Invisible badges: handling long-term injuries09 Aug 2018
It’s safe to assume most would agree with the following statement: “We shouldn’t judge too quickly—everyone is fighting an internal war we know nothing about.” Yet, the principle is so rarely acted on. Its disregard comes in small doses. A group fitness instructor who asks the room if there are any injuries and—instead of coming over to discuss privately—forces you to publicize your situation. The double take from others who find out you hired movers, when, at a glance, you appear perfectly capable of doing so yourself.
Chronic pain and long-term injuries are two invisible badges many of us wear. A couple of years ago, I got surgery for a bilateral sports hernia and I’m still coming to grips with the recovery. I’ve never written about the injury in detail and hope doing so can provide some agency, if you’re quietly aching with the feeling that you’re not at—or seemingly will ever return to—“100%.”
Those closest to me know that fitness is a large part of my identity. I work at Peloton, started strength training almost a decade ago, and ran middle distance on my high school track team. Providing this context sets the stage for why injuries weigh on me so heavily. Yes, there’s the immediate, palpable pain. However, temporarily—or potentially permanently—losing a part of my identity ended up hurting more. Coming to terms with an injured identity is a slow process. The surgery was two years ago and subsequent waves of chronic pain continue to make my mind wander into dark corners.
“Injured identities” parallel the core concept covered in “Peeling Off Labels.”
“[Labels] often have implicit power in affecting internal dialogues. Ancestrally, humans rely on the security that static traits provide, especially with regard to identity and labels for a sense of control.”
We can view identities as the sum of the labels we hold, both voluntarily and involuntarily. Jasdev is an engineer, writer, and enjoys cycling and strength training. Injuries can painfully rip off the bigger labels. Adam Morse described how quickly thoughts can snowball, when dealing with an extended period of RSI:
“My career was largely [centered on] designing through writing on a computer. My internal perceived value was tied to my ability to manipulate, produce, and delete code. Would I need to change careers? Could I use some dictation software to code? What am I going to do? What careers involve no computering? My head was filled with stressful questions.”
I’ve coped in a handful of ways: remembering the incomparability between our current and past selves, feeling the texture of pain, and allowing forced seasonality to take course. Here’s what I’ve learned about each.
A retroactively obvious, yet difficult-to-digest observation is that I’m a different person walking into each workout. Metrics create a false comparability. I inadvertently perpetuate this by working at Peloton—where stats such as output, distance, and cadence are the focus. I touched on comparability in a previous post, “Nostalgia and Upper Bounds” (emphasis added).
“While reflection is healthy in small, periodic doses, it’s tempting to fall into a trap of comparing where you are now against where you were n years ago. This comparison is helpful in concrete domains such as personal fitness, but breaks down in subjective areas like relationships.”
I was wrong—fitness isn’t a concrete domain. Compressing workouts to a handful of numbers (“I hit 631 kJ in 45 minutes today compared to 584 last week.”) makes them comparable, yet that comparison completely sidesteps the context of our situations1. Did I get enough rest last night? Social exhaustion could be spilling into my training? Or, maybe my surgery incision sites might be sensitive at the moment, heightening my worry?
Falling into the metrics-focused trap caused me to internally create a “pre- and post-surgery Jasdev” divide. During recovery, I placed myself in the shadow of my former self. Every subsequent workout crawled me towards my past baseline. It would’ve been fruitful to instead lower that imaginary baseline back to my current reality and build from there. That subtle shift in perspective helped me erase the artificial rift I created in my personal history.
The Texture of Pain
Another difficulty has been remembering the non-binary nature of pain. I’d often start days in the following trance: wake up, exercise, notice lower abdominal discomfort (from the surgery), and mentally tally the day as one with physical pain. Over time, the trance manifested itself in dissociative tendencies. Instead of sitting with the pain, I’d run from it, causing me to space out, go on autopilot, and not feel like my full self. I worked, week over week, on catching these tendencies in therapy. The efforts made me recognize the “texture” of chronic pain. I slowly reconditioned the “notice pain and dissociate” loop to “notice pain, stay with it, recognize its caliber, and work from there.” Keavy McMinn phrased this texture as being able to simultaneously hold space for the good and bad in “On Being Broken.”
“I can say ‘this hurts and it sucks’ and also be content with what I can do. I have space in my head for the good and bad.”
A source of agency I’ve kept close is the notion of forced seasonality. It’s comforting—maybe in a backwards way—knowing that an injury can open space to focus on things I wouldn’t normally have time for. For me, temporarily stepping away from training started a new “season“ during which I concentrated on Distillations and meditation. In doing so, a couple of nuances cropped up.
First is the pitfall of the belief “X is my meditation,” where X is an activity that might be ruled out when injured or handling chronic pain. Let’s take a commonly cited X, exercise, as an example. To be clear, I’m not claiming that exercise isn’t an effective source of stability—the thesis of one of my favorite books, Spark, covers this extensively—, but rather to gut check whether or not our support systems can withstand unexpected injuries. I learned this the hard way. Every bolded line on my post-hernia repair paperwork reiterated that lifting—even larger household items—was out of the picture for at least three months. In the absence of exercise, I needed a durable centering function and dialing in my meditation practice did just that. Not everyone’s season should be filled more frequent sits—there are plenty of ways to mirror the benefits of meditation without doing exactly so; still, it’s constructive to make sure the activities that ground you remain grounded themselves when the going isn’t easy.
Second, I needed to better recognize my habit of postponing contentedness until after these newly formed seasons. That is, I’d tell myself “it’ll be better after that three-month, no-exercise window.” While true, this line of thinking put my life on hold. Funnily enough, human behavior encourages the opposite when it comes to gratification—i.e. instant over delayed. I’ve gently tried to translate “I’ll be happier when I have X, gotten over Y, or accomplished Z.”2-like thoughts into reminders that I don’t have to wait to be content.
Forced seasonality caused by injuries may seem like time away from your “practice” (cycling, running, etc.). But, time away from the practice is the practice. We do the same on smaller timescales with rest days—an entire season of rest can provide a stronger foundation for your return.
I’m having trouble finding a thread through injured identities, incomparability, pain’s texture, and forced seasonality—which might hint at the nature of invisible badges. They’re sewn onto our sleeves—sometimes permanently, in the form of chronic pain, or temporarily, with recoverable injuries. And there’s no distinct point in time when we’re A-okay with them. Rather, we slowly—read glacially—accept their presence. When that presence is taken a step further in making badges visible to others, a kind of counterintuitive reassurance is realized. We’re all veterans of some internal war—keeping that in mind could be the way to handle long-term injuries.
Related reading and footnotes
⇒ “Infinite Exchange” (specifically, the excerpt on advanced scurvy and wound reappearance).