I had a rough September, starting with a flareup of cervical dystonia. I’d been working out pretty hard for a couple months, and I suspect some of the exercises I did were too much for my neck. As I began to recover, I got a cold, and the next day got the stomach flu. It was almost comical except that I felt awful and got super dehydrated.
I’ve had a tough three weeks. Technically, a tough three weeks and three days. I woke up three Mondays ago completely unable to turn my head. It was nothing new, just an aggravation of persistent cervical dystonia, but I’d really thought my body was doing better than ever. I’d been feeling strong lately and had upped my workout intensity. I’d been lifting heavier weights than usual and doing more core work, especially planks, than I’d ever done in my life. I felt pretty great, all things considered. Then I woke up and couldn’t move my head.
My awesome chiropractor, who I’m truly not sure I can live without, helped set my vertebrae back where they belong. He found most of the issues in the thoracic spine, and it took a few days and multiple adjustments, but I started feeling normal (normal for me!) again. My talented PT friends worked on me, too, and after a couple sessions of Dolphin Neurostim, I was looking left and right without turning my entire body. I took a week off from exercise, which I hated, but I thought some rest might help me move on from neck trouble faster than usual. It seemed to work, and by day 8, I was walking comfortably for an hour and lifting a few light weights.
As the middle of the second week approached, my head was turning pretty well without chiropractor help, and I set my sights on returning to running and other challenging workouts. I actually missed planking and couldn’t wait to return to it. Then my throat got sore, a headache came on, and I was super tired. Symptoms of a common cold were alarming enough, but then I felt sick. Really, really sick. I spent the night throwing up and generally feeling like death. Every joint in my body ached. The next day, I was dizzy and exhausted and a nurse at a walk-in clinic said my blood pressure was 80/50 (hence the dizziness) and my pulse was 118. Dehydration is a scary beast.
I hate going to the doctor. Dealing with chronic pain and medical conditions has already required too much time in doctors’ offices, so the idea of going even for severe dehydration is off limits. Stubborn, stupid, whatever. We all make our choices. My wife bought me some crackers and Gatorade and we went home rather than to the hospital as the nurse suggested. One of the only bonuses about being that sick was it gave me the ability to sleep. I slept more the last several nights than I have in years.
After a miserable weekend, the stomach stuff and dehydration were under control, but the cold was back with a vengeance. My neck was super tight and painful again and I felt defeated. After three weeks of fighting one ailment after another, I’d lost three pounds and watched the visible muscles in my abdomen begin to disappear. I could tell my legs and arms were getting weaker, too. Everything I’d worked so hard for was literally wasting away. I allowed a five-minute pity party, then got out the Wii. There’s nothing like a hearty game of Wii Fit Plus hula hoop to make me feel alive again. I was stiff and sore, but it was great to get moving again.
My chiropractor loosened up my t-spine again, and I’m eating normally without any stomach trouble. Mostly all that’s still hanging on are the cold symptoms, plus the usual stiff neck. I’m so ready to be back to a full life. I charged up my old Garmin watch and am ready to go as soon as I can breathe through my nose again.
In the midst of all this, the weather has gotten cooler—finally. We still hit daytime temps of 90+, but the evenings are less humid and more tolerable. I’m really hoping that by this weekend I’ll be able to get out and enjoy the taste of fall in the air. One of the hardest things about being hurt and sick is being forced to take a break from life. I’m ready to get out and explore my corner of the world.
My re-acquired (or earned!) ability to squat is absolutely awesome. Many years—yes, years—of persistence, hard work, and dedication finally paid off the day I realized I could finally squat again after so much time of squat=excruciating low back pain.
Since the breakthrough day, I’ve slowly added squatting back into my workout routine. The benefits, both psychological and physical, are obvious already. I have more energy because I feel like I’ve accomplished something major. My workouts are more challenging, in a good way, because I can squat. I’m better able to strengthen my body, which helps keep my joints safe and stable. And I’m so, so excited!
My squats come with a caveat. I’m up to sixty air squats in one workout, but I have to do every single one while using my hands to hold my SI joints in place. If that sounds weird, I promise it looks weird, too, but it works for me. I dig my fingers into the divots near the joints that attach my pelvis to my spine, apply pressure, and squat without pain. I can’t go beyond parallel without sacral nerve irritation, but I can squat! I can squat!
Did I mention I can squat again? J My newfound squatting ability has injected life into my strength-training workouts. I’ve recommitted myself to doing as many resistance exercises as my body will allow, and I feel great. My posture is already improved, and I can hold my puppy with more confidence when she pulls on her leash. I’ve been doing a good core workout plus basic arm weights for quite some time, but squatting has really reminded me of how much a strong body can protect itself—even when it needs to protect itself from itself (thanks, autoimmune issues).
I can’t add weight to my squats since my hands are busy holding my SI joints in alignment, but I have faith that one day I’ll progress. Just the fact that I can do the basic movement again is a huge victory. Every time I squat, I smile. It’s a great feeling to be able to squat, and I’ve worked hard and long to earn it.
I’m making a major effort to organize and restructure my life. The reasons are varied, but the bottom line is I need to be more productive if I’m going to have a shot at accomplishing my major life goals. Lately I’ve dedicated a lot of thought to what I want my life to look like, and I realized (no shock) that my lack of Type-A tendencies hold me back from getting the most from my days. My brain is scattered, my workspace is scattered, and there’s no way I’m maxing out my potential in the midst of chaos. I could make excuses, some of which are legitimate (like how exhausting it is to fight chronic health issues), but the crux of the problem remains the same—I have goals, and I can’t accomplish them if I don’t get organized.
I printed a simple Excel spreadsheet to itemize my days and times, and started yesterday by filling in what I did with each time block. My ultimate plan is to write myself a schedule and adhere to it come hell or high water, but for now I’m just feeling out what a truly organized life will be like. I spent three hours going through stacks of paper, drawers of random stuff, and bins with pens that don’t write anymore. I chose to work meticulously rather than just tidying my space, and the task definitely started to drag. However, when I was done, I had a usable, organized desk. A large paper grocery bag full of recyclables proved just how much crap I’d kept for years.
I also confirmed what I suspected—I’ve let my health problems dictate too much of my days. There are times when that can’t be helped, but overall, even attention to a health crisis can be scheduled in a spreadsheet. I’ve been nearly killing myself by running too late in the mornings. By the time I get around to running, it’s usually 92-95 degrees in the shade. I struggle with getting comfortable at night, which means I often don’t sleep well, which, in turn, means I don’t move very efficiently in the morning. When I do get up, I take a lot of time to traction and stretch my back, rub Cryoderm on my neck, and/or do whatever else my body demands. It’s sometimes 10 a.m. before I run, and that’s not the smartest routine in the summer in the Deep South. It’s also a productivity-killer.
Fix number one was definitely organizing my desk. I’m not entirely sure if it’s true that a cluttered space equals a cluttered mind, but I feel better when I look at my newly arranged workspace. It’s been a source of embarrassment for years, and the piles of junk on it have definitely hindered my productivity. Now it’s a place that signifies pride in myself and my work and dedication to my future. Seriously, it seems that important.
Fix number two is saying to hell with my health problems and insomnia and getting up early anyway. (I used to work the 5 a.m. – 5 p.m. shift, so it’s not like I’ve never had to get up early.) I set my alarm for 6:30 a.m., but when I still couldn’t get comfortable enough to sleep at 1 a.m., I grabbed my phone and changed the alarm to 7. It felt a little like defeat, but I respect my body enough not to punish myself too much for my pain. Guilt over health conditions is absolutely counter-productive. At 6:57, I woke up anyway and turned off the alarm before it could blare. That small action empowered me, and I headed to the kitchen to wake the dogs and put them out to do their business.
Side note—as far as “doing business,” like many runners, I much prefer to do mine before I run. I knew there was a possibility that last night’s dinner wouldn’t get moving at such an early hour, and I was right. Luckily, nothing catastrophic happened, although it was a little weird to head out the door to run before using the bathroom.
I drank ½ a cup of coffee and ate a Larabar, rubbed sunscreen on my face, and put on the running clothes I’d laid out the night before. I paced around the house as a preliminary warm-up, and played with our puppy for some dynamic movement. I sat on the porch stairs for a minute and self-tractioned my back, then knocked my SI joints into alignment against the tiled steps. So far, so good, and I was out the door before 8 a.m. to start my warm-up walk.
The run wasn’t glorious or amazing or any of those other words I’d hoped would apply, but it was pretty damn good. The sun was still low enough that the mature trees in our neighborhood blocked it from directly cooking me, and the asphalt hadn’t heated up to the point of steam and odor yet. The bayou looked peaceful, almost like it was just waking up, too. I was covered in sweat by the end of my five-mile route, but not completely drenched like I am when I run later. The best part was, I wasn’t exhausted. I came home completely sold on running early in the morning and determined to back that alarm up to 6:30 and eventually to 6.
So far, my time log looks a lot better than yesterday’s. I couldn’t sleep two nights ago, partly because a nasty outbreak of psoriasis itched so bad that it kept me up. The skin calamity was the main reason I didn’t get up until almost 9 yesterday, but it had a strong effect on my productivity. What I’ve also realized is, staying in bed later doesn’t make me any less tired or any less itchy or really affect my pain and discomfort at all. In fact, I was less stiff this morning than usual after less time in bed.
Today’s To Do list is long, and it’s a good feeling to be partway through it at only 10:25 in the morning. I’m figuring out that I thrive off the sense of control I get from being extremely organized. Chronic pain demands so much attention, and it’s nice to fight back by telling my body that it’ll still get the help it needs, but that it’ll have to be helped efficiently and within my schedule. I truly feel empowered (also somewhat due to being able to squat again, which I’m sure makes me mentally and physically stronger!), and “empowerment” is something I haven’t really experienced in years. It’s a damn good feeling.
I have three things to celebrate today. Nothing extraordinary, but focusing on the positive always makes me feel good.
I had a good run this morning. A thunderstorm was building, so the air was cooler than usual and clouds covered the sun. Lots of birds sang in the trees, and I saw a redheaded woodpecker gather nesting material. It was a nice break from the sauna-like atmosphere of Florida in the summer. There wasn’t anything spectacular about today’s run, but I always appreciate every chance I get to explore the world on foot.
I tried out some new Balega socks. I got them on clearance, which is the only way I can afford them, and WOW, they’re nice! They held up well to a five-miler through several parks. They didn’t slip at all and my feet felt great—no blisters, no temperature issues, no constrictive fit. I’m glad I bought two pair.
My puppy is growing up and becoming a great dog. She has truly boundless energy, and she’s energized the whole household. There’s nothing like watching a puppy greet every day with excitement and curiosity. She’s sweet and soft and makes adorable groaning sounds when she stretches. The vet said I can start running with her when she’s eight months old, which means we’re on a short countdown. In about two months, I’ll have a new running buddy!
Our local co-op was full of beautiful, fresh foods today. I brought home several bags full of organic fruits and vegetables and made lunch. I have a weakness for commercial salad dressing, but otherwise my lunch was about as healthy as food gets. I try not to take for granted how lucky I am to live a life that allows me daily access to clean food. Today’s veggies were too pretty to keep to myself!
I did my first solo hike of spring, and the state forest was exactly what I needed. Pitcher plants were in bloom, a young water moccasin let me pass without incident, and the swamp was loaded with turtles. I love being in the woods without smog and cell phones. I didn’t camp this trip, but I hiked for three hours and wished I could’ve stayed longer.
I recently saw a bumper sticker that said “you live your life how you live your days.” It’s simplistic and true. I tend to spend a lot of time regretting past mistakes and anticipating the future. The forest always humbles and grounds me and reminds me to take deep breaths and appreciate the gifts in my life instead of focusing on stress.
It’s easy to feel stuck. Career worries, astronomical health insurance premiums, past choices that haunt the present… my list of ulcer-inducing thoughts goes on and on. But doesn’t everyone’s? The choice I have—every minute of every day—is this: what am I going to do right now?
Feeling stuck, I think, is a symptom of ignoring my blessings. Is my life perfectly how I want it to be? No, but I’m damn lucky for the love and adventures that surround me every day, and I feel better physically and emotionally when I celebrate the good things rather than wringing my hands over the bad.
I was miserable Monday and Tuesday, but a very talented massage therapist relaxed the muscles around my sprained ankle Tuesday night. The gastrocnemius and soleus were very tight, and since they form a common tendon (the Achilles), I was hurting pretty bad. Working some toxins out of the calf muscles and massaging the rest of my legs took away more than half the pain in my ankle and Achillles.
Wednesday morning I asked my boss and chiropractor to look at my ankle. He said it looked surprisingly good for the heavy roll I’d given it, but said a few small bones in my feet were locked. I don’t like anybody touching my feet but I let him adjust the mid-foot, and man, what a difference. I was almost immediately pain free and able to walk for 45 minutes at lunch.
Today is Thursday, four days after the initial injury. I used KT Tape to stabilize my ankle and Achilles then gave it a quick test on a 3-mile easy run. No hills, no off-road, nothing tricky. The ankle did great with only a little Achilles soreness.
This was my first time using KT Tape. I’m an athlete from way back when rigid white athletic tape and non-breathable under-wrap were the only answers to taping an ankle. I’m now hooked on the KT Tape. The online videos KT Tape are very helpful in explaining and demonstrating everything for various applications. I chose to do a combination of the ankle tape and Achilles tape, so mine doesn’t look exactly like the manufacturer recommends, but it works for me. Bonus: it’s bright purple, the color of my undergrad alma mater.
The tape survived the 3-mile run just fine, and I’ve been wearing it since this morning and there’s no slippage or friction or anything irritating. The Pro version, which I bought, is supposed to last four days, and hopefully by then my ankle won’t need any help. The roll I bought is plenty big to wrap it a few more times if necessary, though. I anticipate my battle now being more common sense than anything. I have a hard time resting when the weather is beautiful, but I know I still need to ice and elevate the ankle a few times per day. I’m so happy this sprain didn’t turn into anything major!
I don’t often have a so-called normal injury, but when I do, it’s a tough battle to force myself to take care of it. I worked on some posts about chronic pain and insomnia this weekend (which I’ll publish soon), then ironically got a relatively great night of sleep. I woke up Sunday morning ready to run. The weather was beautiful, I’d actually gotten some rest, and my back and neck were behaving pretty well. I decided to go 9-10 miles, depending on how I felt on the road.
I took off on terrain I’ve run on for years and was quickly bored with the usual sights and sounds. On a whim, I ducked behind some fenced-off private property (no location details here, but don’t try this at home, kids) and discovered a network of hidden trails in the middle of suburbia. Birds sung loudly, the air felt fresher, and all I could see were trees—real, hardwood trees! I had no idea how long the trails would last, but I hoped for at least five minutes of traffic-free running.
As I rounded a corner under a canopy of oaks, I realized I’d been in the woods for at least a mile. I was thrilled. So thrilled that I stopped paying close attention to the leaf-covered ground ahead. I ran at a 7:30 per mile pace, fast for me on a long run, and felt carefree. My feet landed on soft ground and I couldn’t smell smog or see any cars. I looked up at a cardinal in a tree and my right foot came down on a small stump. My ankle rolled so badly that I felt my fibula slam into the ground. I heard and felt a “pop” but instinctively kept running. Continuing to move was my way of assessing damage.
A few steps later I decided, despite the pop and severity of the roll, nothing was badly damaged. Pain shot up from my ankle to my knee on initial impact, but the sharpness dulled to an ache as I kept running. “Stupid,” I said aloud. “Watch where you’re going.” I was lucky, for sure, but I also make a habit of running in grassy medians and through debris-strewn parks as much as possible to help keep my ankles strong. I’m pretty sure Sunday’s outcome would’ve been a lot worse if I hadn’t spent lots of time strengthening my ankles.
I managed another eight miles after the trail ended and returned home full of excitement, energy and nagging concern for my ankle. I drank coconut water and described the trails to my wife, who smiled but expressed her disapproval at my adventure. She was right—I should at least tell her where I’m going if I decide to cover new ground. Oh, well. Live to die another day.
I spent the rest of the day like normal, throwing toys for the dogs, reading magazines, and stretching my tired body. My Achilles tendon ached, but my ankle didn’t show any swelling. I pinched along the margins of the tendon and it was sore, but everything seemed relatively in order. Then, as is the case with many sports injuries, nightfall brought pain and stiffness.
By the next morning my ankle and Achilles throbbed. My foot, ankle, and knee were stiff, and I tried everything I could think of to remain in denial about the injury (although I ordered some K Tape, so I wasn’t in complete denial). I have chronic pain—not normal injuries! I don’t have time for normal injuries! A sprained ankle and a sore tendon seem so alien.
The ankle felt unstable, so I bought a cheap drugstore compression sleeve to add support. I was able to walk around the neighborhood, but that was probably stupid. I felt worse after the walk. I hoped to run this morning—not quite two days after the initial injury—but when I woke up (yes, I slept again!) I knew it would be a very dumb idea to run. I probably could, but what if I turned the ankle again? I’ve seen friends with horrific Achilles injuries, and I don’t ever want one of my own. I put the compression sleeve on and set out for a walk. Too much pain. Time for plan B.
I ended up riding my bike around the neighborhood, but if I put the bike into a gear that offered much resistance, my Achilles screamed at me. I managed 25 minutes and headed for home. I couldn’t believe that all of my chronic pain issues were finally, blessedly feeling under control, but I was sidelined by an avoidable, normal injury.
As soon as I finish typing I’ll wrap my ankle in ice and elevate it for 15-20 minutes. I’m trying not to jump out of my skin about being unable to run. My perspective is weird—on one hand, I’ve dealt with horrific health issues that kept me from running (or doing much of anything) for a long time, so a few days off for a sprained ankle shouldn’t be a big deal. But, because of those stolen years when pain and bad health kept me down, I don’t want to lay off another day. More down time seems unbearable.
The reality is, those of us with chronic pain still get routine injuries, too, and we have to treat them with respect. Time to ice my ankle, dammit.
I woke up at 7:59 this morning with my back in alignment and my neck mostly mobile. My wife and dogs snored lightly in rhythm, and as I took stock of my body and nothing hurt, I knew it would be a great day.
I decided to go for eight miles instead of ten, partly because I’d recently fought a sinus infection and partly because I wanted to get back home ASAP and deal with my visions of waffles and bacon (although I eventually ate roasted chicken and mixed greens).
The air was colder and windier than I’d hoped, but the sun made my goose bumps lie flat, and by the fourth mile, I was actually sweating while wearing shorts in February.
I rounded a corner near a cemetery and the bright yellow butt of a plastic pony stuck out of the dirt like a beacon. I didn’t know how badly she was wounded, but I knew we needed each other. I tugged on her back legs and plucked her like a mushroom out of the dirt. Dirt dulled her sheen and filled the swoop between her pink hair and yellow face. The turquoise paint that colored her eyes was partly worn away and she had linear cuts through her plastic flesh. One of her ears was almost shorn off. She’d obviously been hit by a mower, but she was beautiful.
I ran with the little plastic pony in my palm, the space between her legs and belly perfectly suited for my fingers to grip her securely. I resisted the urge to talk to her as the miles ticked by. I didn’t just feel good—I felt great, like I didn’t really have chronic pain anymore. I felt like a normal, healthy runner, and I smiled with every footfall. A real, entire night of sleep is rare for me, but last night I’d scored one, and the difference in my body and mind was incredible.
I dodged potholes and broken sidewalks and thought about the last couple of years of rebuilding my writing career that I threw away for a long list of stupid reasons. I thought about how those same years haven’t been good to my body, despite my addiction to health food and exercise. I’ve busted my ass and scored new writing and editing jobs, but I still work in healthcare to pay my bills. I used to obsess over wanting to rewind my life to that moment when I walked away from a potentially awesome book contract, but recently I realized that the anxiety over what could have been was literally killing me. My body hurt anyway, but when I thought about what I’d given up, my muscles went into lockdown and I slipped into misery. My fingers curled around the plastic pony and I realized I’d buried myself headfirst in dirt and hit myself with a mower. You dumbass, I thought, not for the first time.
Of course I’d known for years (and beaten myself up for it daily) that I’d made poor choices and possibly squandered the rest of my life as a writer, but only recently did I understand that I have to move on. Not just want to move on—I have to move on. Maybe a combination of friends’ Facebook-posted internet memes—I particularly like the ones that tell you to go after what you want no matter what—and my erratic health helped me see the light. While I may never forgive myself for some of my questionable choices, the worst choice of all would be to give up again just as I start to rebuild.
I stared into the shabby eye of my new pony as I rounded out the eighth mile of the morning run. I realized I’d pulled my own head out of the sand when I decided to reclaim my health and writing career. Lots of days I feel like I’ve been hit by a mower, but so what? Life is short whether I feel well or not, so I might as well live it wide open.