Autism, Exercise Addiction, and Injury Parts III and IV

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Went to see the orthopedist today after rescheduling twice.  He came in and sat down and I told him I was feeling better – very little pain, no medication.  I can feel the stiffness still, especially if I sit for too long, and my core is weaker. My movements are a little more mechanical.  He seemed enthusiastic, but also had in hand MRI results.  All of a sudden I felt I knew what he would say.

“You have disc degeneration at multiple levels, which is allowing for the disc material to come out at some places, and which is leading to spinal stenosis.  You also have arthritis in your back.  Basically, your spine is a lot older than you are. “

He went on to say that stretching and yoga would be good, and that surgery would not make much sense because it would not be some sort of micro surgery with tiny incisions.  I also know that there is limited success with lower back surgeries.  There was a gym in the area that had a back health program, and maybe I should try some turmeric tea.  The best bet was to   maintain a strong core and stay healthy for long stretches of time, months or even years.  The bluntness and realism of the diagnosis was baffling, housing both doom and hope.

I am not old by any means, but with thirty descending on me, it no longer feels hyperbolic to say that I am feeling     the effects of ageing. So it was true, then.  I remember my mother telling me degenerative disc is the diagnosis I got years ago, too.  I have to think of this as an issue I will deal with for life.  It also means I have my work cut out for me now.  One reason my back is so much older than I am has to be my periods of fluctuating weight, and my historically weak core muscles.  I know autism and sensory dysfunction are linked to overall muscle weakness, and think that this is another piece of all this I have yet to examine. But I have explicit reason now to keep my weight down, to start a stretching practice (something I have been saying I would do for a long time), and  maintain my muscle tone.  I have something to gain back, namely my weightlifting benchmarks, and something new to work into my life.  I have odds to beat, and a narrative to write.

IV

A part of my sensory dysfunction, and something I can remember affecting me much worse as a child, is a need to release pent up energy.  I have always experienced periods of time I can scarcely stop chattering to myself, or tapping my leg, or during which I walk at an unnecessarily brusque pace .  It comes out in voices, cartoon characters, self created, and otherwise. It also comes out in song lyrics, frustration bellows.  Mostly, the reason it gets stored rather than released is because of having sensory stressors while at the same time occupying public places and needing to account for external judgement.  What is more important in the moment – my comfort or my social capital? It is for this reason being a gym rat has been important to me.  It gives me an outlet, a release.  Before the gym, I woke up early to play football with my classmates, and played at lunch when I could. There has always been something, so that I don’t feel quite so caged.

But what about folks who aren’t weight lifters or particularly thrilled with the idea of exercise? What if you can’t get to a gym? There have to be ways to release one’s energy, uncomfortable for others or not. I have seen the same phenomenon manifest in other autistic individuals in any manner of involuntary twitches and automatic tics.  They wring their hands or contort their faces or laugh or scream, or rock, or run from one place to another for no particular reason. In some ways regret that I have gone the route of so much segmentation- I am too embarrassed to share my thought loops and self-speech and repetitive actions  even with my fiancée, Celeste, any more than a snippet at a time.  The people who have any number of consistent releases for these feelings may receive more judgement, but they are administering self care and this is a basic, necessary lesson in any human life. In some ways I have sacrificed the ability to have more of a static self across all areas of my life.  Celeste is the same person, no matter where she is. She has more self knowledge and integrity than almost anyone I know.

But sacrifices must be made for the sake of independence and functionality. I have to be able to carry on in my workplace, create and teach and maintain classes, have relationships with co workers, keep a desk that at least makes a little sense. So I watch myself, and I perform, and I funnel my frustrations into acceptable outlets, like working out.  In so doing, I have perhaps allowed my ego to become too strong, put too much on external perception, which has helped me get along in a society that prizes egoic accomplishment, but has hindered me in my ability to maintain self-esteem while working my way back up to physical fitness.  It’s a development I don’t love.  The autistic introspection difficulty makes it even harder to distinguish between pride and self love, a distinction society rather scoffs at.  It goes back to the debate between taoism and confucianism – is it better to go along with the natural flow of nature (your own nature) or to do your best to use your attributes and station to contribute to society? Can I view or build myself nondualistically, and meaningfully pursue both?  What would conflicting pursuit do to my body house? 

 Being injured has left me time to parse out which standards I’ve inherited from my environment have been helpful, and which I can do without.  It has taught me how much my coping mechanisms mean to me, and has taught me not to value to narrow a slice of my own personhood (physical ability, appearance).  Much more important to Meditate.  Eat well. Stretch. Be humble at the squat rack.  Maybe let more autism slip.  Let go of societally built standards for success and beauty, and ironically enjoy more respect and better standing and better looks as a result.

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Autism, Exercise Addiction, and Injury Part II

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This four part installment was written in February 2019

On Sunday morning, after I had slept fitfully and with the help of sleeping pills, Celeste walked (carried) me down to the car and drove me to the emergency room, where I was wheeled in, examined, and administered steroids, prescription tylonol, and muscle relaxers.  In the hospital waiting for the injections to kick in, and listening to the gossip of the staff, I felt if I let myself get set there too long, I surely wouldn’t be able to move at all, in fact, I’d be as good as a part of the furniture around here.  Celeste had to be as exhausted as I was – we were up many hours before our normal.

We got takeout from IHOP (and let me tell you – I’ve never seen more support for an IHOP than here in the lower Hudson. You’d swear they had pancake Jesus in there or something) and I sat in the house for a week to mend with medication and horror podcasts Being cooped up for that time was almost like being made to watch my own adjustment to the new space at half speed. The house was skeletally furnished.  The books weren’t yet divided but previous halfassed attempts to do so had piled them up out of their boxes and onto the carpet in crazy staircases and towers. My nightstand was a box.  The green man and tapestry and concert flyer and photos weren’t up.  One of my best working strategies for getting along in a neurotypical majority society is self-awareness.  I know transitions mess with me hard.  A good working set of routines is almost like a home within, and a complete altering of where I am when I get up and do what I do every day is a major uprooting.  I’m aware of how a new environment influences my thought patterns and behaviors. There would be irritability a non-triaged mess of responsibilities. And because of an unnaturally slow pace of life, I would be hyper aware of all of it.

Life was like an anxiety meditation.  The speed of life had slowed, but the moments were colored with dark potential.  If I stretched out on the carpet and listened to stories about tentacle demons crawling out of washing machines for a third hour and then sat up the wrong way, my progress could be delayed by several days  or weeks.  But the ability of the human being to adapt and fill a vacuum with routine are not to be underestimated.  I waded along with a support brace on my back and walked only with a cane for the first few days. It was the time between semesters at work, so I had the leave to spare without having to prepare interminable lesson plans for a substitute. At least there was that.

It is now February first, and I am off the medication and going to work. Today, I started stretching seriously and doing minor ab exercises. I am not ashamed to admit I have broken down crying, mourning the time when my biggest worry at the gym was the Trumpian who roostered around the weight room militarily. My pants fit way tighter.  I have a belly again, though my abs are vaguely visible through the curtain of fat.  My pecs and arms have maintained their shape better than I had hoped, but it is still a nightmare to realize how soft I have become in this short time.    I think no matter who you are, if you work out regularly, you do it for a sense of control. As an autistic person I count on the continuity as a bullwark against the slalom of unpredictable instance each day brings. Like any ritual, weight lifting is meant to make you feel in charge of something. When it gets yanked away, you get reminded of the illusion, of how little your will really matters, that you are basically an airbnb for an ensemble of states of being. Part of it is the exercise addiction, too,  I know.  The release of endorphins, the high of besting oneself, the wild eyed idea that this month, I will go to the gym every day. But I don’t think this all adequately describes it.  What is it then, if not vanity and control or a ploy to lower health insurance rates? Unsettling, when you don’t know why exactly you feel so strongly.

Autism, Exercise Addiction, and Injury Part I

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This four installment story was written in February 2019

Ok, out front with it. I have an exercise addiction, asperger’s syndrome, and as of January 12th, a serious back injury.

This time last month, I could do two hundred push ups in twenty minutes.  I could do three consecutive sets of ten wide grip pull ups, and then one set of ten and two sets of five neutral or underhand grip.  I could shrug around four hundred pounds.  I chest pressed three fifty and leg pressed more than twice that. I curled fifty-fives.  When I worked in the Bronx, I would walk more than ten miles a day and still do the workouts. Worst of all, I had become someone to whom all of this mattered rather deeply, someone who, despite my knowing better, had somehow managed to build too much meaning around my  practice. Autistic people are known to tie their identity to routine, and no matter how much self awareness I try to build, I see myself doing it all the time. As such, the fact of a debilitating injury rather killed me.

At first, it had been a mild back injury, the like I’ve dealt with about every other year since I herniated L3 and L5 in high school. In the lumbar region of my spine, while I read on my bed on my stomach or lifted weights or slept or whatever, the disc tissue itself burped out between the vertebrae the way a tire bulges when the interior lining goes, pressing incorrectly on all sorts of nerves and inhibiting any sort of motion. I got out of gym class for longer than a month.  Getting in and out of cars was awful.

On the eighth, a week after making the move with my fiancee   to Poughkeepsie, I coughed in my kitchen, and felt the tell-tale yank, freeze and spasm.  I walked to the train and rode into work, moving about my day like a man forty years my senior.  Had it been the pushups I had done the other day in a panic, realizing what the holidays and the move had done to my workout consistency?  Had I strained my back in the move, during which I unloaded the majority of our sixteen foot rental truck? Was it an act of a god with whom I no longer hold council, some self-created chaos deity determined to make me appreciate the relative good health I enjoy 95% of the time? It scarcely mattered.  I took it gingerly, stretching, listening to podcasts, taking over the counter pain meds for the inflammation. By Friday the 11th, I was feeling better and getting cocky. I did some stretches to test my back out and did a few sets of air  squats.  Wouldn’t want to go soft now, would I?  

That night , I got in the car and went to grab a dvd rental from the box at the grocery store, when the stiffness returned. I moved more like an improv actor who has been suddenly doled out a bad back in a quippy exchange with another character, than an actual injured person.  When I got back to settle in and put on my pajama pants, it happened, just like the eighth, but fully, now. I Igor-limped to bed, and the next time I went to pee, I got pain and spasms so bad I screamed involuntarily.  The next time, I got out of bed and found that I could walk, and bend to get the seat up, and wash my hands. I had to do it all as if everything I touched were made of rice paper, but I was okay until I went to walk back to bed, a distance of all of five feet. The   spasms, the worst of my life, jumped on my back like an alien from the Sigourney  Weaver films,  and left me to launch myself onto   bed, screaming in agony.  There was nothing to be done, and the feeling was of an invisible creature trying to pry my back open  like a stubborn garage door.