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.
I planned to run eight miles on forest roads yesterday morning and meet friends for a day on the river afterward. Despite careful planning, I realized my chosen route wouldn’t work when I found out from the kayak shuttle driver that my friends’ drop-off point was going to be more southerly than I thought. If I ran the route I chose, I’d come to the river north of them, and I was pretty sure I couldn’t catch their kayaks with my 99-cent tube. The shuttle driver saved the day by giving me fantastic directions for a pig-trail route to catch up with them further south. The new plan made me a little uneasy but sparked my curiosity. As my friends boarded the shuttle, I repacked my bag, ditching my iPod in favor of a compass and adding extra Gin Gins in case I got lost and hungry.
The shuttle driver’s directions were spot-on, even though he failed to mention a few turnoffs that made me more than a little nervous. Every time I passed another trail, I wondered if he’d forgotten to mention a turn. I decided to run out for an hour, and if I didn’t find the river by then, I’d turn around and follow my footsteps (and compass) back to my truck. I love adventures, but I hate going off road without a map. None of the forest maps I own—not even the official Forest Service map—shows the route I was on yesterday.
At the eighteen-minute mark, I found the T the driver told me about. “You’ll come to a place where you’ll either have to go left or right,” he said. “Turn left.” I’d written his words down on a tiny piece of paper and stuffed it in my waistpack so I wouldn’t risk my memory playing tricks. I turned left like he said, and within ten minutes I was at the river.
Unfortunately, my friends were way upstream, so I had time to kill. I turned around and ran a bit more, than came back to the river and talked with a family who’d arrived via shuttle for tubing. What I witnessed—and the conversations I had with that family—is too powerful and emotional for me to talk about yet, but suffice it to say I felt the convergence of tragedy, unfairness, hope, and resilience. Rather than wait for my friends, I decided to hike further upriver and process my encounter with the family of strangers.
I found another unmarked trail, this one narrow and crisscrossed by spider webs, but it was a decent hike. I followed the route upstream for a mile until I hit an impasse. A huge patch of wetlands suddenly appeared, and I don’t think I could’ve even made it through with snake waders and boots, let alone in running shorts and sneakers. I dipped down off the trail onto a sandy beach and sat under a cypress tree in the river. My back and neck were really bothering me and I hadn’t slept more than three hours the night before, but the cold water felt great. I wished I could figure out a way to float on my back and completely relax without being carried by the current.
My friends arrived eventually, better late than never, and their kayaks were loaded with food and supplies. It was great to see them paddling their kayaks toward me, and I sat with them on the beach and pigged out for a while before we headed downstream. I’d run with a deflated tube bungeed to my waistpack, and once I got it blown up, we took off down the river. Note for future adventures: tubing on a 99-cent piece of crap is a lot slower than going down the river on a kayak. I ended up getting towed a good portion of the way by three generous friends who switched off paddling duties as I clung to the tails of their kayaks. I told them I’d be fine and would catch up eventually, but they stayed with me anyway. Five slow miles later, we floated under the last bridge before the river becomes non-navigable, and I walked up the bank to my truck. Changing into dry, cotton clothes felt great after being wet literally all day.
It was a very successful trip in terms of nothing going wrong, but I was so ready for something crazy to happen that when it didn’t I was almost a little let down. I’m excited about the future, though—after seeing all those pig trails, I’m ready to go back and explore more uncharted territory. I’m going to take my GPS and make my own map of the trails. Who knows? Maybe I can sell copies of the map (to that one other person besides me in the whole world who would want to hike there?). Better keep my day jobs.
All photos shot by a refurbished iPhone 4 and a GoPro Hero3+.
What I planned: a 6-mile hike, then a leisurely tubing trip down the creek. What actually happened: a 16-mile hike, a massive thunderstorm, and nothing leisurely at all. I respect the difference between a well-planned expedition and a stupid one, but I’m prone to getting overzealous about new adventures. I get giddy with anticipation. It’s a pre-exercise endorphin festival that often leads to questionable choices.
Almost immediately, my plan hit the crapper. The wooden walkways over the swamp were coated in slime and were dangerously slippery. I had to inch along, adding a lot more time and effort to my hike. Banana spiders’ webs crisscrossed the trail, mostly at face-height. I walked into so many that I stopped counting. I took those webs to the face because I was constantly looking down for snakes. Perhaps if I’d been looking up, I’d have avoided the webs but stepped on a water moccasin. Write your own ending to that one.
The air was 90 degrees in the shade. As hour two arrived but the creek did not, I should have turned around, but I so badly wanted to swim. I’d lugged a lifejacket and an inner tube all those miles and didn’t want the effort to be for nothing. So I kept going, despite the common sense alarm going off in the back of my mind.
I got to my tube-launching point about the time I realized I hadn’t packed enough food for my efforts. No matter, I thought. I just have to relax and float for a while, then hop out of the creek and hike a short distance back to my truck. I raised the lifejacket above my head. In that instant, lightning shot straight down to the beach. Thunder slammed the air, and rain pelted my face. There was a backcountry shelter about a quarter mile from the beach, and it was the only place of refuge for at least six miles in any direction. I sprinted for it through rain so thick I couldn’t see three feet in front of me.
The rain beat so loudly on the metal roof of the shelter that it sounded like someone was shaking a tin can full of pennies. Two huge spiders—not banana spiders, but ominous and gray—lurked above me, and rain blew in the open side of the shelter. My feet vibrated on the shelter floor with every blast of thunder.
The storm stopped almost as suddenly as it started. The trail was flooded and of course I didn’t have snake waders. I worried that another storm would hit while I was on the open water and realized I needed a Plan B. I looked at my map and planned a return route along forest roads instead of risking the flooded trail. I knew I had to hike a little over a mile to get to the closest road, but the rest of my calculations were terrible. I’d never driven the roads on the map and definitely hadn’t walked on them. I had no idea what to expect but I hoped my map was accurate. I badly underestimated the added distance of my new plan.
Other than being several miles longer than I anticipated, the roadside hike was pretty awesome. The state forest is dotted with small sections of private property, so I got to see some interesting pieces of civilization. I fantasized about someone bringing me a ham and cheese sandwich, even though I eat neither ham nor bread. I briefly considered hitchhiking, but was only passed by three dilapidated trucks during my entire walk, and each one was going at least 80mph and seemed like stock from a horror movie. I kept my thumb to myself.
Rationing the last of my homemade granola muffin was an exercise in self-control. I wanted a supreme pizza and a ride home, but I could tell by the map that I was in for a longer haul than anticipated. The forest alongside the road was beautiful, and I focused on the power lines that paralleled my route and pretended I was zip-lining along them. A church sat like a mirage at the top of a long hill. The chapel was completely surrounded by forest, except for a cemetery and an open field. No cars were parked in front, but a decent-sized overhang looked like a great place to rest for a while and get out of the sun. I’d been walking for more than four hours without once sitting down, and since the storm, I’d been sockless. My feet looked like white raisins.
The concrete was as welcoming as a new mattress. There were no spiders, no ticks, no mud—just a blessedly clean, level surface. I took off my pack and stretched out my legs, enjoying the stillness of my body. I’m generally a person who loathes keeping still, but I could’ve laid down and slept on the church’s concrete. I knew, though, that if I didn’t get up soon, I might not be able to. I’d already felt the fatigue give way to threatening spasm in my calves, and too much sitting would allow lactic acid to settle, rendering me useless. I pulled out some dry socks, scooted them over my damp feet, and reluctantly put my shoes back on. I wanted to call someone to pick me up, but I’d made the mess, and I was intent on cleaning it up. Besides, I wasn’t sure if anyone could find me.
By the time I reached the road where my truck and a cooler of watermelon waited for me, I was exhausted. I tried to appreciate the beauty around me and feel some sort of satisfaction about my soon-to-be completed adventure, but mostly I just felt stupid and tired. The chrono feature on my watch said I’d been hiking for 6.5 hours. Traffic started appearing, so I knew I was getting close to the parking area. A man on a golf cart rode toward me, and I flagged him down. He stared at me with one eye, a fleshy hole where the other one used to live. He told me he’d seen my truck “1,000 yards” up the road. “No, I meant 1,000 feet,” he said, changing his estimate. I thanked him and felt a weight lifted, but he was wrong. Fifteen minutes later I finally got to my truck. It was a very long fifteen minutes filled with colorful language.
I ignored the healthy food in my cooler and went straight for the potato chips. I sat on the bed of my truck and drank a can of La Croix in under a minute. I demolished the family-sized bag of Lay’s in even less time. My feet, swollen and sore and hideous, hung toward the pavement and throbbed. I’d walked ten more miles than I originally planned, survived a biblical thunderstorm, experienced life in ways I never imagined, but still hadn’t gotten to go tubing. Maybe next time, I thought, and a little bit of that familiar adventure-planning tingle danced in my blood.
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!
I’m able to squat again! That probably sounds like a weird thing to celebrate, but I’m absolutely ecstatic. The recovery from my back pain/sacroiliac joint dysfunction has been long and complicated. I still believe that exercise with an emphasis on functional movement is the closest thing to a cure. I stick to my core workout like a religion. That said, it’s a tough road and sometimes I’m exhausted from the dedication it takes to heal myself. My three major holdouts in the battle against back pain have been sleeping, sitting, and squatting.
Sleeping is a night-by-night ordeal. Sometimes I can get comfortable and sleep 3 or 4 hours without even changing positions. Other times I spend almost all night turning, getting up to stretch, stacking and re-stacking pillows under my legs, and generally feeling like shit. Overall, my sleep situation is vastly improved, but if my SI joints are misaligned and put pressure on a nerve or two, I have a miserable night.
Sitting, too, is much improved, although I still can’t tolerate a soft surface like a couch or recliner. I do a lot of computer work while sitting on a wooden piano bench and am grateful I can sit half an hour on my butt. There was a time, not that long ago, when half a minute was torture.
Squatting is a bigger deal than I first realized. For starters, picking anything up with good body mechanics almost always requires squatting, especially if something heavy needs lifting. Petting small dogs requires squatting. Tying shoes requires squatting. You get the idea. I’ve made several adaptations, including training my puppy to get on a chair so I can pet her without squatting (no kidding!), but of course I want to be able to squat. My fitness has somewhat plateaued due to the lack of squatting, since lots of major weightlifting and core exercises require a squat.
A few days ago, after trying some new kneeling exercises to open my hips, I decided to advance to a wide-stance squat. I needed to lift a piece of landscaping concrete and didn’t want to ask for help. Living with chronic pain means frequently asking for help, and I hate asking people to do things for me. I took a deep breath and separated my feet well beyond the width of my hips, then squatted slowly. I waited for the usual searing pain to shoot through my right SI and into my right buttock, but all I felt was a slight twinge. I held the squat for a few seconds and got tears in my eyes. That may sound crazy, but anyone who’s had a physical limitation will understand. When that limitation is lifted—even if only partially—it feels like a personal miracle.
I’m very, very careful with my newfound squatting ability. As much as I’d like to do air squats until I drop (seriously, that’s my idea of fun), I’m only doing ten per day until I’m sure my back can handle more. I’m also resisting the urge to add weight to my squats. Just being able to squat is a huge accomplishment and I don’t want to take it for granted and end up hurt worse than ever.
I don’t keep a gratitude journal, although I probably should. If I did, one of the first things on my list this week would be “ability to squat.” Sometimes the simple things really are the best.
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.
Love can’t beat chronic pain, but it’s some of the best medicine available. Last week we adopted a little puppy who’d spent her entire life in a cage at the county animal shelter. She was terrified when I first set her down on the grass, but when I rubbed her back and encouraged her with kind words, she jumped up and down and spun around like a maniac.
It took her a few days to get used to a real home, but now she’s blending in beautifully and doing all the adorable and troublesome things young puppies do. She and our 10-year-old beagle, Otis, have already bonded pretty well, and even our grumpy old terrier, Abbie, has played with her a few times. All three dogs are asleep right now and it’s a beautiful sight.
We needed two days to settle on a name for her and finally chose Roo, like kangaroo, since she has long back legs and jumps like she’s made of rubber. She’s a sweet, sweet girl, and we already love her very much. Rubbing her soft belly or massaging her chubby paws is very calming to me and beats the hell out of any painkiller I’ve ever been prescribed.