I admit that fitness and exercise may seem like a bit of an obsession for me. From competitive rock climbing to CrossFit, you put an athletic activity in front of me and it’s pretty much a guarantee I’m going to go at it with 100% intensity. But this passion for physical challenges is not just a bi-product of my competitive nature. In fact, it derives from quite the opposite. My appreciation for my body came from a time where I had the use of it ripped away from me. As with anything in life, the toughest of times really make you appreciate the little things…
As a kid, I had a small scoliosis curve. It was nothing major, unnoticeable, and didn’t affect my ability to do sports or anything. By the time I got to high school, I was a varsity cheerleader and my life was pretty defined by that – practices, football games, competition squad, etc. My sophomore year, during my regular scoliosis checkup at school, the school nurse noticed the curve in my spine had started to increase, and over the next 6 months (during my growth spurt) my spinal curve went from 21 degrees to 96 degrees (that is literally greater than a right angle) and was increasing every day. As my spine curved, my ribs began to squeeze my lungs and my heart, making breathing difficult. At the time, doctors estimated that, without surgery, I had 3 to 6 months to live before my ribs closed completed in on my heart/lungs. At 13 years old, I was given an expiration date…and that is some scary shit.
Being told what my life would be like after surgery wasn’t the easiest pill to swallow either. The surgery would consist of reconstructing my entire spine, breaking all the ribs on my right side to re-shape them, and putting metal rods along the entire length of my spine. With metal rods in my back, I would no longer bend or twist it at all, which meant no backbends, no tumbling – no cheerleading. They told me and my parents that I would never be able to touch my toes or run again and that I would have to be very conscious of my weight in order to keep as much pressure off my back as possible. Mentally digesting that was one hell of a challenge.
After months of battling with my health insurance company (who had been refusing to cover my surgery citing that it was a pre-existing cause), my frantic parents finally got the approval letter and set a date for me to go under the knife.
I woke up from a 9-hour surgery unable to move my body at all. Without even addressing the obvious pain involved, I had to re-teach myself how to do everything again…walk, pick something up off the floor, turn over, etc. The mechanics of my body had completely changed. With every bone in my back broken and fused, the road to recovery was a long one. It took me two weeks just to be able to take five steps to the bathroom in my hospital room (and that was after someone else sitting me up and helping me stand). Because all the nerves on my right side had been battered, I didn’t have full use of my right arm for months. Simple things like eating, washing and brushing my hair, shaving my legs, getting dressed became quite the challenge. I can remember about a month after my surgery I walked all the way to the big tree at the end of my block and my father bursting out in tears. When walking to the end of the block is a cause for celebration, you really learn to value the little things,. With the most supportive father, mother, sister, and amazing family and friends, I got through it and without a doubt, came out of it a much better person.
In reflection, I now realize I spent the next decade after my surgery playing on the sidelines in life. I was so afraid of hurting my back again and having to go back to the awful place, that I let the fear of “what if” hold me back from so many things. Living in fear is really not living at all, it is merely existing.
Then, I made the move the California, by myself, away from everything I knew. That decision was so far out of my comfort zone, that it sparked something inside me. A flame had been lit. I resolved that fear would no longer be the guiding factor in my decision-making. There started my journey of adventure and risk-taking. I got my passionate intensity back. Over the last few years, I’ve done things I never would have imagined I’d do. I spent a year competitively bouldering, I’ve repelled down mountains and jumping off cliff, I’ve ridden wild horses, and jumped out of a plane! In my daily life, Climbing and CrossFit have given me back the confidence and sense of feeling ALIVE that I let be dormant for way to long.
Ultimately, going through such a rough back surgery was a gift. I was given the gift of appreciation. Appreciation of what my precious body was doing for me on a daily basis. I made the choice to not let my obstacles, physical or otherwise, break me but see them as an opportunity to be the best version of myself. And that best version of myself, physically, is forever going to be different from the “normal” person. My back is never going to bend; there are things I am simply not going to be able to do. Acknowledging and accepting my limitations is admittedly an ongoing struggle. The scars on my back are never going to disappear and, yes, they make me feel pretty self-conscious in a bikini on the beach, but you know what? Every day I look in the mirror, they are a reminder of how strong I am and how much I am capable of enduring.
Today, as I am in the midst of a pretty lengthy ankle/Achilles recovery, I am humbled and grateful for everything my body IS capable doing. My amazing back can deadlift 233 pounds for Pete’s sake! But, I am not invincible. That fiery intensity, with which I approach my limits, needs to be balance with a healthy dose of reality and caution. I am reminded of just how precious ones body is. My body, your body, everybody’s body is a MIRACLE and should be treated as such. My wish would be for everyone to VALUE the gift of a healthy body, and get up, go outside and take that nice body for a walk. Feed it some healthy food, give yourself a hug, and love your body for everything it does for you!
On the same note, you NEVER know the personal battle someone is going through on the inside. Whether it is physical or emotional, everyone is fighting his or her own battles. Words of encouragement and a smile at the gym and in life in general can really make the difference in someone’s day. You never know who needs a smile today. If it weren’t for all the support I received during my roughest days, I never would have gotten through it. If it weren’t for the patience, understanding and encouragement of my coaches and fellow athletes over the years, my body would never be as strong as it is today.
So, as you encounter people, keep in mind where they are coming from, where they are at, and where they are going that day (or in life) may be really different. My fitness goals may look a lot different than yours; the same can be said for every person on a path to better than health and improve their bodies. Maybe the person you bump into in the gym has a big goal to get through the day without crying, or walk a single mile or lift 300 pounds….no matter. The difference we can all make in each other’s lives just by supporting each other in achieving our goals goes a long way!
Having been where I have been has given me a sense of compassion for all people; I wouldn’t trade for anything (not even a new back).
So, there you are. Thanks for letting my share my story :)