Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Winter of a Malcontent

Where do I even start to discuss the way I'm feeling right now?  I look out my window and see a cold, dark winter day, and actually wish I were outside. I feel weak and soft.  I am in pain.  I feel disappointed in myself for letting myself be in this position.  What hubris brought me here?  What weakness is so innate in me that I ended up here?  Why can't I be healthy?  Why is it any time I make progress with my body something happens to break it down?

I am recovering from surgery from a labral tear in my hip.  Labral tears don't happen from sitting around.  They happen from overuse.  Too much movement in the hip joint can tear or crush the ring of cartilage covering the hip joint (the labrum) which is what happened to me.  I didn't have to have the surgery.  I could have just lived with the pain as it was not terribly intense and could easily be avoided by avoiding certain types of movement.  That didn't seem like a good way to live, so I had the surgery.

Having the surgery means months of recovery.  I am going into two months after recovery and I am staring down another 3-4 months of not living the active life I would want. I can't ride.  I can't dance.  I have to do only the gentlest of gym exercises. I don't know what to do with myself.  I certainly have options for activities to occupy my time, but I don't know where to start.  I feel as if my entire identity as an active and healthy woman has been stolen from me. 

It took years for me to develop a healthy identity.  I was born the ultimate non-athlete.  I have horrible memories of sports and playground games from my childhood. I was uncoordinated and slow.  If the ball was rolling to me, I couldn't kick it.  If the ball was flying toward me, I couldn't hit or catch it.  I couldn't run.  I still joke that I live on an invisible treadmill because no matter how much energy I put into running, I never seem to go anywhere.  In gym class and on the playground I couldn't go fast enough to avoid being tagged or make it to the base.  In addition, I was so clumsy I couldn't seem to go very long without twisting my ankle, stubbing my toe, or skinning my knees.  I could easily trip over my own feet.  Even if I managed to survive without being out or falling down, I would end up out of breath and coughing for a half an hour afterwards.  It didn't help that my childhood was so overprotected and sheltered that I never really had much exposure to the active outdoor play that defined the childhoods of most of my generation. 

I was ready to shun all physical activity and spend my days on the couch with a book or in front of the TV with a neverending bowl of snacks, but puberty intervened.  I hit it early and became pretty heavy very fast.  Combine that with the constant messages from both school and the media on the importance of exercise, I knew I had to do something.  I didn't want to die young.  Let's face it.  I also didn't want to be fat. I swallowed all of the media messages that I should look a certain way and I needed to burn calories to do that.

I started out finding activities I believed I could enjoy and branched out from there.  I loved dance, but I gave up on it an early age due to my lack of coordination.  I took up ballet and jazz intermittently.  I loved horses, so I finally got my wish for riding lessons.  I wasn't very good at these activities, but I was determined to do them.  I'm naturally quite lazy and unfocused, but I'm also rather stubborn and I used that stubbornness to keep plugging at it.

I eventually added the typical calisthenics and aerobics that were considered the gold standard of women's exercise in those days (Jane Fonda was big then).  I stayed active this way all through high school where I had my own horse and was riding nearly daily.  I found I liked being active.  I liked the way I felt when I exercised.  I continued in college.  I couldn't ride anymore while I was away, and the only dance classes I took was a semester of ballet and some occasional pay-as-you-go jazz classes, so I mostly stuck to traditional gym exercise.  I was also lucky enough to have year-round access to an indoor pool.  At that point exercise had become a big enough part of my life that even though I had less access to fun exercise, I found I couldn't be without exercise at all.

After college I joined a gym.  I spent the past 20 years being super-focused.  I studied every article, book, and website I could get my hands on that dealt with fitness, especially weight training.  I was back to riding.  For the first time in my life I took dance classes regularly and consistently.  I never missed more than a week or two at a time of regular gym time.

Working out regularly gave me confidence.  It gave me confidence in my abilities.  It helped me overcome my insecurities about my klutzy childhood.  When I worked out with trainers they were always telling me how strong I was.  I was always ready to take on new challenges.  I took capoeria lessons for a couple of years.  I kayaked whenever I went on vacation and also tried stand-up paddle boarding.  I lifted heavier and heavier weights.

Eventually I got over the biggest hurdle of all.  I decided to try to run.  I forced myself to get over my loathing of running.  I felt that it might be the only way to ever get my body to lose the fat I was so desperate to lose.  I hated every step, but I kept on until I could competently run 3 miles on the treadmill.  I even made attempts to run outside.  Running was the gold standard of fitness and I was going to be fit.

Things began to happen.  First there were issues with my shoulder.  I had pain when I lifted my right arm at certain angles.  It took a couple months of rest and working around it to end that pain. Then running started to take its toll.  I could run for a few months only to develop the beginnings of tendinitis in my left foot.

One day the worst happened.  I was in the gym working out, and suddenly a pain shot through my knee.  I was too stubborn and determined to finish my workout to stop, so I kept doing what I was doing.  I put a knee brace to go to work and hoped for the best.  A few days later I went to dance class and a simple kicking motion brought my class to a screeching halt.  I couldn't deny I had something wrong with my knee.   I took this injury to the doctor.   Rest just wasn't cutting it.  After a few months of physical therapy I gave up running for good.  Running and I weren't meant for each other and I told myself there were other ways to be fit.  I didn't need to run.

All the working out did nothing to counteract my voracious appetite.  I ate plenty of vegetables and fruits and drank primarily water, but I ate a large amount of bad stuff.  You could say I just ate a large amount - period.  By the end of 2012 I was a good 20-30 pounds overweight despite the exercise, vegetables, and water.  I needed to do more about it.

In 2013 I joined the Lean Eating program.  I chronicled those adventures here on the blog.  It helped me fine tune my eating habits.  It also gave me a very focused and powerful workout program.  I had never felt so fit and lean as I was on that program.

On the downside, in October of 2013 I began feeling some pain in my hip when I bent over.  I thought it was just a strain from overuse.  The pain never got worse so I didn't worry too much about it.  I decided if it still hurt by summer, I'd have it looked at.  That brought me to where I am now.

I was determined to stay active and in shape despite the surgery.  I had a plan.  Just because my hip was injured and squats and deadlifts would be out of the question for a while, I could still work my upper body.  I planned to keep doing pushups and pullups and any other exercise that didn't involve hip bending until I was fully recovered.  I would have killer guns by springtime.

In the weeks leading up to surgery I began backing off my lower body work and began working on that upper body program.  I was determined to do pullups without an assist band by springtime.

Two weeks before surgery I began to have pain in my elbow.  I tried to blow it off.  I tried to rest it.  Nothing helped.  The only time I didn't feel any pain was during the few hours post-surgery.  For a little while I had hoped that the forced rest had finally allowed my elbow to heal completely.  Then I realized I wasn't feeling any pain because I was on so many drugs.

Internet diagnosis is never a good idea, but I was too busy recovering from hip surgery to see a doctor about yet another pain.  I searched a few medical websites and found my problem was pretty obvious and easy to diagnose.  I most certainly have medial epicondylitis, AKA "golfer's elbow" (It's like tennis elbow, but tennis elbow hurts on the outside of the joint and golfer's elbow hurts on the inside of the joint).

So now in addition to no riding or dancing or lower body work, I really can't do much of anything.  I have enough medical bills to deal with as I recover from my hip, and too much of my time is taken up with hip therapy.  I don't have time or money to deal with doctors and physical therapy for my elbow.  I spend a lot of time online looking for treatments I can do myself.  So far this has been promising, but it's too soon to tell if it's going to help me heal completely.

I am feeling such a sense of disgust with my body.  I wanted to be strong and capable.  I used to think that my thick build meant that I was sturdy and indestructible.  I was no skinny fragile flower.  I could laugh at those weak-looking model types who looked as if they could break if you breathed on them.  I wasn't like that.  The problem is I am like that.  I am exactly like that.

My body frustrates me.  It likes its fat.  It likes to hold on to that fat.  Why am I so attracted to sweet and high fat food?  Why do I feel so hungry just an hour after a filling but healthful meal?  Why does it take forever for exercise to have any effect?  I can't seem to get muscle definition easily.

Why is my body so wretchedly unathletic?  Why can't I make strength gains easily?  Why does it take so long to make progress in the gym?  Why do I have to work so hard to gain any sort of athletic skill?  Why am I so clumsy and slow?  I have friends who seem to make twice the gains in the gym that I make in less than half the time.  Why can't I put on muscle and develop more grace and skill easily?

Yes, I do resent my friends sometime.  I remember chatting with a fitness-minded friend who grew up seriously doing different types of athletic competition.  She goes into the gym after a break and manages to get herself back in fighting form in no time.  She works with a personal trainer regularly and at one point was training for a half marathon.  I asked her once if she ever worried about injury with all of that running.  She looked at me as if I had two heads and shrugged.  "I've always been athletic,"she said.

It's not just my athletic friends that make me feel so weak and inadequate.  I speak to many of my friends who share my bodily insecurities and foibles and yet they are running races and doing Crossfit and engaging in whatever other exercise I wouldn't dare do for fear of finding yet another part of my body to injure.   I don't just envy friends.  I resent strangers.  I go to the gym and see fellow members engaging in all kinds of crazy routines made up of extremely tough exercises.  I want to be doing what they are doing so badly.  Envy is not a happy trap to be caught in, but I just can't help myself.  Why am I hit with the double whammy of both unathleticism and extreme fragility? My body type is heavy and slow, so I try, for the sake of my own health, to change that, and it just breaks. Why are my friends still killing it at the gym? It's not fair!

Obviously perspective is needed here.  My situation is temporary.  My hip will heal.  My elbow will heal eventually too, even if it means I will have to go back for more medical treatment and physical therapy.  I am very lucky.  There are people who spend every day in pain, and suffer from physical limitations, and unlike me, will not see an end to their suffering.  My condition is not chronic.  If I complain that my hip or knee or shoulder or elbow hurts, I should be grateful that my arms and legs are attached to my body in order to be hurt.  I need to be grateful that my condition is merely a nuisance.  There are people who are suffering and the only end to their pain will be death.  A labral tear in my hip and epicondylitis in my elbow are painful, but they aren't terminal.  I have good health.  I have life.  I have people to share them with. I know I will be much happier if I stop my whining and enjoy what I do have instead of mourning what I don't.

So how do I move forward?  How do I get through this winter of discontent?  I am no longer the slow and clumsy girl who was picked last for every team.  I am not the strong, fit, proud woman I was a year ago.  I do not know who I will be when I come out on the other side of this.  All I can do is be who I am right now.  I can't be sitting around worrying how I will get back into shape in the two months between full recovery and my July cruise.  I can't even make assumptions that my elbow will be healed by January and start planning my new workout schedule when there are no guarantees that I will be healed by then.  I have to work with what I have in the here and now.

So how do I stay in the here and now?  There is an old saying, "Start where you are.  Use what you have.  Do what you can."  Right now those are words to live by.  Where am I starting?  I'm starting with a body that is quite healthy, but has a couple of injuries.  What do I have?  I have a gym with equipment I can use and modify for my needs and some therapeutic devices for my elbow.  What can I do?  I can ride a stationary bike.  I can do some unweighted half squats and glute bridges.  I can do some unweighted standing lateral leg raises.  In another week I should be able to do the elliptical and some outdoor walking on moderate terrain.  I can do my Therabar exercises with my elbow.  I can pay more attention to my diet and stop partying so hard.  I can join a healthy eating program if finances permit.

What I will do on the other side of this is still a mystery.  I need to learn to be happy with what I have.  The coming months will be an interesting journey.

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