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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5th Month Anniversary

Happy herniated disc anniversary to me?!

Five months ago today, I competed in my ninth powerlifting competition, and I had a fantastic performance. Practically perfect, except for the injury. My medal is hanging on the wall beside three photos of my lifts. I see them every day. I have a plaque commemorating my World record squat which is still waiting to be hung on the wall, because I don’t have immediate access to the proper tool and parts needed to hang it and I haven’t nagged my husband about doing it for me. Despite being in pain upon finishing my final lift of the competition, I had no reason to think that the pain was anything serious. Certainly, I thought, I’d be back to normal in a couple of weeks and ready to focus on preparing for Nationals.

My bubble of hope was popped a few days later with a proper diagnosis and realization that recovering could take some time, but I held onto a sliver of hope that recovery would happen quickly. Five months later and I’m no closer to being better. Well, sort of closer, because the first month was absolutely brutal. There was some progress for a little while, but I have felt stuck for a couple of months now. In some ways, I actually feel worse than I did two months ago at the peak of my progress. With another three months of medical leave ahead of me, my sense of being stuck is only increasing. I am exhausted and worn down. I am weary of the paper trails I have had to navigate and must keep slogging my way through: employment insurance, functional abilities forms, short-term disability. My life consists of appointments, follow-ups, forms and phone calls, waiting, and always pain. It’s not much of a life, but it is draining.

Sometimes I wonder if my moment of glory was worth all of this suffering. For all my pondering, I still don’t have an answer. What I do know is that I wouldn’t change a thing about that day. My training and preparation had gone well, and I was healthy and ready. My attempts were smartly selected and all within my capability. Everything went according to plan, except for the surge of pain I felt as I lowered the bar to the floor after successfully completing my last deadlift. There was no way to predict that such an injury would happen, and I cannot imagine going through life avoiding anything that could potentially result in any kind of injury. That’s not the way to live. I do not want to live that way. Be smart, play safe…absolutely! But you can herniate a disc while doing a “safe”, routine task.

Five months ago, I never could have anticipated being off work for four months already with at least three more to go. I never would have thought I’d be experiencing such pain every minute of every day or that I would get a surgical referral. I was hopeful back then, but hope is a funny thing. It is easily crushed and bruised, and yet, it is difficult to snuff it out completely. There are so many dark and stormy days in the process of dealing with an injury. Finding hope requires digging deep, and there are times when all you hit is rock bottom. But hope is still there. Somewhere.

I hold onto the hope that all of this will pass into mere memory one day, that I will recover and return to living my life. My hope is often as shaky as my body after I’ve been standing for a while, but shaky hope is still hope. One day…I will get there.

Nationals, Fallen Records & Pain

Yesterday, instead of competing at my first Nationals, I watched my fellow competitors from the comfort of my zero-grav chair in my living room. I wasn’t sure what I would actually feel in the watching, but I think I made it through the hours in a good mental space. My heart sank a little when I saw the opening attempts put up by my group, because I knew that all of my BCPA Provincial records were about to be smashed to pieces. And they were. Every single one of them!

I am competitive. I don’t like to lose, but I am gracious in losing. The woman who broke my records is very strong, and she made her attempts look easy. Congratulations to her! I’ve always known that there were stronger women than me, and I knew that my records wouldn’t last forever. It is hard to be disappointed in the loss, when you can see the bigger picture. There is almost always someone better than you. Had I been able to take part in Nationals as I had hoped, I expect that I would have placed either 4th or 5th out of 5 competitors. The four women who were actually there ARE strong!

Even if I didn’t have a realistic chance of winning Nationals, I really wish I could have been healthy enough to compete just to have the experience of not winning. I have never been in a competition with that many direct competitors, so that would have been an amazing learning opportunity. Of course, I’d love to challenge for those records again, but that might not be realistic for me for a long time, if ever. She set the bar high! Without this injury, I’d be hard pressed to reach those heights. With this injury so much is in doubt. I don’t know when I’ll be able to squat with a bar or deadlift. I don’t know when I’ll be able to compete, but I am about 95% certain that it won’t be this year. I am still healing. Will I even be able to get back to where I was? I don’t know. So yeah, I am a competitor who wants to strive for new goals, but right now I need to just focus on being cleared to return to work.

Last night was not a good one for sleep. Maybe 3 hours and finally out of bed at 2:30. Thank goodness the Olympics are on TV at that time of the morning these days! Leg pain was the culprit that kept me awake most of the night. I almost put off going to the gym until tomorrow, but I changed my mind and went early in the afternoon. It wasn’t super great. The back seems to be handling the return to having legs down and an arch for my benching sets, and the shoulders are loving being in a proper position once again; however, almost everything else was less than stellar.

The shoulders, despite feeling fine on the bench press, are still sore and feel unstable. As much as I’m not a fan of laterals, I shouldn’t feel like I need to scrap the second and third sets. The left shoulder felt especially unstable throughout several exercises, like dumbbell curls and dumbbell floor press. The back felt fine all morning and through the bench press sets, but it did not like the single arm triceps pushdowns. The left hamstrings are still feeling the effects of IMS treatment from Monday, but the bigger leg problem today (and last night) has been throbbing and shooting pain down both legs between the hips and knees. This pain is quite familiar…I’ve only lived with it in varying degrees of severity since herniating my disc, but the level of pain in the legs had settled down substantially over the past few weeks.

I’m not thrilled with the way my body seems to be fighting me on multiple fronts right now, but I need to respect the fact that healing isn’t always a straight line. It’s often bumpy, especially with some types of injuries. Here now at the end of the day, the back is feeling okayish again. The shoulders aren’t throbbing, but I can feel the instability depending on how I move my arms. Honestly, the shoulders are the least of my worries, because I know they are just over-used and annoyed. They will get better. What feels the worst right now are my legs. I’m still experiencing throbbing and shooting pain in both legs, and there isn’t much I can do about it. I can increase my pain medication dose tonight, and I will, even though the medication has never erased the pain. But, if I’m really, really lucky, maybe it will help me sleep tonight.

 

Nationals

Many athletes dream of making it to the Olympics, and there is no shortage of struggle, sacrifice, and hard work in the pursuit of the dream. For every athlete who earns the privilege of competing on the world stage, there are undoubtedly even more who will never quite get there. As a Canadian powerlifter, I suppose my Olympic games would be the IPF World Championships, with the Canadian Powerlifting Union’s National Championships being the ultimate qualifier for earning a spot at our “Olympics.”

Tomorrow marks the start of the CPU’s National Championships, which makes this week bittersweet for me. All of my striving since October 2015 has been to get me to the National platform in Calgary this week, or more specifically, this Tuesday. It seems so long ago when I laid on the physio table and asked about the likelihood of being able to compete at Nationals…roughly 3 months ago. The answer stung even if it was what I expected to hear. I knew the answer a week or so before I even posed the question to my physiotherapist. In my heart, I knew the truth a day or two after hurting my back, before I even realized that I had herniated a disc. Knowing the reality of my situation didn’t make the bitterness any easier to swallow, but I had to make a decision. I could wallow in my disappointment and feel sorry for myself, or I could feel my disappointment, accept the situation, and focus on healing before looking too far ahead.

Ultimately I decided to accept the situation for what it is, but that doesn’t mean I never feel disappointment or frustration in where I am in this moment compared to where I wanted to be. It’s human nature. I should be making my way to Calgary right now, excited about competing on a national level against very strong women. Instead I will be going to another physio appointment tomorrow and will watch live stream coverage of Nationals from the comfort of my zero grav chair. (Even on a much smaller scale, I am still experiencing disappointment and frustration in that I should be back to work now, but instead I am still on medical leave for three weeks.) Since I can cry over even the silliest of things, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I shed a few tears while watching Nationals, but that’s okay. It’s okay to feel the disappointment, to wonder what could have been if only…

The tears won’t last too long, and they aren’t filled with bitterness. I don’t think. My journey to Nationals will need to start all over from the beginning…once I am well and fully healed, of course.

3 Months Post

Today is an anniversary of sorts. Three months ago, I set a World record and herniated a disc. Whether you think this anniversary is a good or bad thing depends upon a certain point of view, and I admit that my own point of view tends to focus on the injury more often than my outstanding performance. That’s fair, I suppose, because pain can cast a massive and ominous shadow over daily life.

As I am mentally and physically preparing to return to work next week, I appreciate a few statements my physiotherapist made at my last appointment. Firstly, that despite how things might feel from my own perspective of living in my body every day, from his perspective I am improving. I still feel all the nuances of pain and physical discomfort. I still feel the numbness in my left foot and leg. Obviously I can tell that the pain and symptoms are not the same as they were 3 months ago, 2 months ago, even 2 weeks ago; however, sometimes pain is still just pain. I know my body is moving better. I know the pain is less. It is still frustrating to feel stuck in the limbo of waiting to heal completely, so it is good to hear my health care practitioner say that significant progress is indeed taking place.

His other comment related to my return to work, pointing out that experiencing increased pain will be completely normal. I think I kind of knew that already, but a reminder is always beneficial. Pain also has a way of distorting your perceptions, and I can see how I might freak out at an increase in pain while working. Hopefully the reminder will keep that freak out from happening. Even today I am clinging to that statement, because I am experiencing an increase in pain and discomfort and I haven’t even returned to work yet!

Last night I had an enjoyable time hanging out with some girlfriends, but I also spent most of those 3 hours sitting. I knew that sitting wouldn’t be physically comfortable for very long, and it wasn’t. I was squirming and feeling the nagging in my back within the first half hour, but I really didn’t want to stand for hours. Sometimes I simply miss being able to sit for a spell.

So now my back is achy and hurting more than my more recent normal, and there is an increase in the pain and symptoms in my legs. Although I am a bit worse for wear today, this is still a far cry from where I used to be! Today is a reminder both of how far I have come, how far I still have to go, and how variable each day can be. Even when I don’t do something as stupid as sitting for 3 hours!

Smashing Lemons

I spent some time this afternoon writing in my paper journal, catching up on the past 2 months or so since I last wrote in its pages. Part of catching up involved casting my glance 3 weeks from now to the Canadian Powerlifting Union’s National Championships in Calgary. I had intended on being there to compete. This had been my goal since 2015, and I worked hard to check off the prerequisites necessary to get me there. Herniating my disc changed the course of this part of my journey. Instead of heading to Calgary in a few weeks, I will be freshly back to work after a 2.5 month medical leave of absence. I made peace with not being able to take part in Nationals a long time ago, because there wasn’t really any other choice. There is no way that I could have been physically healthy enough to compete, and so I also had to accept that I cannot foresee when I will be able to compete again.

Knowing the reality of my situation and the unpredictability of recovery, I can only look at future competitions with a dispassionate eye. However, as I was writing this afternoon, I found myself revisiting my ultimate goal of competing at Nationals. Not for this year…obviously! But not making it this year will place me nearly all the way back at square one. Those prerequisites I checked off over the past two years will need to be checked off again.

  1. compete at BCPA event and obtain a qualifying Wilks total for Provincials
  2. compete at Provincials and obtain a qualifying Wilks total for Westerns
  3. compete at Westerns and obtain a qualifying Wilks total for Nationals

Qualifying totals must be achieved within 24 months of a Championship event, which means that the total that qualified me for Nationals will “expire” in August of this year. While I think my last BCPA total might be good enough to qualify me for Westerns this year, I would still need to compete at Provincials in June. It would be lovely to compete in June; however, I do not know if that will even be physically possible. No matter how much I want to return to powerlifting, I am not in a rush to do so at the sake of my health. So if I don’t compete at Provincials, then there will definitely not be a trip to Westerns this year, which also means that there will not be a trip to Nationals in 2019. As I wrote, I realized that the earliest I could possibly get to Nationals will be 2020…two full years from now!

Seeing all the steps and timeline laid out is rather depressing. I understand why the prerequisites exist and have no issues there; it is just frustrating to see all my hard work evaporate in an instant and to see how long it can take to get back to where I was. It is in that knowledge where the sourness of the lemon puckers and stings. I’m not sure there is enough sugar to make that lemonade drinkable. It sucks and I’d much rather throw that lemon into a brick wall with as much force as I could muster.

 

 

A Little Less Conversation

Conversation is not where my strengths lie. I can exchange casual dialogue with a stranger, a customer, an old acquaintance bumped into in the unexpected places. I can plaster a smile on my face and respond pleasantly, graciously, even when dealing with the obnoxious, the slimy liar, or the downright creepy. While I can generally navigate these conversational minefields, the process can be mentally exhausting and damaging. A statement that strays too close to personal might hit a soft target or stir up lingering fears and doubts. Even when the conversation isn’t quite so perilous, there is always the strain of needing to be on, to have a response or reciprocal question.

It is seldom simple or easy to be an introvert in our extrovert-focused culture, and I find myself frequently at odds with how I think and feel compared to the expectations impressed upon me. I relish quiet and solitude and being left to my own devices, and yet, there are instances when I enjoy a little bit more noise and a few more people. Being on a leave of absence for almost 2 months has meant that I have had more time of solitude than is typical for me. (Except for around Christmas! With the holidays and sick family, I had no space, no quiet, no solitude.) Days and weeks of being stuck mostly at home have made me feel isolated, bored, and restless.

I left the house yesterday and surrounded myself with people. Mostly, it was good…good to get out, good to see people and even talk to a few, and good to return back home to safety. In the course of being with people, a brief conversation was begun with a couple I do not know well at all. It wasn’t a bad conversation, but I found myself glad and relieved to have had it interrupted and abandoned.

The brief conversation moved rapidly from exchanging hellos to an inquiry into the state of my back. As is frequently the case when I have been in the midst of a conversation I wasn’t prepared for, replaying it in my mind later is like watching a pinball game in the hands of an expert. I say expert, because that is the only way I see the little ball bounce and ricochet and speed through the obstacles. In my hands, the ball shoots up, around, and straight through the hole at the bottom. Anyway, I am not adverse to talking about my back, my injury, my love for powerlifting, etc. and so on, but I don’t enjoy wasting my breath and enthusiasm speaking about something that another has no interest in listening to or understanding. Differing opinions are okay, but a closed opinion is not.

I was quickly asked if I was going to return to lifting weights. Before I could even open my mouth to respond, someone else spoke for me with absolute confidence in the correctness of the statement. I would not ever be able to do the things I used to do! How does one even begin to respond to such a statement in the course of an extremely brief conversation that really allows for nothing more than exchanging pleasantries? And this is one reason why I do not enjoy such little, forced conversations! Either you fake a connection by exchanging hellos and maybe a tidbit about the weather or some similarly benign topic, or you jump in with both feet into a conversation too deep for the moment leaving at least one party feeling more alienated than they had been before.

I am an easy-going person, eager to please and easily pleased. I have no trouble whatsoever being told what to do by certain individuals for specific situations. I listen to my boss. I listen to my spouse. I listen to my health care practitioners. I listen to my coach. I listen to those who speak with wisdom and experience. Do I always make the right choices? Probably not. I am human, after all; however, I do strive to make good choices based on what is right and best.

It’s been almost 3 months since I herniated my disc, and I am closer to “normal” now than I was even a few weeks ago. There is no specific timeline for healing this type of injury, and I think it would be foolish to even attempt to create such a timeline. Every body is different and so are the injuries and healing. I want to heal well and properly, which means that I am trying my best to listen to my body and to my health care team. Do I want to continue to lift weights? To compete in powerlifting? Yes and yes. I can be honest in admitting that I do not know what I do not know. When will I be able to compete again? Don’t know. When will I be able to put a barbell on my back again? Still don’t know. Will I ever be able to challenge my own records? Nope, don’t know. But not knowing is not the same as accepting that it will never happen!

As much as I haven’t enjoyed these past few months of being injured, I have been purposeful in allowing myself the time and space to heal. My leave of absence ends in two weeks, even if the process of healing will continue for an undetermined length of time. I have taken the pain medication that I hate taking. I have gone to my physiotherapy appointments and faithfully done my physio homework. I have continued going to the gym, walking past the heavy weights, and immersed myself in the safe, gentle, and back-friendly exercises that I have been permitted to do. Sometimes I have chafed under my limitations, but I have never once believed that life as I knew it is over now that I have hurt my back. I know how to work for what I want. I know how to claw my way out of the muck and fight for my goals. It is my intention to lift heavy weights again and to step back onto a powerlifting platform, so I didn’t appreciate being told that I would never be able to do that again.

Let me clarify that last bit. I didn’t appreciate being told that I would never be able to do that again by someone without the proper credentials. The person who made the statement has apparently experienced a back injury of their own at some point in time, and obviously that person’s life has never been the same again. That’s fair! I can appreciate that perspective, but I don’t think it is as simple as that. What kind of back injury? What kind of treatment to heal? How proactive in allowing healing to take place? There are all sorts of questions that would need to be answered before I could give weight to such a statement based upon an experience. My own experience with this injury would be rather different if I didn’t seek treatment promptly, if I didn’t take a leave of absence from work, if I didn’t follow my physiotherapist’s protocols, and so on. So no, if you want to tell me point blank that I cannot do something, then you’d better have more behind your statement than personal experience.

I want to lift weights and powerlift again. That’s my goal. That’s the plan. However, there are a few people in my life who do have the proper credentials to influence my plans and goals. If one of those people were to tell me that I should not, then I would at least listen and give serious thought to what they had to say and the reasons for saying it. Would I like it? Probably not but that would be a conversation worth engaging in.