I'll level with you articles that claim to have a universal checklist, especially for something as personal as "recovery", inevitably miss the fundamental truth that we are all different and respond at different rates and in different ways to the same stimulus. I will share here how, when paralysed with an auto immune condition at 23 I managed to move move my legs when I couldn't move my legs, how I started, (in hindsight), the mammoth journey of going from a paraplegic to a half marathon runner with no long distance training and crucially I didn't seem to let the enormity of that be a part of the journey. Not feeling swamped and actually wanting to keep going each day.
Your journey will be different, I share mine in the hope that it will be interesting, perhaps entertaining and maybe even spark something of benefit to you.
How did I keep going, past mental and physical fatigue, constant set backs and reach a point where I'm wilfully running 14 + miles without collapsing at the end. In short:
- I didn't know how long it would take.
- It was, (and is), 99% bull-headedness and 1% physical.
In hindsight both are and continue to be immensely beneficial tools. The ancient Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, Lao-Tzu, (500BC), said the immortal words we have all heard; "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." It has been constantly repurposed and regurgitated since then and continues to be a source of strength. Alcoholics Anonymous quoth; "One day at a time". All variations on the same message encourage us to live in the present, not think about tomorrow, just do something right now, whatever you can, no matter how small, in pursuit of your goal. Start in the direction of your aim and don't stop starting. Every moment is just a start. You are not trying to run 5 miles. You are running one step and you keep just running one step until you stop... 5 miles later.
It sounds painfully simple but I was lucky enough at the start of my journey in 2013 to be in a position where projecting what I would be like in a week or a year wasn't just pointless it was impossible. There was no linear path to recovery from the condition I found myself with, I couldn't know what would happen that afternoon let alone tomorrow. So it became instantly redundant to even think it. Anything the doctors or those around me told me was a best guess and not reality. So I decided there and then I was going to come up with what I wanted and then start doing it. No one had a crystal ball, why not me. It was my life after all, my recovery.
I reached into my mind and what came back was; "I don't want to recover. I want to be the fittest and healthiest I have ever been in my life... Before or since the paralysis." I knew, because of my specific condition, I was the only one who could influence and decide my fate, so I was going to achieve what I actually wanted without compromise. What I didn't know at the time is we are always the arbiter of our fate. Regardless of prognosis or condition, we always have the ability to decide to be or do something. At least to try. That mindset for me became incredibly powerful. Quiet by chance I had been left in a situation where all I could have for my long term recovery was my own conviction and my own goal. I didn't know it but I had stumbled upon an attitude that would make everything possible. Something you hear about at lot in the Wim Hof Method... a challenge mindset.
So I set about every day doing the next thing I couldn't do, I figured that would give me a constant goal and clear progress. This fit my main goal but also gave me the ability to constantly change my daily application of that goal in response to the situation and level of recovery I found myself in. I wouldn't be left thinking, "oh I did that so what do I do now?". I was always aiming to master the next thing I couldn't do. When I couldn't sit I would try to sit. When I could sit I would try to stand, etc etc.
In my personal life I had always leaned into the feeling that "manifestation" was real. That if you were to put out into the world what you wanted to achieve, (be that a job or a goal or even on a cellular level in your own body), just by saying it to someone or writing it down and then setting about achieving it, it would massively increase the chances of that eventually happening. By chance it was a notion that the world of science seemed to be slowly agreeing with too. Even UK TV had started showing the effects of what they and many still call, "placebo", the power of your mind to alter your reality, health and happiness. They broadcast a special from UK illusionist, Derren Brown, in which he took people with hay-fever into a fake clinical trial, telling them they were to take a new drug that cured hay-fever and watched as their life long symptoms vanished, for good. All because they believed that the sugar pill they were taking was curative.
These stories of placebo were nestled deep in my conscious mind. However it wasn't a "placebo" doing this to them. Their own minds were changing their cellular reality.
I decided that placebo was "conscious intention", manifestation by a different name, and I never looked back. It fitted my goals and beliefs so perfectly I'd wager conscious intention became a core tenant of my personality.
(I since discovered more research in the Wim Hof Method eluding at the power of your mind to control your body on a cellular level along with other previously thought autonomic systems. "Wayne State University" did a study on Wim Hof proving how he could influence his internal systems in order to maintain his body heat with only his mind, his conscious intention. No exercises. Just thinking and telling your body what you want it to do).
I was very lucky in that I had the perfect storm of circumstance to cultivate that willpower mindset. It seemed to me a glaringly obvious truth I had until now, somehow, overlooked.
Great. So you have that, but what now?
Take a step...
Has your leg ever gone dead and without knowing it? Have you stood up only to fall straight back down again? That was where I was at in this moment in my story. Let me explain.
I'd been in various hospitals fighting my bodily paralysis for over a month but as I sat there a strange feeling fell over my face like butter melting in a pan. I felt my face drop. In seconds. What had happened was the muscles on my left side of my face had become paralysed with facial palsy. My face had joined my body. This can happen with my condition but at the time it wasn't even on my radar of possibility. It threw an immediate spanner in the works of my self imposed recovery.
I felt it happen, I couldn't stop it and now it was gone. I had the profound sense that I was at rock bottom. I felt helpless. It doesn't seem like the start of a rousing mental journey leading to taking my first step to recovery but it was. In that moment all I could think is i needed to be alone and I need to shower. So I wheeled myself to the hospital bathroom and manoeuvred myself into the disabled seat beneath the shower head.
I knew intellectually that my eye lid was now paralysed but my body hadn't processed that the reflexive action of closing your eyes before water pours into them would also be gone. So as I turned on the tap and looked up as litres of water gushed into my open left eye. I quickly recoiled, my eye stinging. It was then I broke down. Crying alone in the hospital shower. I'd tried over the last month to keep going, to move as best I could and push through this thing but now, faced with the "loss" of my face as I saw it, I finally felt defeated.
I'd love to claim that it was my deep knowledge of Lao-Tzu that told me in that moment to "take a step". But it was much more millennial than that. It was Jack and Kate from ABC show "Lost". Good "Lost" before season 4. The "Lost" that had you coming back every week. The paradigm shifting piece of television that got the world talking. Before it got the world annoyed and lamenting.
There is a moment in the pilot of that show where Jack, the commanding and brilliant surgeon's 747 flight crash lands on an uninhabited island. The many survivors are in chaos. He tends to the wounded and tries to make sense of the madness. Every inch the hero. Amidst the furore he sequesters himself into the bushes. He too is injured! He has taken a sizeable piece of airplane fuselage to the gut and requires stitches. He has a needle and thread but cannot reach the area to sow it up. He needs help. In steps Kate, the brilliant and cunning enigma. She is confident and has something to hide but she is no surgeon. In this moment she wants to help but she has never done anything like this and is so scared of doing something wrong that she can't do it at all. She is paralysed by her own brain, her fear. As we all are at some point, most often before stepping into an ice bath!
Seeing this Jack tells her a story about his own fear. About his first spinal surgery, where during the operation he accidentally cut a crucial sack in the patients back that would soon kill them if not fixed. He tells her how he was overcome with fear, paralysed by it. Then he tells her how he gave himself five seconds. He said to himself; "you can be scared, terrified, for five seconds". After those five seconds are up you are going to stitch this sack up, save the patients life and finish the surgery. And that's what he did. Roused by the speech Kate does the same.
That is the story that came to me. That is what roused me to action. Our bodies have our survival at their core. If you face fear and choose to step forwards incredible things can happen.
For me Jack spoke to Kate. Except it wasn't Kate it was me and I was Jack too. I had seen someone else look at the impossible and do it! I had seem someone step past fear and save a life. Even before I had heard about Wim Hof and the Wim Hof Method that espouses this and proves it through science, I knew in that moment it was possible. Kate sowed him up and he ultimately led the survivors through 5 confusing seasons of partly seminal TV.
I think it was the complete lack of options that made adopting "Lost" such a clear choice for me in that moment. I gave myself 5 seconds, I cried, then I stopped and took my first step. I reached up, held my eyelid shut and showered.
That shower cleaned more than just my skin. I made my way back to the ward anew. I knew then that was my 5 seconds over, my crying was done. I had given it its time and now there was action to take. I had things to do. I had sown myself up and I was ready for episode 2... with John Locke and his big bag of knives...(if you haven't seen it already I'd recommend the first three seasons of lost!).
The mind is a crazy thing. I had my conviction, forged in fire. I was in the present, taking one step at a time. Now I just had to keep taking those steps.
But what were those steps? What could I do when nothing was known and everything was possible? As we touched on earlier I did the next thing I couldn't do. It seemed obvious to me. If you cannot move you try to move your toe. Once you can move your toe you try and move your foot, once you can move your foot you try and move your leg. Once you can do that you try to sit up, then you try to stand, then walk, then run. Once you get to the point of running being sure to remember to learn how to stop first, (Something I forgot, with hilarious results).
Every day I did whatever was at the limit of my ability until I could do it. Then I had a new limit and did the next thing. That was enough for the immediate. Once I went down that road for years I had to factor in mental as well as physical obstacles, such as fatigue, rest and slower recovery but for now I was off.
Not much has changed since then. I keep doing the thing I cannot do until I can do it. I now also factor in what I want into that equation. For example I'm pretty sure I cannot jump from the high dive and do a perfect double tuck but that is barely useful in my everyday life as a writer so I let it slide. You will have your own hierarchy of importance. Perhaps it's pick up your child? Or walk around the block? Or simply do two things in a day as was my goal for the first couple of years. My goal now is still the same and it's a bloody good one, "Be the healthiest and happiest I have ever been". I have grown a lot since I set it and it means something different to me as each day passes, as new things fold in and out of it but it doesn't matter because I am only focused on today and I am only doing what I can't do today. One step at a time.
Once I started doing things, doing them became the purpose. The cataloguing a recovery and measuring my progress faded away into insignificance. I'd conditioned myself, quite by accident, to follow an ancient teaching I'd never been able to consciously adopt; "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step". Each day, each step was good enough. Fun even! And If I didn't do it that day it didn't matter because my goal was to try and do it and I had done just that. There would be time to try again tomorrow.