Fitness & my Spinal Cord Injury (Recovery)

{This article was originally written and posted on April 26, 2015.}

I’ve been athletic all of my life, but it’s been just about a year now since I’ve started getting more serious about fitness, post spinal cord injury. I mean, I haven’t been sitting around on my lazy butt the entire past five years, but I feel like I kicked it up a notch in the last 12 months in a lot of ways. My cocky, small-town, state sectional track & field winning, 18-year old self would have said that I was at my peak fitness level when I was taking my second Western Massachusetts pole vaulting championship, getting ready to vault in college. I never would have thought that, in reality, I’d be in the best shape of my life at 23, five years post spinal cord injury, paralyzed from the chest down… even with a little extra belly fat. But I am.

In the past year I’ve had a lot of firsts and have done a lot of new things with relation to my fitness: I started lifting weights (thank god) and not just cycling on the horribly boring and limited arm ergometers at the gym for hours– probably my biggest fitness blessing of them all; I started playing wheelchair basketball, which I’m loving even though I never imagined I would, and I committed to play on the wheelchair basketball team at Arizona State University this upcoming season; I took my first (and then many consecutive) group exercise class since I’ve been in a wheelchair– and again, loved it; I became a certified Krankcycle group fitness instructor; I completed my first wheelchair-5k about a year ago, and now registered for my first triathlon this fall; and I did my first pull-up! Just some of the major things that stand out 🙂 It’s been a great year, really. I could continue… but more stories for a different time.

So about my SCI…

In my experience with my own injury which happened in 2010, there has been a sort of progression of my thoughts on “recovery”, and what “recovery” meant. Immediately after my injury, there were about two weeks, give or take, that I didn’t even know that I was paralyzed. Much thanks to the hospital for keeping me heavily dosed up on drugs at that time! Then, for about a week, because of my lack of full awareness and a misunderstanding of what SCI was (and thanks, in part, to my good friend Morphine), I essentially thought I would go to rehab where they would help me reconnect my wires and my recovery would end there– I’d be up walking again by the time I went home. It didn’t take long for me to understand that I was wrong about that; which that was okay. I spent that time learning what my injury meant and had an amazing rehab experience. I spent probably another year with that false inkling of hope that my spinal shock was going to wear off and I’d start wiggling toes. I was continuously connected to spinal cord injury recovery research, Project Walk websites, etc. etc. Mind you, I was by no means uphappy with my new, paralyzed self, there was just a phase when I spent time internalizing that “recovery” meant I was going to gain function back, and that it was a viable option. Well, in reality, I had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of medical bills to pay, not hundreds of thousands of dollars to blow on experimental research studies or specialized “recovery” programs. This phase passed and I moved into what I thought was the more long-lasting stage– acceptance with exactly who I was and what I could or could not do. Again, this isn’t a sad, somber acceptance, but a simple fact of my life. I was, and still am, a paralyzed young woman and I can’t walk, can’t wiggle my toes, will never have a six pack like my skinny teenage self because I literally just can’t do a sit up– but I was, and am, 99.9% content with that. I reached a point when I realized that I would MUCH rather focus my life on living and doing what I CAN do, instead of spending my time waiting on a fantasized “recovery” or “cure”. My life is exceptional– who cares if I use a wheelchair?

Fast forward back to my fitness journey…

When I started dedicating more of my life to fitness, here’s what I found out: there IS such a thing as recovery, and no I don’t have to be up and walking to experience it. It doesn’t mean that I’m “gaining function back”, it doesn’t mean that if I spend hours and hours and hours at the gym I will start wiggling my toes, it doesn’t mean that I will ever lose my little para-belly and get that six pack back, but it DOES mean that because I have started testing my body and strengthening all of the muscles that still function by my demand, I can do things now that I’ve never been able to do before (since my injury).

Being a T3-T4 paraplegic means I have no motor function below, essentially, my nipple-line. For the past 5 years I wasn’t able to sit up straight and raise both of my hands, simultaneously, above about my shoulder height. My lack of core couldn’t hold my upper body, and even shoulder height was wobbly. I could barely even do it with a weight belt around my trunk, securing me to the backrest of my chair. Now, I can bilaterally lift both hands simultaneously above my head, with 15-pound weights in each one.

Before, I couldn’t lean over to one side of the other without bracing myself with one hand on my wheelchair for support. Now, i can raise both my hands out to the side, and lean from left to right about 10 inches from the center of my body without flopping over sideways and falling to catch myself on the ground.

When you have a spinal cord injury, people are commonly asking what level your injury is. To me, it is honestly such a nice compliment when people tell me that they never would have guessed my injury was at T4. I’m sure that sounds silly, but I love knowing that I’ve been able to build my core strength to a point that is no longer stereotypical. I like to exceed expectations whenever possible– I consider this no exception!

Plus– I’ve found that stretching is the best medicine for spasms. I get horrible spasms that will literally flip me over in my chair if I don’t tame them. Baclofen kinda works but puts me straight to sleep. Tizanidine, same deal. Vicodin, same deal. Some other drugs that I can’t remember– also horrible side effects. Getting on the floor and stretching is the miracle cure. 20 minutes of stretching, twice a day, and all of my problems are gone.

My fitness and spinal cord injury “recovery” is certainly not completed. I still have so many goals to reach, and I think that my body, paralyzed on not, is capable of so much more than I am even aware of right now. Even looking back over the past year, I never would have imagined I would be at the point I am at now, so I know there is always more that I can achieve. I think sometimes, at the gym, it is too easy to look at the number on the weights you are lifting, and too often use that as a measurement of progress.  For me, I know it goes so much further than that though. The weight I lift may barely change, but what is important is the control with which I am able to lift it with, for example. The fact that I can lift a weight without falling over, the fact that I can raise my arms above my head– things like that are what show both progress and recovery.

To talk about my spinal cord injury with relation to my fitness journey, what I’ve learned is that “recovery” doesn’t mean that you are returning to an identical state or condition. Rather, you are leaning how to maximize your own ability, build upon your strengths, and use that new strength to achieve things that you did not know you were capable of.

{This article was originally written and posted on April 26, 2015.}

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