Five Years On…

I have a very vivid memory of the first day of school in fourth grade. I remember the begrudging acceptance that summer vacation was over, the yearning for just one more long day spent outside and out of the confines of school, and looking up at the calendar on the wall, next to the teacher’s desk, with SEPTEMBER folded open. I remember thinking to myself that it could literally be an eternity before all those ensuing months would pass, the calendar would flip to June and the liberation of summer would commence anew.

I don’t know about all of you but for the elementary school me, nine months felt like—and turned out to be—a very long time. By the time the following summer came, it seemed like I had been through endless glances at the calendar and a brutally long build up to the end of the school year.

We all know that as we get older, time does indeed move faster since a week, month, or year represents a smaller and smaller fraction of our full lives.

Today marks five years since my life was turned upside down by a spinal cord injury. Five years since everything I knew about my body and how I interacted with the world was broken, shattered, and left to be pieced back together (literally and figuratively).

Five years. 260 weeks. Half a decade. Has it felt like a long time? Or has it gone by fast? The answer, as you can probably imagine, is both.

On the one hand, five years have gone by surprisingly quickly. The weeks and months do seem to pass faster and faster every year. And I can very clearly remember my life before July 8, 2012 and it doesn’t seem like a long time ago at all. Maybe it’s because nearly every night in my dreams I walk, run, play sports and have more control over my body than I do in waking hours. Sometimes, in a lucid dream, I realize what’s happening and I tell myself to savor every second of it, knowing that I will inevitably wake up and go back to a very different reality.

But on the other hand, five years has also felt like a five-term life sentence in prison. To think that I’ve woken up 1825 days and encountered this body is still terrifying. To recognize how many singular moments of struggle, pain and discomfort I’ve experienced is mind-numbing and overwhelming. I can’t even conceptualize how many times I’ve had the wish, prayer and desire to somehow get rid of the impacts of this injury and go back to a day-to-day life that doesn’t need to be planned around managing pain and obsessively analyzing sidewalks, curbs, stairs, ramps and building access. Thousands of times? Millions? Possibly.

When it comes to the time frame of my injury—and especially when I’m approaching an anniversary—people often ask me two related questions:

1. Has living with this injury become easier at all?

2. Have I gotten used to it?

The short answer to both questions is an unequivocal NO.

I’m sorry if that’s not what people want to hear but it’s the truth. I’ve heard other people say, “oh you’ll get used to it” or “it’s not that bad once you figure things out.” In fact, I’ll never forget the hospital worker who told me—just days after my surgery—to look at the bright side: “At least when you go to a baseball game or crowded event you’ll have a comfortable chair to sit in and won’t have to stand in line!” (How or why the hospital employed and allowed that person to speak to people early after their injuries is still beyond me…)

I know of many people who’ve suffered spinal cord injuries who have said that things did get easier after a while, that they did get used to using a wheelchair and while I respect each person’s individual opinion and experience, that approach has not worked for me, and I’m not sure it ever will. I’ve been told I’m hard-headed (true); I’ve been told that my effort to improve my body and work on my recovery is simply delaying the inevitable; and I’ve been told that this injury can’t be beat, so the sooner I “accept my current condition”, the happier I’ll be.

Bullshit.

Yes this recovery hasn’t gone as fast as I would like. Yes I haven’t reached all of my physical or functional goals yet. And yes there is still a long ways to go. But if I had listened to those voices early on, there’s no way I could have stood up and asked Brita to marry me. There’s no way I could have gained enough strength in my abdominals, back and core to train for and complete a five-mile swim. And there’s no way I would have continued to gain physical breakthroughs and new neurological connections in my third, fourth, and fifth years after the injury, long after that two-year window when the doctors said the healing would surely stop.

The truth is that it’s because of, not in spite of, my commitment to my objectives and diligence that some things have gotten easier. But while certain challenges have lessened or been addressed with novel solutions, new challenges have always arisen.

Reducing pain or discomfort in one part of my body has resulted in new pain somewhere else. Because I have sensation all over my body, I am not disconnected from my lower body and know that being in any one position is uncomfortable and unwise. I still have to plan every single day around minimizing physical pain and how much time I spend in the wheelchair.

The psychological burden of dealing with this injury has become more manageable, but by no means would I say that it’s something I’ve become used to. The truth is that it sucked five years ago when I woke up in the hospital, and while many things have changed and improved, it still sucks today. Again, I’m sorry if this isn’t the narrative or story that people want to hear but I’ve only been sincere and genuine in this blog and so I share all of this with the utmost honesty.

One thing I admit I have learned and accepted is how to find joy and embrace moments of happiness despite all of my day-to-day challenges. For the first few years after my injury, I lived with a mindset that I could not and should not allow myself to feel happiness because that would somehow concede and accept defeat. I’ve learned—through the wisdom, love and support of my family, friends and most of all my incredible very-soon-to-be-wife Brita—to allow joy and happiness back into my life.

I no longer push away those experiences. I no longer think of joyful emotions as distractions from my commitment and pursuit of a healthier and stronger body and a more fulfilled life.

So where do all these ramblings leave me right now, on this five year anniversary and moving forward?

I am still working just as hard as ever on improving my condition. I refuse to live a life of perpetual discomfort and pain. I refuse to accept externally imposed limitations and societal and medical customs of what living with a disability should be like. I refuse to abide by a narrative that “it’s all ok now,” that “things aren’t so bad,” that time has healed all the wounds.

I will continue to listen to my body first and foremost. I will work hard and keep striving for new connections and improvements. I will push myself as long as the fire in me burns (and it’s burning as strong as ever now). I will rest when it is needed and beneficial and I will continue to carve out my own path to a better, healthier, more functional, more fulfilling life.

I am still bitter about the prognoses and outdated expectations that the medical establishment set for me. Instead of telling me that all the healing would occur in one year or two max, that after that I wouldn’t get better, I wonder where I would be now if they had provided more encouragement, support and validation for the potential to continue improving for many years to come. Although I never took them for their word or accepted their arbitrary prognostications, I know that those words impacted me profoundly.

In addition to the pursuit of my personal recovery objectives, I will continue to do everything I can to educate, inform, and alter the ubiquitous approach that our medical system still teaches and promotes to people dealing with spinal cord injuries. There is no place for a method that takes away hope and possibility from so many people in their most vulnerable time. This must change.

The human spirit is strong. The will to work towards something seemingly unachievable should not be discouraged or doubted. And our individual and subjective understanding of time, of what days and months and years mean to each of us, and what we each want to do with our limited time on this planet, should be explored and revered.

I never thought I could make it through five years of living with this injury, but I have. And I hope to continue on my path for another five, fifteen or fifty years to come.

Finally finding exhaustion

I want to be exhausted. I want to push myself beyond what I thought was imaginable and then push more. I want that feeling of satisfaction that comes with knowing that I have absolutely nothing left in the tank. And, until recently, I hadn’t found this feeling for years.

I’ve mentioned fatigue quite a bit throughout my posts and it’s always something I struggle to describe clearly. The conversations are often like this:

Them: “How long do you do that exercise before you get tired?”

Me: “It’s hard to say. There are so many factors that go into how I’m doing on a particular day that it’s not always easy to know why my body reacts in certain ways. Some days, I’ll be really tight and it will be hard to move because of that. Other days I just might not connect to the muscles that I want.”

Them: “So you’re just tired from the beginning? Or from something you did the day before?”

Me: “Um… kinda… but not really. It’s not tired, it’s just that I may not have the ability to get the neurological connection to make the movement.”

Them: “You mean like you’re sore?  Your muscles just don’t respond?”

Me: “Yeah sorta like the responding. It’s not soreness. I haven’t felt sore at all in years. At least not in my legs. I’m always sore in my shoulders, neck and arms, like, all the time. But with my legs it’s just… I don’t know… it’s hard to describe.”

And that’s usually where I give up.

In my last post, I talked about neurological fatigue, that unique sensation that best describes that sensation of not being able to connect to a movement or to specific muscles in my lower body. Recently, on my most recent trip to visit Alejandra and applying the lessons of her one-0f-a-kind Neurokinetic Pilates method, I finally found exhaustion. And not the esoteric neurological kind that I have a hard time describing. Just good ol’ fashioned “I want to collapse and lay down and not move” exhaustion. And it felt amazing.

I’ve written extensively about how Alejandra is always able to find and make new connections within my body, and this time was no exception. On the first day I see her, she always asks me what my objective is for the time I’m with her. This time, I repeated the same exact thing I told her last year: that I want to get the connection for hip flexion, that is, to pick up one foot and take a step already…

Unlike last year when she told me that she didn’t think I was ready for that yet and I needed to work on a bunch of other movements in order to get myself strong enough to even be able to attempt hip flexion, this trip was a different story. Alejandra agreed that it was the right time that I try to start tackling this immense challenge for me: going against gravity to lift a foot off the ground step it in front of the other. Sounds simple, but not for me.

Alejandra did what she always does, she took the exercises I was doing (which I shared with videos in my last post), and pushed me much further beyond my comfort zone. The result was that for the first time in years, I was actually 100% physically and mentally tired and exhausted after each day of working with her. She was able to find the limits of both my physical fatigue as well as my neurological fatigue, crush them both and push me much further into an entirely new realm of exhaustion.

My videos are below. The significant thing to understand is that until I saw her, I was doing similar exercises always facing forwards on the CoreAlign machine, with the comfort and security of the ladder in front of me and with both arms bracing me. With her, we turned everything sideways, so that there was literally nothing in front of my knees and I could only hold on with one arm. To say that it pushed my boundaries is a massive understatement and now I have the satisfaction of knowing that in just a couple of weeks, she was able to dramatically push my limits and get me to work in that sweet spot of struggle, abject fear that I may collapse, and the ensuing accomplishment.

And I can finally remember, and relive, the feeling of exhaustion.

 

 

Two wild horses

Recently, more and more time in each session of my rehab has been dedicated to doing a variety of exercises in a standing position. This is following on the work I’ve done using the Neuro Kinetic Pilates method that I’ve learned in Maui and almost always using the Core Align, an amazing piece of Pilates equipment that allows me to push my limits in a standing position while remaining safe and secure and minimizing the risk of falling. (See this previous link to remember what I’m referring to)

By finding new ways to establish movement through my lower body, I’ve encountered a new challenge. I call it the shakes. Put simply, my legs start to shake… and shake… and shake… and just when I think I may be done, my legs shake more. The video below is a perfect example of what I’m talking about and it occurs after some 15-20 minutes of doing squats or lunges or any of the other exercises I’ve been doing recently to target my quads and improve my standing stability.

It took me a while to really understand what this was. At first, when I would tell some people experienced with SCI, they would shrug it off and say that it’s simply clonus and just another typical example of the cervical level injury that I suffered. Clonus is defined as “involuntary and rhythmic muscle contractions” and it is commonly seen in many people with spinal cord injuries. But, like the doctor testing your reflex by tapping your knee with a hammer, clonus is also a reflexive result and can be tested for and replicated by a practitioner. After doing these tests with me, the PT scratched her head in confusion and confirmed that I definitely didn’t have signs of clonus.

So what’s with the shakes?

As with nearly everything else in my path of recovery from SCI, I’ve had to figure it out myself.

To put it as simply as possible, until recently, the controlled movements that I had in my legs were all based on a single movement pattern. Since I was first able to start bridging and standing up independently with a walker, I’ve contracted my leg muscles using a specific pattern of engaging them and it’s gotten me really far.

But since I started doing some new standing exercises a few months ago that target completely different muscles, I’ve established a new pattern of movement and carved out a new neurological pathway. Muscles that haven’t really contracted or have only had minor contractions and been overpowered by other dominant muscles are finally being forced to contract. And since my spinal cord can’t manage the communication between my brain and my legs as effectively as possible, those muscles start freaking out and shaking like crazy. It often feels like I’m trying to stand on two wild horses hell-bent on roaming the countryside.

It takes an extraordinary amount of mental effort for me to keep working these new patterns and strengthening these new neurological connections but it’s a great sign that I’m able to gain new movement and work underutilized muscles that are being forced to step up to the plate and show their stuff.

While I get annoyed with the shaking since it forces me to slow down and struggle through the movements, I still take it as a positive thing. If establishing new neurological connections, gaining strength in previously underperforming muscles and finding new ways of movement mean that I have to deal with two wild horses shaking like crazy, then so be it.

Dimming the muscle switch

With the arrival of 2016, and with it the continued realization that time passes faster and faster every year, it makes me reflect back on the goals and objectives that I set for my recovery last year, to the unfinished goals that I will carry over into the new year and to new objectives I will set for my continued path of spinal cord injury recovery.

I can confidently say that my body has changed significantly in the past year. In the last couple of weeks especially, I’ve been doing a lot more work in standing positions and my trainer has challenged me and in turn pushed the limits of the Pilates equipment (which have probably never been used for some of the exercises we do…) by coming up with novel ways of strengthening my current abilities and building off of those to challenge my body to find the next steps of function.

As a result, my endurance to stay standing – while much less than I would like – is noticeably better than it was even a month or so ago. I’ll share a video below to show one of the recent exercises I’ve been working on and one that went from needing a lot of assistance a couple of months ago, to now being able to control everything relatively smoothly on my own.

So where do I go from here?

One of my main goals for 2016 will be what I’m calling “dimming the switch.” I use the analogy of a light switch because it applies quite well to what I’m referring to.

Right now, the engagement that I get to the muscles of my lower body generally works like a light switch, meaning when I turn a certain set of muscles on or perform a particular movement, those muscles are on 100%, working hard, contracting strongly. When I decide to change positions or turn off, everything just kinda releases all at once. So I’m stuck with a light switch; on or off; 0 or 100%, with not much control of the in between.

For example, in the video above, if I were to try to bend my knees or do that same exercise in a light squat (which I must admit would be rather challenging for anyone), I would crumple to the ground, unable to dim that switch and maintain control of my stance. I either have to stay with legs locked straight or I get nothing at all.

You see where I’m going with this right?

The dimmer switch is essential to any kind of functional movement that I’m working to regain. I have to be able to control some muscles at 50 or 70% and not just 100%. Not only that, but I also have to relearn and retrain myself on how to differentiate one side of the body from the other. In other words, if I’m going to be able to successfully take steps, my left leg must be able to bear weight and be at 80 or 90 or 100% contraction while the right leg is lifted in the air and taking a step. It utterly blows my mind to think about how a healthy body and spinal cord can so naturally manage a movement pattern like walking that may seem simple, but is actually startlingly complex as it’s a consistent dimming up and down of different muscles at all times.

Like so much of what I have understood since my injury, our bodies and our movements are incredible and should not be taken for granted. It’s easy to underestimate just how much is involved with a seemingly simple set of movements, until you’re faced with an entirely different body that doesn’t react the same way.

So I will dedicate 2016 to finding that dimmer switch and being able to control my lower body movements more fluidly and effortlessly.

Stupid comments and positive outcomes

Recent conversation outside my local coffee shop. I’m sitting and chatting with my friend when a woman in her mid 40s, slightly disheveled but generally pretty normal looking, walks out of the café, stops in her tracks about ten feet away and addresses me:

 

Woman: Are you really in a wheelchair? Do you actually need it?

Me: Excuse me?

W: I’m just wondering if you’re actually paralyzed and if you need the chair or if you’re just using it, because…well…you know.

M: Um…do you really think I’d be in this damn wheelchair if I didn’t need to?

W: Well it’s just that you’re sitting with your legs sprawled open and you don’t look like you need to use that chair, so I’m wondering if you’re actually paralyzed.

M: Do you make it a habit of asking strangers such personal questions about their conditions?

W: Well, I know people who are actually paralyzed are usually very open about talking about these things and you just don’t look like you actually need a wheelchair. So, are you or not?

M: This conversation is over.

W: Well! I guess that answers that then, doesn’t it?!

M: You need to leave now lady.

 

She storms off, leaving me to wonder why she’s the one who’s agitated and exasperated.

***

In the time since my spinal cord injury, I have rarely, if ever, had any negative or insulting interactions with strangers in public. Initially, the fear of such an interaction terrified me. I was fearful of going anywhere in public, I was anxious about the looks I would get, the expressions of curiosity and bewilderment I would inevitably see on people’s revealing faces as they walked by me in the street, towering two feet above me.

But time and time again, I’ve been proven wrong. Ninety-eight percent of the time, I’m treated with civility, genuine greetings, and offers to hold the door open or move a chair out of the way to let me through. Of course, every single concession or accommodation that people make for me adds to my immense frustration at not yet being able to move freely on my feet, at eye level, where I want to be. Frustration aside, other than some confused, staring children who often don’t seem to know what to make of a guy in a wheelchair, I’ve become accustomed to cordiality and respect in public.

For that reason, I suppose I was due for a strange and unsettling interaction like this one.

I still hate everything about the wheelchair with the same passion and vitriol that I’ve had since day one. So naturally, I really dislike anyone noticing it or pointing something out about it. I continue to pray and hope for the day when it is a thing of the past and I won’t have to have this unwelcome companion with me at all times. That said, I’m not clueless, I realize that a society full of people who are upright and then a person who’s sitting down, rolling by is going to be noticed, but maybe because of the general progressiveness and open minded mentality of the people where I live, I don’t often have to worry about feeling too noticed for standing out, but of course this time it was different.

If the inappropriate and nosy questioning didn’t prove the nuttiness of this strange and sad woman, then my ensuing conversation with the cafe worker did. He came out, apologized for her behavior and said that she had ruffled some feathers with him as well when she purchased a pastry, ate some of it, complained about its price yet refused a refund, then continued to eat almost the entire pastry before returning to the counter and demanding a refund, which she was politely given. The point was proven: this person didn’t know how to interact with society and in the span of two minutes had angered a handful of people.

As she walked away, my friend (who has been a tremendous source of support and encouragement for me since my injury), instantly knew that I was on the verge of getting upset and deftly changed the course of my emotions. He told me that as crazy and weird as she had been, she was 100% right about one thing: I don’t look like I belong in a wheelchair. He said that he’s been noticing it for quite some time, that my overall health, confidence and increased strength make me look less and less like the vulnerable and weak person that I was not too long ago, and more and more like someone who’s about to jump out of the chair and start running down the street. He pointed out that I was sitting so unusually in the chair, scooted forward on the cushion with my feet on the ground and my legs comfortably spread apart, and the lady just didn’t know what to make of it.

I’m grateful for my friend for helping me take an awkward and potentially frustrating public interaction and treat it as a positive occurrence. In fact, within seconds of Mrs. Nuttipants’ departure, likely to annoy another self-respecting citizen or two, I had forgotten about the entire thing. I realize that had this conversation happened a year ago, I might have had a very different reaction but this time, I got the last laugh.

Standing in the Southwest

We all have sacred places, locations that have a strong link to our emotions and memories, that register some kind of greater meaning within us. One of my most sacred and favorite places in the world is the high desert plateaus and canyons of southern Utah and northern Arizona.

I first came to this region in 2005 when I was working as a trip leader for guests on biking and hiking tours and taking delight in seeing their faces when they experienced this truly special place, unlike any other in the world. It was always the same story, everyone signed up for the trip mostly because of the draw of the Grand Canyon. The other areas we would visit were usually more of an afterthought, an asterisk next to the statement of having seen one of the natural wonders of the world, or as us trip leaders would jokingly refer to it, “the biggest ditch in the world.”

The result was always the same. People usually hadn’t heard much about Bryce Canyon or Zion National Park (not to mention Red Canyon, the Kaibab plateau, Cedar Breaks and some of the other places we passed through), but once they saw all of it, they almost always admitted that the Grand Canyon was just a part of a truly spectacular area, and the other national parks would often cement their presence in their memories stronger than the big ditch.

I spent a good part of three summers in this area, visiting these parks over and over again yet I never got bored of the dramatic cliffs, canyons and geological formations. So it was only natural that when I found out that my fiancé had never been to any of these places, we decided to make a road trip out there. In order to make the long drive a little less painful, and to continue to explore our own state of California, we decided to throw in Death Valley National Park too, for good measure.

I wasn’t sure how I would react to visiting these places again after an eight year hiatus, and more importantly, now in a very different physical situation, where I wouldn’t be able to do the hikes I had done so many times or share my favorite peaks and viewpoints with Brita. What would it be like to visit my sacred place but without the physical ability to experience it as I remember? Was I setting myself up for disaster?

The answer, probably not surprisingly, was mixed. On the one hand, it was extremely difficult to be in beautiful and memorable locations yet constantly feel limited by where I couldn’t go, what I couldn’t see or relive again. On the other hand, I was able to share these places with Brita, to experience seeing them through her eyes and taking joy from that process. Not to mention that simply being in these places, with or without hiking and climbing up to the tops of the mountains, was soothing for my soul. At the end of the day, seeing the late afternoon sun shine on the massive, red, sandstone cliffs of Zion confirmed to me that I had made the right decision to come back.

For the last couple of months, I’ve been practicing standing up by myself, unassisted, in a walker and while it’s certainly not as effortless, long-lasting or smooth as I’d like it to be, it’s a measurable improvement from before. It was only natural then that throughout our road trip we would pull the walker out of the car, and I would rise to my feet and at least get a slightly higher view than from the wheelchair. While it wasn’t a replacement for the inability to go on a hike, and while I still long to climb back up to those peaks and descend into those canyons, it at least made it a tiny bit less painful and a whole lot more memorable. This sacred place remains sacred to me, and nothing that has happened to me physically can take that away from me.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zion National Park

Zion National Park

A repetition is an event

“Remember Ar-aaaash, make every repetition a separate event.”

These were the words, expressed in his slow, charming Alabama drawl, of one of my trainers a while back during a rather challenging exercise. He was a corky guy, eccentric yet affable, and I probably only worked with him a handful of times, but he had an eclectic knowledge of the body and liked to share his experience which was largely based on his years as a professional body builder.

He said that when it comes to many repetitive exercises, most people think only about completing the desired number of repetitions. Instead of that approach, he suggested that it’s not important whether you’re doing six, ten, or twenty repetitions but that you shift the focus from the completion of the entire set to an intense concentration on each repetition as its own end goal.

Clearly, the idea of “making each repetition count” wasn’t a new one at all, but the way he expressed it, his suggestion to think of each as an “event,” resonated with me.

The reason I’m thinking, and writing, about this now is that I’ve reached a point now in my rehabilitation where this advice is especially useful. In the last couple of months, much of what I’m working on has been extremely specific, focused and calculated exercises targeting small muscles and newly established and still weak neurological connections. These aren’t movements I can just complete unconsciously or with minimal attention. Now, I have to concentrate more than ever to turn on certain muscles, turn off other muscles that want to take over and dominate the movement and give every ounce of mental energy I have to try to strengthen a dormant or underutilized neurological connection.

After all this time, it’s still really hard for me to describe what it feels like to deal with a damaged neurological system.

It’s not like anything I ever experienced before my accident. It’s nothing like being on a long run or bike ride and battling complete exhaustion to fight through to the end. It’s not like being in a weight room and challenging a previous feat by adding a heavier weight, gritting your teeth and muscling through the movement. Nor is it like getting into a challenging yoga pose and trying to contort your body into a pretzel-shaped position.

I have to concentrate so much more on each specific aspect of my movement because I’m not only engaging the muscles that I do have control of, but I’m trying to reestablish those damaged connections. That’s why treating each repetition as a separate event is such great advice. It slows the entire process down, demands tremendous brainpower and forces me to prepare, complete and analyze each repetition with focus and determination. I also like that it can be applied to any repetitive movement or practice, not just physical exercise and it allows me not to take any practice for granted. Slowing down and treating each repetition as its own event can only benefit my continued recovery.