Every Mountain has a Valley

A blogger I follow posed a question the other about favourite stories from the Bible. There are so many good ones to choose from, and I think my choice varies depending on where I am and what I am going through at any given time. For that reason, it would be easy to choose the story of Job, because it would be easy to view my current circumstances through the lens of the unfair and undeserved. It’s a good story, difficult to grasp at times, but not the one I would choose right now.

One of my all-time favourite Bible stories is Elijah on Mount Carmel…and what happens after. (You can find the story in 1 Kings, chapters 18 and 19.) In a nutshell, the land is in its third year of drought. King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel did evil in the sight of the Lord and worshiped Baal. A spiritual battle took place on Mount Carmel, between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. I’m going to skip the details of that battle (please feel free to read it for yourself), because the important point of this for me isn’t in those details but in the victory Elijah experienced. It was a victory that was incredible, powerful, and it was God’s victory. Without a doubt, Elijah would have been on top of the world with having seen his enemies vanquished in such a fashion. He was on the mountaintop. Literally and figuratively. But he didn’t stay there.

Jezebel was furious in defeat and threatened Elijah’s life. You would think that someone who had just witnessed God’s power would not be intimidated by the evil queen’s threat, but he was. He was afraid for his life, so he ran away. He went alone into the wilderness and wanted to die. From the emotional mountaintop, Elijah had crashed into the valley of despair and depression. He felt alone and hopeless. How is that possible? To sink so low after being so high? I know a little something about that, and I reckon you do, too. Although the story is of a spiritual nature, the cycle of up and down is not limited to spiritual matters. I think it is a part of human nature.

We triumph. What that looks like will vary from person to person. It could be a job promotion, a new relationship, a fresh start in a new city, beating cancer, or reaching a goal. For me most recently, my mountaintop experience was my powerlifting competition on November 4, 2017. I had slogged through a physically and emotionally tough year to put in the work. Every big and little goal I had for myself was achieved. My performance was perfect, and I had a World record. I was on top of the world with excitement over what I had done and what I looked forward to doing at my next competition. I thought I could ride the crest of that excitement all the way to Nationals in February, but I was wrong.

We fall. The mountaintop is a lovely place to be, but we are seldom able to linger there for very long. Why are addicts always looking for another hit? Because the high doesn’t last forever. The same is true for emotional (or spiritual) highs. For me, herniating my disc pushed me off the edge of the cliff before I even had a chance to fully savour my high. I might be in a good head space now, but that hasn’t always been the case over the past five months. I haven’t wished to die like Elijah did nor had reason to fear for my life, but I understand how he felt alone, hopeless, and in despair.

The story doesn’t end there though. While Elijah was hiding, God took care of his basic needs. Elijah slept. An angel provided him with food to eat and water to drink. That’s not all. God himself met with Elijah, listened to Elijah’s complaint and despair, and revealed himself to Elijah in a gentle whisper. God let Elijah know that he wasn’t alone, and He provided Elijah with a helper. Sometimes, much of the time, it feels as if I’m alone in my suffering, forgotten and passed by. I feel useless and without purpose. I physically hurt all the time, and that chips away at my sense of hope and confidence. I feel fear that this situation will never get better, never end, that I will hurt forever. When you are walking in the shadows at valley bottom, it can be difficult to see all that you have going for you.

I have supportive family and friends. I have the luxury of time to heal at home rather than struggling to work through the pain. My income might be non-existent, but my husband has lots of work. Much of the medical system might be slow and frustrating, but I have at least one health care professional who listens, cares, and is proactive rather than reactive. I have a coach who also listens, is proactive, and has my well-being as a priority. It’s taken longer than necessary, but I have finally been referred to a neurosurgeon. I didn’t make it to Nationals in February. I won’t be competing at all this year (or longer), but taking the time to heal is more important than rushing back to the platform. Although I don’t think I was ever a super crazy go-go type person, this injury has forced me to slow down…like to a screeching halt. I have no doubt that I will discover even more positives through this situation as the days and weeks and months go by. Sometimes God speaks and moves in ways we don’t understand or recognize immediately, especially when we’re in the valley, but I know He is with me through the highs and lows.

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Too Wet To Go Out

As much as I enjoy rain, I am finding our current weather to be too cold, too wet, too damp, too dreary. I kind of feel like this:

The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day. I sat there with Sally. We sat there, we two. And I said, “How I wish we had something to do!” Too wet to go out and too cold to play ball. So we sat in the house. We did nothing at all. So all we could do was to sit! Sit! Sit! Sit! And we did not like it. Not one little bit.

~Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat

Okay, so there is more to my sense of solitary confinement than just the weather. This injury, the constant pain, being on medical leave from work…these are the shackles that bind me. I feel stuck. Purposeless. Useless. Forgotten.

Every month, I’d cling to the hope that my return to work would be approved by the powers that be, and every month I’d be disappointed. Despite my constant pain, I was still stunned when my doctor told me earlier this week that I need to stay off work for another three months. The earliest I can return to work is the 4th of July, which means I will be off work for 7 months. SEVEN MONTHS! By the time I get back to work I won’t know anything. No one will know me.

I really do love rain, but these days I need the sun and the warmth it brings. The cold has seeped into my bones until it feels like I won’t ever warm up. I look forward to each evening when I allow myself to enjoy the warmth and comfort of my electric heating pad on my back. For the past couple of weeks, I have limited myself to using the heating pad only once a day, because the skin on my back has become mottled and rather disgusting looking from overuse. It is just too soothing to give it up entirely. But sunshine! Warm weather! I could drag myself outside more if the weather were nicer. Maybe I wouldn’t feel quite so closed in.

This morning I had coffee with a good friend. We sat in her car, parked with a view of the lake through the rain-streaked windshield. A walk would have been lovely, but my back was in too much pain to tolerate the exertion, and the rain eliminated the possibility of sitting on a park bench. Actually, sitting in the car for that length of time wasn’t comfortable, but it was still so good to connect with my friend and catch up.

The rest of my day was unproductive, even less than usual for me these days. It’s hardly surprising that my productivity (ha!) drops significantly when my pain level is high. I didn’t sleep well last night due to the pain in my back. I am so weary of hurting all the time, no matter what I do or don’t do, and I just want to reach the end of these dark days. Pain is grinding me down. On the inside, I feel like a twisted and deformed shadow of myself, and it isn’t pretty.

Singling Out Shame

As I laid awake in bed last night, my mind randomly flashed back to a situation I found myself in about a month or so ago. It was the kind of situation that would be quite easy to ignore or glide over, but in chewing it over in my mind last night I was able to talk myself through the awkwardness and the negative emotions which threatened me in that situation. Of course, all of my best thoughts and words were probably used up in the dark of night, but let me try to spit it out now in the light of day.

I don’t know what day it was exactly, not that it matters at all, but we were at Costco, my husband and I. We had wandered the aisles and thrown a few items into our cart before planting ourselves in one of the long lines to checkout. As we were waiting and talking, I noticed a woman in a line next to ours, and I immediately recognized her face. That’s my super power…recognizing faces. It might take me a month to remember where I know a face from, but I remember faces. Anyway, I recognized this person as a friend of a former friend. I don’t know if she recognized me (we had met once or twice before), but I was instantly flooded with anxiety and shame. Our items were scanned and paid for, and we walked out of Costco, while I shoved those feelings into a mental closet and locked the door.

I know why I felt anxious and ashamed when I saw this person, but I didn’t want to spend any time thinking about it. Sometimes we think that shutting painful emotions off is the same as dealing with them, but that’s not how it works. It was easy enough to ignore how I felt in Costco all those days ago, and I could probably continue to ignore that for a long time yet. Until the next time I see someone with a connection to a former friend.

The anxiety comes from the fear of being disliked or treated with disdain, while the shame flows out of the fear of what the former friend may or may not have said about me. The end of our relationship was surprising and odd. The last conversation was confusing and one-sided, as if designed to create shame within me. In some ways, it felt like I was being gas-lighted. As confusing and hurtful as that was to experience, I was able to see the smoke and mirrors, even if I can only guess at the motivation behind them. It was surprisingly easy to move on, but maybe not so surprising given the growth in my self-confidence over the years. Seeing someone connected to the former friend rattles that confidence. Negative thoughts whisper in my ear, questioning what gossip or lies about my character might have been passed on. In actuality, I feel no shame about what happened with the former friend, because I know I did nothing wrong. But I feel shame in thinking that someone might have been told misinformation. Why? Why should I feel shame about that? Why should I feel anxious simply because I recognize a face in a crowd?

I have absolutely no idea if the former friend has ever said anything about me or the end of our relationship to anyone. No idea whatsoever! Quite honestly, I think it is more likely that this person hasn’t mentioned my name at all. Or maybe my name gets mentioned like a piece of trivia or a historical tidbit of information without emotion or explanation. I have no way of knowing, and I don’t want to care about it one way or the other. What is of greater concern to me is the way that I respond emotionally to a situation that I cannot control and is likely not even a situation to speak of, like seeing someone at Costco.

The feelings of shame that I felt in Costco that day were nothing more than lies designed to imprison me. To the best of my ability and with the grace of God, I have peace within myself in the end of that relationship, so there is no need for me to feel ashamed at the possibility of being recognized as someone’s former friend. I don’t need to stress out over what may or may not have been said about me, when I know my own actions and words and attitudes and have examined them most carefully. If some random person has a problem with me because of misinformation…well, he/she can have a conversation with me about it or not. As for me, I don’t have a desire to waste my time fretting over what ifs, and I do not want to be weighed down by misplaced guilt or shame. There may be moments or days when my confidence is battered and shaky, but I know who I am and I know my worth.

And now that I’ve got that off my chest, perhaps the only thing that will keep me awake tonight is the ever-present pain in my legs!

Hindsight

10. If you could go back to last January 1, what suggestions would you give your past self?

There is a saying about hindsight being 20/20, and it is usually true. Looking back we can more easily discern the wisdom (or lack of) in our decisions and actions. We can see more clearly the hazards that laid in wait for us, and we can quickly see the alternate routes that we should have taken in our quest to get ahead in this game of life. There are occasions though when our ability to look into the past is hampered by the limitations of memory. Maybe we don’t want to remember or perhaps the occasion was not sufficient to cement itself at the forefront of our memories. Such things are seldom lost forever, but they take a fair bit of time and patient coaxing to draw them out of the depths where they reside. As I prepare to answer the question that leads off this blog post, I know that forgotten memories will rise to the surface at random moments after I have finished this post. No matter how much time I spend on reflection, my memories will always shift and shimmer in unpredictable patterns.

So, if I could go back to January 1, 2017, what advice would I give myself?

  • Do not hang out in a body weight squat for 5 minutes! Probably not even for 2 minutes!
  • Take more time off than just a long weekend for our anniversary vacation.
  • You’re going to lose some friends. It won’t make sense and it will hurt, but you will be okay.
  • Yeah, losing some friends is going to cause a bunch of insecurities to bubble to the surface, but don’t let those insecurities change the shape of your character. You know who you are and who you are not. You also have people in your life who also know who you are and who you are not; trust them.
  • You might have a disappointing competition experience. This would be unfamiliar to you, but it is a normal part of being an athlete or competitor. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes you win but still have a sub-par performance or injuries. It’s okay to be frustrated and disappointed, but you are strong enough to pick yourself up and move on.
  • You know how you want to try stand up paddleboarding? Just do it!
  • When you see the really good deal on Christmas tree lights, don’t be afraid of buying too many! You know that the ones you have are old and in need of replacing. Buy more than you think you will need, because you don’t want to have to mix a couple strands of newer cool white lights with strands of older yellowish white lights!
  • When you herniate your disc and your boss asks if you want to take a leave of absence, do it. Forget about your pride and propensity for people pleasing. Do not think that gritting your teeth, digging fingernails into palms, and choking back tears are satisfactory means of surviving a shift at work!
  • Get a zero gravity chair! It beats sprawling on the living room floor when sitting is too painful. Trust me…you’ll need it a lot this year!
  • Wear the bikini. Spend more time in the backyard pool.
  • Regardless of what comes at you remember this…you are brave, you are strong, you are thoughtful, you are kind, you are loving, you are trustworthy, you are enough!

 

Worry

6. What did you worry about most and how did it turn out?

Worry is an odd thing for me. I tend to carry a lot of figurative weight around on a day-to-day basis, things like worry and stress; however, the weight of such things isn’t always heavy. For example, as a mom I had worries for my son when he traveled to Thailand recently. This was his first time undertaking such a lengthy and distant trip and without the presence of family or a large group. I am not naive about things that can happen when traveling (or at home). Although I did worry for my son’s safety, the worry was not heavy or consuming. I went about life without dread or fear. While I appreciated the bits of contact that my son made with me during his absence, I was not dependent on them to have peace of mind. I held worry in my hands but was at peace with the situation. This is how I respond to stress and worry over many details of life. I can feel the inner disturbance yet quickly regain solid footing. My natural inclination is not chaotic or dramatic but calm and rational. Mostly.

As for worry that weighed heavily upon me, I suppose I can pinpoint two situations.

1. A friendship ended this year. At the time and still to this day, I don’t really understand what happened there. The type of worry that eats away at you only lasted a brief period of time before I reclaimed my peace and solid footing. That short period of anxiety and doubt and worry was horrible, not so much for how it made me feel but for the sense of impending loss. I am often slow to open up to new people and cautious about who I allow into the deeper levels of relationship; however, once someone has been granted access and makes the choice to accept me, I invest in the relationship and value it greatly. When a treasured relationship ends, it hurts. There is confusion and uncertainty. Worry…about so many things! What did I do wrong? What did I say? What didn’t I do right? What didn’t I say? Those questions and doubts can attack with brutality, leaving you bruised, battered, wounded, and forever scarred.

Thankfully, my confidence and knowledge of self has grown stronger over recent years, and I was able to discern truth from fiction and weigh my worries accordingly. The friendship was gone, but I was not destroyed. I think I’m stronger now.

2. The other big worry for 2017 has been and continues to be my back. My back has been through a lot this year. This current disc herniation makes my earlier SI joint problems look like a walk in the park. Tomorrow will be 7 weeks since I herniated my disc. There has been improvements. I even think there continues to be improvements, but they are slow in the coming and not always consistent from day to day or even hour to hour. I am not in screaming, agonizing pain on a scale of 100 out of 10…thank goodness! But there is still pain. Too much standing/walking and the numbness in my left leg/foot increases, pain shoots down both legs, and the back hurts/aches/throbs. When I lie down I can feel the shock of electric currents traveling down both legs. There are moments when I feel almost normal, except for the permanent numbness, but such moments are brief and sporadic. I am so weary of this injury.

In the early stages of the injury, my worry was mild. In my ignorance of what was actually wrong with me, I was still optimistic that I’d be back to normal soon. When I was made aware that I had actually herniated a disc, that little blob of worry transformed into a giant black hole that sucked all the joy, peace, and hope out of me. I was worried, and this worry was heavy. As the days and weeks progressed and my recovery progressed so slowly, that worry began to crush my soul. Knowing that discs will eventually heal wasn’t enough to allay the worry. The lessening of the pain wasn’t enough either. The continued presence of numbness and the later addition of pain and numbness in the other leg only fed the worry I held inside. I’ve cried a lot of tears. The worry has been all encompassing. I’ve been worried about how my injury impacts my ability to do my job to the level that I am accustomed and that I desire to attain. I’ve been worried about how my injury impacts my co-workers who have had to cover my short-comings and my absence. I’ve been worried about my limitations in doing basic, every day stuff around the house. Worried about the limitations in my ability to train at the gym the way that I enjoy most. Worried about my future in powerlifting. Worried about the financial impact of this injury. Stress over the process of applying for a medical leave and employment insurance. The worry about my short-term and long-term health has been heavy. Even the process of seeking medical care is riddled with worry and stress. This worry has taken a heavy toll on me.

I am still dealing with this injury, tripping my way through recovery and medical care, and slogging through the muck of emotional distress. I am still worried, and I do not yet have resolution to this problem. I am still injured. Recovery is still in progress and hazy. There will still be a financial impact for months to come. There is no sneak peek into the future. Uncertainty remains. So does worry.

But the worry is less consuming now and I feel more hopeful than I did a week or two ago. I am far from where I want to be, but I do know how to put one foot in front of the other in order to take a step forward. I know how to work hard to reach my goals. I know what it feels like to struggle, to feel challenged in a task, and to succeed. I know failure, too, but I also know how to pick myself up again. Worry isn’t done with me and my disc and I don’t know how it will turn out yet, but I know I will be okay.

 

Gratitude

The third question on the list for ending your year intentionally is:

What or who is the one thing or person you’re grateful for?

Regardless of what my year has looked like or how I feel about it, I am always grateful for the people in my life and I have long been in the habit of expressing gratitude for things, big and small, on a daily basis. Thankfulness is part of who I am, and I could go on for days expressing all that I am grateful for over the course of the year.

To choose one thing or person is a difficult task, so I am going to approach it as a group result. Have you ever watched a boxing match? When the bell rings to signal the end of a round, the boxers go to their corners where they are tended to, coached, supported and encouraged. Cuts are tended. Sweat is wiped away. Water is provided. The boxer has people in his corner. I am not a boxer, but I know what it is like to have that kind of support and I am grateful for all of it.

1. My husband! He lets me do all these crazy things and willingly spends countless hours at my competition, most of which is just waiting for my turn to lift. He cheers me on, encourages me, and takes video for me. He has been at 8 of my 9 competitions, missing out on one only because he was still recovering from hip replacement surgery. It was odd not having him at Provincials this year, and I know that I felt the loss of emotional support when that competition didn’t go as well as I had hoped. I am glad that he was there at my most recent competition. When I broke the World record for my squat and emotion was bursting out of me, being wrapped in his arms was a wonderful feeling. Now that I am injured, he is still supportive. He encourages me when I feel troubled by worry and despair. He has my back. He loves me.

2. My chiropractor! I visit my chiropractor with some regularity as I put my body through a lot. He helps keep my body functioning as well as it possibly can, but he doesn’t just twist and crunch me. He seldom fixes me up without also giving me practical skills and advice to help keep my body working well. On occasion, I am also blessed to receive words of wisdom or encouragement that nourish my spirit and soul. In my eyes, my chiropractor is more than just a health care professional…he’s also a friend.

3. My coach! Perhaps coach should really be coaches, since I have had two different coaches this year. My previous coach got me started in powerlifting and played a big role in my journey. Even though he is no longer my coach, I cannot discount his part in my story.

My current coach and I are still in the learning each other stage, I think, but I have already experienced good things under his programming. Although I no longer have the direct, real-time contact with a coach while training, I still feel supported, encouraged, and challenged by my new coach. When I started with him this summer, I was recovering from another problem with my back or SI joints and hadn’t been in powerlifter mode for several weeks. I had the November competition on the horizon, and my coach took me through training on a level I had never done before…and it worked. I could hear his encouraging comments as I was on the platform. My injury has changed the nature of my training again, but I know my coach has my back!

4. My friend Sienna! For my competition in November, I needed a handler. This was only the second time that I have needed to find someone to help me out at a competition, because that role was usually covered by my coach. My daughter was my handler at Westerns last year, and my friend was my handler this time. She was probably quite nervous, uncertain as to what to do to support me, but I think she did a great job. I have competed enough that I know what I need to do and when to do it, but it is always nice to have someone there to chalk the back, offer encouragement, and remind you what you’re capable of.

5. My physiotherapist! This is a recent addition to my support crew thanks to my injury, but I feel confident in his abilities and treatment. I tend to be highly cynical when it comes to doctors and many aspects of “health care”, so I am always grateful to find medical professionals who are not stuck on out-dated methods and systems.

6. My friends, co-workers, and family! These people have cheered me on every step of the way, through thick and thin, weight cuts and water loads, disappointments and frustrations, sore muscles and all my back struggles. When I’ve had success, they’ve celebrated with me.

 

Enjoyment

Continuing the end of year reflection theme from No Side Bar that I began in yesterday’s blog post …

2. What did you enjoy doing this year?

2017 has been a difficult year for me in so many ways. What did I enjoy doing this year? That’s a question that requires grinding mental gears and peering deeply into the dark corners of my memories.

Yesterday I mentioned celebrating my 25th anniversary with my husband, and our little celebratory holiday was definitely something I enjoyed doing.

My most recent powerlifting competition was also highly enjoyable.

This summer when I changed my gym and my coach, I stepped out of my comfort zone into unfamiliar and potentially scary territory. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if I would thrive or even like what I was doing. As an introvert, it is not easy for me to dive into the unfamiliar or place my trust in someone I don’t know and doesn’t know me. At the time of the coaching change, I had already been through months of struggles with my SI joints and low back and a disappointing competition. My confidence in my ability to overcome those struggles and regain strength was a little shaky. Despite my struggles, doubts, and nerves, I can honestly say that I have enjoyed the change and the process.

It wasn’t easy to step into the unknown like that, but a small part of me was glad for the challenge. My doubts and fears resurfaced every week as I would receive my new program, yet a part of my spirit soared at the prospect of squashing those doubts. In the gym as I put in the work, the load sometimes felt heavy and hard, but I did it and I took joy in the results. Those months of uncertainty and challenge were enjoyable! It sounds odd to say that, but it is true. I enjoyed it, because I grew through the challenges instead of being destroyed by them.

This year I have also found enjoyment in the company of family and friends. Celebrating birthdays. Family holiday gatherings. Graduation. Escape room success. Celebrating successes. Cards. Texts. Notes. Christmas bake day with girlfriends. Grey Cup party. Homemade gelato. An impromptu dinner out with friends. Musical theatre. A heart-to-heart over wine with a best friend. Many of these instances are of little consequence in the grand scheme of a year. As a lover of words and authentic relationships, these small instances add up to a whole lot of love and affirmation.