Finding “Joy” In The Paleo Life
By: Joy Gannon
Being diagnosed as pre-diabetic, having PCOS (an endocrine disorder), debilitating migraines you could practically pencil into the calendar, having high blood pressure, living as a morbidly obese person, a medicine cabinet full of prescriptions, lectures from my doctor, and having a personal trainer did absolutely nothing to change my behavior or weight. I am one of the metabolically broken people Robb refers to who tried and failed at diets and exercise for decades. Over the last twenty months, I’ve lost 120 pounds. 120 pounds. That’s like peeling off one whole other adult human being off yourself. It kind of feels like that too. The person you were before is gone. In her place is someone you don’t know very well yet (I don’t think I can do that!). In a body that doesn’t feel like your own (Muscles? Ribs? Is that supposed to do that?). In a body that doesn’t look the way you think it does (What was I wearing that day? I know I was there, but is that me in the picture? Is that what I look like?) In a body that doesn’t look the way your friends and family think it does, but they will recognize my voice or laugh, so I only have to reintroduce myself some of the time. In a world that feels very, very different and strange since many people treat the morbidly obese either as invisible or as less than, so being “seen” takes some getting used to. Losing 120 pounds took a lot of patience, consistency, change, and hitting my own personal tipping point.
On April 8, 2011 I was in an accident that left my leg with a comminuted displaced fracture of the lateral tibial plateau with an area of depression – or as the orthopedic surgeon described it, “a rare break” right below my knee where my bone had fractured into a lot of little pieces, and was no longer lined up, which the surgeon pieced back together again as best as possible with a plate, 8 screws, and a bone graph acting as glue. After my five day stint in the hospital, I had a very clear understanding that I needed to be very careful and follow the doctor’s orders, or there was a very real possibility of me not walking normally ever again.
At the time, I weighed roughly 270 pounds, had to keep my leg elevated and in a brace which allowed a maximum bend of 15 degrees in my knee, was unable to lift my leg without picking it up by my hands at its brace. My fitness level was so non-existent that 5 minutes on the arm bicycle and anything above 5 pound dumbbells was a real challenge. My high blood pressure set off the alarms a couple of times at the hospital at 177/156. I had no idea how I was going to get to the point of moving my “dead leg” again, let alone walking normally. I rolled into Therapeutic Associates of Maui in my wheelchair on May 3, 2011 and met Lee Poston, a physical therapist in the paleo physician’s network. I had no clue that my life was about to go in a different direction that no one in my life would have ever foreseen.
Initially, everyday tasks were a challenge for me. I didn’t have the strength to go far in either a wheelchair or crutches, and had to strategize what I could do on any given day. I was dependent on others to do my grocery shopping and some of my cooking for me. Initially, my dear vegan friends did my grocery shopping for me. Everything that came into the house was their version of healthy. My friends would no sooner bring a bag of potato chips or processed crap into the house than put a gun to my head. The truth is, I really wanted ice cream and pastries, and if I could have gone and gotten them, I so would have. I had plenty of nutritious food to eat in the house, but what I craved and wanted to eat wasn’t there, and I couldn’t get to it on my own, so the weight started to come off.
I’d spend the next eight months going into Lee’s physical therapy clinic (usually twice a week) getting stronger, getting back on my feet, re-learning how to walk again without a limp after 15 weeks off my leg, and attempting to “beat some strength” back into a leg that had seriously atrophied while it hadn’t been in use. Eight months is a long time. Its long enough to learn that tissue does respond to load (who knew?). It was long enough to learn that nothing I was doing should be easy, and if it is, add weight or go faster. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was also my first introduction to Cross Fit, since Lee started me on Cross Fit basics once I was able to do it (come to think of it, bars and bumpers probably aren’t standard physical therapy tools – but I remember when Lee showed me how to put the clip on the bar the first time, and I loved it right away). It was long enough for Lee to attend Robb’s seminar in Honolulu, and leave his book lying around the clinic. It was long enough to catch the Cross Fit Games being shown on the television, and wonder what in the heck was happening there. It was long enough to begin to Google away at a lot of things since there is just a lot of down time with a “rare” broken leg, and listening to Robb’s podcast was a good way to kill some time.
My diet continued to make iterative improvements. I threw out all the seed oils, and switched to coconut oil. I decided not to buy any more gluten containing products, and they soon weren’t in the house (although that was an experiment I had to do several times since the results made me so sad). I started taking fish oil. I began to incorporate vegetables into my diet, and avoid processed food and chemicals most of the time. In order for me not to feel hungry, I learned that I need to usually keep my carbs under 100 g a day. I downloaded Robb’s book, and a couple of paleo cookbooks. I started cyber-stalking Lee’s Cross fit affiliate Maui Cross Fit Extreme blog, thinking that maybe someday in the very, very distant future I’d maybe like to give it a try. Lee finally discharged me out of physical therapy the first week of January 2012. Freedom!!! I had a plan, and felt I was ready to move forward on my own. Once I got into good enough shape, then, I’d check out that Cross Fit stuff.
That sense of freedom didn’t last long. I still had a couple of Doctors that needed to sign off on me. 1st doctor advised me, “Don’t run, don’t jump, don’t do anything high impact, not even volleyball; ever.” The funny thing is that if I had been told that a year previously I would have been fine with that. But after all that had happened, I finally appreciated the ability to move, and I was beyond low. The second doctor advised me to pretend I hadn’t heard anything the first doctor had said, and to go ahead and do what I what I wanted to do. I couldn’t have been more confused about what I should or should not do.
I’d like to say that I contacted Lee about joining his Cross Fit affiliate out of inspiration, but the reality is that it was more out of desperation. While I didn’t trust my leg, I did trust Lee. I had quit laughing when he asked me to do impossible things many months prior, since he always seemed to know what I could or could not do, even when I did not. He had told me that Cross Fit was infinitely scalable – it would need to be. He had told me that I could go at my own pace – like I would have any other choice. And most importantly, while I was feeling particularly lost, he said “Be patient, but be persistent, you will get there.” Sometimes you just need one other person to believe that something is possible. I felt I could lean on that belief for a while – a different kind of crutch. So off to the beginner’s class I went on January 26th, all of 3 weeks discharged from physical therapy and weighing in at about 212 pounds.
I was scared to death and stressed out. My definition of success at that time was just to get in the door without hyperventilating or throwing up. I wasn’t always successful. This despite having worked with Lee for eight months previously, and knowing the type of person he is. I carry with me the baggage of being picked last, being horrible at every sport, perpetually failing at physical tasks, daily klutziness, and even having the instructor of one class compare me to an elephant attempting to balance on a ball. Getting in the door, even when you know you are welcome there, well it took a serious guilt trip from Lee on more than one occasion. I did my best not to show it, but if I’m being honest, everything scared me, and I knew I was in over my head. Jumping rope? Jumping on boxes? Jumping over a bar? Jumping jacks? High knees? Weighted squats? Oh my. The mental tape of “Don’t run, don’t jump, don’t do anything high impact, not even volleyball!” played in my head. How much will it hurt? How much will it hurt tomorrow? And as I would hold back/shake my head/or otherwise hesitate – I’d hear one of the coaches or classmates say “Just try.” So, I’ve been trying my modified, scaled down version of activities and slowly getting better at them. I’m never entirely sure who is more happy to see me doing better each week – the coaches, the people at the box, or myself – I’m pretty sure it’s a close call sometimes.
It has been 20 months since my accident, and nearly one year since I was discharged from physical therapy. My pant size went from 22/24 to a 9/10. My blood pressure and pulse went from setting off the alarms for being too high, to setting them off for being too low and now having doctor’s orders to eat more salt. Pre-diabetic is a thing of the past. Even my eyesight improved since my eyes didn’t have to deal with the blood pressure and sugar fluctuations. There are weeks and months when the scale won’t move at all, but instead of getting discouraged like I would have before, I’m thinking about different metrics and different milestones which make the scale number less important to me. I’m now thinking about whether I’m faster, or if I’ve been able to add weight to the bar. So far, I am faster and lifting heavier, which I’m equating to healthier whether the scale moves or not.
I’m doing things that I know I couldn’t do six months ago, last year, or any time in my adult life, nor had imagined I could. I remember my first squats (dips really) in Lee’s clinic up against the wall, and now I can do squats to full range of motion. I have a 140 lb back squat, power clean of 130 lbs, overhead squat 95 lbs, and can deadlift 250 lbs.
I practically danced a jig when I could finally do toes to bar. Big milestone events motivate me. Four months prior to my accident, I had completed my third half marathon with my best time to that date of 18:35/mile. I mentally needed to re-do the same marathon a year later to see where I was post- accident and completed it in 17:30/mile. I’d spend the next ten months trying to get my half marathon time under three hours. April – 15.25/mile. May – 14:26/mile. June – 13:44/mile. And finally in September – 13:02/mile or 2:50. My knee can’t handle following traditional training for these events so I am not following any training schedule other than doing Cross Fit and occasionally swimming and rowing on my own. I don’t think completing a full marathon is particularly a smart or healthy thing to do, especially after a bad tibia plateau fracture less than a year out from being discharged from physical therapy. But yet. And still. I wanted to do one. The Honolulu Marathon was on 12/09/12. My goals were to finish and to have a good time. I completed it in 7:47:26 or 17:50/mile, which is better than my pre-accident pace, and almost as good as last year’s half marathon pace. They say that if you ever start to lose faith in the human race to go and watch a marathon – with my pace I got to see the person who finished first and the person who finished last in the race, and everyone in-between. It was pretty incredible.
I’m signed up for another in four months where my goal is going to be a stretch. I’m dialing in my nutrition between then and now, and believe that my training, while non-traditional, works for me. I’ve proved my self-doubt wrong enough times that I’m beginning to question my self-doubt instead of my abilities. The mental tape that used to play in my head is quieting and being replaced with “What’s the worst that could happen, and is it really anything worse than you’ve already been through?” My family wonders who the person talking about deadlifts is, because it is certainly not someone they knew before, but they assure me they still “like and love the NEW Joy.” I have gone beyond my own expectations, and really don’t know where this journey will take me. I have no idea, but I’m thinking it is going to be a wild and fun ride.