stress and release

So, two days from now, in my enduring quest to discover all of the things in my body that don’t work right, I will undergo a post-exercise-stress blood panel. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten a lot of blood work done in response to the months-long bouts of fatigue that have plagued me every so often, but it was always at least a couple of weeks after the exercise that may [or may not] have caused them, and as such, any chemical signatures thereof had long since been flushed from my body.

This is the first time I will be getting a blood draw within 48 hours of a physical stress exercise. I have been instructed by the doctor to go ahead and do a “normal” muscle workout, between 24 and 72 hours before the blood panel.  Normal, he said.

Normal! I couldn’t wait. A full workout, doctor’s orders. (Or rather, a full lower body workout – even I am aware that my upper body is still off-limits.) And this morning, as I picked out machines and started moving through reps, I reveled in isolating the different muscle groups, putting actual weight on the stacks, making my physical body – this amazing human body we each get a version of to play with – do real, load-bearing work. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it. I didn’t realize what an enormous part of myself had been lost when my shoulder pain forced me to stop doing it nearly eight months ago.  I walked out of there feeling happier than I have in months.

The doctor said not to go all gangbusters on it, and I don’t think that’s what I did. The problem is, it seems I have zero experience with being on the inside of a normally functioning body. So I don’t have a working gauge as to how much is too much, or just enough. As far as I can tell, I did less than half of what former athletic trainers and instructors would have put me through.  How that relates to “normal,” though, I couldn’t say.

As I scaled up the weight on my lunges, I remembered one trainer in particular whose upper body workouts always finished with a set of push-ups to failure. (Yes, that means exactly what you think it means.) Just to make absolutely sure, I assume, that I hadn’t left a single muscle group undamaged. Other than good-natured griping, I never complained. I always did everything he told me to do. I did everything any exercise trainer or fitness class instructor told me to do. Because as far as I was concerned, that was the whole point.  Wasn’t it? Isn’t that what everyone else does? Otherwise, why bother with the trainer or class at all?

I don’t know.  I don’t know what “everyone else” does.  I thought I did, but the more doctors and therapists I talk to, the more I suspect I may have been just a smidge off base on that.  Perhaps a bit more than a smidge.

Now, at physical therapy, I am adjusting to the unfamiliar experience of being relied upon to inform the therapists when I’ve had enough. As soon as my muscles start to burn and weaken, I’m supposed to stop. If an exercise causes me pain, I not only have to stop, I have to tell them exactly where it hurts.

I’d had no idea that was how it was supposed to work.  After I let them push me too far a couple of months ago (see trainer, above), the therapist sat me down and laid out my responsibilities in no uncertain terms. And a good thing, too, because I never would have thought that verbal feedback was expected rather than discouraged. I never would have thought I was supposed to be reporting my body’s response to the assigned tasks.

I was, and remain, skeptical. I’d always assumed that the therapists knew what they were doing and wouldn’t ask me to do anything that I wasn’t supposed to do.  Far be it from me, I thought, to suggest to these professionals that I might not be capable of doing what they were asking. I’m having trouble getting used to the idea that it is actually designed to be a negotiation as opposed to a priced-as-marked purchase.

It makes sense now that I think about it, because of course, it’s hard to tell by just looking at someone what her body is feeling. I can’t speak for others [obviously], but making sure that pain doesn’t show on my face is a skill I’m proud to have acquired. It turns out to not be such a valuable skill after all, but fortunately for me, my therapists and assistants are wise to me now and watch my body instead of my face for signs of muscle strain and exhaustion.  In effect, they are not just rehabilitating my body, they are also training me to pay closer attention to it, to listen to what it is telling me and then act on that information rather than squelching it.

I had taught myself to persist with an exercise until I thought I “should” be done, rather than stopping when my body started sending up warning flares.  Having been in the habit of ignoring pain for so many years now, I have no idea where the cutoff point is actually supposed to be. I had always assumed I was setting it too low. (Certainly, my frustratingly marginal performance improvements seemed to back that up.)  Now, I have to come to terms with the idea that I was approaching it from the wrong end; I’m supposed to be making adjustments according to the experience itself, not the result thereof.

And even now, armed with this new knowledge, I’m worried that I haven’t pushed my muscles hard enough for the correct chemicals to show up on the test. I’m nagged by the unfounded feeling that I was too easy on myself, despite the fact that walking to the mailbox an hour later, my legs still felt like jelly, one nearly buckling as I descended the porch steps. But that’s just normal, right? I mean, the whole point is to damage your muscles so they martial the body’s resources to repair themselves, larger and stronger than before. How do you know if you’ve done it right if they don’t weaken and complain while you’re doing it?

I don’t know.

All of the times that my body responded normally to exertion have suddenly flooded  into my head. Like those years of swim practices. I gave out before the other swimmers, sure, but looking back on those grueling hour-and-a-half workouts, there were probably a lot of other kids who would have given out, too, if they had tried to do swim team, which most of them didn’t.

When I first started jogging about five years ago, I couldn’t get to a quarter mile without having to stop and walk, but eventually, I worked myself up to where I could manage a couple of miles with relative ease, if rather slower than most.  I even did a couple of 5K’s, coming in with respectable times in the top half or third for my age group. What if that’s how most people are? What if most people can’t run more than a couple of miles, but don’t know it because they never bothered to find out?

Anxiety is vibrating through me like a drug now, eight hours later, my muscles only just barely sore from this morning’s gym activities. What if all those times I was hurt or fatigued, it was simply because I’m just especially ungifted, physically?  What if I actually am on the normal distribution curve, just way out at the low-performing end of it?

I won’t know for another few days whether my muscles are exhibiting “normal” post-workout soreness or the debilitating pain that I remember from earlier forays into weight-lifting and strength training. What if I just had a low pain threshold before? (Although if that’s the case, I’m pretty sure I can strike that possibility from the list now.) How disappointing it will be a week or two from now when I get the results of the blood work, and just like all those other times, everything has come back perfectly normal.

Maybe I really could have run that mile, back when I was a kid. Maybe just don’t have the right temperament. Maybe I’m just not capable of pushing myself hard enough.

I don’t know.

But in 48 hours, I will be one step closer to finding out.

About SeeMorrigan

I'm a woman in her early forties who was beset in October of 2013 with a nerve entrapment due to an abnormal conformation of my shoulder blades. I was in constant, unrelieved pain for fifteen months, until, after countless misdiagnoses and mistreatments, a surgeon correctly diagnosed the issue and performed two surgeries to remove pieces of my shoulder blades. Along the way, I also discovered I am high-functioning autistic. I started this blog in March of 2014 as a way to try to process what was happening to me. It is my hope that by sharing it with you, we can both gain something, or at least learn something, from my experience.
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3 Responses to stress and release

  1. Joshua Engel says:

    I’ve said it before: Life is the worst kind of teacher, that gives the test before it gives the lesson. We never know when we’re erring to one side, convinced of our own uniqueness when in fact the feeling is universal; and when to the other, unaware that the world could be any way other than what it has been.

    I don’t even know what to hope for in this case. Part of me wants the tentative diagnosis to fail: heartbreaking as it would be to take that step back, it would at least leave room for a more positive prognosis. But mostly, it leaves me thinking that “hoping” is fraught when the universe already knows the answer, and that to spend time hoping at all is an excuse for failing to do something more productive.

    • seemorrigan says:

      Indeed, it’s so startling, and belittling, to suddenly realize that the world you thought was there doesn’t exist, and that the one that does exist is vast, uncharted, and frighteningly unknowable. To hope is to fret; an energy expense that only seems to hold the uncertainty at bay. But the only other thing we can do is try to stay distracted – if we can.

  2. christellsit says:

    Release all fear regarding the outcome of the blood tests. You are unique, as we all are. As you know, we are all in different places on a continuum. Bunched in the middle are those who can exercise harder than you can but less than a true athlete. The athletes are at the far end. Those who cannot tolerate any exercise are at the opposite end. You are somewhere between the middle and the no-exercise end. Where on that line, I do not know, and it sounds like you don’t know either, but that really doesn’t matter. Do what you can. Listen to your body. (Don’t do what I do…) Enjoy whatever kind of physical activity feels right to you – and which does not burden you with subsequent days of pain.

    I am not minimizing your anxiety. You’ve earned it. Just know that you will get to exercise again, only in a smart way, and it will be more fun than ever before.

    Been there. Done it wrong. Getting it, sort of, now.

    In the meantime, hold your doctor’s feet to the fire.

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