Archive for May, 2017

Help!

May 26, 2017

Last time we were here, I took a very therapeutically necessary trip down into some dark places I don’t often go these days. It felt good to be able to describe a little of what severe depression was like as an athlete, and then to be able to pack those things back into their box and leave them behind. Taken a while to be able to do that.

I was, however, unprepared for the catalogue of disasters about to befall me. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know the bare bones of “Project Rehab”, which is the label I’ve given to my steady and quite long term plan to recover full function in my left shoulder.

Well, I’d tackled the discipline of regaining full and pain free movement, followed by stability. I had then begun, a few weeks back, to move forward to a tentative process of starting to build some muscular strength. Not just in the shoulder muscles themselves, but in the whole left chain of action, which had suffered from the failure of a main component, as it were.

And bingo! Welcome back “photographers arm”. If I call it “tennis elbow” instead, you’ll get the basic idea. Except that tennis elbow more commonly strikes the underside of the elbow. Or so I believe. I don’t know because I’ve never played. Quite a lot of my time as a jobbing photographer usually shooting action events, is spent lifting a heavy camera and heavy lens up and down and trying to hold them still. There are clearly muscles and bits deep in my upper forearm that have decided over time that they don’t like this when it’s coupled with a regular dose of shoulder rehab work in the gym. I guess some would call it repetitive strain injury, though I find little of any insight in that description. The painful area is no more than two inches long, and readily accessible to massage and acupuncture, which have helped a little, but not enough. The traditional remedial tools such as a tennis elbow strap or neoprene elbow sleeve aren’t doing it for me either. It’s a work in progress at present. Or at least, a lot of work and not much progress, so far.

I’d also been enthusiastic to get a bit of decent aerobic training in, as soon as my shoulder was comfortable with it. I’ve recorded here that three 5k runs at my local Parkrun were enough to beat up my left achilles tendon. I’m not over that problem yet, eight weeks later, but at least the one very tentative Parkrun I did recently didn’t aggravate it. Annoyingly, my commitment to Parkrun tends to be hindered at this time of year by an increase in my photographic commitments at the weekend, and this squeezes my opportunity for aerobic work that is also, and importantly, in a sociable setting. Read that previous blog of mine again if you want to be reminded of the importance of that aspect.

So why title this piece “Help!”? Well, it could as easily have been “Streuth!” or “OMG!” but “Help!” is at least in keeping with my habit of titling these things after a song from my music collection. However, it’s not a rhetorical title. At this particular moment, I seem to lack an answer. I’ve realised that my sporting life has gone off the boil, and I don’t like it!

My local gym is key to the work I do to stay fit and healthy. It is excellent and staffed by good people. It’s part of a chain, and over the last few weeks it’s been undergoing a complete refurbishment of the gym equipment and gym layout. To its overall credit, the gym hasn’t closed for a single day during this time. A great deal of the work (new flooring, for example) has been done overnight. However, at least one of the three sections of the gym area have been closed off at any one time recently. New equipment has also been arriving and being set up for use. So what, you ask? Well, this has all made the gym heavily overcrowded with equipment, at the expense of the floor space I find essential for exercise. This will all pass, I am sure, as the project finishes any day now, but it’s had an effect on my training nevertheless.

Injury has made me very cautious of trying anything new at present, and, while I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, the aforementioned theft of floor-space has restricted the opportunities for quite a lot of what I’ve been doing in the gym over the last few months. So, to be frank, I’ve skipped a few gym sessions lately, until it all settles down. The injuries haven’t helped my enthusiasm to train, despite that I’ve actually grown fond of the learning experiences that accompany properly managed recovery. So, I can’t altogether blame injury for where I’ve reached.

I told myself I could afford at least a week of this lessened activity, because I was due a break. Even while I’m basically “just” doing a glorified version of injury recovery routines, I’ve remained aware of the need to give my body time to rest and adapt. However, inactivity sings a siren song sometimes. I’ve had periods of inactivity in the past, of course, but nearly always there has been a background ingredient in the mix that just isn’t there at the moment: motivation!

One thing I learned some time ago that works well for me is to try to turn the nervousness of anticipating competition on the track into a motivating force. But competition is out of my equation at present, and without a shadow of doubt, I’m severely lacking motivation in my training. Note, that’s motivation, not direction. My rehab plan gives me direction, but I seem to have found that if there is a motivating force from knowing where you should be heading, it falters after a while. Progress isn’t, it seems, always its own reward.

I can carry on doing what I’ve been doing, but one of life’s best guiding quotations (a former boss of mine used to use it, but it’ll no doubt be older) is “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got”. In other words, I need a step-change in what I’m doing, which will be 1) physically and mentally absorbing, 2) as free from the risk of new injuries as I can reasonably hope for, and 3) motivating!

I’ll end this here. There’s therapy to be had in thinking out aloud like this.

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Trouble in Shangri-La

May 8, 2017

I’m writing this in Mental Health Awareness Week, 2017. Many stories have emerged in the press etc recently of sports people suffering from depression and other mental health issues. Go back on this blog a few years and you’ll find that I was part of that gang too. It’s an area of my life I don’t revisit here very much now, but it’s part of me that never goes away, and probably never will. Depression was such a huge shock to me that I was, frankly, in denial for quite a long time.

In the twelve months or so period during which severe depression steadily established its grip on me, by some standards I had “no excuses”. Life was sweet in many ways. I was in my early fifties, and my training as a sprinter in Masters athletics was paying off. I was a regular finalist in World and European Masters competitions; I had very narrowly missed out on a medal in the last World Masters sprint final I’d raced in; and I was holder of three world gold medals from relay events. I was also in the world top ten for my age category, free from illness, and the back injuries that had plagued my life for the previous 15 years were apparently under control.

I had (and still have) a happy home life. I had a satisfying job, albeit with lots of anti-social hours. I had hobbies, and a sense of humour. And depression knocked me sideways nevertheless.

In my sporting life, I can’t say I felt unhappy in the accepted sense, but in a number of respects, I was unsatisfied. I was training hard and regularly, but one consequence of those frequent anti-social work hours was that I found it impossible to commit to training with a group of other athletes, or a coach. I just couldn’t guarantee to be there for any given session. I needed to grab opportunities to train when I could, and that usually meant solo.

I think I’ve always been a pretty self-critical person. Often that’s been with good reason. I don’t like just to think or imagine that I can do better; I like to set myself on a trajectory I think will lead me to “better”. And over time, I’ve come to realise that being your own control-group, only hearing your own voice as encouragement or criticism, only seeing yourself in the gym mirror, etc, can all be part of quite a dangerous cocktail. With no one to tell me what my sessions looked like and being largely dependent on how they felt to me, for feedback, there was usually only one answer to sessions that didn’t feel hard enough: try harder next time.

I wasn’t short of encouragement, from work colleagues, from my sports masseur and chiropractor particularly. My GP was (and still is) very supportive of this older athlete’s activities. Yet, there came a point when, with hindsight, I can see that diminishing returns set in. The harder I trained, the worse I seemed to perform. What I was doing and experiencing seemed to be lacking any “cause and effect” (as in “do A, and B should eventually happen”). And it seemed to me my options were limited to a single way forward: train harder still.

The nature of situations involving diminishing returns is that they quickly, and often stealthily, develop into downward spirals. I freely admit I missed all the indicators. No matter how untypical I knew I was for my age, my (then) 55 year-old body wasn’t made of Kryptonite, of course. It began to creak at the seams. Niggling injuries wouldn’t go away. Efforts to work around them simply meant less specificity in training, and eventually meant niggles just spread to previously healthy parts of me.

The expression I think I used most often, in my self-talk, was that training was beginning to feel less like something I did for sport and more like “beating myself up”. There is something relentless and deeply disturbing about self-harm. You eventually reach a point of paradox, where the activity that causes the harm actually begins to look like the way out. I lost several things going into and through severe depression. One was my sense of proportion – my sport was exactly that – sport. Not life or death. Yet I acted much of the time as if it was. I lost my coping strategies. I couldn’t cope with conflict or disappointment in particular. My mother died during this time. I simply couldn’t engage with that on any level.

An answer would have been to take a complete break from sport. However, to me then, that would just have smacked of squandering the effort I’d been putting in, and brought with it the certainly I’d just end up needing to do more, and harder, to “get back in”. So, the cycle of abuse continued. Until, that was, sitting in my hotel room one evening, while away on a trip to race in Europe, I was inwardly berating my day’s performance (despite having won two races and come second in the other!), and it finally dawned that I had completely lost the plot.

A few days later, I said this to my GP. After some standard diagnostic tests, he said to me “These suggest you are suffering severely from depression”. Depression? Me? Antidepressant tablets? Me? I went into further denial for a while, but did lots of reading about what depression is and how it works on you. Eventually, I had to concede that my GP was right, and I started taking the pills that had meanwhile been sitting untouched on the beside table.

There’s more to it, of course, than I can or choose to include in a single retrospective blog. Learning that depression was an illness, not a failing of character, was crucial. Being open about it to others was also quite important. Surprisingly so, given how dishonest I’d hitherto been with myself. The pills worked for me, and despite a few adventures in the process of coming off them, there came a day when I didn’t need them. In the intervening period to date, I’ve fallen back into depression’s clutches a couple of times, largely because old (bad) habits die hard, and depression is a stubborn bastard.

I still have lots of questions and not as many answers, but if this blog has touched a nerve with you, I’d say: be self-aware, ensure you have “significant others” who are able to give you feedback, and be open, both with those around you and with yourself. Good, honest internal dialogue is key! It’s not about kidding yourself everything is ok really, it’s about telling yourself how you feel and making that all-important deal to do something about it that breaks the cycle that got you to here in the first place.

Tom

My title comes from a great song by Stevie Nicks (ex Fleetwood Mac)