’d catch the weird looks cast my way.

With the hotter weather of summer, I was finally forced back to wearing shorts while training, and that decision was not made easily. I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable showing my legs in the gym, but I have finally reached the stage where I am feeling comfortable in shorts once again. And although I have been wearing shorts for a few months now, I have left my funky knee length socks in the drawer without ever truly pausing to consider why.

As an introvert, I usually have a multitude of thoughts running through my mind, and the speed at which those thoughts travel can be dizzying to watch. So I have seen the thoughts flit through my mind, the thoughts that turn inward and look into the reasons why I am reluctant to embrace those aspects of my character which I once enjoyed, like my fun socks. I’ve seen them. I have even sometimes held those thoughts up to the light and turned them round and round, but I have also tucked them back into a pocket or closet as quickly as possible. And yet, I put one of those fun pairs of socks in my gym bag for tomorrow’s training session. Am I ready for that?

I am no stranger to hurting myself, although my experience with serious injuries have been exceedingly rare. Herniating my disc has been an experience quite unlike anything else I can remember. For some, my injury would be merely a blip on the screen, while for others it would be something much worse. As I have alluded to in previous blog posts, I am conflicted when it comes to elevating my own suffering above that of others. This is not the end of my world, and it could be so much worse than it has been; and yet, this injury has affected my life in ways that I could never have imagined or predicted. I never expected to be off work for seven months. I never expected that I would still be in constant pain ten months later, but here I am. The pain is enough; I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But I think the bigger toll has been on the inside.

If I’m looking for a positive, I suppose a benefit of being in pain for ten months is that the darkest of days passed by a long time ago. I am no saint, and despite my last blog post, I am not always a Pollyanna. I don’t see the glass as half empty or half full; I see both at the same time. I am a dreamer and a realist. I am hopeful and stuck in the mire of my present situation. The number of good nights of sleep I’ve had over the past ten months can be counted on one hand, and, as much as I hate taking any sort of medication, I really kind of wish that the medication I’ve been prescribed would actually be helpful. There are moments and days when I do feel permanently stuck, but thankfully the worst of my attitude has long since passed. Choosing to wear leggings all of the time, while certainly easier physically, also made it easier for me to hide. Like a coat of armour, I was protecting myself. From what exactly I do not know, but I felt the need to hide myself away even as I continued to go to the gym three times a week.

It’s almost like I felt that I wasn’t worthy of wearing my typical gym/powerlifter attire anymore, as if the injury had stripped me of my self-worth. It’s a silly line of of reasoning, isn’t it! But that’s part of the way that pain works…by attacking one’s self-confidence.

With the okay to add several exercises to my training, I have felt stirrings in the depths of my soul for the past couple of weeks. Although I am still not back to where I was before the injury, the addition of these exercises has made me feel even more hopeful and optimistic…and more like the person I was before the injury. I catch glimpses of that old Angela between sets of bench press, when the reps have been strong and smooth with the addition of a small arch and leg drive that hasn’t been there for a long time. Despite some apprehension over yesterday’s heavier rack pulls, it felt good to do them. The pain in my legs may not be seeing much change these days, but I am extremely thankful that I am healing well enough to allow me to make these small steps back towards where I once was.

Small steps. Sometimes it feels as if these steps are too small, while other times they feel bigger than I can handle. Either way, I want the forward progress. It is going to feel a bit weird to walk out of the change room tomorrow wearing shorts and knee-high socks, but I hope I will also feel the pulse of who I was before and be strengthened for it. She’s still there, that old me. I think the new me will be even stronger, but I’m still waiting for a full and proper introduction to her.

A Dark Cloud

An announcement was made yesterday by one of the two powerlifting organizations I compete with. A lifter had tested positive on a drug-test and was suspended for four years. I read the notice with dismay that someone had attempted to cheat. While the number of people involved in powerlifting within Canada continues to grow, we are still a relatively small group. Unless you live and compete inside of a bubble, as a lifter you become familiar with the names of successful lifters. I don’t know this lifter. I don’t know much about him as a person off the platform, but I know his name and the respect he had earned on the platform. I love my sport, and it is always sad to see its’ reputation tarnished due to situations like this.

Then the lifter himself shared his story, and I found my thoughts and emotions becoming even more disgruntled. I respect the fact that he is owning his decisions and his transparency once the violation was discovered. I recognize the shame and upset this has created around him and the outward ripples created by his actions. But I’m shaking my head.

A couple of years ago, he slipped a disc during competition. Healed up a little but competed again a few months later. When things got worse with his body to the point that he wasn’t training and worried he might never compete again, he knowingly took a banned substance in an effort to prevent muscle wasting. He then competed five more times before competing at Nationals in February of this year. Somewhere in there was the drug test which ultimately was his downfall, and now he has been banned for four years.

Strip away the fact that this lifter is stronger and more experienced than I am, and you’re left with two powerlifters in somewhat similar situations.

  1. We both experienced a disc injury in competition.
  2. We have both experienced disruptions to our regular training due to our injuries.
  3. We both have struggled with fears about losing our strength.
  4. We both have questioned our being able to compete again.

Similar situations but different outcomes.

  1. He chose to take a substance that is banned completely and is not even legal for human consumption anywhere. I took medications which are banned only in competition but are allowed outside of competition.
  2. He chose to compete within a few months of his injury, likely before his body was actually healed. I chose to take at least an entire year off of competing in order to allow my body the time and space to heal.

Herniating my disc last November was a major blow for me. I have been in constant pain ever since. I am not sure if the numbness in my left foot will ever go away. I lost 8 months of work. Two years of hard work and checking off prerequisites in order to go to Nationals were wiped out. Not only was I unable to compete at Nationals this year, but I will also need to start from the beginning in order to qualify for a future Nationals, which means I’m looking at least two years from now. I have had many fears and questions about the long-term prognosis for my health and ability to compete. My day-to-day life has been greatly impacted by my injury and the ongoing symptoms. I may not be the same caliber of lifter as this individual, but my experiences with my herniated disc are not all that different from his. I just let go of my ego in order to heal.

I don’t know which cheating scenario is worse: just wanting an edge over everyone else or the unwillingness to accept the repercussions of an injury. The cheaters who feel they need the advantage are easily viewed as ignorant jerks. But this lifter has a young family and appears to be a genuinely nice guy. While I don’t think he was looking for an edge, he still made the conscious choice to put something illegal into his body. When I look back over the past ten months of my own pain and suffering, it is difficult to feel sorry for him and the punishment he’s received. Anyone who competes in a drug-tested sport knows their responsibilities to be clean and the risks that come with failing a test.

When You Fail

These are interesting days, and I’m sure my mind is working overtime trying to make sense of the snarl of thought threads spinning inside my head. This post is likely going to be nothing more than a mind dump.

Good news is that the stiffness and achiness in the low back has settled down from yesterday’s injection, as I figured it would. While it is still too early to discern the effectiveness of the injection, I have not noticed a difference in my pains yet. It’s only been one day though.

This morning’s training session was not what I was expecting or hoping for. I was supposed to do one bench rep at 135 pounds, which would have been a PR of sorts. I haven’t benched that much weight since herniating my disc, and I’ve never benched that weight using a close grip or without an arch in my back and feet on the ground. Last week, I benched two singles at 130 pounds, so I went into this morning’s session knowing that a five pound increase was within my capabilities. But I failed. I walked around and tried to psych myself up for one more attempt. I failed again.

As much as I have enough experience to know that every training session is not going to be strong and glorious, these two failures were disheartening and frustrating. As I was going through my warm up sets, I could tell the goal was going to be tough to achieve. The same weights I had done with ease last week felt heavy and slow. My last two warm up singles at 115 and 125 pounds were both slow and almost grindy. I’m pretty sure that the 125 pounds was slower than last week’s 130. My husband came with me this morning, because I wanted a spotter and that alone was probably an indicator that I wasn’t feeling up to the task. Right before I set up for my first attempt, I instructed my husband to be aware that the bar might move slowly, because I expected it to be grindy. The weight felt reasonable as I slowly brought the bar to my chest, but there was nothing there when I went to push it back up. He told me to walk it off and try again. The end result was the same. Over the past year, I have learned how to grind through a tough bench rep, but I couldn’t even press the bar high enough to be able to grind through it.

My thoughts and emotions are playing tug-of- war over this failure. It has been a very long time since I have failed anything at the gym so significantly. Sure, I’ve had to drop reps or weights or sets because of my injury and the ongoing symptoms associated with it, but that isn’t quite the same as attempting a heavy weight on a main lift and falling short. Every athlete experiences failure, loss, and difficult training sessions; it is a fact of life and part of the journey. I understand it. I accept it. It still sucks to fail, especially when you know that you are completely capable. However, I cannot get sucked into dwelling on the failure for too long. It happened, and there are likely many reasons why: fatigue and the extremely smoky skies and poor air quality being big ones. The fact it happened doesn’t take away from the progress I have made, nor does it indicate an inability to progress further.

While still feeling disheartened with my failure, my husband and I walked around the Farmers Market, picking up fresh local produce and kombucha. I chatted briefly with a fellow powerlifter there and found my perspective changing through our conversation. It wasn’t earth-shattering conversation, but it revolved around competing, taking time to heal or build up, and being determined. Volunteering at last week’s powerlifting competition really stirred up my desire to get back on the platform, but I am committed to taking the time I need to heal and build up before stepping on a platform again. And perhaps that is a factor in my disappointment over today’s bench misses! While I still have pain, tingling, and numbness in my legs, my ability to move and function has improved significantly over the past couple of months and that has me feeling hopeful and excited. My chiropractor’s excitement over my progress and allowing me to re-introduce some exercises into my training also has me feeling excited and hopeful. It’s like I can see light at the end of the tunnel now, even if I still do not have a timeline for healing. So, I think I should be getting stronger. I feel like I should be more capable. I think I am becoming unstoppable. Then I miss a heavy bench rep and momentarily doubt myself.

Sometimes you attempt to lift a weight that you really have no business trying to lift. Well, I don’t think I ever do that, because I have a good coach and listen to what he tells me to do. However, there are ego lifters out there who think they need to ‘go big’ regardless of their capabilities. That is not what happened to me this morning. Bench pressing 135 pounds may not be something I do often, but I have done it a few times over the past two years. I know it is within my ability to achieve. Today was just an off day, and I was reminded of just how insidious the smoke blanketing our province is. Since I work indoors and have limited my time outdoors lately, I didn’t think that I was being affected by the smoke, but maybe I am wrong in that assumption. Maybe that has contributed to the fatigue I have been feeling this week, and that fatigue could very well have sapped my strength today. I haven’t lost my strength, and my physical progress hasn’t gone backwards. That’s good news!

There’s Only One Captain America

Today has been, and still is, an uncomfortable and painful day. I am so thankful to be on days off right now, because I have also been incredibly tired. Earlier this week, Wednesday maybe, I attempted an afternoon nap, which was only moderately successful for at most ten minutes. This morning I laid down for a nap around 11:00 and slept, actually slept for an hour! I do not nap under normal circumstances, and, even during the worst days of this injury when night time sleep was minimal, I seldom had naps during the day. But I have felt exhausted a lot lately, especially the past two weeks as my schedule has been full. Yesterday was the final of five consecutive work days, which was a first for me since returning to work. Although the shifts were still short, they took a toll, especially with all of the appointments, later nights and early mornings.

I was unable to sleep in this morning, since I had an 8:30 appointment at the pain clinic for my caudal epidural steroid injection. That’s a mouthful! The appointment went well, I guess, although I don’t have anything against which to compare it. The pain doctor taking care of me is a female, but she has only done this procedure once or twice before, which meant a more experienced doctor (a male) was present to instruct and supervise. Baring my derriere is not something I am particularly comfortable doing; however, when one is heavily involved with medical care, you kind of get used to being uncomfortable. As I laid on face-down on the table, I got to listen to the conversation between new and experienced doctors.

“I know everyone has their own solution mix. What do you like to use?”

“With a spinal injection we want to be extra careful. Swab before the freezing. Swab again after. Use the ultrasound to guide the needle, but don’t let the gel get on the injection site.”

“Down a little more. No. Stop!”

The conversation was both interesting and disturbing. It was bad enough that I had been forewarned of the doctor’s inexperience with the procedure, but I really didn’t need the frequent verbal reminders and had to focus on making myself relax. I’m not afraid of needles and I couldn’t see the actual needle, but this wasn’t quite the same as withdrawing blood or getting a tetanus shot. I relaxed as best I could, and then the actual injection took place and I felt an uncomfortable pressure right above my tailbone. While it seemed to last a long time, it really didn’t. All told, from the moment I was ushered into the treatment room until I walked back out was only about fifteen minutes. I was given a pain diary of sorts to use until my follow up appointment in a month or two. My youngest son had the day off and drove me to and from my appointment, as it was mandatory to be driven home following treatment. And I’ve been taking it easy at home ever since.

Taking it easy, yes, but uncomfortable and hurting. My very low back area has been feeling stiff and sore all day, which I am assuming is from the actual injection. I am really hoping that this discomfort dissipates by morning, because it does not feel pleasant at all. So far there has been no change in the ever-present pains and symptoms in my legs, although it can apparently take several days before seeing results. The doctor also reiterated that this injection will not do anything for the permanent numbness in my left foot. That’s mildly disappointing, but I suppose I’d rather get rid of the actual pain. The numbness is a nuisance, for sure, but I can probably also live with it more easily.

As if the “normal” pains and the injection pain aren’t enough, I am also dealing with post-chiro pains today! Well, the more appropriate name for it is DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness, but my chiropractor instigated this situation.

I had a chiro appointment yesterday morning and was pleasantly surprised when he said he was going to put me through some exercises. Now this wasn’t anything too far out of the norm for my chiropractor, but this was the first time he has had me do these specific exercises since herniating my disc. The idea was to see what could be added to my training program and what was still not safe. He tested me on Bulgarian split squats, single leg deadlifts, step ups, rack pulls, and banded pull-throughs. The only thing that was scratched off the list were the pull-throughs, because they made the tingling in my feet worse. Everything else was given a green light, and I am super excited about seeing these added to my training program soon. Of course, I need to be careful and mindful of positioning and breathing and other important considerations for someone coming off of a back injury, but this feels like progress. My chiro even let me work up to 95 pounds on the rack pulls! He might have made a comment about that being a decently heavy weight, which is likely true for someone who hasn’t picked up a bar for anything remotely resembling a deadlift in more than nine months, but it really is a weight where I would begin my deadlift warm-ups. Sometimes it is difficult to reconcile what I used to be capable of with where I am at now, and this is why I have DOMS today!

It isn’t that my chiropractor pushed me too hard or with heavy weights; it’s simply that those leg muscles have not be used in such a way for a very long time. At one point when I complained about the burning and gelatinous nature of my leg muscles, my chiropractor reminded me that this was what I wanted. So true! I do. Not the DOMS really, but I do want to get back to lifting heavy things. This isn’t going to happen overnight. My coach pointed out that he would incorporate these new exercises into my programming slowly. And I appreciate that, too. Despite the DOMS, it would be easy in my excitement to jump in headfirst and worry about the depth of the water after the fact, especially if today’s injection brings about the positive pain relief we’re hoping for.

Today would normally have seen me at the gym, but part of the injection protocol was to avoid rigorous activity for 24 hours. So, I am heading to the gym first thing tomorrow morning, where the goal is to hit yet another post-herniated disc, legs up, flat back, close grip bench press PR. Thankfully, tomorrow’s training is upper body focused, which means I don’t have to worry too much about the DOMS impacting my workout.

And unfortunately, there is no such thing as the Captain Rogers special serum, so I won’t wake up looking like Captain America. I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing, even if the enhanced speed, strength, and healing factors would be appreciated!

Powerlifter Not Competing

What do broken powerlifters do when a competition comes to town? They volunteer their time to help out!

Since 2014 when I first got involved with powerlifting, I do not think that the British Columbia Powerlifting Association has held a competition here in Kelowna where I live. Earlier this year when a local competition was announced, I was excited and dismayed at the same time. Happy to see a local BCPA meet but disappointed that I would not be healthy enough to enter the competition myself. My disappointment didn’t last too long though, because not competing allowed me the opportunity to take part in another way. I have taken part in 9 powerlifting competitions as a competitor, but today I was a volunteer for the first time and I’m glad to have had that chance to give back.

It wasn’t wise for me to volunteer with spotting or loading the weight due to the back injury, so I helped out at the score table which involved a lot of sitting. Although I took the opportunity to stand throughout the day, there was still far too much sitting for my herniated disc. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed helping out today, I am also very glad to be back home, reclining and able to do some stretching and foam rolling.

I have been to many sporting events over the span of my years, but seldom, if ever, have I witnessed and experienced the caliber of sportsmanship and excitement that seems to be the norm in powerlifting. It is incredibly exciting to hear the crowd cheer on every lifter, from the first-timer to the experienced, regardless of whether the weight lifted is 100 pounds or 600. And all ages of lifters! The sub-juniors, 14 to 18 years old all the way to the masters, of which today included a woman in her 50’s. First time lifters and those who have competed many times before. New Provincial records. New personal bests.

I am simply excited about powerlifting! Hopefully I will be able to step back onto the platform at some point next year, but the lemonade in the here and now is being free to help out this year instead. And if you ever get the chance to watch a powerlifting competition, do it!