I hurt my back on a very heavy deadlift three weeks ago.
I put a large amount of weight on the bar — not quite the max I did in my athletic prime, but a respectable number and the most I’ve done in five years. The amount of weight was a compromise between my 21 year old self yelling at my 41 year old self to “quit being such a wuss and see where I’m really at.” I knew I wasn’t at my height, but I also knew the last few months of hard work had cultivated a strength I haven’t had in a few years. My 41 year old self momentarily questioned the wisdom of jumping up fifty pounds from a workout set to a “max” set, but my 21 year old self was relentless.
Mind you, there was no one else in the room. No streaming cameras. No audience of any sort. Just me and my ego. And that was the problem.
I chalked up my hands. I bent over and grasped the bar. I rolled the assembly toward me and let it stop against my shins. I lowered my butt, loaded my hamstrings, inhaled deeply, and pulled from my legs, not my back. It wasn’t budging. At least, not how I wanted it to. So I did a stupid, stupid, stupid, STUPID thing: I “borrowed” from my back to get the weight off the ground, knowing I could immediately revert to legs to keep it going.
Have you ever “heard” a sound in your body that no one else can hear, like your jaw popping or a clicking in your neck or something? Well, I heard, in my bones, a sound that sounds like squeezing Nickelodeon Gak through a keyhole at the very base of my back. It didn’t hurt (at the time). It just felt “squishy” and sounded queasy and I felt a presence in the middle of my lower back that wasn’t there before. Not quite pain, but not okay.
The weight went up. I got it waist high. I held it for a second, and was able to satisfy the requirements for a “legit lift.” I then dropped it. My legs wobbled. My back felt weak. I knew I fucked up. I can’t tell you exactly how I knew, except to say that there was a small black hole of feeling in my spine where there shouldn’t have been.
Turns out, I herniated a disc between my L5 and S1 vertebrae. And I’ve spent the last three weeks paying for it.
From all I’ve read and through some experience, there’s a hell one goes through in mid-life called a “crisis” and I’m not 100% ready to admit I’m doing that. But I will say that my younger, more athletic, more adaptable, more conditioned self is STILL saying things in my brain like “fight through the pain” or “give yourself some time and you’ll be back at it.” And the front parts of my brain believe them. But somewhere – and it changes places each time – a whisper says “no. You won’t. And if you’re at all smart, you won’t be ever again.”
I have to side with the whisper, deep in my heart. I hate admitting it. All my life, I’ve been “the big guy.” Along with that comes an identity of being “the strong guy.” And I will tell you that, even right now in a diminished state, I can still move heavy things enough times across enough distance that anyone with a matrix detailing body mass to strength would say “yeah, that dude’s strong.”
But the days of collecting numbers to prove it are over, for me. I just can’t justify it anymore.
I’m not making money on my body. In fact, as I sit here writing this, I’ve been losing money because of my body. I’ve been unable to concentrate for long periods of time due to pain. I have been unable to invest myself fully in to finishing the book I desperately need to finish to get paid enough to keep food on the table and a roof over my head. Thankfully, my Patrons and supporters are understanding and know the deal. And also fortunately, this time of sitting upright in a brace and visiting the chiropractor has given me a chance to think a lot on the story and retell some parts I wasn’t quite happy with, in fits and starts. But the point is, my ego cost me time and money and happiness because of an arbitrary measure of strength: a “max rep” weight that no human being really has any need to achieve if they’re not actively being paid to do so.
This is an entirely new wrinkle in my brain. It’s hard to explain the dichotomy between 41 years and 11 months of thinking about “strength” in terms of “mass across distance”, and one month of thinking of strength in terms of acceptance of the inevitability of the decay of my physical human body. It’s a real thing to come to terms with the fact that your body is incapable of what it used to be capable of, just because you’re old. And you’re not getting any younger.
Now, to put some perspective into play: I’m not broken. I have a slightly herniated (not ruptured) disc from attempting to lift a weight that I had no business lifting for any practical reason than to be able to say I did. And I have healed to the point that I can sit here and type all this out without my back brace, and I’ve only needed to stretch once. I will recover. This is not the end of all things. It’s a minor hiccup in a fitness path of a middle aged man coming to terms with the state of his body in the modern era.
But, there’s a reality to the nature of “ego lifting” that has dominated my mindset most of my days, that I have to come to terms with. I’ve often coached and encouraged others to “forget the numbers and focus on being fit” while fully knowing I myself had an obsession with charts and being at the top of them.
But to what end?
And this question can be extrapolated into many other areas of my life. I can spend years noodling on one chapter of my book to make it “perfect” – but to what end? I can obsess over the exact correct way to display a piece of Akira art – but to what end?
Chasing perfection is admirable as a member of an audience, but I hardly know the difference between someone else’s “good enough” and “perfection.” And being honest, I also don’t really care. If I enjoyed a performance, or a piece of writing, or a piece of art, that’s the end of that story for me. I sometimes dig into what made me enjoy a work, and I sometimes dive SUPER deep (as in the case of Akira, for instance) and deeply analyze what I have considered a masterwork, to try to figure out why.
But it always comes down to one very specific thing: it was the full effort of the creator on display. That doesn’t mean “perfect” — that means they put themselves fully into it, and it resonated with me. The end.
When I watch an olympic lifter moving insane amounts of weight from the ground over their head, the only thing that gives me context as to the exact amount of weight they’re lifting is the amount of weight everyone else is lifting. Without the number, just knowing “that bar is filled with heavy shit, and they executed a movement which took it from the ground to over their head and it was amazing” is enough, isn’t it?
I’m not in competition with anyone, for anything, at all anymore. Except me. And, as those who have read me for the past twenty years can attest, I can be an asshole sometimes… Especially to myself.
This injury has been a fine reminder that maybe I need to be a bit kinder to myself, moment by moment, so that I don’t wreck many future moments by overstressing a single one…. Especially one so inconsequential as “how much can I deadlift today, in the privacy of my own garage, just to prove I can?”
There’s pushing to the limits, then there’s just plain showing off. Exercising to just beyond tolerance to build strength is one thing. Putting more weight on a bar than I was planning to for a day just to prove to a younger, stupider, more-assholish version of myself that I still can? That was a mistake.
Wanting to make a chapter connect well to other chapters and tell an amazing moment of a story is admirable. Stalling out for a month because I can’t find a way, that day, to be as good as some other author was at doing something similar? That’s a mistake.
Accepting that I have limits is easy. Accepting that there are many, many ways to extend beyond those limits besides brute force? That’s been an education. I’ve had a lot of time lately to think on the nature of that education, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that there are no limits which include brutality that I care to test anymore. These range from lifting huge weight, to telling someone the “brutal” truth, to every other thing in my life.
I’ve learned, through many events in my life, that love and compassion are strength. The hardest part has been applying that to myself. I’ve slowly learned these techniques and adopted them in my life, and the next great chasm I’ve had to leap has been in my fitness. I’ve made my body do some insane shit throughout my life, from willingly hurtling my head into the body of another large person across from me in football, to out-maneuvering large people in wrestling and judo, to pushing my big frame across distance at speed with weights over my head in Crossfit, to plunging down a bumpy mountainside on a bike, and many other silly things inbetween. I can still have fun with those things, sure. But those activities, at this point in my life, aren’t paying my bills. They’re not even really making me happy, outside of the simple thrill of movement for fun.
It’s one of, if not the last vestige of an old life I learned to live. I have already proven what I need to to myself. No one else is really watching, and those who do, don’t care how much I deadlift. They only care that it’s been hard to see me try to get out of a chair or out of bed (or, back into those things at night). They only care that I’ve not been able to meet for coffee or lunch the past few weeks. They only care that I haven’t been able to concentrate on writing or having much fun the past few weeks.
The world I’ve built for myself in this iteration of my life has an entirely different perspective on me than the one that made me lift insane amounts of weight, or run long distances, or throw people for fun and profit. My childhood was bad. My teenage years were spent impressing the wrong people. My young adult life was spent trying to convince my friends of how great I am, despite my flaws, so please don’t leave. All the while, the one guy who I really should have been working to make happy was always looking outward, at everyone else, to validate him through paychecks, applause, and “loyalty.” In a weird way, this manifests itself in deadlifting a lot, and bench pressing a lot, and running faster and farther, and other externally validating things.
I just don’t need it anymore.