Levels upon levels and the big building of recovery

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about buildings. I’m no real estate mogul, and certainly no engineer, but I can’t stop thinking about a building and how it’s constructed from bottom up.

I think of a building in the midst of construction and the stages of development it goes through. More specifically, I think of the levels of a building. How they get built, one on top of the other, each level relying on those below it and the tallest level, stacked up on the rest, claiming the highest height for itself, until it’s replaced by the next level and it becomes a supporting member of the entire structure, just like its brethren below.

Whenever a new level is being built on a structure, be it a 2 story house or a multistory skyscraper, there is so much that goes into making sure everything below is secure before the next level can be completed. Under construction, a new level always looks so awkward, incomplete, and bare. It’s only once it’s finished that suddenly, everything looks right, it all makes sense again and pretty quickly, it’s hard to imagine that building without that added level.

I swear I’m going somewhere with this…

For the last few months, I’ve felt like a massive level has been under construction on my building of recovery. After a spring and summer where I had noticeable, small and large achievements on a seemingly consisten basis, it’s been a….how would I say it….interesting…time recently.

There haven’t been any major breakthroughs I can hang my hat on. I don’t have any big accomplishments to match some of the developments I had in the past, developments I could feed off of and rely upon to propel myself forward.

So I keep thinking of these levels being constructed in buildings and how crucial it is for everything below to be stable, strong and 100% reliable before the next level can be built. I figure that all of the hard work I’m doing now is laying the foundation (pun fully intended) for the next breakthrough. I tell myself that my upcoming accomplishment must be a good one, since it’s needing all of this extra time and attention in the construction phase before it can be completed and realized. I guess in my building metaphor, not all levels are created equal.

Some are constructed and completed soon after the previous ones, while others are those needy, complicated, annoying projects that need all of those extra materials and time before they’re ready to be finished.

I keep telling myself that I can’t stop now, that I’ve put too much time and effort over these last few months building and strengthening everything for the next major breakthrough, and that my hard work will be realized. I’m looking forward to that imminent moment, when the awkward looking phase is over, when the next level has been built and when I can look at the new construction and wonder how it could possibly have existed any other way. Yeah, I’m ready for that moment to come…

Summertime Nostalgia

“So what do I need for backpacking this weekend? It’s going to be a shorter trip but I still need food, clothes, and supplies for three full days and nights… And next Saturday I’m going on a river float all day with friends, should be so much fun! Oh and I have to remember to borrow my roommate’s water filter for the next camping trip coming up in a couple weeks. Don’t want to be stuck in the mountains without sipping the good stuff from the streams and rivers!”

These were the typical thoughts running through my head during the summer time a couple years ago. Having spent the previous numerous summers working in the travel industry and with little free time, I had come to appreciate having the freedom to explore the many outdoors opportunities that were at my footsteps in Northern California. Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, the giant Sequoia trees, Big Sur, the coastal redwoods, and many of the gorgeous peaks of the Sierra mountains were all less than a half day’s drive from my urban life in the middle of San Francisco. I had the unique opportunity to live in a dynamic and fast-moving city and yet have access to some of the most beautiful natural scenery around; a truly fortunate situation to be in and one for which I was continuous grateful.

Fast forward to now and some things haven’t changed. My friends are still going on those backpacking trips, they’re still hard at work seeking undiscovered lakes or less traveled trails to explore and planning fun adventures. The river floats are still happening as are the epic day long bike rides that customarily include a pastry and coffee jolt or a cold beer conclusion. The roaring campfires (and the stories and laughter that come with them) are still burning strong, and the miles and miles of the fun-filled drives crisscrossing the varied topography of the California that I love so dearly are still being driven, albeit in slightly nicer cars reflecting the improved career trajectories of my thirty-something social community.

The major difference, of course, is that I’m not there.

It’s like watching a movie you’ve seen a hundred times but with one of the major actors missing. It doesn’t feel right.

To say that I’m envious of my friends’ adventures is the understatement of the century. I would give anything to be tromping through the mountains with a backpack on my shoulders, laughing and chatting and admiring the grandeur of mother nature’s best offerings. And honestly, the one thing that may be harder than not being on those adventures, is hearing about them first-hand and masking my frustration and resentment with my attempts to conjure sincere excitement.

So what’s keeping me sane this summer? Pretty simple actually. My desire to reach my shorter-term goals of recovery, some of which are looming closer on the horizon, fuel me just as much as a summer adventure would. I know that the sense of accomplishment I would receive from standing up on my own or taking a few unassisted steps in a walker would fulfill me more than these adventures did in the past. I’ve worked so hard for so long that seeing the fruits of my labor would give me immense satisfaction. While my current summer adventure is a bit more lonely, and a lot less scenic than my former escapades, the rewards are, to say the least, tantalizing, validating and worthwhile.

Two years since, and still moving forward

Yesterday, July 8th, marked two years since my Spinal Cord Injury, since everything that I knew about the world, about myself, about my body, and my life was turned upside down in an instant and launched me on this whirlwind of a journey that is recovery.

I wasn’t entirely sure if I was going to post about this strange date as its relevance is quite insignificant to me now. I remember last year, as my one year anniversary approached, I was stressed out and anxious (read my posting here if you’d like). Because the traditional thinking in our medical system says that most or all of recovery from SCI will occur in the first year or, if you’re lucky, in two, it was disheartening to think about the magnitude of that date and all that it implied. Oh how so much has changed…

Shortly after that day, I stopped counting the months since my accident. The eighth of the month, which had always been so present in my day-to-day consciousness especially as the calendar changed and a new month would arrive, became irrelevant. For the last many months, I actually completely forgot about the eighth of the month as I realized how unimportant it was. I told myself from the beginning that I was going to engage on the path to full recovery and that I would give everything I had to achieve my goals. Therefore, why should an antiquated way of thinking – an outdated medical approach that has been proven wrong repeatedly by those around me, one that quells and limits the spirit of recovery instead of encouraging it to flourish – why should that define my recovery? It shouldn’t, and it won’t.

I fully believe, as I have since the day I was injured, that with perseverance, diligence, unwavering commitment and by keeping my dream alive within me, that I can and will get back on my feet, no matter how long it takes. Also, I can’t overlook that an exceptional amount of my healing and breakthroughs have occurred only in the last few months! Maybe my spinal cord and my body did need a longer period of time to process and accept that initial trauma, but what started as the weakest me that me has ever known, has transformed into a period of continuous recovery and accomplishments.
Although it has been two very hard years, more trying, devastating, arduous, and insurmountably difficult than most anyone can imagine, I have learned tremendously during this time. I have challenged myself to an extreme I could never imagine and I have witnessed how much love surrounds me on this fight of mine. For that, I’m grateful. For the opportunity to continue on the path to realize my dream of walking and running again, I am hopeful and I continue to fight.
So thank you two year anniversary, thank you meaningless calendar date, thank you for reminding me that the human potential is not defined by 12 month cycles or doctors’ prognoses. If the spirit to heal is present, then the healing will persist. And further forward I push, looking forward to the next breakthrough and the next stage of recovery.

My own little island

Let my absence from my blog end! I’ll explain later why I haven’t kept up for a while but for now, it’s time for another update.

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that to continue my effective recovery from Spinal Cord Injury (SCI), I have to remain isolated on my own little island.

I’ve probably mentioned in the past that recovery from SCI is all over the place, to say the least. Depending on a variety of factors (many of which are not well understood, no matter what the medical community says) one’s ability to regain function, get stronger and recover is largely unpredictable. I’ve also explained how one’s initial functional capabilities following the injury is largely dependent on where the injury occurred on the spinal cord (higher up towards your neck and head or lower down towards your tailbone). But here’s where the ambiguity of this injury (and its recovery) becomes prominent.

People who are injured in the same exact location on their spinal cord can have drastically different capabilities and recoveries. For example, I’ve met a few dozen other people who broke the exact same vertebra in their neck as I did, C5 and C6 in the lower neck. Each and every one of these people’s situations is different, as is their respective recovery.

Unlike more common and less severe injuries (i.e. a torn ACL, broken bone, strained muscle), there is no standard protocol for how to pursue recovery following a SCI, even for each specific level of injury. Some are left with little function in their hands while others have an iron grip; some with zero core control, others with boxer’s abs; some can wiggle a toe or lift up a leg and some can’t even feel where their lower body is in space (proprioception). As a result, the timetable for recovery is all over the place.

I bring this all up now because the desire to compare one’s injury to others’ progress and recovery is, I think, inevitable and only natural. I hear of another person with a C5/C6 injury who was able to move something or regain function at a certain time after their injury and I immediately start to compare to myself.

“Can I do that yet? What does it mean if I can or can’t?”

“I wasn’t able to do this certain thing that someone else did at a specific point after the injury, so am I doomed?”

“Well, if I wasn’t able to do this function at this time then I may never be able to.” 

“If this one specific aspect of recovery was going to happen (like it did for someone else) then it should have happened by now.” 

These are the thoughts that run through my head when I talk to anyone else with a SCI. While it’s inspiring and motivating to hear that someone was able to perform a specific task or function, it also messes with my head and threatens to endanger my confidence and resolve. That’s why I believe that comparing one’s SCI to someone else, no matter how similar they may seem, is a zero sum game.

I don’t want to stop these conversations with others about their recoveries, so what I’ve had to do is place myself on my own little island of recovery, and force myself to remain there, all by myself. It’s difficult because I want solidarity with others. I want to hear someone tell me that it’s going to happen to me because it happened to them. I want to think that my recovery is linked to others, that I can use their timetables to structure my own and manage my expectations, but that’s just not the way it’s going to be.

This recovery is a solitary one. Comparing doesn’t get me anywhere, which is why I’ll stay on my own little island, and keep working towards my goal.

***

I’ve been away from the blog for a bit because I’ve had my hands full following up on my survey and garnering momentum for a petition I started to change the way SCI is approached and dealt with. My goal is to get the word out, get as many signatures as possible to my petition so that I can get it out to multiple forms of media. If you’re interested in signing my petition, check it out below. If you have any connections to media (journalists, websites, news sources….anything at all) and you want to share them with me, I’m grateful in advance.

http://www.change.org/petitions/healthcare-providers-medical-insurance-companies-provide-the-minimum-care-to-paralyzed-individuals

Olympic Observations

Seven one-hundredths of a second. That’s what separated the gold and silver medal finishers in the Women’s Giant Slalom downhill skiing event in the Sochi Olympics last week. As I was watching, I was struck by the tiny margins of difference that would determine the order of finishers in this event.  To put it another way, the top 9 finishers in the event completed the course within 1.77 seconds of each other! So less than 2 seconds decided the best in the world from the mediocre skiers.

This got me thinking of the athletes and what they do in the three years and 50ish weeks when they’re not in the olympics. Obviously, there’s a tremendous amount of training involved. For some of the more popular sports, the athletes may have the luxury of training nearly full-time while for some of the other olympic sports (i.e. curling, luge), I learned that most of the athletes have full-time jobs and careers and train for their sport on the side. Either way, the amount of hours and time that each of these people puts into practice and training is admirable and remarkable.

So going back to the ski race, I couldn’t help but feel astounded that for these skiers, who are the absolute best in the world, four years of intense and daily training and thousands upon thousands of repetitions of the same movements all lead to a day where their fates are decided in mere milliseconds.

This got me thinking about my own regimen and my own olympics (of sorts) that I’m training for. Despite my lifelong athleticism and passion for an active lifestyle, I know that before my accident, it was hard for me to fathom the life of an olympic athlete, spending THAT many hours of everyday training for an event in which you may not even be selected to compete. How could you justify waking up early, staying up late, sacrificing sleep and time for other aspects of life to train for an activity while knowing that you MAY have a chance to possibly go up against the best in the world and then and only then, maybe you will be seven one-hundredths of a second fast enough to win gold??!

Since the day I got out of surgery to repair my badly broken neck, since the day when I knew that my body was damaged yet my spirit was more resilient than ever, and since I knew that the road back to my feet would be a long and arduous one, I decided that I would do everything in my power and spend as many hours a day and as many days as necessary working towards my goal.

In this regard, I share something with those olympic athletes. Our commitments to our respective goals are unquestionably similar – I would even argue that I want to walk more than any athlete wants to win gold but I guess that’s gonna be hard to prove.

And so I understand now why someone would train so much for so long despite such slim chances of reaching their goals and winning the race, and being better than everyone else out there. If you want it badly enough, then no amount of practice or training or repetitions will be too daunting to prevent you from getting there, just seven one-hundredths of a second fast enough.

Never satisfied

I’m never satisfied. It’s as simple as that, specifically in regards to my recovery.

As I write that, and I imagine as you may read it at first glance, it may seem extreme. In fact, many friends, family and readers of this blog have told me that I need to be better about acknowledging and appreciating the accomplishments that I make. As a result, I have put a lot of effort into recognizing my milestones and achievements, as small or seemingly insignificant as they may be. While this continues to be a huge challenge for me, I try to improve upon it everyday, as I know that my recovery is a long process and it’s impossible to reach the light at the end of the tunnel without appreciating those moments in between. All of that said, there’s something I really love about not being satisfied and I feel compelled to acknowledge the benefits of this stubborn, hard-headed approach that I embody.

I would attribute a great deal of my improvements and physical gains to this inherent characteristic of mine. You see, I LOVE to push myself. I always have. So when I accomplish anything, it’s natural for me to think to myself, “Well, that was good, but what’s next? How do I get even better?” When it comes to accomplishments and achievements, I can’t help but think of a cheesy yet very salient quote from some old martial arts movie where the sensei warns the student not to get overconfident because, “there is always someone better than you.” (If you know what this movie is, feel free to educate me)

It’s the same reason why I can’t stand arrogance or conceit in people. Why tell the world you’re really good at something when you always have a chance of getting better?

Ok so I realize this last bit may be misleading so let me clarify. I’m not saying that recognizing one’s accomplishments automatically equals arrogance. And I don’t think that we should all just wallow in mediocrity and never celebrate positive things. (As I’ve written about many times, I almost unwaveringly tend to see the positive in everything). But what I am saying is that by leaning to the side of under-acknowledging and downplaying my achievements, and by never feeling fully satisfied, I avoid complacency and I maintain my intense motivation and commitment to my recovery.

As I continue on this wild journey, I maintain the promise I’ve made to many people to stop and appreciate those small victories but by adhering to my stubbornness, competitiveness and will, I’ll keep my laser focus and I’ll keep going strong, always looking for the next challenge to conquer.

A few thoughts on independence

What does it mean to be independent? What kinds of actions or activities are essential to do ourselves in order to feel satisfied with our own abilities and without having to rely on others? What would be the functions you would have to do in order to feel like you have the most minimal sense of independence?

Often times, when strangers look at me, they see the wheelchair, they see me unwillingly sitting down amidst a sea of standing humans and they may think, “well that guy can’t walk at this moment, but otherwise he seems to be doing ok.” My friends often tell me something similar, that I don’t look like I’ve suffered a major trauma anymore, that I’ve gotten strong enough to the point where I simply look like a normal dude, who just happens to be sitting in a wheelchair.

One of the more unnoticed aspects of Spinal Cord Injury is the loss of independence. To go from being able to do nearly everything for yourself to suddenly have to rely on others for practically everything is an awful reality of this situation. Many times I’ve heard the belief that there is no such thing as full independence, that we are all dependent on others in some way. This may be true, but to have any of your independence taken away from you is incredibly humiliating, frustrating and devastating.

I absolutely hate the fact that I have to ask for help of any kind from other people, and that it happens so frequently. Before my accident, I was thrilled to be as independent as I was, to the point that one of the main reasons I chose to ride a bike as my primary form of transportation was so I wouldn’t have to rely on the potential complications of a car or the improbable and unreliable nature of public transportation. I wanted to be as self-reliant as possible. If there was anything about my life that I wasn’t satisfied with, it didn’t take me long to take initiative, come up with a plan and make a change. (Granted, I was – and still am – fortunate enough to live in a society and country where so much was available to me and I actually had the opportunities to make significant life changes…I don’t take this for granted).

Nowadays, I find myself frequently prioritizing the actions and situations that I most greatly wish I could do independently. To say that the loss of independence that has come with this injury is a blow to my pride is a massive understatement. It’s one of the things that bothers me multiple times a day, everyday. But at the same time, I’ve been able to appreciate the massive gains I’ve made while remaining focused and motivated to continue to improve.

So I want to end by acknowledging what made me write this post now. A friend, and fellow SCI survivor, recently made a short video emphasizing the next step in her quest for independence and watching it made me think about all of these questions and about how my own thoughts on independence have changed since my injury. So I’d like to encourage you to think about what it would be like if you instantly lost the ability to do most things for yourself, if you had to rely on others for those things that you used to do without any thought or consideration, and what things are most important to you, for your independence.

If you’re interested, here’s the link to the video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTDZ7pZYqbg&feature=youtu.be

If you build it, will it come? And when? And how? And….

One of the most memorable movie quotes of my childhood was from “Field of Dreams” where Kevin Costner is told, “if you build it, he will come” in reference to building a baseball diamond in his cornfield which will summon his beloved baseball players from the past to come and play ball. A pretty straightforward cause and effect statement. Do this, and that will ensue.

I find myself thinking of this quote a lot recently, in the context of my recovery and dealing with all of the questions and doubt that arise and try to throw me off track. I’ve been “building it” for over a year now. This time last year is when I felt strong enough to ignore the lifestyle of adaptation and flat out laziness that the medical establishment was providing me, and took the initiative to start an aggressive routine of rehab, exercise and physical and mental hard work.

Up until my accident, I had always understood that the causal relationship between hard work and reward was reliable and relatively short-term, particularly with physical improvements (I wrote an entire post about this subject). Now, after a year of working so hard everyday, of literally channeling so much of my energy towards recovery and healing, I’m often left wondering…ok, can someone throw me a bone here? I need something to happen already!

Yes I’ve had improvements, yes my health and overall strength has improved, yes I can still wiggle my toe, yes I can sit taller, push further and continue to challenge my capabilities and improve upon them, but all of that said, I have to put this out there: I need a breakthrough.

I’m reminded of the conversations I’ve had with friends so many times about being single and wanting to find a girlfriend. Or of changing job paths and furiously job hunting and the advice we would always give each other when frustrations would hit new highs. “You’re looking too hard for it. Sometimes these things happen when we ease up on searching or expecting them, and then all of a sudden, boom! it happens.”

I have no doubt that this applies to my current situation. I want improvement badly. I want validation for all of this hard work I’ve done and I want it to be more than a toe I started wiggling nine months ago or gradual strength that I’ve built up over time. But I’m looking so hard for it! I wake up every morning and wonder if this will be the day that I’ll have that breakthrough. I’m trying not to expect it, but I expect it. And then I try to rid myself of the expecting of not expecting. And so it goes….

I wish this injury was more forgiving in this way. I wish there was a formula and even if I knew it would take a long time, I could find peace in knowing that the next breakthrough would indeed arrive. But that’s not the way this injury is. It rips you apart and takes away everything and leaves you with more doubt, uncertainty and ambiguity than you could ever imagine.

I can hear the advice from everyone already: Get rid of the expectations. Cultivate patience. Find peace with the situation. Make the most of the present moment without any consideration of the future and what it will bring. Life is too short so enjoy what you have right now and relish every moment.  I say, easier said than done. 

The funny thing is, I’ve actually been able to do all of these things but only to a certain extent. Much of my efforts recently have revolved around patience and letting go of expectations, and I’ve certainly gotten better at this. I have no choice but to continue doing these things and physically continuing to work as hard as possible but I still can’t help thinking that because I’m building it, it will come…

Sharing what inspires me

I’ve had the great fortune of being told that my blog is inspiring to people. I started this blog simply as a means of communicating the challenges and triumphs of my recovery from this devastating injury in an efficient and interesting way. So whenever someone tells me that my words are inspiring, I’m honored, flattered and overwhelmed with gratitude. In that same spirit, I want to take a moment and share some of the resources, stories, and people out there who have inspired me throughout my journey of recovery.

One of the initial (and perpetual) challenges of Spinal Cord Injury is the lack of information and resources. In the hospital, they gave me a book that probably every person with a SCI receives upon leaving their inpatient rehab facility. The front cover has a smiling guy sitting in his wheelchair with an almost sadistically grinning child in his lap and alongside him is an attractive woman and a creepily friendly-looking German Shepherd, with the title: “Yes, you can! A guide to self-care for persons with Spinal Cord Injury.”

Instead of sharing the inspirational stories of others with SCI who have recovered, of those who have challenged their condition and come out victorious, they want you to accept your fate as a “disabled” person and start getting used to your “new” life. Complete with a smiling child and a menacing dog.

That’s exactly why I decided to create a new page on my blog entitled, “Inspiration & SCI Resources.” After over a year of living with this injury and countless hours of research, reading and internet searches, I have collected quite a bit of information on SCI and the people it has affected.

Now I want to share those stories that have most inspired me, those people who I’ve learned about who motivate me to keep fighting and to keep working hard towards my goal. We live in a society that emphasizes individuality and independence, but the reality is that none of us can achieve our objectives without the help or presence of others. I feel like it’s essential for me to recognize the inspirational stories that have most helped me through my recovery thus far, and hopefully serve as a resource for anyone looking for either an inspirational story or more information on SCI.

On a final and slightly unrelated note, my friends recently organized a fundraising event in which I gave a speech about the importance of words and why specific words matter so much to my recovery, and thanks to a generous friend who photographed and recorded the whole event, we have a video of the talk which I’d like to share here. It’s more than a couple minutes long so I don’t expect everyone to watch, but if you do and want to share your thoughts, you know how to find me.

http://steinbergimagery.info/arash-bayatmakou-words-matter/