Wellbeing

Recovery from Injury & Mental Health

Alexis Rufus - May.14.21

At Reflex Nutrition, we value mental health just as much as physical health. We've been chatting to our PTs, influencers, colleagues, friends and family to get some real life stories and break down the stigma attached to mental health!

We wanted to share them for Mental Health Awareness Week in the hope of starting a conversation, breaking down barriers and coming together as a community to support each other.  Here's Alexis, a Reflex Ambassador, with her story: 

Like many people, I have been suffering with lower back pain for many years. I always put it down to the amount of vigorous training I do, my history with full contact sports and my love for competing in CrossFit. We were taught in Thai Boxing (the art of eight limbs), that if you injure one you still have seven left to fight with, so you just get on with the job.

 Alexis

Taking this philosophy into CrossFit, I just saw back pain as something I could live with and manage. It wasn’t until early last year that the dull aches I had been experiencing were turning into searing, stabbing pains that would literally stop me from moving some days. It became apparent at the end of the Summer 2020 that something was seriously wrong, when my osteo discovered what he described as a hole in my lumbar spine. I went to get my spine scanned, and soon after I was diagnosed with grade 2/3 Spondylolisthesis and severe Stenosis. In layman’s terms, my spine had fractured many years ago and over time my vertebrae had slipped off its shelf after the disc had completely worn away, and it was now pressing into my spinal canal.

The immense pain I had been experiencing now had a name. After meeting with several different surgeons, I was left with a very tough decision. Live with the pain and manage my life around it, or have surgery to fix it. I knew I was not done with competing or my active lifestyle just yet, so the surgery seemed to be the only option. So in January this year, I had an anterior L4/L5 discectomy and cage reconstruction, where my surgeon removed the waste disc material and created height before inserting a metal cage. This was done through an incision in my stomach. Four days later I had large screws fitted to secure the height through my back. The whole process is known as a spinal fusion. Recovery time, minimum 6-12 months.

 

I was in hospital for a week. I was allowed to walk virtually straight away but I had to exercise great caution. There were many things I was not allowed to do (and am still not allowed to do), like bending forward, picking up anything heavier than 7kg, twisting or arching the spine. I was on large doses of extremely strong pain killers for about a fortnight after surgery. Once I stopped taking the painkillers and was feeling slightly more free to move around, that’s when things started to take a turn for me.

Postoperative depression isn’t something that was discussed much during my consultations pre- and post-surgery. Focus was very much on the physical and managing day to day tasks. I was starting to feel what I can only describe as a sense of loss, but I couldn’t quite understand it...Surely I should have been feeling ‘fixed’ and put back together, on the path to a better pain free life, but all I felt was like something had died inside me.

I have been terrified about talking about these things to many people because I feel embarrassed about it. I feel like I should not be wallowing in these thoughts because I have been given such a fortunate opportunity to make my life better.

But the more I supressed these thoughts and feelings, the worse I felt. The thing is, I have always been very good at planning – planning my training regime, planning my nutrition, planning my work schedule, managing my time efficiently.

I was a PA for many years before I moved into the fitness industry and I am extremely good at organising things. So when I discovered my back injury, I got so wrapped up in planning the whole process – from my surgery to my physio afterwards, to my nutrition and my own training I was allowed to do whilst in recovery, my job as gym manager and coach - that I neglected the trauma that my body was going through. The thing that caused all of this was actually well out of my control. I may have chosen to have surgery, (as hard as that decision was, I did make peace with it), but the root cause of it I had zero control over. 

I have no idea how I managed to fracture my spine all those years ago, why I was the one whose disc wore away so badly. Why me? I just could not find the answers to those questions, so I tried to ignore them. This then created so much pent-up anger and upset inside me that it would come out in different ways – isolation and lack of sleep, emotional eating, and even thoughts of self-harm. I was turning to coping mechanisms that I had used in my past. After all, we will always naturally go into survival mode in times like this, use things we know have worked for us before.

I started to delve a little deeper into what I was actually going through. I was hesitant to label it as depression, but it seemed the only way to describe what it was. On the outside I appeared quite fit and able, you would see me walking around quite freely, often with a smile on my face. I have mastered the art of putting on a brave face and appearing very together when I need to be, but inside cracks started to appear. Mental struggles manifest in people in so many different ways. There is no “one size fits all”, no rules or guidelines that you follow. It’s like web of feelings and emotions that have no rhyme or reason to them.

In 2019 I went to the CrossFit Games and finished in 5th place. I was the 5th fittest 40-year-old in the world that year (according to CrossFit). It had been a dream of mine for many years, a lot of time, energy and dedication had gone into achieving that goal. I was extremely proud – proud of my achievement, proud of who I had become and proud of how I could inspire people. I knew who I was that year. But back surgery seemed to change that – it changed my dreams, forced me down a different path. It changed my life in so many ways and I really struggled to know who I was becoming. I thought I would be returning to the Games, continuing down that path of being extremely fit and achieving success in my chosen sport. I was a successful coach, helping and inspiring people, I sat well in that role. But now I feel a little lost. I hate my body and I hate that I can’t do what I used to do with it. I have relied on it for so long to be strong and able. It felt like my retirement as an athlete had come early and I just had not been ready for it.

I have three months left before my surgeon will hopefully ‘sign me off’ to continue my life as it was before, however no one actually knows if I will go back to what I was able to do. My spine at the point of fusion is now stronger than it ever was, but the areas around it will most likely become weaker over time as they take the brunt of things. This is a world I have not known before and one I am trying to navigate.

Personally, I have beaten Anorexia, won five World titles in Thai Boxing, lost my father to cancer, become the 5th fittest in the world in my age group. I am now living with back surgery, I have a titanium spine and I am facing a new path ahead of me.

Talking about mental health is often very hard for us. We convince ourselves to be tough and strong and cope with hardships – that doing so makes us better people. We scan social media, seeing images of people who project the shiniest and happiest versions of themselves and convince ourselves that’s how we should be living our lives too. But this really is a jaded version of reality.

No one has such happy lives without the hardships that we all experience, whatever form they may take for us. You can’t have the good without the bad, one just doesn’t exist without the other. We are often our own worst critics, the discussions we have in our own heads are often very extreme. I talk to myself in such a terrible way – I would never speak to a friend the way I talk to myself sometimes.

As a result, we dig ourselves further into a pit that we cannot get out of alone. I speak to a therapist once a month who helps me unravel the mess I get my head into. She helps me bring these feelings to the surface and talk them through so I can try to make peace with them. I didn’t write this blog so that anyone would take pity or feel sorry for me, I wrote this blog in order to share what I am going through, in hope that it may reach someone somewhere who can relate to this.

I believe this is the only way we can deal with mental health issues. Sharing experiences, talking and helping one another. Because in a world of about 7.8 billion people, I know how alone some of you feel. This is my story so far... 

Thanks to Alexis for sharing her story! If you'd like to hear more from her you can follow her on Instagram. 
Whether you're concerned about yourself, a loved one or one of your clients - There are mental health charities, organisations and support groups can offer expert advice! More information here.

 

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