Sometimes in life our situations or circumstances don’t turn out the way we planned. This is true of my recent struggle with a chronic back injury and recovery. First, let me say that I don’t write this to highlight myself. More importantly, I wanted to be honest and frank about my journey and the journey of others to find a balance between health and fitness, and be transparent about the realities of life. I also needed to work out a thought process that I have adapted as my reality and use writing as a sort of therapy to change my own thinking.
It is easy to read this success story or that one and develop a simplistic almost algebraic view on a “one size fits all cure” or just “roll it out or do this stretch or that miracle technique” and everything will be fine. Unfortunately, the body has its breaking point and sometimes the only way to restore some level of function is to seek more aggressive intervention. That is where my story gets complicated. I also wanted to write this blog to share with others that have tried everything to restore their health and fitness, have been a good steward of their body and just haven’t been able to resolve their problem. This blog is for you! For the ones who worked their ass’s off eating the right foods, training, and living a healthy lifestyle and still things just didn’t turn out the way you planned.
There is this community I like to call, “the health & fitness seekers.” This community has may different facets. There are those who just want to be healthy, those who want to be fit, and those who want to be both. There are extremes at both end of the spectrums. Organic, holistic seekers who are vegans, vegetarians, or seeking a higher purpose through their lifestyle journey. Those who lift, train and take every supplement known to man to reach an esthetic pinnacle of the perfect body. Those who are straight up, bare bones lifters of weight and seekers of strength. Those who are high intensity, adrenaline junkies and reach for the next workout before they have recovered from the last one. The list goes on and on. But every group has its “community” and let’s face it, those of us who seek health and fitness most likely fit in one or several of these communities. We want to be a part of something that helps us achieve our goals and find a community that we can identify with. Sometimes these communities also develop narrow thinking and become almost “elitist” in their view of the “path.”
Within this community structure, there are also certain dogmas that we believe. Each community develops a “belief system” of certain does and don’ts which will leads them to the path of their goals. Or, so we think. But here is the real truth to how life really is. Sometimes no matter what we do, how we live, what we eat, what we avoid, etc…. things just don’t turn out the way we planned. We all seem to know this, but we push these thoughts to the back of our minds and do our best to avoid the uncertain outcomes. Take the runner who is a cardiac surgeon, lives very healthy and has done nothing but been the picture of health for 55 years. Then one day he is running on a trail and he collapses and dies do to a massive heart attack. Or the elite crossFitter who lives a very healthy lifestyle and one day finds out he has a terminal cancer and within 9 months of diagnosis, dies. Or the athlete who develops chronic injuries and begins to realize that something isn’t right and they have to seek another method to achieve their fitness goals.
These are true stories, real situations where things didn’t turn out the way they planned. For the most part, when something like this happens, these people disappear from the fabric of our community and we just quietly forget that they existed. There is also a certain pressure to “beat” the system. To find some miracle cure or special “anecdotal” technique which is going to restore your health and make you better than new. When this doesn’t happen, there can be a sense of failure and even shame that “I didn’t beat it.” But the reality is that sometimes no matter what we do the outcome is not the one desired.
I know we’re all adults and understand that this life. It doesn’t mean that all is lost and that we give up. It just means that there are circumstances and life challenges where no matter what we do, stuff happens. In the past 2 years, I have struggled with a chronic low back problem. In December 2014, I underwent two surgeries to resolve nerve root compression causing chronic, radicular pain and weakness down my right leg. Then in Jan 2015, I was hit head on and after realized that I most likely sustained a head injury. Since January, I have not been able to get rid of the right leg pain, found myself forgetting things and not being able to think as clearly as before, and have developed frustration that I haven’t “beat” this. So, recently I sought the opinion of a neurosurgeon who recommended further diagnostic testing. My MRI’s (2) after the accident did not show any new pathology or nerve root compression. Trying to convince doctors and providers around you that something is wrong is very difficult when the diagnostics say everything is fine. I know this now as a patient, and I thought I understood it before as a Doctor of Physical Therapy. I had always thought of myself as a “thinker or diagnostician” when it came to finding the patient’s problem even when the “tests” showed nothing. But now as a patient, I can’t imagine how difficult it is for the non-medically inclined person.
This last week I met with the neurosurgeon and found the problem. The same disc that I had operated on back in December has ruptured and is compressing the nerve root. I can either continue to take medication, modify my training to restricted body weight work (which is what I do now), deal with the chronic pain and loss of function and continue down the same path I have been on. Or, I can have a third back surgery in 8 months. There is no doubt about it that I will have the third surgery. Twenty five years of medical practice and my own personal experience tells me that I am not improving my situation until the pressure is off the nerve. So, let me be frank, I feel like a failure in my endeavor to represent our “community” and not be a hypocrite. I have become somewhat distant in not being as verbal and present as I was before. It is hard to be the “coach” when you just don’t feel like it or can’t do the things your coaching. There is a part of me that validates who I am through what I can do and what I represent, and when that is gone there is a sense of failure. I also realize that what I do is not all of what I am, and that this is the reality of life! But it has taken me months of self examination and removing myself from the front of the community to internalize what I already knew to be true.
We are not what we do, what we have, or what others think. Our value is not based on how we look or how fit we are! I know you are sitting there thinking well, duh. But most of the athletes and the members in our gyms that I have trained over the years need to hear this again. We are not how fit we are or how we look! We are, because we were created to be unique, special and have value without our own validation. We are validated by our creator…When you are in a community that tracks and values performance over all other variables, it is hard to not internalize that and develop a performance dependent validation. Performance is important. But what happens when is wains or is gone? We all age, we all have injuries and we all will someday are faced with less. Look at pro athletes, they have to face the fact that they just don’t have it anymore. Many of them suffer deep depression and develop addictions during their transition to real or ordinary life. I think the key here is understanding that life is all about change and what we know as normal before may not be our normal later. We must change our expectations and yet at the same time, not give up! Just because we change our expectations doesn’t mean we don’t kill a workout every now and then! We just re-adjust what is of value to us and what really matters. We deepen our understanding of holistic life fitness. We build the body, mind and spirit, not just the body.
Since my first surgery, I have tried to maintain a level of fitness and health, but it has been hard.The pic I posted is from a workout this last week, 7 months from surgeries, the auto accident and mostly only body weight training. In some ways, I have felt sorry for myself. What a joke! Recently, my practice covered the sports medicine for the Agoge Challenge. This was a team competition for Rx and scaled teams and it also had an adaptive athlete class. I saw several adaptive athletes overcoming severe injury and life altering trauma to their bodies. I was inspired by Vanessa Cantu, Tatsiana Khvitsko, and Derek Carver to name a few. When we place our attention on others, our problems seem to pale in comparison. It also helps us to re-adjust our perspective. What was I complaining about, what did I know about loss? These athletes are a great example of taking what you have and making the best of it. Their daily journey teaches us something about ours. Fitness is not defined by some “normal” that we all have to adapt to. It is defined one person at a time and is unique.
I plan on having the third back surgery soon. I will be back. But it won’t be the same Coach D as before. I will be better at providing our community solutions and tools to finding true fitness and health even through injury and pain. There are lots of self help gurus out there and most if not all fall short. Why? They swing from one side of the pendulum to the other. I will continue to provide honest, evidenced based ideas that help our community reach a collective level of health and fitness that enriches all of our lives!