Six years ago, from the day of this article’s publication (05/18/2015), my world literally turned upside down. While riding my bike to work, I was hit by a car at a busy intersection located in the heart of Washington, DC.
I immediately felt sharp pain in my back after plunging to the pavement in the middle of Florida Avenue. At that moment, a startling thought crossed through my mind, one that concerned me far more than the physical agony; Am I about to become roadkill?! I couldn’t move for a minute. My breath had been taken away. I couldn’t pick myself up to get out of the intersection. I couldn’t even wave my hands for help. All I could do was focus on trying to stay conscious in spite of bolts of pain through my hips and back. Thankfully, no other car ran an additional 4,500 lbs of steel and aluminum alloy into my 130 lb body.
The EMTs arrived quickly on the scene. They gave me a disapproving look when I waved them briefly away in order to call my work to say that I couldn’t teach my “Cycle and Core” class that morning. After placing the call, I let the EMTs strap me down to a spine board and make their assessments. I recall laughing with pride at how my blood pressure was still fairly stable, just minutes following a trauma. Only a crazy fitness professional would be proud of something like that. My amusement was quickly snuffed out though, thanks to escalating pain.
While on the way to the hospital, one husky, dark-and-dreamy man asked me several times to rank my pain on a scale of 1-10. I kept thinking, well, if you’d just let me off this stupid spine board then it would be a whole lot better. But, I couldn’t be let off that cursed board. It was protocol for the ambulance ride. So, my response was consistently and emphatically, “TEN!!!!!!”
The pain didn’t stay at its initial 10 forever but it did continue. It troubled my health, threatened my career, and haunted my psyche for the next five years. It had such a palpable presence in my life that it felt like the pain was on the verge of scraping itself out of my body and becoming its own entity; an embodiment that could more properly pound the shell of my formerly strong self deeper into the unforgiving ground. It was the cruelest “thing” I’ve ever met – hell bent on squeezing every last ounce of hope and perseverance from my body.
But, I’m here today to tell you that the pain didn’t win. I did. I won thanks to the lessons I learned along the healing journey. The trying times taught me how to interpret the language of pain and how to affect physical well-being through a multi-pronged approach to healthy living.
It was a long process, let me tell you. But, the silver lining is that I get to share the things I’ve learned with others. I hope that lessons from my journey can help you with yours. I pray that they shed light on your pain or even personal challenges.
We all go through pain at some point in our life. The process of picking ourselves up again is not always pretty. But, it’s important that we try. And try again. And again. And again.
Lesson #1: The first serious pain you experience is always the hardest…but it has the potential to be the one of the most meaningful experiences in your life
Before getting hit by a car, I had literally never broken, sprained or strained any part of my body. One time, when I was 5 years old, I was ambitiously trying to follow a friend across the monkey bars, swinging and stretching each arm to skip every other bar. It was the cool thing to do. I missed one bar mid-way across and landed in a precarious position on the ground, one arm twisted behind my back with my little body’s weight crushing it. Even then, I didn’t actually break anything; I bent my arm bone!
I assumed that injuring my arm would mean getting a cast with my kindergarten classmates’ sympathies strewn all over it, smiley faces, hearts and rainbows. I was miffed by the removable brace that I was given to wear. No cast tic-tac-toe? No purple marker heart encircled by stars?
Similarly, after getting hit by the car, I was certain that the pain I was experiencing would reveal itself on X-rays. It didn’t though. No fractures in my pelvis, no hairline fractures upon my follow-up appointment, nothing! Just one enormous, dark-as-night bruise taking up 75% of the real estate on the left cheek of my rear end. I will spare you those gruesome pictures…but below you can take a glimpse at some other ones. My face is the thing behind the purple wash cloth and ice…in case you were wondering.
It was so frustrating for me to be told that nothing major was wrong because I could tell that something was actually very out-of-sorts in my body. It made it difficult to justify to my co-workers and friends that I was decidedly NOT okay. I was in pain for a long time. I just couldn’t pin a clinical name and prognosis to the discomfort. I didn’t have something like a cast as proof.
Unfortunately, because my pain lacked a “title,” I thought that all I needed to do was take the pain killers and muscle relaxants that I had been prescribed, and wait it out. The doctors at the hospital didn’t recommend physical therapy, so why would I need it? They didn’t say anything about psychological help, so why would I assume that counseling for post-traumatic stress should be considered? I could deal with it all on my own, right?! Wrong.
The first serious injury you experience is scary and overwhelming. You may even be in a situation like mine, with a lot of unanswered questions and mixed information coming at you. You may even have feelings that getting over the injury is your sole responsibility and burden to bear – but that is just false, false, false!
There is a reason that children color “get well” messages on a friend’s cast; it’s important not to feel alone as you undergo the process of healing. Finding the right support networks as you navigate the journey is essential because feeling confused and afraid is normal. Lean on everyone you can the first time around because how you respond to this injury will impact your mentality the next time you encounter pain or hurt. It can either cripple you or cause you to take a step back and calmly evaluate your plan to get over it.
It’s interesting…the first time that you’re injured, you’re in a position to learn and grow. For example, if a woman (let’s call her Angela) sprains her ankle and has to avoid her favorite sport, running, for 8 or more weeks, then she is likely going to feel frustrated and maybe even depressed. Instead of giving in to these defeated feelings, Angela can come out of her injury stronger than ever by remaining mentally patient, emotionally calm, and focused on things that she can control. She may decide to cook more healthy meals at home or spend time with friends whom she usually brushes off in order to exercise. If Angela does want to keep exercising rigorously then she can devote effort to building upper body strength so that she looks incredible come strapless dress season!
The options are endless, not ending, when you get injured and have to look at the world from a new perspective. It takes time to see things this way, but it can happen.
Lesson #2: It’s OK to take a little time to grieve
Okay, I know I just mentioned that learning from your injury helps you become stronger and move on. But, I know that it’s also important to grieve, to give yourself time to be frustrated and feel that the world crashing around you. If you don’t do it initially, you may have a surprise meltdown far later in life when buried emotions get unearthed. I wish I had listened to this advice. Instead, this is what I did…
Chick in picture looking lovely since this “accident” was merely staged for stock photography. Disclaimer: The real deal is NOT this tidy and attractive!
Once I was released from the hospital, I got a ride home from a cop. After she dropped me off, I took a nap on my couch and then hobbled down the block to the pharmacy for my pain killer and muscle relaxant prescriptions. Moving felt terrible but I took it as a positive sign that I was capable of putting one foot in front of the other. This meant that I could get back to my job, right?
The day of my accident I had 11 hours of work on my schedule. I was terrified of losing income and damaging accountability with my clients. Most of this fear stemmed from the fact that it was the spring of 2009, not long after the major U.S. economic crash. I was in a hustle mentality, happy to have a secure job and determined to pack my work days with exercise classes to teach and clients to train. I was exceptionally exhausted and simultaneously exhilarated from my one-woman daily mission to change the world in spite of the most obvious obstacle: people were tightening their purse strings because they were afraid they would lose money or already had lost money in the crash.
So, ignoring my exhausted body’s protests, I went in to train the last few hours of clients I had on schedule for that evening. I was delirious and in denial. I laughed off others’ concerns about the “crazy accident” that happened earlier that day. Needless to say, nothing about it was funny.
I wonder, if I hadn’t been so naïve and if proper discharge procedures had been in place, would I have stayed home and gotten the appropriate rest and recovery that I needed? If I had gotten that rest, would I have continued to deal with severe pain, bulging discs, spinal disc fissures, hip instability, and dysfunctional scar tissue on my piriformis for years to come? Would I have still slipped into insomnia, chronic pain, anxiety, weight gain, and borderline depression? It’s hard to say…
All I do know is that I refused to think of myself as “injured” for too long. One of the most critical things to do when injured, is to accept it. Also important is learning (over time) that acceptance doesn’t mean your life is over. Acceptance is simply the first step towards truly healing.
Lesson #3: The mind-body connection is REAL; sleep-deprivation & somatization
As mentioned in lesson #2, I dealt with some major challenges after getting injured, one of which was sleep deprivation. At first I couldn’t sleep because of the severe inflammation in my hips and back. Any direct pressure on that area was excruciating. Sleeping directly on my back or stomach was simply out of the question due to the discomfort, so I slept on my side. Even that posed challenges. I could be sound asleep in the middle of the night and wake up to pain while attempting to roll from one side of my body to the other. Over time, I couldn’t even fall sleep because I was afraid of the pain and restlessness that lay ahead of me throughout the night.
This fear caused me to stay in a fight-or-flight mode throughout the night, my heart racing. The harder I tried to fall asleep, the more sleep evaded me. My efforts regularly turned into frustrated tears and fits of fatigued hysteria. For almost a year, I barely got 6 hours of sleep each night. The majority of this timeframe, I was working 10-12 hour work days on a broken 4-5 hours of rest. Obviously, my mind and body began to break down even more. The more I mentally and emotionally caved under the pain, the worse it became. It was a vicious cycle that I didn’t know how to break. I can remember days when I wondered if my life was over. I thought I would never see the day that the pain ended. It was stifling and slowly suffocated my ability to stay positive.
As I became more physically inflamed and emotionally overrun, my stress translated into many new physical issues. This is sometimes considered to be somatization; mental and emotional stress resulting in physical problems. I suffered a few panic attacks that seemingly struck me out of nowhere, I had a moment or two of binge eating in my distress, and I began moving in pain-avoidance patterns that exacerbated my issues. My stomach would hurt. My head would hurt. Everything hurt. I could no longer tell which pains and challenges were the cause of my physical stress versus my emotional stress…there were no hard lines separating the two because they were inherently connected.
Lesson #4: Pain pathways are tricky to navigate – understanding the “language” they speak is essential
For the longest time, I felt like I could control the pain if I just tried hard enough. Eventually though, after many months and years of playing ring-around-the-rosy with this nemesis, I discovered that the world could stop spinning…if I learned my pain’s language. I realized that the pain wasn’t actually trying to hurt me, it was trying to help me! My body was sending me signals that something was wrong and if I learned what my body wanted most, then it would reduce the pain, sending me the message that we were finally on the same team with the same mission: to get better!
Although I already mentally knew that the body acts like one integrated machine, with all its complex parts influencing one another with every step and every breath, I didn’t really understand this firsthand. I hadn’t felt this truth before. But suddenly, I started to realize that a brand new pain in my knee, and a strange crackling in my ankle, were both related to my initial injury. They weren’t brand new injuries out of the blue, they were responses that my kinetic chain (i.e. musculo-skeletal system and neuromuscular system) was having to the primary issue: back and hip misalignment and instability resulting from damaged soft tissue (i.e. muscle).
The more I remained out of alignment and unstable, the more the different parts of my body started talking in foreign languages and losing touch with one another. It was up to me, and me alone, to figure out how to treat the initial issue in order for my body to send out a message to all its parts, commanding that they get back to their primary language. They needed to speak the same language to work properly together.
When I started to realize that my body wasn’t breaking down in a million places haphazardly, I began to look at exercise and recovery solutions that would benefit my whole body rather than its isolated parts. If I continued to ignore the relationships between my various body parts then each would continue to grow stronger in its new language (which subsequently would make the whole body weaker).
Thank you for reading Part 1 of this story. As you can tell, it’s very personal to me. Part 2 is coming up soon! Stay tuned.
Yours in health and wellness,