Wednesday, February 14, 2018

all I know is that I do

Lately, I've been studying success.

I work with athletes and entrepreneurs, two very different sets of people that share a lot of similar qualities.  They tend to be type-A overachievers who are looking for something in the world to push them to their limits.  These may be intellectual or physical or mental limits, but it's the edge they are searching for in business or sport.  And a month or two ago, I got a few emails letting me know that someone had nominated me for a TED talk (thanks, mystery nominator person!).  I applied once four or five years ago, and I didn't make it past the first cut.  I think I struggle with the original idea; as a lifelong educator I am far more qualified to regurgitate the intelligence of others and strain it through into my athletes, clients, students.  I also struggle with the comparison game as well as the intimidation game (but those are topics for another day).  So I spent a few weeks shoveling around in my head the work I've been doing lately in this vein, and I eventually scribbled it all down and submitted it.  I got an email a few days later letting me know that I had made it to the next round.
I ran a training camp in Boulder this last weekend, so I slotted in about twenty minutes for naval-gazing to share some of this with my athletes.  It came down to two separate ideas - personal responsibility and compassion.  We're in a technological world right now where we are watching the erosion of civility, I think Brene Brown said that or maybe she just re-tweeted it.  But social media is also creating a huge lack of personal responsibility in our culture.  Printed text has always added an additional challenge for tone, but still, how quick are we to say, I guess you can't take a joke when we should be saying, I'm sorry?  How often have you seen it play out in the comments, watched someone irrationally burn a relationship to the ground instead of accepting responsibility for their own mistakes or giving other people the same sort of grace?  I am definitely not perfect; I have made plenty of mistakes in my life but as I've gotten older, I know that I have learned to judge others less after working through so many of my own wrongs.  And in the frame of the athletic experience, it is easy to directly link this kind of personal responsibility with success.  The athlete that always has an excuse for why a workout didn't get done, why s/he wasn't prepared, why s/he didn't follow the plan, why the world is an evil villain conspiring against our poor hero(ine) who couldn't possibly fit in the run/finish the swim/get to the gym - that athlete is an unsuccessful athlete, every time.  Because that athlete can't simply say, I should have done better.  It was me.  I'm certainly not implying that we should beat ourselves senseless at every imperfection in life or training - sometimes it's true that good God it was just a thirty minute run let it go - but we should be able to acknowledge that what is happening to us is a result of our own choices.  The athlete that looks inwards first - the one who takes responsibility for the decisions that we all make every single day and then creates internal accountability, that athlete that is not a victim.  That athlete is in the driver's seat of their own personal school bus, no matter how many squirrels it may run over and wrong turns it may take.  And that is an athlete that will reach their goals.
Alongside of that goes compassion.  And when we talk about compassion, we aren't talking about, aw you poor baby let me give you a hug and a cookie.  We are talking about real compassion, the kind where instead of fobbing yourself off, instead of blaming traffic or the barking dog that kept you awake, you can look in the mirror and say, hey Katie, you are not getting the job done right now.  When you aren't afraid to address the tough issues, to work the weaknesses, to give yourself enough grace to try and fail, to fall flat on your face - that's real compassion.  Compassion isn't saying, it's okay, it's too hard, don't even try, just go find your pink sweatpants and an easier task.  Compassion is being okay with the tough conversation and facing the struggle, whatever it may be.  In my world over here, my job is to give a safe place to do so and I'm not going to flip out and fire you/end our relationship/stop coaching you when you fail.  Rather, I'm expecting you to stumble and I'm letting you know that I'll be here to help you sort it all out.  Because you will learn from it, and you will acknowledge your mistakes, and try again, and that is how you will find your success.

These aren't really original ideas, and I'm sure that's why I wasn't one of the finalists chosen to speak (that and my complete inability to talk within a set time limit).  I felt bummed - rejection always stings, no matter how expected - and I told exactly one person about it and that was going to be that.

But as I kept mulling this all over in my busy bee brain, I realized that if I'm going to constantly criticize social media for being nothing but a glowing highlight reel of perfect abs and six minute miles, then I had sure as shit better put my own failures out there.  I know that when I look around me, the people in my life that impress me the most, the ones that I am inspired by (despite my hatred of how overused that word has become), are not the ones that either stroll easily into success or spend a great deal of time putting up a smokescreen to the world that creates a false illusion of success.  And there, finally, went the lightbulb - that is why I've been avoiding this space for so many months, why I haven't been using my tiny little corner of word vomit to work out my shit.  Because I've been afraid to share the fact that I have failed.  Certainly, "not blogging for a while" is not an international sign of distress.  But I've got a dozen two-paragraph drafts saved, and that's not like me, to not barf up everything that is going on, complete with too many adjectives and not nearly enough content slashed to the editing room floor.  I think it's because I wanted so badly for this surgery to be a magical happy ending where I woke up healthy and lost three pounds a week eating cupcakes and drinking beer all the while rolling 350 watts at 130 heart rate and vacuuming the house with my right arm.  And (shockingly enough) it wasn't.  
When I woke up from surgery, all of my nerve pain was gone.  Five weeks later, the nerve pain in my hand was back.  The surgeon is confident that I needed the three repairs that were done (labrum, labrum, bicep tenodesis) regardless of what's happening further down the chain from my shoulder, but it's still there.  More than a few times I've thought it's been gone and then it pops right back up again, as if it knows that I've declared somewhere on the internet that it has been banished for good.  And I'm frustrated and upset and really fucking pissed off when I let myself think about it, which is not very often, which is probably unhealthy in a number of ways.  Failure.

I gained a lot of weight last year, and the next person that tells me that I look the same is getting unfollowed on Instagram (as I have recently learned that THIS is the single most hurtful thing you can do to a person in 2018).  I have gained twenty pounds and lost all of my muscles and no one hesitates to tell me how fantastic my boobs are which means - guess what asshole? - I don't look the same.  And this is not the failure so much as how on January 1, when we got back from Mexico, I swore that I was going to find my good habits in the kitchen again (this is why I have a major beef with intuitive eating - people probably should not be living on potato chips and conversation hearts for extended periods of time).  I found them, for a little while, and then I let traveling be an excuse and pain be an excuse and the flu be an excuse and now it's six weeks later and I haven't burned off any of these boobs back down into the sidewalk.  I want it, but not badly enough, not yet.  Failure.

I sent in PhD applications, and oh my god NO I am not going to stop coaching, I'll probably never stop coaching, but I do think that just sitting here on my ass telling people they aren't bonking, they're dehydrated, is probably not a sustainable business model.  One school nearby plus three other scary schools, and if you don't know anything about PhD acceptance rates then I don't want to horrify you but the really good programs are around 2% or so.  So I haven't really told anyone that I applied because if or when I get rejected by all four universities then I don't have to answer a bunch of embarrassing questions about why I'm too stupid for Stanford.  Let's not talk about the potential to fail at all, let's just slap another sunset on the Instagram and pretend all is perfect and rosy, right?
I got cleared about a month ago to get back in the pool and do some kicking and single arm whatever and you'd think that I would have gone straight from the doctor's office to the locker room but I didn't.  I didn't want to.  There's something muddy in there about how if I can't swim in a real way, if I can't be the powerful athlete that I used to be (at least in the water) then I don't want to be in the water at all, and that's immature and short-sighted and a host of other things that all boil down to fear, but actually, failure.  I'm afraid that I won't ever be strong again, that there is no swimming - which means no triathlon - in my future again, and it may be irrational but it is very, very real.  And I didn't miss the water at all, I didn't even think about it until I spent all weekend on deck working with athletes one-on-one, explaining how flip-turns work and repeatedly trying to demonstrate stroke using my recovering arm, and then it just created this deep and immeasurable sense of sadness and loss.  Complaining, whining, I hate it when other people do it and I hate it even more when I do it so I am trying my hardest not to, especially over things that are a direct result of choices that I have made.  But as good as recovery is going, as hard as I am working to heal, I am sad.  I'm exhausted from so much toughening up and staying strong and fighting and busting ass so I can walk a towel up the wall with my fingers.  I miss my life.  And I am exhausted from my life.  Saying that, in a way, is my failure, because I want to be the person who is doing everything to move forward and not wallowing on where I was, but it's juxtaposed right next to being the person who wants to be raw, and authentic, and real.  The truth is that a lot of it IS going well, a lot of things ARE headed in the right direction, and I'm thrilled about all of those great things, but I'm not going to pretend that the last fourteen weeks have been a perfect pain-free yellow brick road.  
Success comes from things we don't always understand.  Athletes, entrepreneurs, they say it all the time, I don't know WHY I want this so badly, all I know is that I do.  I've spent the past several months convincing myself that maybe I don't need to do an ironman ever again.  Nine is a lot (as my physical therapist tells me as often as she can); maybe nine is enough.  I'll start my PhD, I'll work on my run, take on more athletes, maybe just exercise for health, I'll dig into some research, I'm mentoring a few coaches, we're going to move, there are plenty of amazing things in life to distract myself from the hole where ironman used to be, and that's really been mostly okay.  I've done a really great job on not thinking about it at all, because then I don't miss it, and I've been focusing on all the good stuff around and ahead of me instead of what has been lost.  

But here's the thing.  And it's the damnedest thing.  This weekend Julie Emmerman, an incredible clinical sports psychologist, came into training camp to do an interactive session with my athletes.  One of the first questions she asked was about where athletes feel outside of their comfort zones, and someone shared that his moment is when he is waiting to get in the water at the start of an ironman, in his wetsuit, super stressed out about whether or not he can finish.  I said to him offhandedly, that's my favorite moment.  I let myself think about it for a minute, and the dam - my heart - broke.  Ironman is my favorite day, and in those last few minutes before it starts, when the anticipation is so sweet and everyone is smiling and jittery about what we are all about to do and my heart is pounding with the sheer joy of how lucky I am to be there, that's my comfort zone.  I don't know WHY I want this so badly, all I know is that I do.  
It is true that my history with ironman seems to be rich with far more failure than success, it's true that I am neither genetically nor pharmaceutically gifted enough to be a rockstar at this distance, but it's also the one place in my life where I've never been too afraid to try.  I race ironman because, for whatever reason, it brings me so much fucking happiness.  It's a place where I can look for the best in who I am, and I realized this weekend that I've spent the last few months distracting myself with coping mechanisms as a way to avoid facing the fact that I might never stand on that line again.  I might never sing Kelly Clarkson in my head while trying to sneak in under an hour in the swim, I might never again eat five Bobo's bars in five hours or slam a coke in a portapotty with one hand while applying more chamois cream with the other, I might not get the chance to throw another piece of triathlon detritus at my husband as I zing by at 25mph, I might be done self-adjusting my SI joint on the ground in T2 before I head out the door searching for something as simple as nine minute miles.  And I didn't even realize that what I was doing was trying to find another way forward into joy because I was afraid that if I tried to return to triathlon, I would fail. But the person I want to be isn't afraid to try, to put it all out there in the world, big and ugly and pushing the spandex to its absolute limits, falling down the stairs in the dark and slipping on the pool deck and tripping over nothing at the finish line.  Maybe I'll fail, maybe life will take me sharply in another direction, maybe the universe has other plans for me now.  But also - you know? maybe? - not.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

in good spirits

For some reason, it makes people laugh to hear that I went swimming the morning I had surgery.
First of all, have you met me?  I didn't have to be at the hospital until 6:30am and the pool opens at 5:00am so in my head, the math was simple.  I was in the water at 5:04 and swam every last little second until I had to get out.  I ripped through the shower and showed up to check in with my hair still dripping and uncombed, my swimsuit clipped to my bag and a monster set of goggle eyes.  It is good that some things will never change.

Swimming - triathlon - is not about the obsession.  None of sport is for me, that is not my why.  It's not about burning calories, or getting faster, or selfies, or being able to flash an asshole number of watts on the Strava.  (Maybe a little bit, on the selfies).  It is an honest and deep passion for the art of movement.  Swimming is my meditation, it is a safe space, where I work out angst and anger and sorrow and joy.  The dive into the water, the rhythm of the breath, the still-dark sky when I push off and roll to my back, the quiet, dependable strokes, the hour I spend enveloped by peace.  And I knew that I was going to lose it for months due to rehab and recovery - although this time, thankfully, by choice - so it is logical that it is how I spent my last hour with two arms in 2017.

It's a bit weird how quickly surgery happens when you consider the months of recovery.  Three hours playing take apart, six months playing put-back-together-except-actually-works-now.  My surgeon had written up a comprehensive list prior to surgery called, we'll check out all of this and repair only what is needed.  Once inside my shoulder, he found that the answer was all of it, plus another tear that hadn't shown up on the MRI.  Of course that was much worse than anything else we knew about prior to slicing me open, but it doesn't matter.  He repaired everything and a few hours later, after two rounds of Zofran and 16 miniature ginger ales, I was dispatched back into the world with a killer hangover and no more (for a while) right arm.
The first week was bad.  Everyone had warned me that it would be, and I was prepared; none of that is the same as living through it.  A couple of friends came to visit or stay with me while the poet went to work to make sure that I didn't choke to death on my opioids or try to eat the plastic fruit, but the first three days I spent mostly asleep.  Dozing, actually, propped up in bed by 17 pillows and 4 golden retrievers that did not leave my side.  And I won't sugarcoat it for anyone unlucky enough to land here after googling, two labrum tears bicep tenodesis surgery does it suck: the pain is pretty fucking terrible.  The first day or two I was maxed out on my prescription pain killers, which helped about as much as when people tweet good thoughts and prayers to a national disaster.  But emotionally, I was okay, I checked in with my doctors and tried to sleep and only once did I end up sobbing on the bed after trying to get out of a shirt.
Day 4 I started working again, mostly via talk-to-text at the amusement of my patient and understanding athletes, who are probably going to miss me replying to everything within .2 seconds of uploading out of boredom once I'm healed up and can start doing other life things like leave the house.  I tried to go for a walk but that was too much; I made it to the next set of driveways before we had to turn back and that adventure resulted in a 3-hour nap.  Recovery is slow.  It resets your expectations of what you can do in a day.  The first week, I could shower and get dressed, but not on my own, and not without a break in between.  I think the worst unexpected handicap came in the form of the ponytail.  My husband is pretty awesome but he is not a hairdresser, and after a lifetime of wearing it scrunched up on the back of my head with a pencil shoved through it, it was torture to just have it laying around on my neck all day.  Hair!  The struggle, as they say, has never been more real.
Day 10 I left the house on a little trip, to visit some friends and their gorgeous new house.  Wearing a bra!  Getting in the car!  Seeing the real humans!  It was a good adventure, I got a bit tired and cranky by the time we returned home but it felt like progress.  Life has been pretty quiet.  I've been busy with work and continuing education, which is what I usually focus on this time of the year because no one is texting me crying from the middle of their 6-hour ride (man, do I miss being on the sending side of that text, though).  I had a talk with someone recently about continuing ed in coaching and how important it is because there's no real system that forces you through.  I've done it for years, it's a huge part of my daily work, mostly tracking down & devouring research as well as stalking good coaches, kinesiologists, physiologists, experts in nutrition, anatomy, mental performance.  It's as important or maybe even more so than the dailies of coaching, mapping out training loads and season planning and reading funny post-workout commentary and actually reviewing data files which apparently is a rarity among coaches nowadays.  

I think it was around the two-week mark that the pain really started to calm down.  The surgeon wanted me in physical therapy right away but due to a bundle of scheduling issues, I wasn't able to get in until I was two weeks into recovery.  I had done some research googling and started at home with some range of motion work, and it almost came as a surprise when I woke up the day of my first appointment and realized with a start that all the ridiculous nerve pain had been gone since the day of surgery.  The absence of pain is a crazy thing, it's the ringing silence after an explosion, the sonic boom to the shell that is left when suffering lifts.  The pain was - and still is - gone.  Gone.  My nerve pain is gone.
It's hard to look in the review mirror and see how difficult life has been for the people around me over the last six months or so.  So many injuries, the incredible amount of frustration that comes from working through the healthcare system - one that most of the time seems to be chock full of doctors who only want to turf you into someone else's office.  So much emotion (gross) around so much pain, so much struggle to keep chipping away; more phone calls, more physical therapy, more research, more getting up in the middle of the night to search for more specialists, but here I am.  Out the other side.  I made it through.  And as I'm starting to crawl out from under this massive rock of depression and grief, the first thing I'm doing is trying to find my people again.  To say to them, maybe not with words or all that well, thank you.  For not giving up on me.  There are a few people in my life who have taught me this year what friendship really looks like when it gets down and gritty, and I will value these relationships maybe a bit more than I used to, because now I know.  This is what it means when someone literally has your fucking back.  

There is still a lot ahead before I'm back to what I consider my own normal.  I haven't even really started into rehab yet; this morning I celebrated that I could hold my toothbrush with my right hand and put toothpaste on with the left instead of wedging it between my hip and the counter, an operation that has resulted in a lot of Toothpaste Jammies Fuck.  I'm looking forward to the day where I can once again put a shirt on not like pants, or ponytail up my hair, fall asleep starfished on the bed, scrub out both armpits without an assist.  Let's not even discuss the "blender started dancing and I didn't have a hand to catch it before it fell off the counter while still on" incident.  And I know there's going to be more pain to work through as I teach my shoulder to act like a shoulder again instead of a weird dead arm baby that I carry around stapled to my side.  
But I'm in good spirits - that's the thing I say when people poke me to see how I'm doing.  I am in good spirits.  I'm starting to feel like me again, I might even be cheerful sometimes, the wrench of chronic pain has cleared and is no longer is the first thing I see when I look in the mirror.  Surgery was the right decision, and I'm putting it in print because lord knows I'll need to remind myself of that over the next few months.  The world feels different, and not just because I have to do everything with my left arm.  I can look happily into the future again.  I'm grateful to move through life again without relentless nerve pain.  I am, unfortunately and ironically after so many years of talking shit about bloggers who abuse this sentiment, blessed.  

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

light begets light

I don't even know how to talk about everything that has happened.  But I've got about thirty-six more hours on this planet with the use of both hands (just for a while, I'm not donating anything to science), so if I'm going to get a story out, it's going to be now.

When you lose something you love, whatever it is, there is grief.  We know that, it's a fact in the world. And I, an ENTJ with absolutely zero patience for stupidity, adore cold hard facts.  
There are facts about what I've been through in the last six months, straightforward well-documented medical information.  In July, I was diagnosed with two herniated discs, scapular dyskenisis, and a whole bunch of torn shit in my shoulder.  BOOYAH, here we go.  I was already rocking a dozen stitches up the poonanny thanks to the nod from a year of bicycle chaos and then while continuing a long trend of doing what I was told, I ended up with a calcaneal stress fracture.  So I finally decided to shut it all down.  For real.  Not just I'll just go to yoga and do an easy hike, but twisting the handle firmly and all the way over to OFF.  When I say it like that, it sounds like I had a choice.  But with a torn up shoulder and a torn up saddle-sitter and a busted foot, there just wasn't anything left.  (Other than, as a friend helpfully pointed out, the Single Arm Tai Chi Chair Olympics).  
It didn't help.  Of course it didn't help, don't be ridiculous, but I did it anyway, if for no other reason than to shut up all of the (mostly well-meaning) fucking assholes who felt inclined to chime in on my situation unsolicited, with absolutely no information other than that I was in pain (thanks!).  I found a new physical therapist, a different kind who specializes in neuromuscular reeducation.  She was actually quite a bit more knowledgeable than some random people on Instagram and she didn't even seem to mind that I cried almost nonstop for the first eight weeks of working together, a flood with no outlet.  My neurologist person at the same time guided me through many many rounds of medication and nerve studies and scary things done to my neck down at CU Anschutz in Denver, where they have the greatest-tasting ginger ale on the planet in their surgical recovery room.  And for a long time, for weeks that turned into months, I did nothing.  Nothing except watch my life pass by without me, imprisoned by a body that had totally fucking had it.  
There are facts about what this did to my mental state, facts that are probably oversharing but there's nothing really left on my fake bullshit highlight reel.  Depression, yes, that's what happens.  And I don't mean, oh man they discontinued my favorite flavor of coffee creamer I'm so bummed kind of depression.  I mean the real, ugly, dark & twisty kind, the kind where you don't leave your house for days at a time, where you stop getting out of your pj pants because it starts to seem like an exhausting effort to do so. Pain that lasts more than six weeks is considered chronic; mine lasted over five months & still isn't gone.  Nerve pain is its own particular inferno, because muscle relaxers don't help, steroids don't help, naproxen doesn't help, a hot bath and a glass of wine doesn't help, meditation doesn't help, actually nothing helps, you just walk around trying to figure out how to keep breathing in and out, all the while being mercilessly stabbed with thousands of knives.  So the only thing to do is to chase down the next doctor who might know something, or be able to prescribe something, or move something, or fuck it can we just chop my neck off if that will make it stop?  And in our brilliant health care system everything takes two weeks: scheduling appointments, getting a follow-up, finding a new specialist, seeing if the latest meds will start working, and that's a lot of dead time of waiting for a few quick seconds of hope before the doctor disappears out the door in a whirl of white coat.
October is my favorite month.  I'm in love with fall and everything it brings - the birthdays of everyone in my house, arm warmers, cool nights, dark beers, fuzzy boots, all of that crap.  And every year for the last seven years, for my own birthday, I've written a blog post.  It's generally just another pile of overly adverb'd nonsense, but routine, rituals, rhythm - these things are meaningful to me.  This year, I didn't do it.  This year, I missed the whole thing.  One of my best friends was in town to celebrate, and oh, it broke my heart that she spent the time and effort to come out and visit in the middle of this, that she had to bear witness to some of the worst moments of my life.  I woke up the morning of my birthday, and I tried to go for a ride.  That's what I do every year, usually it's the 80+ mile loop through the mountains that makes me happy in a way that not a lot of other things do.  This particular morning was Colorado-windy, and I was in a tremendous amount of pain, and I rode less than forty minutes before I was back home, and if we're going to be honest on a deeply squirmy level, I spent most of the ride hoping that a car would hit me so that it would be over.  So it could all just stop.

Yeah.  That kind of depressed.  That kind of hopeless.

There are facts about what this did to my physical state, and the next person that says nah you still look great to my face is getting their eyes clawed out and I am not even joking.  Because I've gained more than twenty pounds at this point, and twenty pounds on a 5'6" frame that has completely stopped exercising does not look the goddamned fucking same.  My running shorts are gathering dust, I've been rotating between the black yoga pants and the stretchy blue yoga pants when I deign to get dressed at all.  My boobs have exploded fantastically outwards into being, when I stuff myself into a sports bra I am the grand prow of a ship; I'm Courtney Cox in the fat suit, a shadow of the person I used to be except the opposite of a shadow, a caricature with four chins.  So when you say, shut up you look fine, either you're placating me or you aren't seeing me - or my pain - at all.   Both of those are worse.  
Nerve pain, that's been my problem throughout.  When the superstar doctors solved my neck issue all of the pain should have stopped, and went it didn't, everyone just kind of stumbled over their feet and went, huh.  About a month ago, I saw yet another specialist.  She mapped out a couple of experiments to try and route some kind of path forward, and I was in, ready to try anything, sure I will buy your purple snake oil and drink it while reciting German poetry backwards at moonset because I bet THAT will fix me.  I was almost ready to listen to someone on the internet!  But one of them worked, although it was the bad kind of "worked," the kind that means, well, we figured it out but you are really not going to like the answer.  My herniated discs were compressing a nerve, and that sucked and probably kicked off at least part of this mess, but it turns out the all the Torn Shit around my shoulder wasn't holding the shoulder in place - you LITERALLY have one job! - and when it flopped forward to where it's been living for the last six months, it was compressing a nerve.  Actually a whole crapload of them.  And nerves DO NOT like that, NO NO NO NO NO, they bitch and moan and pull on every single muscle they can reach, and now I know exactly how many there are back there, surrounding my scapula.  It is a lot.  I've spent the last several months busting my ass in physical therapy to try and get my body to put my shoulder back where it goes and keep it there, but we haven't been able to crack the pain/flare-up spiral at all and no one could figure out where all the nerve pain was coming from.  This particular doctor, who will now get a Christmas present from me every year for the rest of eternity, voodoo-taped my shoulder back where it's supposed to be, and over a period of about a week, most of the nerve pain went away and the muscles started to calm down and all of a sudden I remembered how to smile.  After about three weeks of working hard and hoping, we pulled the tape off to see what my shoulder had learned and everything went batshit to hell, because, like I tell my athletes all the time, hope is not a strategy.  So on Thursday, another doctor is going to take my shoulder apart and put it back together correctly because tape is not a permanent solution.  And all of the 17 opinions that I've gathered from real doctors about moving forward in this direction are confidently positive that with about 6 months and a zillion more dollars of physical therapy, I'll get my life back.  Exhale.
But I won't be the same.  I'm already not the same, I'm already different in a way that I can't quite put my finger on but I can see, and not just in the boobs and thighs.  I'm more careful, with my body but also with my life and the people that are allowed inside.  I'm sure that stress contributed at least in part to this, and I've finally started to learn how to set real boundaries around my time, my energy, my heart.  

Figuring this mess out and scheduling surgery lifted a lot of the dark clouds that were hanging over me.  Even though it means the next few months I'll be in a sling and on the stairmaster and knocking things over trying to navigate the world with my left hand and oh fuck I just realized I'm incapacitating my selfie arm, even though it's a few more months of staying inside while the world seems to pass by in high speed outside of my window, there's an end, or maybe just yet another day one.  There is a light.  And light begets light.  
More well-intentioned friends have tried to point out a silver lining here and there.  I've been able to focus more on work, and I do truly love what I do or I wouldn't still be doing it, but if someone took away a bunch of crap that make you really happy and rewarded you with more time behind a computer telling people they don't eat enough on the bike, would that 100% be a good thing?  As a coach, it's hopefully not immodest to say that this year has been really great, and in a lot of ways that has helped what I have been going through personally.  I don't want to take the credit because it's all of my athletes that are out there busting their asses, but I feel really lucky to be working with the people who have found me.  People who are rebuilding from something themselves, or seeking new heights, or chasing whatever kind of dream that gets them out of bed in the morning.  And this year, athletes that I have coached for years have experienced some incredible breakthroughs.  I'm torn between wondering if it was because I had more time to nurture their experience and truthfully understanding that it is a combination of hard work, planning, opportunity, patience with the process and just a tiny sprinkle of luck.
I've been able to see how much my husband loves me, and tucking in a few lines deep in this post is in no way able to embrace the incredible significance of how supportive he has been.  He has tried to fight for me when I could no longer fight for myself, and if that isn't what marriage is supposed to look like, then I don't want to know what is.  
When we found the correct band-aid for what was going on, I was able to start moving again.  And I don't want to call it training, it's barely even been exercising.  I've made a lot of jokes about how it's been going, the watts and the pace and the near intolerance of the spandex, but it has felt good to move again.  To work through the process of starting from scratch, all on my own terms.  I've always said that as an endurance athlete I would never be without a coach to prevent myself from falling down the ironman stairs naked in the dark, but this isn't training.  I'm not an athlete right now, and I know that no one on the planet knows better than I do what I need.  I'm not even sure I would trust anyone to try.  So I've been building it myself, and patience is easy to come by after everything that has happened.  It has been a month, and I've watched myself grow, and I'm excited to do it all over again once this is truly behind me.  A couple people have asked why I would bother to spend a few weeks now rebuilding when I'm going to turn it all off again after surgery for more than a little while, but that's easy.  Because it's who I am.  Because it's how I take care of myself, because after all this darkness I needed some sunshine, because it's the few moments on this planet that I feel more me than anything else I've ever experienced.  I have no idea what the future will bring, but I know I have two choices, I have a reminder that I see every day.  I can stay here, and get the shit kicked out of me.  Or I can fight my way back.  Into the light.  I can climb out of inch at a time.  I was stuck there for far too long.  I gave up.  But now, I am ready to climb.  

Thursday, August 17, 2017

when things fall apart

Writing all of this down has been circling in my head for the last few months.  To be honest, I was waiting for the point when I would climb up out of hell, and then I could casually talk about it in the past tense through a veil of optimism & strength, oh yeah, sure, it was hard but I got through because I'd be beyond it, finally spit out the other side.  But, without being melodramatic, I'm not sure if or when that is going to happen, and spouting my overly-wordy crap in this space is one of the few coping mechanisms I have left.

It didn't start, as many injuries do, with a thunderclap.  It was more like a splinter, so small I barely noticed it. Then another piece cracked, then another, and then one day I woke up and everything had fallen apart.  It began in April.  I noticed in the pool that the back of my shoulder felt a little bit tight and that the last two fingers of my hand were going numb.  I chalked it up to the fact that 99% of my swim training for the last six months could be described as, maximum effort & still getting lapped and made a mental note to get a massage.  It came and went, barely noticeable, forgotten once I was out of the water and dragging myself home to eat, work, and then scrape into the next as hard as I can session on tap.

Later that month, I woke up one morning and couldn't turn my head to the right.  A crick in my neck, I thought, we've all done it, slept a bit weird and then spent the day popping your jaw and Advil both.  I had an appointment with someone the very next morning, he worked on my neck and shoulder and upper back, frowning and harrumph-ing and saying more than a few times, this is really quite bad.  It fixed me right up, though, I treated myself carefully the next few days as it eased off and then got straight back to it.  Anything to be great, right?  

But a week later it was there again, worse, sharp, shooting down along my spine and up into my skull, into my shoulder, through the rotator cuffs, wrapping around the ribs, wrenching me into tears should I momentarily forget and look over my shoulder to change lanes in traffic.  I started ringing the alarm bells into the village I've grown here in Colorado, talented intelligent people who have been key to letting me continue to do this crazy thing that I love for so many years now.  And that's where it all just gets a bit blurry and difficult to trace.  Everyone was able to provide relief - for a few days, and then it would come crashing right back in.  Four months later, I've seen three orthopedists, one sports medicine specialist, seven physical therapists, two massage therapists, a chiropractor and an acupuncturist.  I've taken a dictionary of medicines, I've been through a glacier of ice, heat, don't even fucking twist your mouth to ask me if I stopped training, stretchy bands, injections, strength, walking, yoga, meditation, therapy.  Nothing has changed.  Without exaggeration, I am in pain all of the time.  That's incredibly hard to type, to admit.  As athletes we are meant to be strong, stoic, tough; we silently agree to never admit to weakness or suffering or distress until it is long over, and then only in flip references to how much it absolutely sucked.  But I am not past it.  It is not over.  And it stopped being about swim bike run quite some time ago.  It became simpler than that - breathe.  Move.  Live.  Many days - just survive.

I've had two MRIs - loudest nap ever!  Both have shown something pretty seriously wrong but somewhat common to athletes of my age, which means the only thing that practitioners can really agree on is that surely it must be something else.  The sports medicine doctor (that I trust inside and out) sent me to the shoulder specialist to get scheduled for surgery, who instead immediately turfed me over to the neck specialist so they could quibble about who would stick needles in me first and where, which pretty well sums up my journey through our healthcare system.  It reminds me of a time about four years ago when cycling was causing knee pain.  The physical therapists all told me I needed a new bike fit and the bike fitters all told me I needed physical therapy and I recall venting in frustration to my friend Scott, I need a physical therapist who also is a bike fitter just so that he can't kick me out of his fucking office.  And somewhere in the beginning of all of this, a saddle-sore-turned-cyst reappeared, ruptured and needed to be surgically cleaned out.  Then a huge hematoma developed so on top of everything else, I've been frightening a completely different set of MDs about my seven-week-old purple donkey testicle that refuses to die or be swallowed back into my body and honest to God I would love it if I could go just three days in a row without someone asking me casually and without humor, how's the vag today? 

Chronic pain is different from an injury.  This isn't, my knee hurts when I run after fifteen minutes.  This is, my neck hurts when I breathe.  How to baffle all the, well if it hurts when you do that, don't do that doctors around!  It's nerve pain, I think we are nearly agreed.  It's chronic, it moves around, and if I could amputate my neck and the entire right side of my body above the waist, I would do it.  That's where I'm at.  Being in pain this long has changed me, not for the better.  All my dials are cranked up to 10.  You know that morning, the one where you oversleep and forget to eat breakfast and then drop your coffee cup on the floor in the garage where it shatters but you're late to work so you have to leave it and then someone cuts you off in traffic and instead of giving you the finger gives you the smug little wave, you know the flash of pure rage you get in that moment?  That's how I feel, all of the time.  And I may be a dramatic person but this is not drama talking, this is honesty stripped raw, any filter or fluff worn away by how plain old hard the last few months have been.  I'm angry at how I ended up here, at how no one has fixed it yet, at the people who I feel like have abandoned me along the way because they can't be troubled by a complicated problem that doesn't have a clear answer or an athlete who dares to feel pain, at the fact that I can't do something as simple as get out of bed in the middle of the night to pee without wincing.  And I don't think anyone really knows how bad it has been, other than my husband, who is destined for some sort of mega cotton-candy-naked-lady-wine-coolers-and-cocaine-bounce-house afterlife after the last five months (not to mention, seven years) of surviving our marriage together.  He knows, he feels it too, he would do anything to fix it and he might be the one person on the planet more angry than me about what has happened here; I know how hopeless he feels, every day, that he can't take away my pain.

I know I've retreated from the world, it's hard to have the energy to support the friends you love when everything is though a haze, and that is a horrible truth for someone who loves people the way I do.  Eight.  My pain is an eight.  Each new doctor, therapist, everyone I see asks the same stupid fucking question, where is your pain today?   I've spent a lot of time facedown on a lot of tables repeating the word fuck and counting to three because I can't process any more numbers than that, I've had a lot of really horrible close-to-blacking-out treatments and a lot of those things have worked.  For a day.  Maybe two or three, which is just enough time to shake myself off and believe that I'm at the end of this hell, just enough time to breathe, and then sure enough, it slams back into me and I go down.  Again.  That's even worse than whatever the fuck is going on in my body; this rollercoaster of hope and despair is what is actually going to break me down completely.  When someone asks, hey, are you okay? what they are generally hoping to hear is some version of, yup, hanging in there!  Because after a while it becomes too depressing to repeat all the time, nope, not okay, still in pain, horrible actually, I feel completely broken, my body has failed me, I'm falling apart, I can't bear it, I don't know what to do and I'm not actually sure I'm going to make it here.  The truth is awkward, it's exhausting, no one likes to be the friend that's in crisis all the time, no one wants to complain constantly, so at some point it just becomes easier to lie, or to simply not reply at all, to hide just a little bit more in the blazing nightmare that your life has become.  I know that there are people in the world dealing with chronic pain much worse and longer lasting than what I have been through and I am here to say that I honestly do not understand how they do it.  I'm not sure I could do it, I don't want to live like this, I can't, I won't.  

It would be easy to blame it all on ironman, of course everyone wants to dump it on either the distance or my own stupidity, but here's the thing.  On the inside, I work hard to do this right.  I educate myself, I do the strength training, the recovery, the sleep, mostly the nutrition (cookies have never herniated a disc or compressed a nerve bundle or torn a labrum in any research that I have read), I don't cut corners, I do the 1%, I don't do this alone, and after so many years in this sport I know that you do not get to nine finish lines if you are being a jackass about it.  I surround myself with people that I trust in order to protect myself, to protect my life in this sport that I love, to protect my own body, and while sometimes I have been really incredibly wrong about the people I have chosen to trust, this seems like a pretty harsh way to learn that lesson.  

When things fall apart, everything gets pared down.  Friendships, travel, adventure, joy, it all gets cut away.  I don't like who this has made me, this fat angry person who cries all the time and flies off the handle at nothing because my sympathetic nervous system is so beyond wrecked that I have no ability to tolerate even the smallest amount of stress.  This isn't who I want to be.  I want to be a person who rips into life full tilt, with humor, joy, gratitude, patience, the girl who bounces off to Hawaii on three days notice, who drags you up a mountain at 4am just to see the sun rise like it doesn't happen every day, who shows up with tequila when life takes a rotten dive, who is up for any adventure, who tackles fear by running straight at it, who will maybe always have five pounds to lose, the girl who works hard to love life so damn hard.  I miss it.  I miss that life, I miss movement, it's as simple as I miss my bike.  I miss my own happiness so much that it's hard to breathe if I stop and think about it for more than a moment before doggedly cracking on, calling another doctor, getting another opinion, pulling the ice pack out of the freezer with a sigh.  Which is why I had hoped that I could write about this once I came out the other side, because then I could rationally discuss the science of everything that happened and how it was solved, only show the highlights, the patience and grace that everyone talks about as a virtue of devastating injury.  But that's not where I am.  Instead, I am here.  I am broken.  I am in pain.  I am not okay.