We talk often in the gym about time in the Pain Cave – an elusive and sometimes dreaded place where the hardest work, and by natural consequence, the most magical things, can happen. It is the place to push limits, to find out what you really can do and how much you can truly handle. It is by nature a dark, often solitary, place and you almost certainly come out transformed. Unlike those used for hibernation, however, this cave has always been an active space. There is no frigid dormancy, endless slumber or reliance on fat reserves – it is a place of sweat, grit, movement, physical and mental engagement and (a perk to be sure) mid-or-post-exertional refueling. With the side-lining of a most unforgiving injury these past two weeks, the pain cave has taken on a whole new, and not particularly favorable, meaning.
My coaches and I work hard to keep our athletes active through a wide variety of injuries and ailments, recognizing the benefits of movement in the healing process physically, mentally and emotionally as well as the importance of social integration in the success of recovery. With an ironic sense of humor, or just plain bad luck, the universe sent me the one injury for which there is no modification other than strict rest. So, with an abdominal binder to get me through clinic, the rest of my time has been spent lying down, icing my abdomen and making the most out of seated calf raises and supine quad sets. With relentless consistency, the pain persists as a reminder to follow my physician’s advice explicitly and unpredictable shocking stabs of severe pain provide (unnecessarily aggressive in my opinion) reinforcement should I attempt to move beyond the boundaries established for optimal recovery.
Unable to reckon with spending time in the space that I have always associated with power, speed and endurance in a state of complete physical incapacitation, I retreated. Reassigning my coaching sessions to a most helpful staff, I just stayed home. I pictured the sweat, the barbells, the chalk, the rig, the bikes, the rowers and the boxes and, somewhere between ego and frustration, simply couldn’t handle that snapshot with my image absent from the activity on the floor. I posted workouts, e-mailed potential new members, admired pictures of athletes from the week and received updates from my coaches, but I didn’t make the trip over (conveniently blaming my walking ban for not covering the 2-block jaunt by foot as usual, but that really doesn’t hold water…I could have had a ride at any time).
On a recent trip to my childhood home, I discovered my high school journals and it seems little has changed these past 20 years – I was waking early for aerobics class and visiting the gym after sports practices for extra workout fun. I couldn’t believe my friends were satisfied with only one athletic endeavor on the day and, clearly then as now, relied on all things physical to support maintenance of my whole self. Other than the 20 weeks I spent trying not to exacerbate contractions when pregnant with biggest, the past 23 years have been underscored by consistent (in some opinions obsessive) exercise. Considering laws of energy conservation, what happens then the usual outlet is suddenly obstructed? At least in the time prior, that energy could be converted into the growing of another human, a meaningful and tangible task, but now I found myself waffling, wandering and wondering into dangerous lands.
Dark and solitary, there was a faint familiarity in this cavern, but it was overall unsettling. Lacking both the promise of renewal that follows hibernation as well as the exhausted victory celebrated post-max effort, this cave was pure emptiness, creating the perfect setting for a pity party with the focus on a farewell to muscles developed over a dozen years, now withering away in as many days. Always one to lead the start of a race, I blasted the first stages of the grief process, crushing denial early on as I attempted to power through the pain, sprinting up the anger hill with some less-than-ideal-momming moments and mentally unpacking that too-heavy suitcase, but there was no bargaining back the injury, no matter how fast I coasted down that hill. And then I hit the wall – of sadness. Between the shift in my relationship with the dynamic events of the summer season, the stolen independence of my primarily pedestrian transport and the crisis of identity as an athlete abruptly stripped of activity – I was at the edge of a deep, dark crevasse and I painfully lowered myself into a corner and stayed put.
Disappointed, dulled and despondent are a powerful trio, but they are no match for the support and encouragement of dedicated friends, athletes, colleagues, staff and, of course, family. Their efforts created a glimmer of hope beckoning me slowly, cautiously, to the mouth of the cave and, squinting, back into the light. Returning to my home-away-from-home at CrossFit Inconceivable, I could genuinely and happily celebrate the effort and achievements of the athletes, pushing themselves for a couple more kilos and those final few reps. I saw that my presence in the space was not limited to performance, but still significant in participation through presence, contributing to the positive spirit of the community.
Hearing the echo of my own advice, supported by mounting research, I could finally see why social integration is even more important than exercise in promotion of health and longevity. Placebo effect perhaps, but I truly felt better being around the action – watching my coaches in their glory, coaxing greatness from each individual; seeing athletes push themselves to a better result than last time; appreciating the space that has grown so much in the past 10 months to create a positive environment for mind, body, spirit to achieve beyond what we ever thought possible – and realizing that the challenge might not come in the form of a gymnastic movement or heavy barbell, but in the test of endurance of the soul through unexpectedly treacherous terrain.
Just like that, I was back in the picture and the pain cave was once again a safe, though challenging, space, softened and strengthened by the presence of my extended family and positioned once again to achieve transformation, this time through the acts of resting and healing. Opportunity was reclaimed to yield a better me than yesterday – repairing a physical weakness that has likely been lingering in the shadows for some time, fortifying a vulnerable spirit to know itself as true with or without a daily dose of exertion and enlightening a mind to concepts often shared but not always heeded. With the darkest moments behind me, it turns out the wall had a gate and with the guidance of community, I had moved through, energized to hold on into acceptance of this new normal and prepare for that hidden kick, knowing the finish line, though not quite in sight, is just around the corner.
May we see our limitations through the lens of opportunity, accept help where it is offered and emerge stronger than when we began.