How a painful sidelining injury exposed my true inner strength and released me from the shackles of false assumptions.
We all can fall victim our mind’s common tendency to get stuck in rigid patterns of thought. This is one such story.
Having journeyed on the unbearably long, desolate and self-loathing road of despair, a.k.a living a life with an eating disorder, and having eventually found my way out; it has been essential for me to keep myself mentally healthy by doing whatever I could to foster a rational, positive, and realistic body image.
Getting to where I am now at the age 48, and able to call myself recovered, was a slow process. In my late teens and early 20’s the disease ravaged me, ruining my college experience and making it extremely difficult to complete. Without getting into the details of those years, I’d rather jump forward to the present. I have considered myself to be recovered from the horrible addiction/illness for the past 20 years or so. Without a doubt this is one of my life’s greatest accomplishments given just how difficult it was to change my thoughts and behaviors enough so that I could bring the vicious cycle to an end. The battle included severe depression and suicidal thinking as my repeated daily failures to stop my seemingly ridiculous behavior led me to start believing that ending my life was the only way that I would ever be able to break the cycle). Heartbreaking.
I have often credited a chance, otherwise devastating life event, my first child’s diagnosis of Autism, as a major contributing factor into my ability to recover. Allowing myself to stay sick, and stuck inside of my own head, was no longer an option as the focus clearly needed to be on my daughter’s intense needs. I became more able to accept and personal tolerate set- backs and slip ups without letting them spiral out of control back into full blown symptoms. This was a key step in gaining back self confidence in my ability to slowly let go of this dysfunctional coping method. Autism forced the patient person out of me, as progress was painfully slow. And in turn, I learned to be more patient with myself as well. I gradually let go of the all or nothing thinking that was stifling me and keeping me sick.
Early in this recovery period when my daughter was about 4, I realized that in order to have a more healthy relationship with food that I really needed to be truly comfortable in my own skin. I certainly wasn’t thrilled with my flabby, jiggly, out of shape body that I was doing my best to ignore and not obsess about. A former high school jock, I knew that being active and working out had always made me feel and look better and allowed me to eat more naturally without excessive worrying about the consequences of potential weight gain with every bite.
So at the age of 31, I made the decision to start including exercise back into my daily lifestyle. I began walking, then jogging, then running 5K’s and within a year I had run my first marathon in 3:33. I was proud of myself for doing what previously felt impossible (I was not a natural runner, but proved to be naturally strong and tenacious and this helped ease some of the stress I was simultaneously going through with my daughter’s early Autism years). After running a marathon way too fast and through an injury (stubborn toughness not always a good trait), I was forced to take time off from running. In an effort to keep the endorphins flowing I started beefing up my weight training and found this to be much more suitable for my body type. In addition to my full time job as a Registered Nurse, I became a certified personal trainer in 2008, so that I could help others who were battling their own addiction demons by teaching them to fitness as a tool to boost their own self-confidence and sense of control. This was the first step in launching a new career path for me, which continues to evolve over time.
For 16 straight years I was a devoted gym rat, always finding the time to get my workouts in no matter what else life was throwing at me. I felt satisfied that I was disciplined in my commitment to working out without over-doing it, or compulsively abusing it. I focused on building muscle, increasing strength, and cardiovascular fitness improvement without putting any focus on the scale. My clothes were fitting well and I was comfortable in a dress size that I was able to maintain over those years, simply by eating reasonably healthy and working out regularly (5-6 days a week, 60-90 mins a day). It was a huge commitment but given the hellish past I had narrowly escaped, it seemed like a very acceptable trade off, and for the most part I didn’t think about it.
Over the years, the gym has provided me with a place and time to myself, away from the needs of my family or my patients. Although it was primarily a solitary pursuit, over the years I did make several good friends there. And for the most part I really enjoyed going. However, as my life got more difficult (single mother with sole custody of severe special needs child, single woman home owner, increasing work hours and increased responsibilities), the commitment to so much gym time was beginning to feel like an overwhelming obligation. Yet I continued on as best as I could. When I was forced to miss workouts on successive days I would feel less comfortable in my skin (a worrisome red flag!). In my heart, I recognized that I was still held in self-imposed shackles by the fear of losing control, of getting fat again, or worse, of relapse into eating disorder hell, and that is how I justified the religious workout schedule I followed as an absolute necessity.
Over the years, I have altered my social, work and family life around my need to block off 1-2 hours for gym time on most days. I felt guilty about taking time away from my family, and more isolated socially, but I also told myself that time for ME was essential and at least my commitment to the gym was ensuring that I was giving myself the ME time that everyone kept telling me that I needed. But was this ME time at the expense of all of the other interests and hobbies that I might otherwise be enjoying? Truthfully, it never crossed my mind. I blamed long work hours, not the gym, for taking away my time to read, write, paint, garden, hike, and visit friends.
It wasn’t until an injury that I sustained in July of 2015 that I would have to face the reality of a life in which hard core, ‘pedals to the metal’ workouts would become an impossibility. A bicep strain led to bicep tendonitis, but I kept working out, assuming it would go away. It didn’t. It got worse. I went to a shitty physical therapy program where my injury was misdiagnosed and the treatment not only was ineffective, it accelerated my problem and increased the nerve pain. I then went to an orthopedist who pointed out that my scapular was winging off of my back (it was obvious) and that I likely had a nerve injury (also obvious). I was then sent for an EMG which I had to wait months for as the muscle spasms, neck and nerve pain continued to get worse, which proved to be a total waste of time. He couldn’t properly diagnose my injury and guessed at two different nerve injuries which did not lead to any kind of helpful treatment recommendations. In fact, his only recommended treatment: give up weight lifting, accept that I am old now (YES HE DID!), and don’t worry about it… cardio is more important anyway. WHAT???? ARE YOU F’ING KIDDING ME? I lost any respect for the guy at that moment and walked out of there flabbergasted that my health insurance was going to pay $1200 for that but unwilling to pay a cent of my physical therapy which ended up being the only thing that helped me to start getting better. Desperate, I sought out a much better Physical therapist (one that works with athletes and CrossFit types) and my scapular dyskinesia recovery plan (a painfully slow and tedious process) was finally set into action nearly 11 months into this mess.
I was relatively quiet about my chronic pain and the disability that I was struggling with. As much as possible I avoided talking about my pain or whining about not being able to work out, well… at least not in public or on social media anyway, those closest to me had to bear the brunt of my complaints. I forced myself to keep perspective and thought of how blessed I have been to have a well working body for so long. Then the most amazing and unexpected thing happened. Over a year into this injury, I finally began to break free from the false assumption that I would not be able to cope, and that I would go crazy if I could not work out. This assumption is one that I had been telling myself, and others, for years! I also had very little faith in my ability to slow down and relax, to give myself quiet time to stretch, focus on my breathing and craft a mediation practice (who had time? Wasn’t endorphins and ass kicking work outs more important???) But in my injured state, the intense muscle spasms that resulted from nerve compression DEMANDED my attention, demanded that I learn to change the way that I was breathing, that I learned to be aware of my posture, that I learned to manage my life’s significant stress and tension by lying in a quiet space doing belly breathing exercises and simple corrective postural exercises. Over time I got better at it, and made a habit of it. It replaced my hard core gym workouts. Whenever my nerve pain kicked back up I would ask the physical therapist to explain to me what was causing it and the repeated answer I kept hearing was STRESS! Stress didn’t cause my injury but it was keeping the symptoms intermittently present. It became glaringly obvious that I could no longer forge through life ignoring my mind’s need for peace.
I learned that I was stuck in a thinking trap for most of my adult life. I was expecting the worse and made an assumption that if I didn’t continue to carry out a ritual that had helped me to heal, that I would become sick again. That I would lose control of my eating and would become a fat sloth. I could finally clearly see that the gym, which today, I still believe to be an important part of my life, had become the successor prison I fell into after breaking free of the eating disorder shackles.
It has been 18 months since my injury occurred. There has not been a single relapse of eating disorder symptoms. I have proven to myself that my sanity can survive physical decline. That I can learn other ways to cope when necessary. That the most profound thing I could do for myself to prove that “strength matters” is to navigate this period with as much patience and grace which I had previously believed impossible. I can now see that although I feel best when I am getting regular physical activity, that I will not get fat if I need to take time away from the gym. That cellulite doesn’t matter so much in the scheme of our short time on the planet. That when I was in the best shape of my life, I was not happier nor did it bring better relationships into my life. In fact the most loving, unselfish, patient and accepting man I have been with in my adult life is one that has only known, and loved the injured Cyndi.
Today I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel of pain that has been part of my daily life for so long. I have some pain free days again. Despite a new and irritating knee pain, and ongoing intermittent brachial plexus nerve compression, I am back in the gym doing whatever I can to regain strength without causing damage. I am now at the point in my recovery that I am able to use the gym and strength building exercises to decrease the pain symptoms. So I go back to the gym, but for new reasons now. I go because my body feels better when I use it, not because I must go, for sanity’s sake.
I have a new gratitude for my body, especially when I am fortunate enough to experience it in a pain free state. And even more importantly, a new appreciation for the psychological strength I had never given myself credit for. I’ve learned that strength in the mind is not about stubborn toughness, it is about flexibility of thinking and acceptance of what is. This type of strength my friends, is one worth cultivating now, because this is the strength that will hold you up in life as your body ages and stops working the way it once had.
~Cyndi Gauthier, RN, CPT