Be Like Madonna And Redefine Yourself 80 Times: Bicep EditionĀ 

“I don’t feel anything,” I said to the questioning eyes of yet another person asking me if I can “feel it” in my bicep when I perform a given exercise. As much as I wish I was speaking that sentence in reference to ever having to feel emotions–because emotions are annoying as shit–I say it as an affirmation of what has been my policy throughout my arm’s rehabilitation to never do anything with it that I “feel.” This policy has gotten me from benching ten pound dumbbells to sets with 185 pounds. It has had me deadlifting reps with 400 pounds less than half a year after surgery. It has been a policy of strictness, honesty, and above all discipline. And it has been my focus.

My focus–to the point where it has replaced things that had previously preoccupied me. I have stopped writing as much, not because I have any less to say, or that I have lost the guts to speak, but because I have felt conflict at moving away from what was previously my “schtick.” If I am no longer as preoccupied with my struggles with body image–and I’m just not–what is my message? I certainly am interested in ongoing discussions of femininity as it relates to women’s participation in sports, body image concerns conflicting with performance demands, and other topics. Periodically, something rises above the constant tide of Stuff in my social media feeds that relates to physical self-concept that smacks me in the emotional face–again, is there a way to just get rid of emotions? Damn, man–and makes me say “there is work at a collective subcultural level still yet to be done. A lot of women in strength sports really struggle with what the hell to do with their relationships with their bodies.” And I mean that, and I will continue to participate in that discussion. 

But here’s my unpopular opinion–or story, because remember that thing up there about me questioning what my message is now? My message has always been my story, as I don’t believe in fabricating some empty series of tenets based on nothing that sound good that I can repeat over and over as message. Just like I basically got myself out of anorexia mode by deciding that I didn’t want to be that anymore, a continuation with this self-emancipation from ED land manifests in my deciding I don’t want to feel stuck and immersed in a barrage of media that talks about how to heal one’s relationship with one’s body. Furthermore, I have decided I am not interested in being defined as an athlete who does something AND IS A WOMAN, because holy god isn’t it novel that A WOMAN is doing a thing that changes how her body looks and what do we do with that because NO WAY is it a minor detail that this athlete who IS A WOMAN we are talking about right now looks a certain way, it’s such a big deal guys, let’s break this down and talk about how novel it still is that women are doing things that ask their bodies to adapt physically to what they’re doing. See how long and convoluted that shit was? That is what discussion of body image and women’s sports basically looks like. I want to be thought of as an athlete. Period. 

oh god the days of the brace. Kill me now.

The strength of this desire did not dim when my arm sort of tried to snap off when I locked out a rep with 460 pounds. It grew. My psyche became absorbed not with whether or not my thighs fit the ideal aesthetic for a female powerlifter–and dear god is that such an oxymoron in some circles, and it also doesn’t actually exist, but hey, let’s focus on not focusing on body image shit, guys–but with how the HELL I was going to keep. Fucking. Training. That was it. All the time. Engineer things for this muscle group so I don’t have to grab things with my hands and subsequently use the bicep for pulling motions. Restore range of motion as fast as possible. Destroy scar tissue. That was it. EVERY DAY. And only recently have I arrived at a point where that isn’t the case. And that leaves me looking around, blinking in the glare of being back on the same plane as able-bodied people, trying to figure out what I am now. Because like with most traumatic events, when you go through it, you do not come out the same person. Whatever the size of the trauma, you probably changed. 

I have had conversations with many people about this idea of trauma-change phases over the last few months. If it was a conversation with someone who had just met me, even though it would start out about the omnipresent arm, I would sometimes hear things about my past discussions of eating disorder experiences or ongoing body image navigation. And this constantly has bothered me, because my self-concept is more fiercely aligned with the emphasis on athlete first, every other aspect of my identity second than ever before. Very simply, when something you hold extremely valuable is threatened, nothing else fucking matters anymore. You don’t forget the fear and the frustration or what feels like suffocation, this complete inability to escape a reality you never wanted. Unless you drink some vodka. yeah…. I like to think that there’s this small divide between people in this sport who have had to have surgery for it and people who haven’t–and I mean specifically surgeries that arise because of lifting. They cause shifts, and those shifts look different from person to person, but they are shifts. 

So I only know that when I go into the gym, I go into it with a body that basically works right, and that is how I understand my body right now. When I pick up a 25 with my right arm and toss it up to my bar as I warm up for squatting, the idea that I was incapable of doing so a few months ago flickers through my head EVERY SINGLE TIME. When I go to pick up 45 pound dumbbells to do some accessory work and do it with both arms, recognition of regained ability is instant and constant. When I carry freaking GROCERIES with my right arm or open a DOOR I remember. I didn’t choose to stop being preoccupied with self-image–my arm stopped it for me. It replaced that preoccupation with something a little more productive, for the moment anyway. Replacement works, whether self-induced or as the result of outside circumstances. Am I saying I don’t have awareness of my aesthetic “faults?” That I can’t pick myself apart into 50+ unacceptable pieces if pressed–and hey, nobody presses me on that one so that’s nice–or that I don’t decide not to wear something because ehhhhhh not flattering? No. But there’s this fluid scale of how much is too much, of how much is background noise and how much is emotionally crippling. I don’t spend entire days feeling vague horror and embarrassment at how I look anymore. I just don’t. And yes, I actually did, that’s not exaggeration. Maybe one of the eight thousand lessons of Armgate thus far has been to replace, not negate. I don’t know. Let’s go with it.   

bicep is looking pretty functional again here. Also dear god I look hot. Sarcasm, guys.


Whole 30 Misadventures, Or Never Follow A Diet That Has A Name

Over the last three months–almost to the day, because today is October 11th, and my bicep tendon decided to blow apart back on July 10th–a lot has happened to my body. Most of it has been stressful. Some of it has been painful. Some of that pain has been by choice and some of it has been by necessity. You hear the phrase “everything can change in an instant” thrown around so casually that it almost never had meaning in the first place, but my entire life for three straight months has looked like someone decided I needed to know the import of those six words put together in that specific way, and goddamn if it wasn’t going to have to take a long time to just really jam it into my psyche so it sticks. 

So, being held captive by what is probably a deserved karmatic circumstance designed to teach me that I should not count on anything in my life, however small, and probably that I should be grateful for a bunch of shit that I’m too stubborn to really be grateful for, I have woken up for about 90 days in a row thinking some variant of “yep, the arm is still busted, and that’s probably going to shake out today roughly like it did yesterday. YES. Let’s DO IT.” This reality has slowly evolved from running around with my arm splinted up to in a brace to free but really screwed up to free but can function roughly how you’d expect the average 90 year-old’s arm to function to free but is still pretty weak and crotchety and atrophied-looking: 70 year-old woman edition. This reality has brought with it a bunch of questions from people I don’t really know about my arm, a bunch of pitying stares, people I know at a medium level of intimacy not really knowing what to say to me, a bunch more questions from people I don’t really know, at all, again, concerning my arm, like “is it ok now that there is no brace on it? Like are you all healed up now?”
Nope. A tendon that fully tears in half and then gets pulled through a hole someone drills through your bone and then stapled permanently there and now the bicep attached to it is too short and the tendon is too short until everything just sort of lengthens out again over time doesn’t “heal up” quickly. Like, just because it doesn’t look like something is seriously fucked up about me or my body–because my head is also really fucked up by the way, you just don’t see that part either–doesn’t mean everything is all good. In fact, despite the fact that I am two and a half months post-surgery, ish, I don’t really feel a lot better than when the event itself occurred. Sometimes when I go to sleep at night I just sort of relive what it felt like to have shit in my arm rip apart. I don’t really want to, but that’s what my sick psyche seems to like to do. I feel like my subconscious is really into torture porn–I maintain that I’m not, but it appears that my base self, the kind that sends me the dreams I wake up from thinking “ok, we are NEVER telling anyone about that one” really is into the whole “bodies getting torn apart deal.” Gross. Stop. 

Salute, motherfuckers, I no longer have to wear this thing.

So maybe you’re thinking the following: okay Janis, stop BITCHING about your injury. Seriously. Do you ever shut up about this? Do you ever stop thinking about it? STOP, oh my god, just stop, you didn’t die. What about the Whole 30 reference in the title of this post? Did you just use a popular, fad diet name in that title to get readers sucked into reading about your interminable ability to feel sorry for yourself? Fuck, man, I have other things to do today and this is seriously bringing me down. I wanted to read about dieting because I, like basically everyone else, don’t really feel like I have the exact right answer as to how I should eat, what I should eat, how much, when, is dairy bad, what does that really cut dude eat, how many anabolics are in her system at one time, is HIIT really better than steady state–I WANT TO READ ABOUT THESE THINGS. 
Alright, alright. Here’s what happened to me when I got the aformentioned injury I’m no longer allowed to directly talk about: I got really depressed and lost a fair amount of weight, particularly for a strength athlete trying to preserve lean mass. I also dealt with A LOT of swelling and inflammation, and thought that hey, let’s do whatever we can to combat that–I have control of my eating, so why don’t I try eating in a way that might at least at some small level help to correct the inflammation situation. I need more produce. I need to not eat stuff that is inflammatory. Maybe I can bring my weight back up while doing it. What is this Whole 30 thing? 
Cast and abs: Former is gone, the latter are going.

So I looked over the Whole 30 diet and immediately was like screw some of this, this shit is kind of neurotic. Like we’re restricting some things in a way that’s looking like Pathways To Eating Disorders 101, so I’m not going to do all of this. I’m going to follow some of the parameters here to change what I’m eating towards way more produce, way more good fats, and we’ll see how that goes. Also, I want to be able to eat at chipotle so I’m going to do that and just not eat rice or beans or tortilla thingies. So I did. I didn’t really track my intake because I just figured I was eating more. Also, technically on Whole 30 you’re not supposed to track your intake. So guess what? My weight continued to plummet. I’m not blaming this on following the Whole 30 diet. But at that point, for me, I was getting into “if your weight keeps dropping you are going to lose even more usable lean mass than you have already lost, so STOP DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING YOU IDIOT” territory. So here are my critiques: 
1. I guess this whole thing makes sense for people who are legitimately attempting to isolate food allergy triggers. I also feel like if you are truly trying to do so, like if you truly think you have a food allergy, you should be probably working with a doctor and also running actual tests and shit. I mean maybe, I don’t know, I have an iron constitution and no food allergies, but I have known people who do and this is usually what it looks like when it’s a legitimate thing and not someone looking for a way to justify an eating disorder–and I HAVE had an eating disorder or five so I know what that looks like. So…if you suspect a food allergy call your freaking doctor and then maybe look into elimination diets that help you treat the whole thing like a science experiment with controls and variables. 
2. WTF there is like one complex carb source allowed, come on. I just can’t get behind that. A macro is a macro and whatnot but man, you mighhhhht hate your life if you struggle with one solid carb source. I don’t even like carbs THAT MUCH and this was some bullshit. Like I would also like to have oats please. 

3. Following the above, people really like to freak out about gluten and the overwhelming evidence I’ve seen about this is that there are very few ACTUAL gluten-sensitive people and the majority who claim this are basically justifying avoiding carb intake and hiding eating disordered eating patterns YES I SAID IT. Do you KNOW what actual celiac disease looks like? Like what it’s like to have that? That shit is NOT FUN. So calm the hell down about things like brown rice and oats and stuff that has a LOT OF GOOD STUFF IN IT FOR YOU. Damnnnnnnnnn. 

4. Ok, to be a little more serious and less argumentative, I feel like Whole 30 is restrictive to the point where anyone with any kind of history of eating issues is going to end up in a bad way at some point, somehow, because of it. That could manifest in different ways–a path into anorexia relapse, complete breakdown and binging because of perceived restriction, cycles between the two, etc–and perhaps more mild expressions of these two reactions. Because Whole 30 makes a LOT OF THINGS off limits. Off limits…does not tend to function well for people who psychologically struggle with food. It’s like taking a substance and telling a bunch of teenagers they can’t have it until they are 21. It’s SPECIAL BECAUSE IT’S OFF LIMITS GUYS, LET’S GO GET OUR OLDER SIBLING TO GO TO THE STORE FOR US. We’ve seen how that goes. Humans have the most interesting relationships with things they aren’t allowed to have, things that they might want. I mean relationships that end up making for really good movies and tv shows. So taking a diet where this is a main attribute of the diet…seems to me to be problematic. For many. 

Just like with training, the body would be easy if it was a robot one was exposing to variables and controls and changing with them. But the body is not a robot. Bodies contain minds. Whole 30 very likely works physiologically in very productive ways. I just…deeply caution people thinking about following it. Or anything else that is a fad–because yes, it’s a fad–paleo is a fad. Remember Atkins? That was/is a fad. Diets that are popular that have names end up looking like/being called fads 5 or so years after their mystique has died down. Question your intentions when you see something a lot of other people are doing and are inclined to try it out–just because a lot of people are doing it RIGHT NOW does not mean it is good. Duh, right? Right. I just figured you needed a reminder. 

Because when you’re desperate over something–when something in your life smacks you so hard in the face that nothing feels the same or in control anymore and you just want things to be DIFFERENT THAN THEY ARE, you look outside, around, everywhere but internally, for some way to feel differently–because it’s easier to do something different than feel different. Feelings can change by different actions, but generally they change if your beliefs change, and there’s only so much looking to the external is going to work for that without going back to searching for the real truth in the internal. That’s what trying to do the Whole 30 managed to illuminate, I guess. I mean my arm’s busted and I’m generally hanging on by a thread always so I would be careful about trusting anything my crazy self says, but I believe I might be right on this one. And I just like being able to eat oats again. 

The Tear

There were two shots. They were close together, and they rang through my arm into my throat, dissonant piano chords announcing change. When you lift, and you have been doing it for a little while, your mind does many things at once. You probably don’t know how much your mind does at once as the bar travels through space–I don’t, really, most of the time–until you are deadlifting 460 pounds and on your second rep your bicep tears. I felt two shots through my arm and, in the space of a single second, as the bar returned to the ground, recognition, cause and effect, timeframes, and consequences exploded through my mind. I know these things all registered within one second because when the plates and bar impacted the floor I stood up from the lift and was frozen by the magnitude of change.
It’s not uncommon to see saccharine pictures of flowers or a sunset emblazoned with sentiment along the lines of “be grateful for what you have because everything can change in an instant” as you scroll through your social media feed of choice. You probably don’t even really read it or see it anymore, it becomes background noise, just like most of the things running through your mind as you perform a squat set. We don’t see what we’re not looking for, and we don’t look for things we don’t know are coming. 

Day Four Ish
Day Seven –yellow is actual skin coloring not shitty photo quality.
The bruise started blooming towards the inside of my arm three or four days out from Day One. At first I took the bean-sized spot as encouraging–it had already been a few days, doesn’t the bleeding and pooling start sooner than that? Is this all the blood there would be? Can’t be that bad. Then it grew as Days Five, Six, and Seven moved on. It was ugly. It wasn’t huge, it wasn’t as black or as dense as some photos of pec and hamstring tears I had seen, but it was without doubt bleeding from some sort of tear or tears. The funny thing was, it was on the inside of my arm. If I lifted my arm to show someone the bruising, I was greeted with winces and usually expressions of “oh, shit” or similar. If I didn’t, aside from the fact that I couldn’t really hold my arm normally at my side when standing or walking, aside from the fact that if you looked at one bicep and then the other, it was clear there was something wrong with the shape of my right one, aside from the fact that if I shook my arm vigorously the mass of previously connected muscle shuddered and jostled its way along my humerus like the deadweight it was, aside from the fact that I had to juggle all grocery bags onto one arm and barely open doors with the other, aside from the fact that I winced when people expected me to hold those same doors open for them–aside from all those things, the arm wasn’t very obvious. I went for days in my own gym without people knowing what had happened, and in a gym where discussion of someone’s squat miss a few days ago or who is sleeping with how many other who’s is regular fodder for a training session whether you like it or not, I consider this a feat. People don’t see what they’re not looking for, and they don’t expect change until it happens. I didn’t. 

But now it has. At least for a while. I thought about waiting to write this until I had a clearer idea of what was going to happen. But it was a fairly slow fight to get myself inside of an orthopedic office given the severity of the injury. What will be far slower or perhaps not happen at all is approval from insurance for coverage–not full coverage, of course, but maybe half? I don’t know–of an MRI. I do not know what my lifting future looks like without an MRI. I don’t know if only muscle is torn–maybe–or if tendon is ruptured enough to warrant surgery–very definitely maybe. 

I don’t know of a single other woman in powerlifting who has experienced a bicep tear. I know of a lot of the more high-profile bicep tears in powerlifting and strongman–all men. I’m sure it has happened at some point, but for now, I take a strange pride in the fact that I get to stand alone as a total weirdo–not a status that is totally foreign to me. 

I am already in the gym lifting. I squat three times a week. I do every single lower body exercise I can think of that does not require suspending weights from my hands. I also am now doing some upper body movements–some very strange, like rows with straps attached to my upper arms, or “reverse push-ups” off my elbows that are actual a lat/upper back movement. I do band work. I do anything my body can handle right now. To anyone who takes some sort of triumph in my obstacle, it is a sad person indeed who feels victory only when the opponent is handicapped. To anyone who feels pity: I don’t want it, it is useless to me, you can keep it. Save your pity for people who cannot rise when they are knocked down. Save your pity for people who quit when they are faced with walls instead of scaling them. When I say that I will stop my pursuit of this when a gun is leveled at my head and fired, I mean it. I’m not going to stop. Watch. 

For the not faint-of-heart, here’s video: