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On Being A Beginner. Again…

June 7, 2019

It’s been eight months since I got a concussion.

I don’t think the concussion itself was particularly “bad” (aka I wasn’t in some crazy high-impact accident), but the way I hit my head kinked my neck and apparently that’s to blame for the headaches I’ve had since.

Physio helped, but for the first three months I couldn’t work (looking at a screen while thinking thoughts was not happening) and I couldn’t exercise (too much bloodflow to my head was… bad. It felt… very very bad).

Before the concussion I was working out and lifting weights pretty regularly. It was an integral part of my mental health survival kit (read: it kept me sane). I had started weightlifting a few years ago, mostly in an effort to prove to myself that I could, and I grew to love it. Getting in my body in that way and learning how to listen to it helped me so much in my trauma recovery. I loved seeing how capable I was. I loved seeing the progression week over week.

Those daily reminders in the gym that “you can do hard things” laid the foundation for me to believe that I could do hard things outside of those walls, too. I started showing up differently at work and in my social life. I started showing up differently for myself. I didn’t have to throw a barbell over my head too many times to realize that the way I spoke to myself at the bar was a lot like how I spoke to myself outside of the gym. You get intentional about shifting the former and the latter follows, you know?

I digress (what else is new…). All to say that not being able to work out was hard. When you’re going through something emotionally challenging like recovering from a concussion (throw in a break-up and a few other challenging life bits) you crave the things that keep you sane. After three months I was able to start some very light workouts, and another month after that I was able to start lifting weights. But like, very light weights in very small sets for very short periods of time. But… it was something!

Sometimes I was able to do that two or three times a week, but often only once a week or not at all. Either I’d have a terrible week with headaches and have to reserve the limited good hours for work, or I’d feel OK but 10 minutes into the gym feel like I was going to pass out and have to stop.

Concussion recovery is weird. It’s not predictable and in my experince, it’s not gradual. It’s more like a staircase. You experience a sudden leap in improvement and then you level out for a while. Maybe another leap forwards, sometimes a step backwards, and on and on and on. None of it makes sense so I’m done trying to make sense of it. I’m just thankful for the leaps forward whenever they do come.

And speaking of! I had a big one recently. I don’t know what happened but eight months on and I feel like my body is ready to get back into weightlifting for real. That you-may-or-may-not-pass-out-so-be-extra-careful-Kate ceiling has lifted.

Which feels GREAT. But now I’m faced with being a beginner again. And I hate it.

In the fall I was deadlifting 200+ pounds. Now I’m starting back at 50 or 60 or 70 and inching my way up. In the fall I had strong legs with muscles I could see and feel. Now they’re feeling skinner in some places and wobblier in others. I used to squat well over my body weight and now 50 pounds feels challenging etc etc you get the picture.

I’m pretty good at being a beginner for the first time. I like being the worst person in the room at something. Partly, yes, because I’m one of those annoying people who picks up new things pretty quickly, but also because I have no expecations on myself as a beginner. I have no context. Everything feels like a win because everything I do is something I couldn’t do previously. I don’t care that the person beside me is snatching 4x what I am. I care that yesterday I didn’t know was a snatch was and that today I’m doing it.

When I’m a beginner for the second time, however, I have a yardstick to hold myself up against. I remember that I used to be able to lift more, or with better form, or more easily. I remember what it felt and looked like to have biceps. I compare myself up to the person I was, and rather than take solice in the fact that I have proof that I can do this thing, I get frustrated at having to go through this part of the learning curve again.

This is actually where being a beginner is hardest for me. When it’s the second time around. And I get the, “But you’re not really a beginner even though you feel like it! You’ve done this before and you have a foundation to build off of and this journey will be different from the last one etc etc.” sentiment but it’s not how I’m feeling just now.

I know I’m like this across the board that is my life when it comes to being a second time beginner at something, but with this it’s particularly noticeable and extra frustrating. I suppose because I can literally, physically…. notice it?

Anways, it’s proving to be a very good reminder that how I talk to myself in these moments matters. That your metrics of success matter. That I can do hard things. And that I can do hard things again, too.


A scene from my condo gym, which only has these fixed weight barbells that drive me nutso. Alas….

The song I was listening while writing this: Pink & Blue by Tycho, Saint Sinner.

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