From Whence I Came

My physical therapists are the best people I’ve ever known. The day I walked into their clinic complaining of chronic back pain four years after surgery was, well, interesting.

If you’ve never had back pain, specifically a herniated, slipped or ruptured disc, let me tell you it’s a special kind of pain. I’m a “bright side” kind of guy. I know there are people that have it much worse than me. But, the time I had a herniated disc seriously made me wonder what I was being punished for. I’ve had broken bones, dislocations and numerous flesh wounds. For me, nothing compared with this internal pain that affects the central-most part of your body. There was no movement I could make with any other part of my body that did not agitate that injury.

It had come on mysteriously four years prior, worsening over about a six week period until I tried to get out of bed one morning and collapsed to the ground, unable to walk and in the worst pain I can remember. The doctors all concluded it probably just came from a weak spot in my disc (L5-S1, for those who can relate) and…and…from being inactive. From sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day. In other words, my injury was caused from doing nothing. And the only way to fix it, according to the surgeon, was to put me under and cut the part of the disc back that was pressing against the nerves running out of my spinal column. Easy Peasy.

Seriously. After a short surgery under general anesthesia, I was walking that same night. I would be recovering for years. And, I still hurt. Every day. The only thing that keeps the pain at bay now is staying active and stretching a lot. And getting stronger. But, let me tell you how I found out how to cope.

I thought I had been healed. But four years after surgery, the pain was back. In the physical therapists’ waiting room, I gave them the brief medical history listed above and was asked by a beefy bald guy named Darin about my physical activity. I’ve mentioned Darin before, he’s the guy that would eventually administer my CrossFit baseline test. I usually describe him as a very enthusiastic Mr Clean. A Mr Clean that can rumble. Anyway…physical activity…

“Define physical activity,” was my response.

“You know…what do you do for exercise?”

“Exercise,” I said. “Well, there’s mowing the lawn.” (I lied, I have a lawn service.)

“Oh! and I use the stairs at work! We’re on the second floor!”

“Well,” said Darin. “It’s no wonder you hurt. You’re not using anything. You’re basically just letting your muscles get smaller and smaller. And, by the way, you’re overweight.”

I think he may have used the term “Squishy.”

“Dude, people were designed to be athletes…and you’re just sitting around wasting that ability. But, whatever. I can give you some stretches to do. Maybe that will help your back. Maybe not. I’m going to pass you off to Tina and she’ll get you started.”

Ok, Whoa… I’d been there all of two minutes and I’d already been embarrassed, insulted AND passed off? I’d pretty much decided I wasn’t coming back for a second session of this baloney. I’d wait to see what Tina had in store for me, but it wasn’t looking good. Then, something happened. I looked around the room. There was something different about this place. I mean besides the smell of icy-hot and the constant whirring of stationary bikes. There were only two kinds of people present. A handful of really fit, good looking physical therapists and even more old people. Old, injured people. I have nothing against the old. I have a ton of respect for the generations before me…but I don’t usually find myself in need of the same kinds of services as my elders.

This was wrong. I knew I should have looked this place up and read some reviews. I never would have come because there wouldn’t have been any reviews. Because old people don’t use the internet. This was a mistake. Clearly. But, it was too late. Tina was already talking to me about getting “warmed up” on one of those stationary bikes.

“How long?” I asked

“Just go for five minutes, I’ll come back and check on you.”

Five minutes. Sure thing. Whatever. I hopped on a bike next to someone who was most likely named Ethel. Again, no offense. But you never really hear the name Ethel anymore.

Ethel wasn’t going very fast. I didn’t blame here. But, I wasn’t going to go fast if she wasn’t.

By the time Tina came back to check on me my face was flush and my legs were burning.

“How long has it been?” I asked

“About a minute.”

“I think we need to lower the setting,” I panted.

“It’s already on the lowest setting. But you look nice and warmed up. Let’s go ahead and get you started on some stretches.”

I staggered over to a stretching area. Tina was patient, but stretching felt stupid. How was this going to help my back? What a crock. I was finished with everything in about forty-five minutes and made my way to work. What a waste of time. I probably wouldn’t go back.

The next morning I woke up sore. From about a minute on the exercise bike and some stretching. This is when things kinda started to make me wonder. I knew I was never an “athlete.” I had come to terms with that years ago. I could do other things. I could draw, I was a fairly decent cook. Athletics were never my thing. A childhood filled with allergies and asthma kept me out of pretty much every sport. But, being sore from riding a stationary bike kinda started giving me a complex.

I started making a mental list. A list of tasks I thought every guy should be able to accomplish. Like unscrewing tight lids from pickle jars. And throwing kids up in the air. Guys should be able to do those things. What else…I think every guy should be able to run a mile. In case fast zombies are chasing you. And lift heavy things. What if you need to lift a small car off of an accident victim?

Well…I started testing myself. I remember being able to run. As a kid. I mean I could really run. So, I gave it a go. I tried to run until I couldn’t run anymore. That was probably the hardest eighth-of-a-mile I’ve ever run. I couldn’t run a mile. I’d never lifted anything heavy either. This was bad. I mean…guys should just be able to do this stuff, I think. Its like killing your own dinner and getting your wife pregnant with identical twins. You’re just supposed to know how.

Apparently, you have to learn this stuff. And, I needed a teacher. So, I went back to the clinic. And, I kept going back until I’d learned some things. These are things I get to pass on to others. Turns out the clinic had lots of teachers. Darin, Tina, Miles and Jennifer, thank you. Thank you for not letting my back turn to Jello. Thanks for meeting me where I was and knowing what it would take to get me moving. Three years after our physical therapy sessions I get to call you all “coaches.” My back still hurts. And, I know it probably always will. There’s no turning back the clock. But, I’m working my hardest to make sure that everything moving forward is worth the effort. For now, I can lift my kids. Heck, I can lift my wife. I’ve helped build a playground, moved couches and loaded refrigerators into pickup trucks. I can do stuff. I can run a pretty fast mile without stopping. I recently ran a 5k without training for it. And, I don’t sit nearly as much as I used to. I’ve even been known to kill my own dinner.

So, this week, I ask you:

What’s on your list? What can’t you do that you think you should? And, what are you going to do to get there? Because, if you need some help, I might know a few people.
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