Another Comfort Zone Talk

3 years ago my body failed me. Ironically, it was during a period of time where I had felt healthier than in previous years. In the summer, I tried my best to quit doing unhealthy things. Within reason. I decided to focus on a better diet. No more alcohol. I was waking up early in the morning to exercise and get going with everyday life. This practice started in early August 2017 and went through until about December. I had been the lowest weight I had been since my last Ironman in 2013. I was biking every other day and jogging every other day. In November, a former student and great friend of mine convinced me to start jiu-jitsu in November. At this point now, some days were double sessions of exercise. It was high times. A time when you look back at and ask yourself “ why the hell haven’t I always done this?”

In that fall, I got blood work done for life insurance. All vitals were the best they had been in many years without the aid of any kind of chemical. Lab results from the bloodwork was benign enough to allow me to purchase the lowest rate on the term life insurance I was shopping for. The absurdity, best shape of my middle age and I’m shopping for LIFE insurance. 

No more than a couple of months later, maybe even by the end of December, I wasn’t feeling so well. I would get an ache in my lower back. I swear there was a frozen Snickers bar shaped knot protruding vertically out of my shoulder muscle (trapezius). Pretty much equidistant between my neck and the point of my shoulder. These pains wouldn’t go away. By mid-January I wasn’t rolling too well on the mats. I would have to tap out here and there because I struggled to breathe. My shoulder’s candy bar was becoming frozen and bitter sweet. Maybe I’m trying too hard on the mats? Maybe I was panicking? Out of shape in the jiu-jitsu realm? These questions are all too common for the novice practitioner. Discouragingly, pain’s arms reached further than the gym. I got to the point where it was hard to lower myself to lay down. Every micro adjustment to stabilize shot tearing pains through the nerves, taking breath away without the excuse of getting smashed by a partner on the mats. The acute discomfort at the bottom of my rib cage in my lower back hurt to the touch. A massage was no relief. Every finger that pressed my banana bruised back just added to the tension. When I would feel a burp coming I braced for the pain in the barrel of my chest. Hiccups were turning into the feel of Medieval torture devices. And the THOUGHT of sneezing made me want to curl up to concentrate on creating a self-induced coma. Laying on my side provided some comfort. Or maybe just relief from having to hold myself upright. Eventually, I would feel a touch short of breath. Reading to my kids was part of my exercise minutes for the day as I couldn’t finish a sentence without an extra breath, a gurgle from the bottom lobe of my right lung. I’m just under the weather. I have a chest cold. Certainly getting older. All the excuses of denial were beginning to get in line. At the tip of my brain. My ego would tell me that I am stronger than this pain. You’ve pushed through before. It will go away. 

I had been prescribed a powerful NSAID and muscle relaxers (not narcotics, unfortunately, but a saving grace to my gastrointestinal system and addictive personality…. FORTUNATELY). All in the hopes I could at least sleep or just sit down comfortably. To try to slow down my constant internal negotiating with someone or something that I haven’t put faith into since childhood. Hoping, pleading, that my lower back issues were just muscle spasms as I’ve had before. That the Snickers bar would somehow get consumed by my body. Maybe it’s chemical reactions post consumption providing physical relief that we think it provides our neurological distress. Nothing. 

In late January, some friends and I take a long weekend in the Adirondacks for a “man” weekend. My symptoms had worsened. I was falling into the category of the addict who begins to add one more pill at night to “see what happens.” I slept a little better. Not because of relief, but because the medicine convinced me not to care. It was time to make a phone call to a much loved and trusted family member who works in the medical field. “Maybe you should go to the ER” was her always sound and prudent advice. Yes, she may have mentioned this before and put up with my machismo. But machismo was still there. I can’t possibly ruin everyone’s mini vacation. I’ll push through. 

Running was getting slow. I didn’t care, I have an excuse. Bad knees. Must be that the weather is changing. Biking was becoming a hassle. Too much prep time, fan is really cold first thing in the morning, the music is too loud. I guess I’ll start to wean off that. On the mats, tap out after tap out, I think I’m just rolling too hard, panicking like a no stripe whitebelt. Oxygen just doesn’t seem to be transferring from my lungs to my blood. There has to be some sort of mucus barrier from a cold. Just push through. But I was still exercising on a consistent basis with 3 disciplines to rotate through. These times were actually the only times I WASN’T in pain. When the pain of exercise is introduced, the pains of life dissipates. Nothing is wrong. This went on until President’s Week. After coming back from a family tour of south-central and south-eastern Pennsylvania that week, I had an “episode” when I decided to lay down after dinner. My diaphragm cramped up and breathing became difficult. I nonchalantly told my wife that I’m going to the ER to get checked out. We’ve endured my muscle spasms before. I went to the ER. Bloodwork was ok. X-rays ok. The ER doctor was starting to wonder what the hell I was doing there. Finally a D-dimer test was done to check for inflammation markers in my blood. Results, I guess, were off the charts. Enough that I was in a CT scan within 10 minutes. Huge pulmonary embolisms had taken nest in each lung with smaller ones in their wake. These are organic grenades just waiting to move and explode in your brain. It put the term “drop dead” into perspective. A panic attack quickly followed. Oxygen mask to the face. Thoughts of Pulp Fiction now run through my overreacting brain as I thought I heard a nurse ask for the norepinephrine and then saw the 7-8 inch long medically sealed syringe and needle being placed bedside. My wife removed from the room pleading: “he has 3 kids at home!” I began to fade a bit. A soothing calmness came over my body. It had no choice but to give in. No pushing through this time. 

To this day, no one can explain to me why there were clots or how they came to be. My body betrayed me. There’s nothing worse than this feeling for me. This slap behind the knees had made my mind buckle. The myth of invincibility confirmed. A nightmare had now become a 24 hour narrative in my mind. I consider myself quite self-aware. Whether it’s mentally or physically. I know what’s going on with my body. My mind also thinks it knows what’s going on with itself too. I know what’s going on around my body. I know it’s going on when I open my mouth whether good or bad. I’m very in tune. Ever since these blood clots came about, I have been on high alert, some kind of bad DEFCON number. My server had crashed. So much sensory traffic that it’s become detrimental. Even on medicine, my blood pressure still rises when I go to the doctor’s office and I’m sure throughout the day. Nothing like the feeling of when you feel that “pump” tightness in your muscles without touching a single weight. 

Today, I’m in fairly decent shape from riding my bike since March (no jiu-jitsu right now). 4 to 5 times a week for no less than 45 minutes and no more than an hour and a half at this point. My cardiovascular system is happy again. But sometimes sitting, my heart rate rises without provocation. That damn pounding in my temples. Sometimes I catch myself focusing on my breathing. Am I out of breath? All of my life I have been taught to fight. From what I’ve observed about my parents, it has also been genetically encoded. To embrace struggle. To know that suffering will lead to greatness. That most of the time, the hard path is often the right path. And I’m trying to bring that fight not only to my family life, or work, or coaching, but now to the struggles that I have with my body. I am losing. In fact I’m getting my ass kicked. So with this will to fight, to put up a defense, to struggle with all of my being, intuitively I want to push MORE. Everyone knows that growth is outside of your “comfort zone.” God, who else is sick of that term? Intuitively my genes, my rearing, my being, is telling my mind that I need to work harder. That the struggle needs to be more. That the suffering has to get worse. It’s the only way to improve that I know. But I feel I’ve been down that path. I feel I’ve done that. I feel I’ve given myself an opportunity for improvement. Lately it’s been my digestive system that is failing me. I’ve changed my diet since the end of last year. I’ve eaten less. I’ve lost weight. As I said before, I’m in pretty good cardiovascular shape right now. Yet nothing is touching it. I not only have these pains in my guts, my chest, my back, my knees, my neck, but in my HEAD. This is what happens when I Google “DIY remedies to fix my mind’s crashed server.” My mind is feeling sore. My mind is clawing at the dirt to make up some ground. It’s as if my mind is locked in a steel clad chamber and is trying to find every possible crack in that steel to break out. It is screaming with all of its synapses, neurons, electricity, to only get an echo back and make the pain worse. 

Step out of that comfort zone. That’s all my instinct says. But it’s not working. Maybe I am stepping out of the wrong hole in my comfort zone. Maybe, it’s not the struggle that’s going to fix all of this. What is it that is the opposite of this struggle? ACCEPTANCE. Accept that I have done and am doing the best that I can. Accept that maybe this is my body now. Accept that by backing off, IS outside of my comfort zone. How do we imagine our comfort zone? When I think about it, it’s a simple circular diagram. And inside of that circle is my comfort and outside of it is my discomfort. A list of randomly spaced comforts inside the circle and discomforts outside. But let’s imagine we’re staring at the circle and there’s a line drawn across the equator. Above it is pushing further. Going beyond your perceived limits. Pain. Struggle. Below it is not pushing at all. Chanting in a cave. Usually when we think about stepping outside of our comfort zone, it’s by pushing harder. Having DIScomfort. Asking for, even embracing, more pain. Because we feel that outside of our comfort zone has to be uncomfortable physically. Backing off isn’t physically harder. But it is mentally harder. So in this sense, I’ve been ignoring half of this discomfort zone. I’ve only been paying attention to the struggle placed on my physical. And not the struggle placed on my mental. In that, maybe, just maybe, the discomfort zone for my mentality is backing off. Not fighting. Not being so self-aware of my physical discomforts. Because being so aware of those discomforts, puts anguish and discomfort on my mentality. Maybe acceptance, letting my guard down, understanding that this is now a part of me, letting all of this soak into my psyche, is my path to the discomfort zone. And THAT’S where the growth is: in acceptance. Maybe Chuck Plahniuk, the author of Fight Club, is right. That I just need to LET. GO. That digging in and pushing an immovable object is counterproductive. But, maybe I’ll feel like a martyr in my failure with my instinct to push through. And what will that martyrdom get me? More strife. More pain. It is the mental anguish that starts to affect you in a negative way for the long term. This isn’t a muscle that get’s micro tears that are eventually filled in and replaced with stronger muscle. These are tears in your mental health. These tears are filled in by FEAR. By negative thoughts. They will shrink the scope of your positive outlook. Your positive drive forward. That’s what’s happening right now. 

So, maybe, don’t look for the physical pain. Don’t look for that hard physical struggle. Sometimes you need to get outside of your comfort zone and counterintuitively go light. Accept. THAT’S your discomfort zone. Letting go of that control that you never had control of to begin with. Letting it all go for your mental sake, so that the spiritual can fill in the tears with positive energy. Positive vibration. To give you that different outlook on life. On yourself. A perspective you’ve never wanted to see. Of having to make do with what you’ve got. Accepting who you are. And who you are constantly evolves. Constantly evolves. We need to drop our guard to accept ourselves, so that we can grow. Evolve.