Know Yourself

“Who you were, who you are, and who you will be are three different people.”

~unknown

 

Two recent conversations have left me thinking about who I am in this season of injury. The first conversation was with my husband, and he made a comment about me still looking to find my own identity. The other conversation was with one of my best friends and was about parents wanting more for their kids, while the kids are generally satisfied by enough.

Since herniating my disc six months ago, I have often felt lost and adrift without purpose, usefulness, or potential. Of course, those feelings have never been completely true, and yet, I struggle with the pain and physical limitations I am forced to endure. My life has been turned upside-down and inside-out. The activities I used to enjoy doing, I cannot do. I am on medical leave from work, so I feel the loss of being a part of my work community, and I stress about the loss of income for months on end. After competing in nine competitions since 2014, this will be the first year without a competition. Some of my powerlifting goals were crushed into dust the moment I hurt my back last November…a bitter pill to swallow. Although I have all the time in the world at home while on leave, my ability to do things is still hampered. Housework can only be done in short bursts of time, because standing too long results in lots of pain. My housework abilities are also limited to what is safe for my back. I wash dishes, sweep the floors, tidy the bathroom, fold laundry, make dinner, do grocery shopping in small, manageable trips. The rest of my time is spent going to appointments, going to the gym to do safe exercises and rehab, going to Starbucks for coffee and to soak up a bit of connection with my co-workers, and varying my position between standing and reclining as frequently as necessary. It’s a boring life and frustrating. I feel like I should be doing more and living a real life, not this paper doll existence I am living. With the warmer weather, I want to be outside and active, much more active than my body will agree to, and I fear that I will miss out on spring and summer just as I missed out on winter.

My husband’s comment took me aback a little, because I was confused as to why he would think that I was still in need of an identity of my own. Didn’t I already do that? In my opinion, that’s what I had done between 2010 and 2017. I had hit the bottom and clawed my way back to the top. Hard work, determination, and the right people in my corner allowed me to feel comfortable in my own skin and to be sure of who I was. Through powerlifting, I discovered something within me that I could never have expected, and I loved being strong both physically and mentally. There is no doubt that I had grown substantially over the course of those years, and I learned to weather the storms and grow through them. Who else could I possibly be? What was missing?

The conversation with my friend revolved around parents and kids, but I instantly grasped how the concept of ‘wanting more’ and ‘satisfied with enough’ could apply to me as I mulled over my husband’s statement. From the time I started going to the gym and focused on powerlifting, I have wanted more. This desire for more was focused on my performance and goals within the sport far more than it ever applied to the rest of my life. I’m an easy-going and low-maintenance kind of person. I’m not interested in keeping up with the Joneses. Even when there is something I would like to improve in my home or have as an experience, I am still easily content with what I can realistically have. Enough is perfectly fine for me, unless I’m in the gym and setting goals for future competitions. I don’t need to be the strongest or the best, although I will always strive to win while knowing there are others better than me. Most of the time I succeed at my goals, but not always. The sting of failure hurts for a little while, but I always manage to learn and grow through the experience. That is enough!

But here I sit (figuratively because sitting hurts like hell), not knowing what my future holds, where it will lead me, or when I will reach the next stage of the journey. When I realized the nature of my injury, I fully expected to be back to normal within a few weeks, maybe a couple of months. Six months later, I no longer have a clue when I will be back to normal, if that will even happen. I’ve been stuck in limbo, playing the waiting game with my body, my doctor, and now a neurosurgeon. My doctor has repeatedly said this will take time and that there are proper steps to follow in treating such an injury. Time, I understand, even proper steps, but I chafe at the unnecessary delays created by the medical system when a slightly faster pace could potentially create improved health sooner (and less of a burden on the health care system, my workplace, and employment insurance costs). I feel alone, forgotten, cast aside, and broken.

I believe that I am still me. This injury hasn’t erased the woman I had become in recent years. In many ways, I think this injury will only make me a stronger person. But in the meantime, I feel stripped of so much of what makes me who I am. Is that true though? I am a barista. I am a powerlifter. I am a wife, a mother, a friend. Those are things that I do or titles that apply to me, but they are not who I am. Last year I learned that lesson after a disappointing competition after a disappointing and frustrating several months of training. Powerlifting is what I do, not who I am. So, I know who I am even though I feel lost, but I am beginning to realize that this injury can shake up my assumptions and put them back together as something entirely different than what I had imagined. I don’t know what that means for me yet, but I suspect it will add another layer to claiming my own identity. In the same way, I also believe that the theme of being satisfied with enough will weave through that layer in a most wonderful way. It’s not always easy to sit in these days of uncertainty, but I am excited to see who I am at the end of it.

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Windows

windows

I took this photo of my kitchen window this afternoon. The left side of the window makes me happy, while the right side leaves me feeling annoyed. I washed the windows in my kitchen and dining room yesterday, but the slider on this kitchen window proved too challenging for me to remove. At first, I couldn’t even figure out how to remove the slider, because this window is only two years old and not the same style as the others. Once I did figure out how to remove it, I quickly realized that I simply shouldn’t. This window is right above the sink, which means I would need to stand on a stool, bend forward, and awkwardly lift the heavy pane over the tall faucet. The old me wouldn’t have a problem tackling this task, but current me has a low back injury which makes the task more challenging and potentially risky. Since I also cannot figure out how to remove the screen, the outer pane of glass on the slider remains grimy until my husband has time to remove it for me. A similar situation applies to my living room windows. Although I washed the insides yesterday, the outside needs to wait for some male assistance.

I do not enjoy having my vision distorted, not by a dirty windshield, window or a smattering of raindrops on my eyeglasses. Even when my husband is driving and I am a passenger, I have been known to reach over and activate the wipers, because my husband is not bothered by peering through raindrops. I like to see where I am going. I like to see clearly whatever is before me.

With spring finally here and green things popping out everywhere, I find my vision frequently turning to my now clean windows, where I can clearly see the yellow blossoms budding on my maple tree. But that one dirty window taunts me. It is a reminder that I am figuratively peering through grimy glass as I try to see what the next few months have in store for me. When will the constant pain end? When will my doctor finally send in the paperwork that was requested three weeks ago? When will I get an appointment with the neurosurgeon? When will I actually be able to return to work? When will I be able to resume real weight training? When will I be able to compete again? I have no answers for any of those questions, and, for all my asking and wondering, no answers can actually be given to me by anyone. All my swipes at this dirty window only succeed in making it more difficult to see through, which means I must wait for clarity of vision. It’s not easy to do, but there really isn’t any choice.

So, I will enjoy looking through the windows that are clean and clear, watching for the first signs of leaves on the maple.

Sifting Knowledge

The art of knowing is knowing what to ignore. ~Rumi

I like to know things. I want answers to the questions why, how, when, where, and who. There is a thirst for knowledge that sends me searching for answers, for wisdom, for a broader perspective. And yet, I recognize that not all of the knowledge I seek is of value or for long-term storage. This is why I love history but would struggle to rattle off specific dates. The dates aren’t nearly as important to me as the actual events and themes. As a teenager, my knowledge of professional wrestlers was amazing. I could tell you a wrestler’s real name and all sorts of interesting tidbits. That information is no longer relevant to me, so most of that data has long been lost or erased. Without even being aware of what I was doing, I have been practicing the art of knowing for a long time, but lately I have been struggling in knowing what to ignore.

Since herniating a disc last November, I have heard and read all sorts of information on such injuries and how to treat them. To say that there is conflicting information out there would be an understatement, and it is enough to make my head spin.

  • do not squat with a barbell
  • do not deadlift
  • do not stop squatting or deadlifting
  • get traction
  • traction is an out-dated treatment
  • take this medication for pain
  • do not take that medication
  • you will never be able to do weight training again
  • you will be able to do weight training again
  • hang upside-down by your knees
  • use an inversion table
  • don’t use an inversion table
  • walk
  • swim
  • see this physiotherapist, sports trainer, chiropractor, massage therapist, etc.
  • don’t see that physiotherapist, sports trainer, chiropractor, etc.
  • take these supplements
  • eat these foods
  • don’t eat those foods
  • do back extensions
  • don’t do back extensions
  • don’t sit
  • don’t stand
  • don’t lie in bed all the time

The list is long and continues to grow. Some contradictions actually do make some sense. Back extensions are a common rehab exercise for disc issues, so it makes sense that they are recommended and prescribed. I was told to stop doing them, when it became apparent that the extensions were being more harmful than helpful in my situation.

Other contradictions make sense on the surface but not always practically. The don’t sit, stand or lie down theories are such an example. If I sit, I hurt. If I stand, I hurt. If I lie down, I hurt. What does that leave me with? I avoid sitting as much as possible, but not sitting requires that I either stand or lie down. So, what’s a girl in constant pain to do?

Then there are the contradictions which leave me confused and unsure of what I should do. Things like don’t deadlift versus keep deadlifting or get traction versus traction is out-dated and ineffective. My brain has been chewing on these things, hoping to find discernment and clarity where there is none. I’ve been scouring the internet, reading articles and opinions, listening to the voices of those I trust, those I do not trust, and those I do not know well enough to as yet determine their trustworthiness. Despite all my searching for information and wisdom, I honestly feel no closer to what is best and true for me and my situation.

It seems as if everyone has an opinion on what to do for herniated discs, whether through their own experience, their medical expertise, or the ego of being an expert on everything. I am usually quick to recognize the ones speaking from their egos, and their advice is swiftly sifted and the chaff discarded. Personal experience can be a great teacher, so long as you remember that each person and body is unique and one approach won’t necessarily work for everyone. I am eager to hear about the experiences of others with a similar injury, because there is comfort in knowing others have traveled a similar path and perhaps you can learn something new. But when another’s personal experience runs counter to what the professionals have told you to do or not do, how do you reconcile that? Ignore your health care team? Discard the personal experience? That decision is made more difficult when the personal experience or contradictory directions comes from someone who also has professional knowledge.

As the days inch towards the 6 month mark, I feel like I have learned a great deal about disc herniations. Causes, symptoms, rehab exercises, treatments, surgical procedures…I have read all about them over and over again. But I still feel lost. Sometimes I even feel caught between invisible opposing forces. On one side is the force of out-dated and old-fashioned thoughts and practices, the attitude of reacting rather than being proactive, and a system that places proper steps and protocols over proper care. The other side is completely opposite. Modern techniques, forward thinking, constant learning and adaptation, proactive and holistic care. I lean heavily towards the modern ways, but I am forced to endure the plodding steps of the old-fashioned side of medical care, which then results in being pulled in two different directions at the same time. It’s hard to listen to both, but the way our medical system works I have little choice. It’s confusing and frustrating, and it leaves me feeling as if I’m little more than a guinea pig at times. Wouldn’t it be nice if an injury was exactly the same for everybody with a one-size fits all band-aid solution?

 

The Invisible Woman

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they only see my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.  ~Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man, 1952)

Someone at church this morning made a comment about seeing me in the flesh. I can laugh at that statement and accept that there is some truth within the joke. Since injuring my back last November, I have withdrawn, pulled back, skipped out or avoided situations and sometimes people. Although I know that I am the one responsible for withdrawing, there are many moments and days where I simply feel invisible.

Going to church has been one of my biggest challenges through all of this. A church service involves periods of standing and sitting, and both activities cause me pain and physical discomfort. I cannot merely sit through the entire service, as prolonged sitting will inflict tremendous pain well beyond the completion of the service. Standing through the entire service is typically quite painful at the time, but a period of reclining at home after the service will usually succeed in reducing the stress on my back. Reclining brings leg pain, and that is often more tolerable than the back pain of standing or sitting. Alas, there are no recliners at church. So, despite my enjoyment in attending church, I often need to weigh the reward against the pain. After all, it is difficult to focus on a sermon, while pain is rising to the level that causes your body to shake, desperate for relief. In the past five months, I have missed a lot of church, and so I can understand the comment about seeing me in the flesh.

Yet somehow, even when I go to church and suffer in silence, I feel invisible. Sure, there might be the odd interaction with other people, a brief exchange of pleasantries, but mostly I enter and leave as one unseen. And mostly I’m okay with that. After an hour or so of standing, I am desperate to get home to put myself into a reclined position, to exchange one source of pain for another. Although it often seems as if I don the cloak of invisibility willingly, there is still deep within me a longing to be known, and, in the isolation of injury, I cannot help but feel like that circus sideshow head without a body. I might be seen, but the image seen is a far cry from the real me.

I pop into my workplace on a regular basis, welcomed by my co-workers, and frequently talked to by regular customers, and yet, I feel disconnected, out of the loop, and alone. My life revolves around so very little these days, weeks, months. I go to appointments with doctor, chiropractor, and physiotherapist. I go to the gym three times a week and do what I can do. I do grocery shopping in small, manageable bits, and housework falls into the same category. Sometimes I go for a walk, but mostly I alternate between short periods of standing/walking and reclining. It is a routine that chafes and feels more like a prison than a vacation. Or more like solitary confinement.

This will not be forever. I cling to that truth, for these many days of feeling stuck have the power of a black hole to snuff out light and life. Invisible I may be at times, and sometimes I prefer it that way.

 

Poetry in Motion

Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous–to poetry. ~Thomas Mann

One thing about dealing with an injury that takes a long time to heal, at least in my experience, is that the opportunity for solitude is higher than the opportunities to be busy and connected with others. In my situation, I have degrees of pain and physical discomfort with pretty much everything I could possible do. Sit down for a meal out? Back pain and maybe numbness in the left leg. Drive anywhere that takes longer than 10-15 minutes? I’ll be squirming uncomfortably in my seat for a while, and if the drive is longer than an hour, I’ll be in a lot of pain. Want to go for a walk? Sure, but my back will begin to hurt within the hour. Go to church? Sit on the pew and feel instant back pain or stand through the entire service and feel the back pain increase with every minute? My opportunities for social interaction are not automatically dead because of my injury; however, my willingness to subject myself to physical pain and torture is limited to those activities or outings I deem worth the suffering. Throw in a severe shortage of sleep and my eagerness to be out and about is pathetically weak.

It has been four and a half months since I hurt my back, and three and a half months since I have been on medical leave from work. Since I continued to work through that first month, I was at least connected with my co-workers. Since I’ve been on leave, I feel so disconnected from everyone and everything. I go to the gym, do my thing and then leave, maybe exchanging a quick hello with a staff member or familiar face. I go to my Starbucks for an Americano and connect briefly with my co-workers and regulars. I endure the pain of standing through a church service, maybe chat with one or two people, and then scurry (or limp) out as quickly as I can. I go to my appointments, buy a few groceries, and run errands, but mostly I have become even more of a home-body than normal. Home is my safe place where I can switch between standing, walking, cleaning, and laying down as often as necessary. There is nowhere else that could possibly cover all the bases of positioning for my pain-wracked body, and so I feel isolated in solitude.

I enjoy poetry, and I have read a fair bit over the course of the past few months; and yet, I have not written a single line of poetry myself. This is somewhat surprising, and I have often wondered why I have not put pen to paper during this season. Sometimes I write poetry, but my poetry seems to flow out of struggle and emotions more often than from happy, peaceful thoughts. This season of my life should be perfect for creative writing. It brings drama, volatile emotions, pain, suffering, anguish, frustration, shattered dreams and goals…everything that fuels my creative juices. But not this time.

It’s not that I haven’t entertained thoughts of trying to write poetry; I have. I just don’t know if I have it in me to write. My emotions and thoughts are ALL over the place, and they have been since hurting myself. Some days I feel mentally okay, while other days I am certainly an unpleasant person to be around. I don’t even like myself on those difficult days. The act of writing a poem is like stripping oneself bare and parading down Main Street, exposed and vulnerable, and I feel too fragile for such vulnerability right now.

And yet, creative thoughts swirl within me, bubbling so violently they threaten to boil over. Maybe one day I will put those thoughts to paper, or maybe I won’t. It doesn’t really matter, I think. Healing, whether physical, mental or emotional, is something that happens on its’ own schedule.

Moguls

Last week was mostly a write-off for me. Two weeks ago I was given an unexpected deload in my training program, which was deloaded even more in an attempt to facilitate some healing in my left shoulder. So I had fewer sets and reps for everything, and the weight for any upper body accessories was cut in half. Then last week, I was given a 2-day training program to allow me an extra couple of days to “recover.” I also started a new medication last week, and I am still trying to determine whether or not some of my new-ish symptoms are related to the medication. I have been hurting a lot, dizzy, and more tired than I’ve been through 4.5 months of poor sleep, so I didn’t do the second day of training last week. This morning, I did that day of training.

In some ways, this morning’s training felt better; and yet, I still felt utterly fatigued through the entire thing. And it was, at times, tough. I couldn’t help thinking about just how tough some exercises felt compared to what I was capable of before injuring my back. Last October, I was squatting more than 200 pounds for 2-3 reps for multiple sets, while today I used 30 pounds for goblet squats for three challenging sets. That’s one of the hard parts of recovering from an injury…knowing you have taken massive steps backwards in what you used to be able to do. Even though I know that healing from this injury can take a long time, it’s almost impossible to maintain a Pollyanna attitude day after day after day for months at a time. And so, sometimes I mentally chafe against my limitations, even as I go through the motions of rehab and self-care.

As I was benching this morning, my thoughts sifted through the memory banks and settled upon one particular memory from roughly 28 years ago. Although the memory is fuzzy around the edges, I believe that was my first downhill skiing experience here in British Columbia. I may have been born here, but I grew up in Saskatchewan, where mountains are non-existent. While there may not be real mountains on the prairies, I did actually get to go downhill skiing once in Saskatchewan at Fort Qu’appelle, and it wasn’t exactly my favourite activity. A few years later we moved to BC where the mountains are real and skiing is an activity enjoyed by many. The memory that came to mind today was during my youth group’s outing to a local ski hill.

I fell a lot that day, and I definitely felt out of my element. Most of my friends had been skiing for years and a natural grace that eluded me. But I kept going. At some point, I found myself down a run that was extremely bumpy. I didn’t even know what moguls were until that point, but I quickly learned that moguls and I were not destined to be friends. I’d hit a mogul and fall down. I’d get back up, hit a mogul, and I’d fall down again. Over and over again. One friend laughed as he watched me struggle and made a comment about how I don’t give up, or something along that line. I cannot recall what I said in response, but I honestly had few choices available to me. This was a lengthy section of moguls, and there was no going around it. I had to go through it either on skis or walking. I chose to continue to ski a few feet before wiping out and getting back up.

It’s interesting that this memory popped into my head today, but I think it was also a timely reminder of who I am and what I am made of. I also think the visual is quite timely after yesterday’s sermon, and that is something I will need to chew over for a while. In the meantime, I will just keep getting up again.

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!