fitness

'I was addicted to exercise for 8 years. After a serious injury, my life fell apart.'

It all started with the very best intentions. 

I’d just moved from London to Sydney, hoping for a fresh start after a terrible year.

This was pre-COVID. So what qualified as a terrible year back then was devastating in an entirely different way.

A close friend had died, then a family member. I’d suffered unexpected health issues that landed me in hospital. Then, just as I’d started to recover, I lost my job. 

Actually, that devastation sounds a lot like COVID. 

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Anyway, it was a lot. And according to my GP, I was suffering with ‘reactive depression’.

That meant that my low mood, inability to sleep and complete lack of motivation was in response to situational stress. As soon as my circumstances improved, I’d improve - or so she said. 

In the meantime, there was self care (which definitely wasn’t called that back then). Healthy eating, better sleep (laughable, but thank you), and plenty of exercise.

I’d always had a love/hate relationship with exercise up until that point. While I’d excelled in sports at school, thanks to puberty and toxic 90s diet culture, I’d soon settled into a pattern of Yo-Yo dieting that quickly narrowed my view of what exercise was down to just one thing: a weight loss tool. 

If I was ‘on a diet’, I’d be hitting the gym five days a week. If I was ‘off the wagon’, my runners would start to gather dust. 

It was always all or nothing. 

And after the year I’d just been through, ‘nothing’ had increasingly become the popular choice. 

As I sat and cried in my GP’s office, it was the first time in my life I’d been asked to consider a different motivation to work out – to improve my mental health.

Desperate, I promised myself I’d at least try.   

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The first session – nothing more than a 20-minute jog – was mentally and physically excruciating.  

But I remember standing in the shower afterwards feeling ever so slightly better. 

I felt like I’d been walking around with my head in a vice, and someone had turned the handle, alleviating the pressure on my brain by just a few notches, just enough for some reprieve.

The next day I tried again. And once more, I found myself a little pocket of peace.  

Over the coming weeks and months, it all fell into place. 

Wake up, feel awful. Exercise, feel less awful. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. 

The cloud started to dissipate. 

I started to actually enjoy the sessions, and I wanted more out of them. I joined a gym, trying spin classes and circuit sessions. I signed up for a 5km race, then a 10km, then a half marathon. 

I fell in love with the discipline of weight training. But it often fell by the wayside in favour of a blast of high intensity, sweaty cardio – because only that provided the endorphins that would carry me through another day. 

I became completely reliant on these self-prescribed happy hormones and was terrified that without my fix, I’d crash. 

So I never took more than one day off, not one single day. In eight years.

Over time, exercising was less about enjoyment and feeling better, and more about avoiding the rapid come down of not doing it.

When I travelled, my runners were the first thing I put in my suitcase; jogging routes were planned long before holiday adventures.  

I trained through injury, illness and hangovers. I rose at 3am to work out before a 7am long haul flight. I never missed a Christmas Day work out. 

It never really stopped me socialising. But would I go to meet friends for drinks without squeezing in a workout beforehand? Absolutely not. 

When I was taking a rare rest day, even though I knew my body desperately needed it, it felt like I was being asked an unthinkable thing, like I was being stuffed inside a tiny box where I was to confront all my very worst fears.

When the first lockdown happened, I sprung to action; I knew exactly what I needed to do.

I bought a spin bike for my home (to this day the best $1800 I have ever spent.)

Combining that with bi-weekly outdoor weight sessions with a trainer, and long weekend runs, I felt like I’d been in practise for this sort of crisis my whole life. 

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Not only did I survive it, I kind of nailed it. 

So when lockdown 2.0 rolled around, I had all my failsafe coping mechanisms in place, ready to go.

But on the very first day, while out walking, I was suddenly struck by a lightening bolt of my pain down my left thigh, like nothing I’d ever felt. 

Limping, I caught an Uber home, thinking – praying – that I must have pulled a muscle. 

Even the thought of a couple of days off had me panicking.

The next day, the pain was back, like an electric shock through my leg. The day after that, during my outdoor training session, the pain literally knocked me off my feet.

I vividly remember laying flat out on the grass in the rain as my trainer tried to stretch me– but I could barely move my leg. 

This wasn’t a pulled muscle. And I was terrified. 

I started physio, but without a firm diagnosis, I know with retrospect, we were wasting our time. 

In between those appointments, I spent days, followed by weeks, alone on my couch, barely able to move. Kind friends did COVID-safe drop offs of coffees, painkillers and gifts. 

But it was the longest stretch I’d gone without exercise in eight years and the fog was back. 

I’d never talked explicitly to anyone about how hard this was – but I think those who loved me knew; without my trusted, tried and true outlet, I wasn’t going to fare so well.

I know there are people who had it way worse than me during this time; people who lost family, friends or their livelihoods. People who were really sick. 

But this is not about one-upmanship. With COVID cases rising and no end of lockdown in sight, I felt trapped in mental and physical pain; completely stripped of my coping mechanisms. 

At first, I couldn’t take more than a few steps without being stopped in my tracks by agonising jolts of pain.

In between these unbearable surges, I had a permanent burning, tingling sensation in my thighs – the symptoms were in both my legs by then – and I barely slept.  

There were days when I couldn’t see a way out. But worse, there were days when I really could. 

And this was only the beginning. 

Months passed.

I had to learn to sit in the mental (and physical) discomfort. To try to find other ways to pick myself up and keep going. Phone calls with friends, re-watching my old favourite TV shows, immersing myself in books, appreciating the rest. But being kind to myself has never been my default.  

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Meanwhile, I endured MRIs, ultrasounds, steroid injections, and nerve conduction studies, desperate for answers.

One GP told me to take paracetamol for what I described as 8/10 pain, without any attempt to determine the cause. Another professional recommended turmeric supplements. 

I felt completely dismissed. 

But finally, I was diagnosed with Meralgia Paresthetica.

The condition essentially meant that my Lateral Femoral Cutaneous Nerve – the nerve that controls sensation in the front and side of the thigh - was trapped behind a ligament in my groin.

Every time I exerted myself, I was compressing it further, causing the painful symptoms I’d been experiencing.  

To finally have a diagnosis was such a relief. 

Not only did it mean we could focus on a solution, but it validated my pain. 

Even seeing the neurologist wince and say ‘you must be going mad’ when he looked at the results of my nerve conduction tests felt like vindication. 

After conservative treatment failed, I was told I’d need surgery to decompress the nerve. 

For that, I am still waiting. 

Thankfully, now the pain is way less intense. Most days I can walk without pain, and on the really good ones, I can cycle. 

But I am still not ok. 

Because this unfortunate set of circumstances has pulled back the curtain and forced me to confront my toxic relationship with exercise. I always thought my so-called discipline meant I was totally in control; it’s really hard to admit I’m actually powerless.    

So no, I am not ok. 

There is still so much work left to be done. And absolutely none of it is physical.  

If you think you or someone you know may be suffering from depression, contact PANDA – Post and Antenatal Depression Association. You can find their website here or call their helpline – 1300 726 306.

Feature Image: Getty.

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