Roll Me in Bubble Wrap, Destination Still Unknown

Tales from the unbalanced, part 2

Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

At first, I didn’t like the smell of steel on my hands or the way the traction dug my palms. I was too new for calluses yet and Amazon sells swanky pink lifting gloves. I was in the “big weight” section of the gym without a single clue as to what I was doing. Everything I did started with the bar. Just the bar. It felt devastating.

Deadlifts came the easiest. I quickly moved up to 100 pounds. Mostly we did back, shoulder, and arms to start. I remember wanting to try a bench press — because isn’t that what everyone who is serious does? The bar was heavy. It was a moment of pride and embarrassment to see the little 2.5-pound plates go on. But I got over it.

HealthFest: Marshall, Texas

Author with Dr Colin Campbell, HealthFest 2015, from personal photos

In the spring of 2015, I decided I would take a long weekend and fly into Shreveport, Louisiana, rent a car, and drive to a small town in east Texas. I had never heard of Marshall, Texas before. (It was actually a search through Facebook-land for me to recall it for this writing.) But there it was in front of me in high magazine gloss: several doctors, athletes, and vegan entrepreneurs I’d admired. And they were all going to be in Texas. At the same time.

I rolled into town. It was small, and aside from the fact that it was about to lay host to a plethora of celeb vegans, it looked like any other small town with a Confederate cannon barreling down on a Capital One. It felt that I was on the precipice of some kind of change — I mean, I had to be with this kind of brilliance about to leap out of the streets. It wasn’t a cannon, but I had come armed with a lot of questions.

Marshall, Texas from the authors personal photos

Mostly, I talked to a lot of people, ate a lot of great food, and walked endless laps around the town to the various places hosting the speakers. At the end of it all, there was a 5k, and somehow I landed in with a very nice group of really tall speed-walking women — I’m pretty sure I died out there.

It was the right time, the right questions, in an entirely questionable scenario. I came home and met with my trainer and told her exactly what I wanted to do.

Soup cans and lipstick

It was probably as much a surprise to Christina as it was to me when the words rattled out of me. I want to power lift. I’m not that kind of trainer, she said, and talked to another who was a vegan powerlifter about taking me on for half my training. We started with checking my form on all three major lifts: deads, bench, and squats.

We talked about being kids who loved lifting heavy things and working out with soup cans because we didn’t have hand weights. I recalled a moment when I was lifting heavy pieces of wood — very proud that I could lift them and throw them onto the back of the truck. My grandmother yelled at me to stop lifting like a man. It was a moment that stuck with me. The words that hurt us often do.

In the next session, I was sent back to the beginning on squats, relearning form. As much as I asked for weight, I was denied until my form improved. Bench was a constant struggle and I fought hard for every five-pound gain. Deadlifts were my favorite, and not just because I could do them well, and made steady improvements — I loved pulling up and seeing the success in the mirror.

The words of my grandmother no longer stung as I came into my own. Many days, I would put on red lipstick and lift. It was an act of defiance all around, but one that helped me focus. Some have special belts, or socks. Some have a song. I had Chanel red.

Over two years I trained hard with various trainers. I ate a lot of chickpeas and kale, and would swear to anyone who asked that the secret sauce was my post-workout coffee: Starbucks pike roast with three raw sugars and a healthy splash of soy milk. The usual baristas would often have it made up by the time I came in.

Photo by Hayley Maxwell on Unsplash

I was hitting goals and working up the courage to enter a friendly, local competition. I was also battling what was becoming chronic sciatica pain. We worked around it and I finally saw my doctor when it was becoming impossible to progress my squats. She ordered x-rays, calling me a few days later with results she wasn’t expecting. I had a slipped disc and needed to go to an orthopedic doctor.

I picked a practice that was known for helping athletes through injuries and getting back to normal. What I got was a doctor who told me I would never be able to lift again — no matter what he did and sent me to physical therapy. I broke down into tears. I still worked out with weights, but avoided deadlifts and heavy squats. Physical therapy did nothing to reduce the pain and an MRI showed that the disc slippage was worse than what the x-ray indicated. The doctor offered me injections. I refused.

Several months of acupuncture led to over a year of chiropractic treatment, where I saw some minor but short-lived improvement.

202 at 2 a.m.

My partner is a musician. It was a Saturday in February that he was playing a gig an hour from our home. In the pre-COVID world, I often went with him as was the case this particular evening. Both of us were tired and I fell asleep in the passenger seat while he loaded out. Usually, I would drive home, but he opted to that night. Somewhere about 10 minutes from home, driving on US-202, he fell asleep. We both woke up as the car went off the road. The growth on the side of the road made it look like we were driving in a field as it slapped against the windshield. And then the bang. I remember the car rolling at least twice. We would learn later that it rolled at least ten times.

No one knew how we walked away from the accident and called 911 of our own accord. The police kept asking where the people from the car were and didn’t believe that we were them. Unknowing the extent of the accident, I reminded the officer that seatbelts save lives and he walked away from me — angry and ghostly white.

Because we didn’t know the extent of the accident, I didn’t know I’d lost consciousness. What I knew was my head hurt a lot — as did my shoulder, neck, and leg. It would be later assessed that I had a major concussion. I was groggy, found it hard to focus, walked slowly, and suffered from photophobia to the point that the doctor was unable to do an eye exam. I spent weeks in physical therapy.

Shortly after being discharged from physical therapy, I lost my balance and fractured my elbow working in my garden. It would be yet another setback.

A year of relief and COVID

After a while, with my back also continuing to worsen, the chiropractor suggested a physiatrist. I finally gave into injections after rounds of various medications proved ineffective at managing the pain. It wasn’t until he tried a nerve cauterization that I finally had a reprieve from the pain. It lasted almost a year.

I started working out again, not lifting heavy but strength training. It was feeling good to get back into the gym again on a somewhat regular basis.

And then COVID shut it all down.

COVID time is like a vacuum and chronic pain creates a fog, as such I’m no longer certain of the timeline.

Pain was now spreading into my other leg and I underwent more injections and physical therapy. And then another injection. We changed my medications. The COVID gym in my spare room was collecting dust.

A means to an end

I woke up one morning in such acute pain that I couldn’t make it across the street when I suggested that we go for a walk to see if that would help. I ended up in the emergency room. The MRI didn’t show significant changes, but there was definite nerve compression and stenosis. My physiatrist referred me to neurosurgery.

What no one mentioned to me during this entire time was that I had a fracture in my spine, likely caused by deadlifts.

I had back surgery in December of 2021.

170–300–205

My last set of single rep maximums was a bench at 170 pounds, a deadlift at 300 pounds, and a squat at 205 pounds. Last week, I struggled to get cat litter upstairs.

My friends have joked, repeatedly, that the way I injured myself over the years, they need to wrap me in bubble wrap for my own protection. I have no doubt that the orthopedic doctor I’m seeing this week of acute (and seemingly repetitive) cartilage shearing injury will possibly join in that summation.

How does one have an injury like that off the pitch or field? It’s a lovely story that involves a rowboat in Versailles (and probably a series of squats in a gym just outside of Philadelphia).

Author in 2017. Facebook caption read: Saturdays are for squats… even when they aren’t feeling great.

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Nikki Barr

Nikki Barr

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Normal human in an extraordinaire world. Memoir / Humor / Just Life