How to Recover

So, my back went out like I knew it would. I’ve lived with this back for my whole life, and with this injured back for about eight years, and I know it very well. I did everything I could to help it: I got a massage, I did tai chi and chi kung, I went easier on my training. But today, in the middle of chi kung actually, something seized up in my back and now the whole right side is frozen and angry.

I’m not surprised any more. This happens at the end of every single semester. I used to gets colds when my classes ended; now the thing seems to be back pain. I know why, too. For at least three weeks at the end of every semester, I go into work early, grade papers before class, stay at work as late as I possibly can, skip tai chi or cardio training to grade a few extra essays, spend every non-training night at the coffee shop grading. By the end of that, my back feels like someone has replaced it with sheet metal. 

Then, when the semester is actually over, I say to myself: I have missed so much writing! I have missed so much training! I need to do all of it right now!!! So then I spend ALL day sitting, writing at the coffee shop for six hours, heading to my training space early to fit in a few extra sets of burpees, adding in all those extra workouts I had been skipping. 

I know what the answer is supposed to be: more recovery. I used to recover at the end of semester when I was a student. I didn’t really have a choice; I was too exhausted to get out of bed. Every time I finished a chapter of my dissertation, I knew I would spend a week brain-dead, sleeping ten hours a day, so unable to move forward to the next chapter that there was no point dragging myself to the library to pretend I was working. 

With my regular life a little more balanced, I don’t think I need to spend the week after every semester sleeping and watching TV. I’m not sure that recovery like that would help now. Probably the thing to do is to remember to ease my way into summer, not to jump in so crazy. But even when I think that’s what I’m doing, the back problems happen. 

I think a lot about recovery. I suppose it’s not so different from what people are calling “self-care.” That term sort of annoys me (not that I think it’s a bad term, just that something about it makes me tense), and now I realize why: I have a very antagonistic relationship to recovery. I don’t think I’m the only one; that’s why all those stress-case bloggers are blogging about how to do self care, like it’s a chore. It is a chore! Unless I am so exhausted, sick or injured that I cannot do anything but sleep, recovery never feels tranquil or healing to me. It feels forced, uncomfortable, like stretching when you’re stiff. GET UP AND TAKE A BREAK, I shout at myself. GET A FUCKING MASSAGE OR SOMETHING. 

Once I get to this state, where I am broken and discouraged and pathologically tense, I tell myself, you suck at relaxing and this is a horrible weakness in your life! I would also like to point out that I’m not some mega-productive workaholic, as I am making myself sound. Part of this cycle is that I am less focused when I work because I am so stressed and tired. So I procrastinate a lot, look at stupid crap on the internet. Then I yell at myself: you suck at working! You suck at focusing! 

So today I was telling myself all this, and I was thinking, this will never get better, right? It happens every semester! Even when I sort of half-assedly try to prevent it! There is my destiny/curse and I cannot escape! My life is a giant mess!!!

Then I remembered all the things I used to feel this way about, this constant, puzzled, helpless turmoil. Things like fighting with friends, finding a fulfilling career, eating healthy but not obsessing about eating healthy, taking a week off kickboxing without fearing I would forget everything I had ever learned. All kinds of things. There are dozens of problems in my life that took me years to work through, that once dominated my life, things that seem puzzlingly unproblematic now. I wasn’t stupid or a failure for not being able to sort those things out instantly, or even over a few years. Some of them took a decade to work out. But now they’re not problems anymore. They’re good parts of my life, things that work, the reasons my life is better every year as I figure more things out. Sometimes younger people complain to me about these parts of their lives, and if they ask my advice, I give it to them, and I tell them that this is part of the stage of life they are in and that it will get sorted out in a few years. And then I see that my response gives them hope, and I feel all old and wise and shit. 

So this advice is from my future, even older self: some day you will figure this out. It’s part of this stage of life. And some day, you will be past it. 

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