Some very nice things have happened recently. Last night I ate my dinner with my fork in my right hand which is what I’ve done since my Dad taught me to eat the wrong way round some twenty years ago. It was great. Then I had a shower and I shaved my leg with my right hand. That was also great. The best thing though was drinking a cup of tea this morning. If the cup is full I have to use my left hand but if it’s half full I can now swap it to the right. It seems like an age ago that I needed the aid of my housemate Maddy to help pull my jeans over my bum (I wasn’t embarrassed she’s seen worse from me) when actually it was only last week. Such improvement… but also such degeneration. After three weeks in a sling my muscles have atrophied so much that I can’t lift my hand above chest height. Try as I may it just won’t go any higher. This isn’t because of the surgery, I’m just that weak!
To think, a few months a go I was onsighting 8a and then I paid a surgeon six grand (yes six thousand of her majesty’s gold pounds) to slice up my shoulder and now I can’t lift a full cup of tea. If you don’t laugh at the irony then you might cry. But there is more to the story.
It’s a boring story, a long wingery narrative (as my friend Caff often refers to it as) that started six years ago on a cool red route in the dry desert of Utah. Since it’s a boring story I’ll sum it up in a sentence: I hurt my shoulder on that route, probably a SLAP tear (google it if you’re bothered), for 5 years it was OK, not great but OK, then the last year it’s been really bad.
Three weeks ago I went under the knife and had a surgeon reattach my labrum (piece of cartilage that sits in the shoulder joint) back onto the bone. The surgeon drilled three pins into the bone, then used kevlar string (like the elves use in Lord of the Rings) to sew the labrum to those pins. The idea is that now the labrum is resting on the bone again it can heal itself back into place. He made five very small holes in my skin in order to get in there and do that stuff. All five of of which have now almost completely healed. Under the skin however it’s a different story. Under the skin I have four months of patience (or impatience depending on how you look at it)
When I woke up from the general anaesthetic I was fighting an intense drowsiness akin to terrible jet lag. I tried to get up to catch the nurse’s attention but my head would always fall back onto the pillow like it was full of lead, eyes rolling into the back of my switched-off brain. All I wanted to know was what had happened. Had it gone well? Had he fixed me? Did he find an alien in there? Was there even anything wrong with my shoulder? That was my greatest fear - the MRI hadn’t been conclusive as to whether I even had a SLAP tear - what if he went in there and he found nothing wrong with my shoulder? Panicked thoughts jumped to what I would do if that were the case; try to climb with the pain and weakness, give up climbing, find another surgeon, find a spiritual healer?
The first week post-operation my body was in shock and was still recovering from the general; I slept more than I ever have and found it difficult to even start a film let alone finish one. Quiet noises felt like loud noises, day time was the hour in between five hour naps, lucid dreams were more enjoyable than I’d care to admit. Despite this, I was in a semi-state of bliss. My shoulder had been fixed. Of course there is still more that could go wrong. I could do something stupid and fall down the stairs and tear it again or it could not recover well or I could tear the other one. But for now I was one step closer to being healthy again. Prior to the operation I had spent a lot of time and energy preparing myself for the worst. And in doing so the reality fell massively short (I’m a big fan of this small but affective mental trick). Friends who had undergone a similar op told me about being unable to sleep for months, painkillers for six weeks, not being able to eat, addiction to meds, life altering pain and worse: sleeping in an upright chair!
All this came to mind when the surgeon asked if I wanted a nerve block. I said no because of the slight chance of suffering nerve damage, but I was scared, I hadn’t felt real pain before; perhaps a stubbed toe - but they are pretty bad after all. So when I came round and felt hardly any pain (nothing close to a stubbed toe) and instead felt mostly happy to have survived the chop, I was pleasantly surprised. For the first few days I took tremadol, but I was sparing and mostly took it because I felt like I should not because of any real need (I can’t talk about the floating on the clouds part without arousing suspicion). I did experience a lot of light-headedness whenever I tried to move a lot and an odd cold sensation like ice water dripping down my arm. Since the op went well and I was without real pain I experienced a general sense of happiness despite the fact that I was at the start of a long road of not being able to do all the things I love. Sometimes British negativity works wonders; I expected the absolute worst and as a result was quite happy with something that was just a bit shit.
After the general anaesthetic wore off and I regained normal energy levels this happiness became slightly manic and a little unnatural. I tried to do too much and resume the energetic life I led pre-op. I think the months/years of dealing with my shoulder had put more emotional stress on me than I cared to admit at the time. Now that the surgery was done, my focus had completely changed - from looking for answers, to having an answer - and I dealt with this change in the way I know best - being active. So I went on my exercise bike, did core and stretching, went for walks, visited friends.
A few days later I felt terrible in both body and mind and soon realised that this wasn’t the best approach for the next four months. If I want to heal properly and not impede my recovery - and more to the point not go mad - then I need to be calm and relaxed and not manic. With this kind of mania, of intense happiness that isn’t grounded in much, I’ve only found that sadness follows. The last two weeks I’ve focused on being content rather than happy. Instead of searching for things to give me a little buzz, a little taste of what climbing gives me, instead I’ve tried to dull the senses a little bit. I now move slowly around the house like a grandma and have been content to spend much longer on a given task than I would usually do, or what is necessary. I actually do things to waste time! Such as just sitting in bed and thinking or making the most complicated meals rather than the simplest (and these are very complex with one arm). But I wonder if I’m really wasting time.. is sitting and thinking about stuff really wasting time? I’ve never led my life like this and it’s interesting.
I’m also being productive. I aim to use my recovery time to look at myself a bit, but also set up a coaching business with a focus on training mental strength. I feel like there is a real hole in the climbing community with regard to this subject. It’s always baffled me that you can go to a climbing gym and train or find a movement coach but it’s hard to find much literature or professional help if you feel like your mind is your weakest link. I also feel like the mind is the weakest link for most climbers. How often have I heard someone saying ‘take’ mid 8c red point send! How can you be that strong physically but you can’t commit to a move above a bolt because there is a chance you’ll fall.
At the moment I am researching coaching, sport psychology and interviewing climbers about their mental states in the hope to broaden my understanding. I feel like I’m back studying philosophy but this time it isn’t just learning for learning’s sake but with an end purpose in sight. The coaching has also motivated me to start a new website and put more energy into my blog posts. Prior to this entry I hadn’t written anything since October!
I’ll write more on the subject of coaching and the mind shortly. I will say that I am quite excited about this new challenge and hope to get the ball moving shortly. If anyone has any advice or interest please feel free to contact me.
Thanks to my house mates - Maddy, Claire, Will and Tangle who have had to put up with a one armed bandit around the house!
this is a test of the website form
Hazel, I am very glad you are getting better and want to wish you the best! You are an inspiration to many of us, my wife and I for sure. when I just saw your name with surgery next to it my heart really dropped. I also was very interested in what you said about thinking and ‘wasting time’ as well as the sadness following a happy mania. I go through a lot of those thought processes/cycles and feel my mind is always racing. Thinking is not a waste of time as long as you aren’t wasting your thoughts. much love from our family to yours, you are awesome!!!!
Hazel, thanks for SHARing! I’ve dealt with many injuries in my life, but the hardest to deal with have been climbing related injuries. I started climbing 5 yrs ago as a good way to workout and lose weight after i quit playing american football in college due to it being unsafe for my long term health. i started in a gym for my 1st yr, unable (to scared to ask) to find a partner to take me on the multi pitch adventures i dreamed of, while going to college in las vegas i couldn’t help but just look at those walls all day while in the city. i finally found a good mentor and good times ensued for the next 3 yrs, and then the overuse injuries started kicking in. first my knee, a slight medial meniscus tear turned into a full on torn meniscus, I could feel my knee cap lift up then would “pop” back into place. i learned if i stop running, hike slow and take an IBUPROFEN i could usually deal with the pain, “cool, back to climbing!” then i started attempting more 5.11+s and some 12a/bs, and then the shoulder pain got bbaaaddd. I always dealt with some soreness due to an old separated Ac joint from football i never had fixed, and now my SUPRASPINATUS was angry with me too.. So i learned if i stop climbing in the gym during the week ( ima current weekend warrior ), do some yoga, get ACUPUNCTURE and a massage, and take some ibuprofen; i can climb 2 days, but then not be able to use my arm without very sharp pain for a few days again. i repeated this cycle for 5 months before it started negatively affecting my personal life. so what to? i chose to use “PRP therapy” instead of surgery, i had 2 injections done in my knee and 2 in my shoulder. that was 2 month ago today, in which i have only climbed 2 days and they were easy days. however thanks to all the pt ( Pain & torturing ), my knee and shoulder have been getting better everyday. i still experience pain in both areas, but it is not near as bad as it used to be, and the improvement has me optimistic for the rest of my recovery!! cheers!