I was never an athletic person, but I started working out a lot after college. In 2016, I was doing squats when I noticed some pinching pain in my right buttock. It was minor, so I ignored it and continued working out. Six months later, I realized that might have been a mistake. I felt a strange pain shooting down the back of my right leg, all the way into my foot. After a few minutes, my entire leg felt numb. Needless to say, I was scared and I knew I had to see a doctor.
An MRI confirmed that I had a herniated disc in my lower back. One of the rubbery discs between my spine’s vertebrae partially slipped out and was pushing against my sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve runs from the lower back all the way down the leg and into the foot. When it becomes compressed, it causes a condition called sciatica. This is what led to the pain, tingling, and numbness I felt in my leg.
I cried a lot. I’d been having symptoms for a long time, so it looked like the problem was not going to resolve itself like it does for most people. Doctors told me not to engage in high impact activities or things that would aggravate the nerve. Did that mean I had to give up some of my favorite activities forever? Did it mean I could no longer dance, the one form of exercise I enjoyed? I was only 23 years old and I almost felt like my life was over.
Looking back now, I can see the ways my herniated disc experience was a bit of a blessing in disguise. It’s almost like it had to happen in order to stop unhealthy thoughts and behaviors that I wasn’t even aware of.
I’ve been living with my herniated disc for over four years. I still get sciatica flareups every now and then. And while it’s not ideal, it’s not the end of the world.
Here are a few of the things it taught me.
What I was doing to myself was not self-love.
My injury forced me to see the truth. I was able to identify the real reason I was working out. My main motivation wasn’t to be healthier or stronger. It wasn’t to feel better. I’m not even sure it was to look better.
My main motivation was to prove that I wasn’t a lazy, aimless piece of shit.
I was really unhappy after college. All my life, I had been working toward something — good grades, graduation, landing a job. After I achieved all that, I felt lost. I didn’t know what I wanted. I had no goals. My job wasn’t challenging enough. So I started going to the gym every day to give myself a purpose. But it wasn’t “I have to go to the gym because I want to get fit.” It was “I have to go to the gym or else my entire life will be meaningless and I’ll have no reason to get up in the morning.”
Some of the time, I did enjoy working out. I love dancing. But a lot of the time, I dreaded my workouts. During those moments, it wasn’t determination that kept me going. It was anger and self-hatred. I didn’t treat myself with the same gentleness that I would give someone else. If I was feeling tired, I would never allow myself to take a break. I’d call myself names. On bad days, I saw working out as a punishment that I deserved.
So when I felt that initial twinge of pain in 2016, I ignored it. I was afraid that if I took a break, I would get too comfortable and never get back in shape. I had to keep going because if I didn’t, I was a failure. Pushing myself that hard had to be good for me.
But my mindset was all wrong.
This experience taught me that things don’t work out when your motivation comes from a place of negativity. If I hadn’t treated myself so harshly, maybe the injury could have healed. I may not have even gotten the injury in the first place.
I wasn’t helping myself. I was hurting myself.
It’s important to treat your body with the respect and care it deserves.
I don’t know about you, but when it’s time to work out, I want to jump in and start immediately. I’m either bursting with energy or I just want to get it over with, so I want to skip stretching and warming up.
But I think one mistake that led to my injury was starting with intense workouts without easing into them. I went from not exercising at all to exercising 5–7 days a week, usually for over an hour. I pushed myself too hard and too quickly. Sometimes I didn’t warm up at all.
Now every time I have the urge to skip my stretches and warmups, I remind myself of what my body needs. It’s easy to focus on the activities that will directly burn calories or build muscle. But you can’t reach these goals properly without making sure your body is ready to go. Stretching is not optional. Not only does it prepare your muscles for the workout ahead, but regular stretching can help reduce injury in the long term.
My body takes care of me, so it’s only right that I take care of my body.
Goals are reached through repetition and perseverance over time.
After I stopped working out, it took about four months before I started to notice weight gain. I repeat: I stopped exercising completely and did not change my diet for four months, and I barely gained weight.
I couldn’t believe it. It really put everything into perspective for me.
All those times I felt racked with guilt for skipping one workout? Totally pointless. The times I felt like crying because I overate on Christmas? Not worth it.
Actions (or inactions) add up over time. Missing a single workout or overeating one time is not going to fuck everything up. It will vary from person to person, but for me and my personal body goals, it took four months. That’s a lot of wiggle room. Don’t beat yourself up over something that hardly matters. It’s totally okay to take a break and enjoy yourself. You may be able to do it more often than you think.
Sometimes there is no answer and we have to be okay with that.
Over the years, I’ve been to countless appointments with several different doctors, looking for advice on what to do. I’ve been to physical therapy. I’ve gotten two cortisone shots in my back. I’ve considered surgery. I’ve overthought my movements and activities so much that I avoid doing much of anything, and I start to feel immense sadness about the things I can no longer do. I wanted someone to tell me how to make my life normal again. Nobody could give me an answer.
Surprisingly, after all that, the thing that has worked best for me is to just ignore it. As soon as I stopped obsessing over it, I felt better mentally and had less physical pain. Now, I take things one day at a time.
There are certain exercises and movements that I need to do with extra care. But other than that, I pretty much live life the way I want to. I dance even though I’m supposed to avoid high-impact activities. I attend concerts even though prolonged standing can lead to sciatic pain. I wasn’t willing to give these things up, so I didn’t.
I had to accept my situation and figure out a solution that worked for me. When I do things I’m not “supposed” to do, I do them knowing that I may aggravate the nerve. I understand that I may need to take a break, sit down, or stretch. I’d rather do what I want to do while accepting the risks than worry all the time and feel like I’m missing out on life. Either way, my herniated disc is not going to disappear, so why not make the best of it?
It’s not a perfect solution because the perfect solution doesn’t exist. But it’s the best one I have, and I’ve learned to be okay with that.
Originally published at https://kaylynyee.com on October 20, 2020.