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10: Healing the relationship with my body
A freak injury has led me to re-examine my relationship with my body, and it's probably long overdue.
September has been a month of introspection as I continue this exploration of the lived experience in a meat suit with a mind (over-simplification there - not really sure what this experience is 🤔)
The last four years have seen a wholesale improvement in my relationship with my mind. Therapy, meditation and some alternative modalities have resulted in more enduring states of psychological well-being. But a recent freak injury has exposed an array of negative feelings towards my body lurking beneath it all.
To provide some context, let's back up a few years and go through my injury highlights reel.
In 2011, I dislocated my shoulder diving after someone playing a game of touch frisbee, a combination of touch rugby and ultimate frisbee. It was quite a bad dislocation, but luckily it popped back in without needing surgery.
At the end of 2012, I severed both the tendons in my left big toe as I stepped on a piece of glass in a game of touch rugby. It was on New Year's Eve–no, there was no alcohol involved–and the nearest doctor was a 40-minute drive away. He told me that I would have to get the tendons surgically re-attached in the nearest hospital three hours drive away. My 'chauffeur' friends were very glad that he changed his mind and allowed me to rather head home (five hours drive) early the next day. (That night, I partied up a storm on crutches and Tramadol.) I was in a cast for three months and wasn't allowed to do any sports for six.
There was a break of a few years, with minor niggles and strains, but then in 2017, I ran a sub-90 minute half marathon without training (like a moron) and did serious damage to my right hip. I was out for another four months. The hip specialist wasn't 100% sure of the diagnosis, so he didn't think it warranted an MRI or surgery. In some ways I'm glad, because I've heard after the fact that hip surgeries can sometimes do more damage than good. Extensive work with a biokineticist and cortisone injections were the order of the day.
Four months later, eager to get back into running, I was wrestling with a friend in sumo suits at a bachelor's party (again, no alcohol involved). He jumped on my foot in an awkward position and I sustained a complex Lisfranc fracture. I was again out of sports for six months. The orthopaedic surgeon told me I was lucky - this sort of thing can end professional athletes' careers.
This brings us to 2018, when I was at rock bottom. I was chronically stressed and fatigued and had lost a lot of weight and muscle tone. I decided to take a year off; burning through savings felt better than burning through life. (I also mentioned this inflection point in the previous museletter where I discuss burnout.)
Slowly my body started coming back to me with a lot of rest and recovery, and it's been doing a pretty good job since then. I still don't run more than 10 kilometres because of ITB issues and concern for my hip, but my shoulder has been strong for years now: I can play squash, grapple at full tilt in jiu-jitsu, and climb some decent indoor bouldering routes. I've even survived some hefty falls with zero damage, which left me feeling slightly invincible.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, something tweaked. I was on a weekend meditation and movement retreat. One of the activities was a hike to a waterfall. There was only a thin stream flowing, and all the participants took turns leaning into the rocks to take a sip. I did the same, and without much force or fanfare, my shoulder decided that it didn't like its current configuration, and pop... a mini-dislocation, out and in.
There was a flurry of negative emotion - anger, frustration, bemusement - what gives? (apart from the ligaments in my shoulder). In the hours of meditation that followed, I had repeated visions of myself as a disembodied ghost driving around in a vehicle, getting angry at the different parts as things go wrong: 'Damn you, right front wheel - why won't you just turn?' or 'Come on, brakes! No need to squeal now!' It was an interesting exploration of the borderline resentment of my body.
I've started to think that it was another necessary inflection point (or at the very least, an opportunity to test my resolve to look for the positives in every situation). The practitioner I've been visiting to treat my shoulder seems to agree. He refuses to look at single joints as a problem, rather looking at the whole muscular-skeletal system holistically. In his estimation, the shoulder is a minor issue and is rather a warning signal of deeper underlying issues. Such as? Well, for one the chronic tension in my upper body. Compounding that is my poor posture, which sees my head and neck crane forward like a much older person's profile. (If my grandfather's posture was anything to go by, I'd like to prevent further deterioration). My pelvis is also tilted forward, and weak abdominal muscles and hamstrings combined with over-developed hip flexors cause further imbalances.
Lo and behold, after one session I was able to take my shirt off (arms fully extended above shoulders) without even noticing the pain. A couple of weeks later, there is virtually no pain, and I'm diligently rehabbing the shoulder. But the rehabilitation work is more extensive than that. The goal is to fully address my postural imbalances to prevent further injuries down the line. In total, there's nearly an hour of exercises per day.
I'm finding the mental side of this bodywork to be the toughest part. It's difficult not to adopt a conditional acceptance of my body, the typical 'if-then' statement: 'Only when this is better, will I be content'. It feels like one of the ever-present paradoxes in the unfolding of an examined life: being aware of the present moment, seeing reality as it is and accepting it without judgement, and yet wanting things to change.
Alas, it's getting late, so I'm going to wrap this one up. I don't think I'll come to any conclusions any time soon anyways, but there is renewed attention to an area that desperately needs it. Take care of your body wherever you are, and extend some compassion towards this incredible vehicle of yours.
All the best,