I remember at time when Allyson and I first started dating, when I told her, “I think I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in.” I was, at that time, running to Pilot Knob, the highest point in West Tennessee (669 ft. Wooo!) three times a week. I was doing push-ups and crunches regularly, and I was playing basketball multiple times a week for hours at a time. Then, during a weekend staying with my parents, I was asked by my mom to winterize their bird bath. My dad was having back trouble, and she knew if someone didn’t do it soon, he would be out there lifting the birdbath and screwing his back up more. So, I was more than happy to save my mom and dad both some pain and suffering. It was a warm fall day, and I went out in my white t-shirt to pick up the large bottom basin, and turn it over, so it wouldn’t freeze over the winter. It was bulky and awkward to lift, and I didn’t want to get my t-shirt dirty, so I held it out from myself, bending over and trying not to use any part of my body but my arms. I then heard something pop in my back. I had never had back pain before, was in the best shape of my life (remember), and I was convinced that my back was in the same kind of shape as my legs. I was wrong and dumb for thinking that you can do anything you want with your back no matter how poor your posture. Over the course of that night, I did many more ill-advised things like having a dunk contest with my friends on an 8-foot goal and keeping intense heat on it the rest of the night (never ever put heat on a new injury). After months at the chiropractor and a thorough education on posture and proper lifting, I recovered and got back to the same activities I was accustomed to, though my back will never be the same.
So, with this sabbatical time I’ve been on for the past several months, I have had ample time to get into better shape. I’m up to a distance running farther than I’ve ever ran before, I’m consistently doing push-ups and crunches. I walk pretty much everywhere I go, and I’ve begun to tag along with Allyson to yoga once a week. I’m about as muscly as I was when I was 18 and it’s been a nice feeling. Even so, I should have known better when I began, once again, telling people, “I think I’m in the best shape of my life.” The latest injury did not occur because of something as dumb as lifting a birdbath wrong to keep a $3 t-shirt clean. I had no say so in this injury, at least not consciously. After a long run on Saturday, I began to feel a pretty strong pain in my neck, and it quickly got really stiff to the point where I can’t turn to see something on my left side. This is a particular problem when you pull out onto a street, or when you’re trying not to seem rude to a person speaking to you on your left side. It is basically taking me out of all activity that doesn’t involve blabbing on the computer or reading Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” in preparation for the Murray State Shakespeare Festival (I’ll probably be blabbing about that later). I had to take a break this morning when trying to put on a shirt because pain started shooting up my neck. I caved and went to the chiropractor, and his did his chiropractor thing, of course. But, when I asked what did this (because I couldn’t connect it to anything I had done to make it hurt so bad), he said pretty nonchalantly that I could be anything–I probably slept in a real bad position.
What? I can’t put on a shirt because I slept wrong? I can run 10 miles right now no problem. I could reel you off 100 push-ups. I hiked 12 miles last week. This is one of those things that really brings you in touch with your own mortality. One day you’re running the distance to the next town, the next day you can’t move because you used the wrong pillow. I feel like I got hit by a truck, but this is just a bad position on my temperpedic mattress. What if I were sleeping on a regular crappy mattress? What if I actually got hit by a truck? What kind of weenie am I? It doesn’t take much these days to get me thinking of my fears of death, but something like this could send those thoughts into hyperdrive. “It’s only downhill from here, Troy. Your neck is the first to go. My cat did the same thing. His neck was hurting one day. His leg fell off a few weeks later. Then the gangrene set in and he was finished. Enjoy what precious few moments you have.” Fortunately my fear of death doesn’t work that way. This is more a reminder that I’m not invincible way more than it is a harbinger of my quickly approaching demise.
For me, though, these times always make me appreciate just normal life. The ability to look at someone in your periphery without having to turn your whole body. The ability to dress yourself without having to lay down before putting your pants on. Those things that you never really give thanks for because they are so mundane you barely even know you do them. The other great teacher of this is the migraines I occasionally get. They happen the most when the weather changes, which leads me to believe my head is very sensitive to air pressure. If I let them get out of hand, I am useless. I just lay somewhere in intense pain, that kind of pain that makes you want to irrationally hit yourself, maybe because it will make it hurt bad enough to just knock you out or maybe because it will knock out whatever internal organ is hurting (doesn’t work, by the way). Then I basically puke until I empty my stomach, then when I’m finally so exhausted I fall asleep, the migraine leaves. I remember getting one one time when I was visiting my friend Mark, hanging out with other friends Steven and Randy. A headache got really bad while we were at their church, and I laid down in the church parlor, going back and forth between it’s antique couches and the bathroom to yak. Steven came to check on me at one point, and I remember him asking if there was anything he could do. I looked up from the toilet and said, “I want you to go out and get a gun. Come back, and shoot me.”
Steven did not fulfill my request, but later I did get something else that I wanted–just to feel normal again. We often let out desperate, pathetic prayers when we are in pain and in great need. We beg for something that just days ago we took for granted. We promise ourselves, God, and the universe that we will never take it for granted again, if we can just have it back. I don’t want money, power, fame, and fortune. I don’t care if I ever find my soul mate or ever get to travel or ever have my own home. I just want to have the feeling back of nothing. To remember what life is like when I don’t hurt. To turn my head to look, the way I used to. To be able to walk like normal, to be able to lift things. To be able to run. To dance if I choose. To rise up in the morning from the bed without doing something like a gymnastics routine. If I can have that, I’ll be happy. I won’t take it for granted.
This is, of course, the life we should live every day–this life that sounds so utopian when we’re in the throws of some painful illness or sidelining injury. We should wake up happy to breathe air the way our lungs were designed to breathe. We should enjoy the chance to walk out our door and see the world before us. We should savor every bite of food and every person in our life who cares about us. What’s more, we should be happy to put our clothes on in the morning and see ourselves, but it’s easy to forget this. Hell, I’m forgetting right now, as I complain about my neck, that I do not have a headache, that I am breathing the way I should and about to join friends at Jasmine for tasty Thai food, and that my faithful friend, Digby, is sitting on the couch right next to me and would follow me to the edge of the Earth, and that my beautiful wife will soon come down the stairs and we will spend the rest of this night sharing with each other about our day, our hopes, and our disappointments. What a life this is.
So, yeah, I was stopped in my tracks, in the prime of my life, by poor sleep positions. But, I have faith I’ll return, and that’s some comfort. More comfort, though, is that I love this life. I love what I’ve seen and love the possibilities in front of me, healthy neck or no. I’m putting ice on it now, in hopes things will be back to normal in the next few days. Until then, though, I got plenty I can do.