From denial through acceptance- the story behind my recovery

I received a message on Facebook the other day from a fellow Screaming Eagle that said…

“Hey brother I know you don’t remember me but I was in HHC 1-502. I just wanted you to know that I think it is amazing you don’t let your injuries stop you from enjoying life. How do you do it? I’ve just got a screwed up back and TBI and I just can’t find a way to understand why and how to move on. If you have any advice I’d love to hear it. Thanks”

My short answer to him was- fitness. I am a true believer that the healthier you are, the happier you are. But, his message made me think more about my own personal trials and how fitness has helped me.

Immediately following my injury, I avoided drinking alcohol because I knew it was a trap so many people fall into after a serious injury.  I also decided to come off of all pain medications as quickly as possible to prevent an addiction to prescription drugs. After losing my arm and leg, as well as suffering from other injuries, I entered what’s known as the 5 stages of grief.  It began with denial, I felt as though the loss of two limbs, following the initial shock, wasn’t that big of a deal.  I chose not to experience most of what Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the numerous veterans organizations had to offer and I didn’t bond well with the other injured veterans in my same situation.  Truthfully, I was an arrogant jerk that refused help and thought my recovery would be better than the others because I didn’t see myself as injured.  This lasted for months, practically close to a year and seemed to overlap into the next stage, anger.

The anger seemed to stem from the denial.  Because I was blind to what was actually going on, little things would set me off like a time bomb.  Loosing my arm above the elbow meant that there were countless tasks, small and big that at first felt truly impossible.  I would get so frustrated and blow up on those around me when I couldn’t get something done as easily as I could prior to my injury.  I felt so helpless trying to open something like a pickle jar and then having to ask my wife to do it for me, I started to feel useless.  On top of all that, I was trying to walk on a prosthetic leg which had a knee I couldn’t control like my own.  I would fall in the house and every so often in public.  When I was outside I was so paranoid of falling, that my full concentration revolved around walking from point A to point B.  That would build up anger which I suppressed until I was home and then I would lash out over something as minor as trying to find the T.V. remote.  A vicious cycle began in which I became mad at myself but then tried to not get mad at what I couldn’t help yet, somehow my anger still came out later over something so trivial.  And though I was off medication, after a year I figured I beat the ‘over drinking’ possibility and allowed myself to have one, two, maybe 8 drinks every once and a while.  But suddenly every once and a while became every day, and eventually I found myself at stage 3, bargaining.

I mean, why couldn’t I have a drink whenever I wanted one? I sacrificed two limbs for this country.  I was forced to live in a way that wasn’t normal to what I was once used to. Everything I did took much more energy and work to accomplish, even just tying my own shoes.  I deserved a drink whenever I wanted a drink! It kept me grounded, calm and relaxed.  I earned it.  And, it slowly ate away at everything I used to stand for.  Nothing mattered more than getting a drink, hanging out with the guys and doing the one thing that felt good, the one thing that allowed me to forget my injuries.  This self medication spiral I entered was clearly never good for me.  I was out of shape, miserable and hard to be around at times.  It was the over lapping and reoccurrences of denial, anger and bargaining that led me into the worst stage of all, depression.

I remember days where I wouldn’t leave the house.  I slept on the couch, I was up all night watching anything that was on television.  I spent hours on the computer researching random topics just to keep busy.  Just recalling those times today makes me sad.  I felt too tired to be angry, or anything else.  I put on my happy face when I went out in public but I really just wanted to be left alone.  Each day seemed to put me further and further into a deep dark hole that seemed impossible to climb out of, and I didn’t have the strength to try even if I could.

Just as things got as bad as they could possibly get, my cousin invited me to workout with him.  I thought “whatever” I could use a little gym time.  Suddenly what began as a visit to the gym turned into the uphill battle out of the pits of depression that I needed.  It started slow, a few days a week.  My diet went from beer, cigarettes and junk food to protein shakes, grilled chicken, and water.  I found that working out wasn’t as easy as it was before, not only because I had allowed myself to get so out of shape, but because of my injuries.  Looking back, it was my injuries that made it interesting and new.  It was as though I was 14 again and in a weightlifting room for the first time.  working out became a trial and error process in which I got to find out what worked and what didn’t.  My attitude changed, my goals changed, more importantly, my life changed.  I slowly became healthier and happier.

It is estimated that approximately 50% of people who start an exercise program will quit within 6 months (Wilson & Brookfield, 2009). I had tried getting back into shape a few times before it finally stuck shortly after my injury. What helped this time was actually making the commitment.  A person cannot make a drastic change without a drastic shift in their entire life.  I started with setting realistic goals for myself.  I kept track of every workout, every pound, every repetition and every set.  I used this information to build off of and as encouragement when I wasn’t seeing or feeling the change going on inside and outside of my body.  I competed in numerous events, small ones at first but then I entered bigger and longer competitions and challenges.  None of the above happened overnight and truthfully, I am still not quite where I want to be physically, but it’s my desire for more that pushes me further.

When someone new meets me, they sometimes assume I am different than most.  They think I have the secrets to success which enable me to compete.  That, I may have suffered an injury but my body is designed to race.  Anyone who thinks that is wrong.  I struggled, and continue to struggle, as we all do.  Getting healthy and staying healthy is not an easy task for any of us.  It is not a hobby but a complete lifestyle change, a lifestyle change that can and will better your life.  We all have challenges, our injuries are different but they are never a good excuse. We all struggle with balancing our time between work and family yet we somehow find the time to watch television but not time to be fit.  Its proper time management that we lack, not lack of time.

My climb out of the darkness of depression was not easy, but I have seen it as possible.  My stages of grief were necessary for me to grow and to finally reach the acceptance stage of my injuries.  I wouldn’t change anything that has happened to me, I am honestly better for it.  My training grows with me, and, I have no desire to quit anytime soon.  Telling someone to be healthier is like spitting into the wind.  It takes showing them that anything is possible that changes lives.  Don’t tell someone why you can’t do something, show them how strong you are because you overcame those obstacles.  Above all, let those around you see that you don’t just train, you Train Like a Machine.

Warrior Dash comes to Alabama

This past weekend I participated in my 3rd Warrior Dash Event which is a 5k running series consisting of at least 12 obstacles followed by a festival complete with live music, turkey legs and beer. It is a fun, easy adventure that attracts various levels of experience and fitness.
Obstacle course racing has seen incredible growth over the last few years. It has become an extremely popular way of ‘mixing things up’ from your average 5k run and fundraiser. Most races are put on with a goal of supporting an organization. Warrior Dash offers the opportunity to be a St. Jude Warrior and as the website says, “By becoming a St. Jude Warrior, your fundraising will not only inspire hope in children who need it the most, but you’ll earn some pretty awesome prizes along the way!” As your fundraising grows, so do the prizes, there is even the chance to raise enough money and win a trip to participate in the Australian Warrior Dash. If there are two things people love, it is doing something good for a charity and getting free stuff.

The fun involved with these types of races is very appealing. It’s Halloween every race day regardless of the time of year with large crowds showing up dressed in ridiculous costumes. I find it a good excuse to sport a kilt and the occasional red beard to celebrate my Scottish heritage. The costumes and beards are encouraged with the most ridiculous costume and best warrior beard contest (women are not excluded from the best beard contest). Between the fundraising and fun involved, I personally encourage everyone I know to participate in races like the Warrior Dash.

I was extremely happy that this past weekend Warrior Dash made its way to Alabama, a state that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports is ranked one of the highest in terms of number of adults who are overweight and obese. A 5k race through mud and obstacles is something exciting that inspires many participants to better themselves in terms of living a healthier and more active lifestyle. One race could challenge them enough to eat healthier and join a gym or start running a few days a week. I have seen participants that have done nothing to prepare for a Warrior Dash and realized that it wasn’t like doing a marathon which takes months of preparation. But, it was just enough for them to see that a healthier body could push them to become a little faster and enjoy the race that much more. Of course, there are also those extremely fit individuals that are able to fly through the course with ease. These participants are usually looking to race for the fastest time. Even at a short distance a challenge is there if you seek it. No one would tell a 100 meter Olympic sprinter he is wasting his time because it isn’t 26.2 miles would they? I met one guy that ran the 8, 9, 10 and 11 o’clock waves, 4 laps around the course (12.4 miles). I would say that he falls into the fit category and I would imagine that he participates in several races and other events each year. When you are able to run like that, you are still there for the same reason as everyone else, to support a charity and have a great time.

Each Warrior Dash event attracts thousands of participants and spectators creating a big push for the local economy. According to the National Association of Sports Commissions (NASC), direct spending on average by Warrior Dash attendees from one event is $4.5 million. Of this total, the average revenue generated is $1.3 million from hotel sales, $1.3 million from restaurant sales, $849,000 from local store sales and $823,000 from attendee gas sales. The survey also reports on average 26.9% of attendees purchase local hotel rooms, 63% of attendees dine at local restaurants, 32% of attendees shop at local businesses and 23.5% of attendees purchase gas from local stations.

From what I have observed over the last few years, a 5k mud run with obstacles, live music, food, beer, great people watching, money raised for a reputable charity, excellent revenue for local businesses and fun for those of any shape, size and athleticism doesn’t leave a person with any reason not to put such an event on their calendar. If you are now considering going to a 5k mud run as a spectator, I encourage you to skip that step and instead register to race. I promise you, one race and you will want more, after a while you will want to go bigger. Warrior Dash is the gateway drug to a more active, healthier and happier you.
Before you know it, you will be at the gym training like a machine! See you at the next race.

– A special thanks to Stephen Tyler for providing the images used in this post.