Tag Archives: recovery

Looking for subtlety

Sometimes I feel stuck in a no-man’s land between two narratives. My understanding of spinal cord injury before my fall came from two kinds of stories. I thought you broke your back, you took a year off, you did your physical therapy, and then you returned to biking. You got back into skiing again. You even came back stronger. Certainly wiser. But the story arch hinges on coming full circle. Success is defined by this.

Alternatively, I thought you broke your back and lost everything. All sensation and all movement below the level of injury. Then you learn to expertly use a wheelchair and become a motivational speaker and a paralympian. You don’t do rehab. You learn and excel at an adaptive sport.

I am not a character in either of those stories. I have been injured almost two years and I am not close to either cinematic triumph. There is a sense that I should lay low. A sense of shame, perhaps. Suggesting that my story is not worth telling, is not worth sharing until I fit one of those narratives. That here, in the middle, is failure. Or worse: that the slow leg biking, the limited swimming is all for nothing. That I’m working towards something unattainable and missing real opportunities in the mean time.

I’m still not comfortable in a wheelchair. Still restless sitting all day as my legs and butt take turns falling asleep in my seat. I’m still not strong or fast enough to walk in a practical way. It always has to be a special even, with planning and preparation.

I’m probably not the only one who feels this way. Perhaps the slightly-limping, skiing SCI miracles feel incomplete. Feel in the middle of their recovery story. Feel broken and behind compared to another person on Instagram. Are we all just looking ahead, at the person we perceive at our finish line? And, obviously, that line is an ever-shifting thing.

Being a competitive and goal-oriented individual certainly plays a role. I’m working on tempering those qualities with patience. Aside from that, I think what’s missing is a more nuanced narrative. I want to learn how to tell a story that has subtlety instead of victory. That has uncertainty. So that when each of us leaves the familiar scripts, for whatever reason, we are comfortable to continue talking. We are not tempted to hide until we are less hurt or rewrite.

638 Days

It’s easy to write about milestones or trips. But I want to slow down and savor the blank space between. Milestones are flagged and labeled as such by their undeniable physical and emotional heft. But I want to redefine that. How about the milestone of my first lazy Sunday? The milestone of spending another week committed to walking every day? The milestone of going to Pilates again on Tuesday? If we live our life hurrying to the next discreet, dramatic event, we will have wasted so much time. So, in celebration of the bank spaces, in deference to the quiet between social media posts, in search of meaning now and not tomorrow, I present:

What I do routinely, regularly, and almost every day.

I’ve been really happy with my standing progress recently. My morning routine is some stretching on my bed, some leg wiggling aimed at strengthening the right quad, and then standing for about an hour. (I also eat breakfast between those two). I’m currently working on taking my left knee off the foam pad, so that the only point of contact between me and the frame is the right knee. What’s interesting is that this seems absolutely impossible when I first stand up. But after about 30-40 minutes my body has adjusted. Maybe new muscles are firing? And my balance and strength greatly increases. I also do a lot of baby squats and weight shifts. Then I go to lab.

With swimming I’m working both to increase my breath capacity and to transition more power to my legs. Last week I managed my first kick set! I held on to a kick board and propelled myself through the water with just my legs for 50 yards. But that’s a traditional milestone. I also want to celebrate how slowly I swim now. I’m trying to stroke minimally with my arms so that I can focus all my attention on my legs. I’m trying to make sure my right quad and my gluts fire every time. There is a sneaky tendency to learn to forget. Learned obsolescence: a muscle is quiet for so long that you automatically skip it in your new motor pattern. When I just came out of the hospital I did everything with my left quad — the one muscle I had under some control. I have to unlearn and unlearn and unlearn. I think this is partially what happens during standing, too. I initially stand just with my quad and my tight ligaments.

Which brings me to the main mechanism of unlearning: Pilates on Tuesdays. I’ve been going to Absolute Center for a year, now. Thinking back to my first sessions, I have a lot to celebrate. But the biggest milestone is continuing to go. I am still learning and progressing and practicing every week. The result is a relationship with my trainer, Steph, that is rich with mutual respect and understanding. One milestone is trying hard, every time, to appreciate her ability and take advantage of that relationship.

This is a compilation my friend Theo made of some footage of me at Absolute.

And the next vide is fourteen minutes long, made by Steph, and does a good job of covering the range of exercises I do at pilates. What I hope you’ll appreciate from these videos is how carefully we work on alignment and on functional movement. I’ve said before that pilates is the anti-crossfit. The result is moves that don’t look obviously impressive and a distinct lack of grunting. But the result is also a safe, effective movement with a focus on activating the right muscles in the right sequence. And on isolating weakness. The goal is not completion of a certain number of repetitions. I recommend pilates to everyone.