An Elbow to the Face of Hard Work

I was getting ready to throw away a pile of old papers from my desk when I noticed one that was about to be discarded in error. It certainly looked like trash, with its worn, tattered edges and crumpled creases. But this was a special piece of paper. It was my list of “No Elbow Zombie Apocalypse Moves.”

Okay, so let me back up for a second.

My elbows have a history of causing me trouble.

There was that time in grade school when I was goofing around in the hallway and slammed my elbow right into the corner of a door, resulting in such blinding pain that I passed out in front of my entire class. That’s a super fun thing to do, especially when you’re already one of the uncool kids.

When I played basketball, some of my greatest weapons were my pointy elbows, which found their way into the ribs of many opponents…but also earned me my fair share of personal fouls.

And more recently, my left elbow is the main character in an ongoing saga of tendon issues.

There was little I did not try to remedy the issue. Rest. Ice. Heat. Infrared Heat. Ibuprofen. Physical therapy. Chiropractic adjustments. Bracing. Taping. Scraping therapy. Electroacupuncture. Cortisone shot. Praying. Cussing.

All that brought me to my Hail Mary: a PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injection. In super technical terms, it involves taking one’s own blood, separating out the parts that help with clotting and healing, then reinjecting those parts directly into an injury to promote damage repair.

What it does not involve is insurance coverage. So I wanted to give this PRP the best possible chance of working, a solid return on my investment. And that meant using the tendon as little as possible for quite a long time after the injection to allow for healing. I had to be careful about picking up anything remotely heavy, gripping or pulling, and I definitely could not work out with my left arm.

I didn’t mind telling my kids they had to wash our heavy pots and pans or asking my husband to carry all the laundry up the stairs. But I did mind how this put a damper on my workout routine. It was hard to imagine how I could participate in my boot camp class without using my arms. And sitting it out for the length of time needed for recovery was not an option for me, my body, or my mental health. Elbow be damned.

The problem was solved when my trainer handed me a piece of paper one day. It was a list of “No Elbow Zombie Apocalypse” exercises which I could do without using my arms. (Pay no attention the zombie apocalypse part. You need only worry about the elbow thing). Whenever there was a move that was off-limits for me, all I needed to do was pick something from the list to perform as an alternative. Easy, yes?

Well…in theory.

In practice, it was frustrating as hell. First of all, one of the reasons I love my boot camp class so much is that I don’t have to be in charge. It’s one of the few things in my life I don’t have to overthink and second-guess, two things at which I exceptionally excel. I may agonize over how I parent, what I say, what I eat, how my decisions affect others…but I don’t need to worry about if I’m doing the proper exercises in the proper sequences for the proper amount of time or reps. I just showed up and did what I was told. Until I couldn’t. Until I had to suddenly choose something else from what may as well have been the Cheesecake Factory menu of exercises. Was I properly challenging myself? Was I unknowingly overworking certain muscles and neglecting others? Did I do this exercise last time? Was I even doing the move correctly?

It was also weirdly isolating. Even though I was working out with my friends, there was something about not being able to do what they were doing that created this chasm. I felt like the kid on the playground who plays alongside the others, but not actually with them. Even though I rationally knew I was tending to an injury, I irrationally felt like a failure who couldn’t heal myself or possibly ever be able to do a pushup again.

But every day, I showed up with that list in hand. For months, I made like a bad actress who didn’t know her lines, reading that paper over and over with zero confidence in which exercise I should choose next, but choosing one anyway. The list had a permanent place in my purse, so that I would never forget it. It became creased, and stained, and tattered. But I needed it…to do my due diligence to my elbow…and to keep a promise to myself that I wouldn’t let that due diligence mean I had to forfeit keeping the rest of me strong.

And do you know where that list got me? Absolutely nowhere.

Despite all my best efforts, every option I tried, every out-of-pocket cost I paid, every “no elbow” exercise I did in place of one I couldn’t, my elbow never healed. As it turns out, I simply have a tear which can only be fixed through surgery. Not only that, but I was told that all those exercises I avoided by using my list really would not have made the tear any worse had I continued doing them responsibly. So I spent months losing ground on all the progress I had made on my upper body in the last four years for a tendon that was going to remain in roughly the same damaged state no matter what I did or didn’t do.

C’est la vie. We don’t always get what we work for. Even if we work hard.

So I don’t need that “no elbow” exercise list anymore. But I can’t seem to throw it away. That beat-up piece of paper feels like this funny little part of my larger story. A reminder that even at my age, I’m still becoming the woman I want to be. There was a time in my life when I would look for any excuse to get out of doing the hard thing. When I would let feeling like a failure crush me into submission. And that time wasn’t so long ago.

There was also a time in my life when not getting what I had worked for would leave me looking for someone else to place blame on. That time was even less long ago. Actually, it still happens. I continue to toss around the theory that Absolute Mayhem, my children’s book, never became much of a success because a porn star used the same title for her autobiography, and her book is the #1 search result on Amazon. But I’m learning to recognize that sometimes you just don’t get back what you put into something. Newton’s Third Law wasn’t meant to apply to intention and best effort.

My tattered list of “no elbow” exercises serves as a souvenir of a lesson. Hard work doesn’t always bring about the desired goal, but it doesn’t discount the integrity you earn along the way.

I have yet to schedule surgery to fix the tear in my tendon. Right now, there are more important issues that need tending to. It will happen at some point. But in the meantime, I am also learning I don’t need everything to be perfect in order to accomplish things or push myself. I can still succeed while also being a little broken.

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