Anxiety, and the Struggle to Recover from Injury

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2017 was supposed to be “the year”.

The year…

I got in shape
I gained muscle
I improved my stamina on the bike
I conquered my anxiety
I finally felt comfortable again in my own skin

But, of course, life does not listen to your planning. It often does the exact opposite.

The Injury
As I’ve written about before, I suffered an injury this year. And 7 months later, I am still recovering. I injured my ulnar nerve (aka the funny bone nerve) back in June, in both arms. Most significantly in my left arm which is my dominant arm.

How did I do it? I think in my case this is the result of years of poor posture, lack of core strength, and a “slippery” ulnar nerve.  I’ve had smaller issues with this nerve – numbness at night, tightness when doing certain weight exercises, elbow tenderness at work, etc. This all combined to make my arms ripe for this type of strain at some point.  I think the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer, and staying on my road bike for two days, in a fixed position, expedited the problem. I also suspect that I wasn’t properly fitted on my bike. (I want to be clear: I don’t fault the event itself at all. I think this was purely the result of my physiology and my position on the bike).

I knew when I first injured the arm that this wasn’t going to be a quick fix. For the first couple of days I couldn’t hold a pen. I had trouble flexing my hand. I was in a lot of pain. There was numbness. I went to a few massage therapy appointments, which helped a little, but the pain wasn’t going away. I went to the doctor, and was sent to an orthopedic surgeon for evaluation. He diagnosed me with an entrapped ulnar nerve and gave me a prescription for anti-inflammatories, physiotherapy, and a referral for a nerve function test (to be certain I hadn’t damaged the nerve permanently). I was told it could take about a month for my symptoms to subside, and to lay off cycling until I was pain free.

The First Two Months
I kept waiting for the day when I’d wake up, and the pain would be gone. I took time off from the gym, and dove into physiotherapy. While at first I thought I could get away with just riding a stationary bike, or going for runs – it soon became apparent that even those activities were causing flare ups. I stopped knitting. I had to limit my handwriting, use of my cell phone, reading, and even the way I sit on the couch had to change. Just about everything I did caused pain. It was exhausting and frustrating. It felt like every tool I regularly used to combat my anxiety was taken away from me. It left me feeling very helpless against my mental battles.

This ate away at my confidence, and my mood. I became depressed about not being able to ride my bike, or do more at the gym. I watched my social media feed become filled with people achieving goals throughout the summer, getting fitter, while I worried I was just going to become a lump. I started to monitor my calorie intake so I could do my best to ensure that while I was losing muscle, I wouldn’t gain too much fat. While I tried to stay positive, my anxiety ate away at me.

“How much muscle am I losing right now?”
“I am going to be so slow when I start running again”
“All that hard work, ruined”
“I am never going to get in shape”
“What if this is permanent?”
“What if this is a sign of something more serious like MS?”
“Are people at the gym judging me?”
“Are my friends judging me?”
“What’s going to happen when I try to workout again?”
“What if my heart is losing its conditioning, and it gives out the next time I try to run?”
“What if I can never ride my bike again?”
“What if I can never knit again?”
“Why can’t I even just hold a book?!”
“Why aren’t these drugs helping?”
“Why isn’t it gone yet?”
“I wish I had just fallen off my bike instead”
“If I had broken a bone, it would have healed by now”
“I bet I am doing something wrong, and this is why I don’t feel better”
“All these online articles say I should have recovered within 8 weeks”

Over and over, those thoughts and questions have plagued me. I can’t even sit here and say that today I no longer have these thoughts. At least once a day, most of those questions run through my mind.

Reality vs. Expectation
Over the summer, I slowly had to come to accept my reality. I wasn’t going to be running, and certainly wasn’t going to be biking. I had to back out of a cycling event in September. I stopped training for my 5km race in October. Instead, I started to just take everything one day at a time.

I had ups and downs. There was a point in late July, into August that I thought I was getting better, and had finally turned a corner. I started running again. But then, BANG, all of my symptoms came roaring back, and I was back to incredible pain and discomfort. So I stopped exercising, outside of going for long walks. For most of August, I just walked around my neighbourhood.  This continued into September.

One of the hardest things has been watching others. I’d feel sad when I would have runners pass me by. I felt embarrassed to just be walking. Part of me felt like screaming “I usually run! I’m injured!!” because for some reason I craved the validation of strangers. Same thing at the gym when I’d make an appearance. I felt like others were thinking I was just wasting space by only stretching on the mats, instead of doing weights or squats, or even planks. I felt like people were thinking “why isn’t she doing more??” Even though I know, 99% of people are just focused on their own agenda at the gym, and not what I am doing. I felt like a loser, and a failure.

I had really hoped, when I was first injured, that it would just be a couple weeks and then I’d be back to normal. I never would have thought it would be January, and I’d still be experiencing symptoms. The good news was that my nerve function test came back without any signs of permanent damage. I am literally just waiting for this to go away. I am also working to correct posture, and release the muscle tension around my nerve. I still, though, get very scared that surgery might be inevitable, or that this is just going to be my life from now on.

And through it all, it’s been really difficult finding resources online with how to deal with injuries psychologically. There’s so much out there for what to do physically, but no one really writes about what your brain is going to put you through. Most well-intentioned people just keep telling you over and over to have patience, and that it will get better in time. Patience is hard. Patience is not an action. Physio at least makes me feel like I am actively doing something to help my body get better. But nothing is more frustrating for someone with anxiety than being told to wait.

The anxiety also leads to a lot of self-doubt. I’ve wondered a lot about what I’ve been doing wrong, or how I could have prevented this.  You blame yourself for not being a psychic. If you’re part of a team or group, you feel like you’ve disappointed everyone. I worry about missing out on things. I can’t even think about not riding for TEALPOWER in 2018, but there’s a real good chance I’ll be unable to. I worry about how much muscle mass I’ve lost, and whether I’ll ever be able to put it back on. Over and over, your anxiety just reminds you of the possible ways you’ve failed. And then through it all, you’re physically in pain.

So I know what most of you are thinking – “just keep working and you’ll get there Tesla” and “you’re too hard on yourself!” or how about “Tesla, don’t measure your self worth against others!” I know. I know all of these things. Trust me, I’ve tried not to care about what others may or may not be thinking about me. I’ve tried to love my body as is. I’ve tried to just roll with the punches and wait for the day the pain has subsided enough that I can get back on a bike. And I’ll keep trying to make the “loud voice” in my brain that one that accepts me for who I am at any given point in time, instead of the “loud voice” being in love with the version of myself that ran a half-marathon.

I guess what I wanted people to understand is that, injuries force you to recover in two ways – mentally and physically. And sometimes, I just need to cry about being in pain, and be angry, and resentful. Sometimes I just need to let those emotions out. And sometimes I know I need to be better at reminding myself that even if this is forever, I will find ways to cope, manage, and be happy. Everything needs to be one day a time and less focused on what my world might look like six months from now. If anything being injured has been a good reminder that the best way to live your life is completely and fully in the moment.

If you’re out there, reading this and struggling to overcome an injury or chronic pain, my best advice would just be to keep focusing on what’s right in front of you, and what you can do today. If today you can go for a walk, consider that a success. If tomorrow you can’t, don’t consider that a failure. Remind yourself of the other positive things in your life, beyond whether or not you can bench press today. Have coffee with a friend, watch a funny movie, sit in the sunshine, do anything to make your heart happy. Meditate when you can. Write out your feelings. Go to the doctor and ask for help. Get a second opinion if you have to. Ask for support. And remember it’s OK to cry and be angry. Let it out, don’t hold it in. Let the feelings pass so you can then move on with your day. Keep looking forward, and stop comparing yourself to your “pre-injury” self. Trust me, it will only cause you more pain. Just keep going and remember to forgive yourself. We can do this together.

Thanks for reading as always. I’ll be Tweeting all day about #BellLetsTalk to help raise money for mental health services in Canada. Join n the conversation if you wish. 

If you would like to also read my other Bell Let’s Talk Day posts, they can be found below: 

2017
2016
2015

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The Guilt of Being Happy

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Getting back into a regular exercise routine has done wonders for me, especially as my one-year “being on meds” anniversary came and went. As I’ve written, my self-confidence went on a roller coaster ride late last year. I gained some weight. I picked up bad habits. And along that messy journey, I just felt awful about myself. Like really bad. It was a hit my self-confidence hadn’t taken since graduating university.

But I’ve come a long way. I feel miles better about myself. I am getting stronger. I’ve already seen my muscles change shape in some areas of my body, and slowly but surely I am getting back my running legs, and my endurance. My mood is better. My energy levels have even skyrocketed. The hardest part though, is that I find myself often getting riddled with guilt and usually for entirety dumb reasons.

I’ve made a few sacrifices on this road. I signed up for personal training, and a gym membership, both of which were financial hits. Who knew if I’d like training? What if I never used the gym? But sometimes I feel bad for spending that money. Maybe I should be saving it. What if I’ll need it for an emergency down the road? What if I can’t afford a trip later this year because I’ve spent so much on  myself? Does that make me a bad person? It’s the strange way anxiety works. “Oh what’s this – you’re happy about something – TIME TO BRING THAT FEELING CRASHING DOWN”. But I know that in order to get in shape, I do need to work at it. And I do have a lot to learn when it comes to strength training, and correcting various imbalances in my muscles. Like with my recovery from anxiety, I couldn’t do that on my own. So for now, I’ve swapped a therapist for a personal trainer. As for the gym membership – I’ve been setting foot in that building at least 4 – 5 times a week since I signed up, so I’d say I am getting my money’s worth.

Diet hasn’t been too much of a change for me. Like my hypersensitivity to my body, I am diligent about what I eat and drink. I rarely drink pop, or juice. I usually just drink water or tea. On occasion I have a latte. I don’t even consume energy drinks or things like Gatorade. We rarely eat out, and when I do I try to make “healthy” choices. I started a food journal at the request of my trainer – but I have to admit. I can’t be a calorie counter. I can’t obsess over my food. Why? Because I suspect I’d pretty quickly fall victim to an eating disorder. I feel keeping a food journal is already causing me to become to obsessive about what I eat. I don’t want to fear food, or feel guilty when I eat something. I feel like anyone who reads my journal will judge me, and criticize me. Almost as if my choices will cause disappointment from others. Sean bought me some amazing chocolates for Valentine’s and it took me about three weeks to eat them all because I couldn’t bring myself to eat more than one or two in a sitting. I thought if I spread them out, it’d be easier to burn off the calories. But I do truly believe that life is too short to forbid yourself from eating certain foods, or indulging every now and then. Will skipping that one cupcake really be the difference? Sure you can make the argument that over time skipping the cupcake each time makes a big difference. But would you be any happier? I know I wouldn’t be. I’d be miserable for skipping that cupcake over and over. But then, my anxiety just won’t let me win, and when I do eat the cupcake I find myself thinking “well, there goes my hope of fitting back into those jeans again. You know this is like 600 calories. That’s an hour of running. Was that worth it?”

I also have to admit, cutting back on alcohol has also been difficult. I rarely drink throughout the week, and mostly drink on weekends. It’s not that I need to be drunk all the time, or anything like that, but I do enjoy the “treat” on the weekend of trying new beers, or enjoying a glass of wine with dinner. But I often find myself getting angry at myself. “Why did you have that second glass of wine? You don’t need it, and you just drank another 300 calories.” I find myself wondering just how much more weight I could lose if I gave up alcohol altogether. I have a horrible habit of comparing my body to that of all the others I see in the gym. It leaves me feeling depressed. I think “I’ll never look like that.” And that is always in the back of my mind every single time I take a sip of alcohol. And that attitude is only going to be more detrimental to my weight loss.

So how do I win? How do I make myself be OK with indulging? I haven’t figured that out yet. Trouble is, I don’t think I will be able to be OK with these things until I “look good” in my own mind. I won’t be able to really enjoy that cupcake until I fit back into my favourite pair of jeans. And I know, weight loss is all about sacrifices. But I also know that you can’t withhold everything from yourself, that’s how binge eating happens (which can really undo a lot of your hard work.) I just need to determine how I can re-wire my thinking. I need to challenge my thoughts. But anyone with anxiety can tell you, battling yourself is probably the most difficult one to wage, mentally. It’s like that little voice inside of you just NEVER gives up. It has a stubbornness you didn’t know existed.

Yonge St 10k
Gotta be more like this girl – who was extremely proud to finish this race in under an hour for the first time.

I guess I’ll just keep lacing up, and moving forward. I have to learn to forgive myself. I have to go a little easier on myself. The more I push myself in the gym, the more results I will see. I have to remind myself, I’ve seen results even with the small diet modifications I’ve made. One glass of wine, or two, won’t cause me to gain 10lbs. I should be thankful for the body I have now, and for the health I have. There are so many people out there who have bigger problems than I do. I have to remind myself I am healthy, and doing all of the right things to stay on track. I need to love myself a little more. I need to stop looking at others and comparing my body to theirs. I don’t know their lives, or how they achieved those results. I’ll just keep repeating those things, and hope it keeps that voice at bay. Even if it’s just for a few moments, it’ll be worth it. Once again I will remind myself that anxiety is stealing moments from me, moments that I deserve to use for happiness.

Thanks as always for reading. Follow me on social media for more random thoughts, updates, and musings. And also, please consider donating to my Ride To Conquer Cancer page – you’ll help save lives, and help me achieve my mental health goals. 

 

 

 

What Talking Taught Me

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It was nearly a year ago today that I opened up about my struggles with depression and anxiety. Today has been on my mind a lot. I’ve thought a lot about what to write, how I want to move forward, and how to encourage others to use this day as the beginning of their road to good mental health.

So, here are the top lessons I have learned from opening my mouth on #BellLetsTalk Day.

Opening Up is the Hardest Part

Admitting you need support is difficult. I waited until I was 29 to tell the world what I was going through. Before then, it was reserved only for partners and maybe a couple friends. Even then, no one knew the true depth of my pain. It’s easy to come up with conversations and scenarios in your mind of how you will tell people. The worst part of having anxiety, though, is that your mind will then come up with 100 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut: “Everyone will think you’re lying”, “no one will want to be your friend anymore”, “you won’t be loved anymore”, “you’ll be made fun of behind your back”, “people at work will think less of you and you won’t get promoted”, “nothing will change anyways, you’ll always be like this”, “your problems are stupid, there are people out there with REAL problems”, and it goes on and on. Before you know it, you’re crying into a bag of chips and feel a lot worse about yourself than when you started. I even know that feeling where you desperately want to say the words “I need help” but your lips feel like they’re sealed shut. I know it feels like you’d rather jump out of your skin and run away forever than have to actually verbalize those words. It’s horrible. It’s hard. But it’s worth it. Once you get over that hurdle, you will find your journey will begin, and you will be so happy to have the weight of the world off your shoulders.

(Side note, those “reasons” your mind comes up with are all why it’s so important for us to change the conversation around mental illness. Stigma kills and hurts in so many ways. By speaking up, and being supportive, you may not change the entire world, but you will change a small part of it.)

You Will Stumble, and Fall

No one is perfect, and no one is cured immediately. Sadly, getting to a place of good mental health takes a lot of work and dedication. I wish it were easy. I’d give anything to just snap my fingers and have all of my obsessive thoughts disappear. But remember, this is why you are strong for getting help, and not weak. The most important thing, though, I have really begun to learn is to not be too hard on myself. The key, for me, when I fall down is to have a plan for getting back up. For example, I am now keeping an Exercise Journal to hold myself accountable for getting back into shape. I mark off days in the calendar with a giant X so I can look back at the month and go “YEAH – Look at what I’ve achieved!”. That sense of accomplishment will help erase your feelings of failure. Will I miss a workout some days? Of course. Will I eat a cupcake instead of fruit? You bet. Just remember to step back, and forgive yourself. You’re not the only one to stumble.

Keep Busy

Find hobbies, and things to help calm your mind. I love my colouring books for example. I can’t meditate – my brain is always in overdrive and I can’t turn it off long enough to meditate properly. But colouring does force me to focus and not think about anything else except which marker to use next. I have also bought some knitting needles and plan to start giving that a try! I like being creative, so those options work best for me. Maybe you will find comfort in something else. You will find that the more you find joy in a small hobby, the less time you find wrapped in pain. And keep a journal! Write down your fears and challenge them when they don’t come true. Write down what made you happy each day. Write down something new you did, or learned. Write, write, write. Remind yourself each and everyday that it isn’t always bad. That even on the darkest days you can find a small bit of light. Even writing “I didn’t cry today” should be remembered as a big moment for a lot of us with depression and anxiety. Write it down so you don’t forget the good.

Turn Off Your Phone

This year, I am making a conscious effort to be checking my phone less and less after I get home from work. Instead of wasting time on social media, I am now researching new recipes, ideas for a balcony garden, or colouring. Now that I am spending less time comparing my life to others, I find myself much happier with who I am. And also, you can’t freak out and get upset over some random Instagram post when you never saw it to begin with. Social media is like gasoline to mental illness’ fire. Turn it off, and you’ll immediately notice a benefit.

Be Mindful 

If you ever find yourself in those never-ending thought cycles, the best way to break it is to instantly focus on exactly what you are doing in that moment. I used to find I would start to have anxious thoughts when doing the dishes. I would mull over moments from the day, and start to get worried about the next day. So I started forcing myself to stop those thoughts and instead think “Now I am washing this butter knife. Now I am rinsing it. It goes into the utensil holder on the drying rack”. It sounds tedious. It sounds boring. And it is, but it works. Do that for the remainder of the activity and you will forget about what was bothering you in the first place. And if it comes back, start it all over again. It also means re-engaging yourself in conversations with friends, loved ones, and co-workers. Start to make memories again. I know that when I spend so much time absorbed in my own thoughts, I find I barely remember where the days go.

Get Sweaty

Exercise in any shape or form can do wonders for depression and anxiety. There’s endless studies about the science behind why, and I’ll leave you to Google, but you really can’t beat a good workout to help calm your brain and unleash a lot of pent up energy. I know for depression, it’s often hard enough to get out of bed let alone go for a run, but maybe start small and promise yourself you’ll go for a walk each day, or do some yoga in the living room. Whatever you do, I’ve always found that it makes the biggest difference in my life.

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Remind Yourself You are Valuable 

I used to write myself really intense motivational messages like “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. YOU ARE STRONG. YOU ARE HEALTHY” and read them over and over again before bed. You might laugh, but it works. Repeating those mantras that YOU have value as a person and that YOU deserve happiness will help you see that you are worth fighting for. For a long time I didn’t think I was any of those things. I thought I was a worthless loser. But here I am, stronger than ever before with a purpose in life. Write down what you need to tell yourself to kick yourself into gear and find your confidence. And read it until you believe it deep into your core.

And finally, and this one is the most important: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. 

The moment I started talking, people starting sharing their struggles with me. It was incredible. And also very sad to know how many people I knew were also hurting. But there’s a strange comfort in numbers. It means you have people in your corner. It means that someone else can understand. It means someone else can help. There’s nothing defective about YOU. We’ve all comes across some form of mental illness in our lifetime. YOU are not broken beyond repair. WE are all here for you.

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So in a year, I’ve turned things around little by little. I still have my down days, and I still have those nagging thoughts that sometimes rear their ugly heads. But I battle through and move forward. I find happiness. I find purpose. You can to. Just take everything one step at a time.

Please don’t be afraid to talk, and also don’t be afraid to listen. We all need to change the way we view mental illness. It’s time we all find the love, comfort, and happiness we deserve.

Thank you for reading, and please share and spread the word to help those suffering in silence. Show them you care.

I’ll be tweeting about #BellLetsTalk all day today, join me and let’s raise some money for mental health initiatives in Canada.