Musculoskeletal Dysfunction and the Struggle for Freedom

Life is a constant struggle for freedom. The thought of forging a path from the unbearable present to a future with more freedom seems to make life more meaningful. The meaning seems to lie in the struggle, rather than arriving at the destination. The more difficult and arduous the struggle, the more meaning is created.

Of the many times I’ve struggled for freedom in my life, one in particular stands out. During all of 2014 and 2015, my back hurt so badly that I was unable to do many of the activities I’d previously enjoyed. After a particularly painful incident, my back had deteriorated so much that even sitting in my car seat was agony, so I had to stop driving for over two years so I could fix myself. 

I remember one particular time when I was stretching out in the grass, wondering how my muscles could have become so tight. The muscles in my spine, legs, shoulders, hips, knees, neck, and virtually every other part of my body were as tight as guitar strings. Rather than enabling me, my muscles had become a prison. In order to realize the future I’d envisioned, which was full of physical activity, travel, and fun, I needed to fight against the tightness that had accumulated in my muscles and regain the mobility and freedom I’d lost. Nothing motivates me quite as much as striving to regain lost freedom. 

As John Vervaeke puts it when explaining Epicureanism, the fear of death is really a fear of loss of one’s agency, which also manifests as a fear of aging. At 25, I felt as though I were already aging and falling apart. Given my youth, my apparent aging could not have been from actual senescence, so I figured I must have done something actively to contribute to the aging process, accelerating the breakdown of my body way beyond what would have been normal for someone my age. Interestingly, this actually gave me hope that I’d be able to reverse the damage, since the damage had been of my own making rather than the effect of some natural aging process. So I began to try everything I could think of to stretch out my muscles and reduce my discomfort. 

The first thing I tried, in early 2014, was going to the doctor’s office. They gave me some scans, which indicated bulging discs in my spine, but luckily none had ruptured. This was helpful, as now I could scour the Internet for ideas on reversing such pathology. The doctors also gave me steroid injections, which were not helpful at all except to help me determine which nerves were the most severely inflamed (in my case, L4-L5 and L5-S1). The most helpful thing the doctors did was to give me a book entitled “Treat Your Own Back” which has some stretches which, if performed regularly, relieve pressure on the spine, eventually promising a restoration of all lost function. The book also recommended that I buy a cushion for my spine and wear it whenever I needed to sit, which probably made me look like a crazy person for the next few months, but it helped me attend activities I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to. I eventually realized that looking crazy is way preferable to staying broken, and it stopped bothering me.

Over the next few months as I performed the stretches indicated in the book, my back’s pain slowly reduced as I learned to identify “good” pain – a sort of super-intense warmth that indicates you’re stretching in a way your body likes. This was how I first gained the ability to listen to my body, a skill that seems to provide limitless benefits the more I practice it. I’d essentially ignored my body before this experience, because my focus was always on my computer screen as I sat at my desk and worked. My body seemed happy that I was finally paying attention to it, because it responded positively the more I worked at understanding what it was trying to tell me.

The doctors I went to also prescribed muscle relaxers and recommended physical therapy, which I attended for a few months. Both the drugs and the physical therapy were helpful, not so much because they worked, but because they taught me useful information that I used to continue my struggle for mobility. 

The muscle relaxers taught me that there are certain chemicals that can make your muscles looser, so I started experimenting with different substances to see which ones made my muscles tighter and which ones made them looser. I quickly realized that CNS stimulants such as caffeine made my muscles extremely tight, while cannabis relaxed my muscles and made them much easier to stretch out. I also realized that my diet played a large role in the state of my muscles, and it took me the better part of the next 3 years to find ways I could alter my food intake such that my muscles would relax rather than tense up. I eventually discovered that fasting (that is, not eating at all) is one of the most effective ways to loosen up my muscles.

The physical therapy was also informative. I realized that certain movements would temporarily draw blood into the injured muscles, which paradoxically helped them to relax and heal. I also learned which movements not to do. I eventually quit physical therapy once I realized I wasn’t improving anymore, but still had substantial discomfort.

Besides going to the doctor, I also tried going to chiropractors and massage therapists. By trying different professionals, I was able to absorb the relevant knowledge from each one and use what I’d learned to alter my behavior in beneficial ways. I learned that when a chiropractor cracks your back, it feels great in the short term but doesn’t really fix you in the long term unless you change how you move in your everyday life. I also learned that massage therapy is amazingly helpful, and I learned that I could essentially perform massage therapy on myself after my therapist gave me a tennis ball that I could roll around on. To this day I have a collection of objects that I roll around on, and this remains one of the most effective methods I know of to reduce pain and increase mobility.

After learning a good deal of effective knowledge and practices, I realized that I still didn’t have enough time in the day to reverse all of the pain and damage I accrued while sitting at my desk for 8 hours a day. So, in May of 2015, I quit my corporate desk job and tried working for a couple of different startups that allowed me to work however I wanted. But still I kept deteriorating, and eventually in February of 2016 I suffered a mental breakdown wherein my brain absolutely refused to do any more work. My body’s deterioration had spread to my brain. At that point I quit my job to focus on fixing myself, because there was nothing else I could do. I worried that if I kept worsening, at best I’d never be able to work again, and at worst I’d be broke or dead by the age of 30. 

Once I stopped working and allowed myself to relax for large stretches of time, my condition stabilized. I was thrilled that I was no longer getting worse, but now I had to figure out how to regain the function I’d lost.

I began to practice yoga, which seemed like the next logical step after the stretches I’d learned from the book the doctors had given me. Since I now knew how to listen to my body, the yoga would be much more effective than if I were doing it in my previous state of ignorance. I also started walking everywhere in barefoot shoes, which seemed to strengthen the muscles in my feet and ankles and made walking feel much more natural and comfortable once I became accustomed to the new style of walking that my barefoot shoes forced me to adopt. Eventually I started to run barefoot (which is surprisingly fun) once my spine could withstand the impact without too much pain. Over the next few months I improved slowly as I exercised and experimented with my diet. Eventually I went for a 3-week water fast, after which I started to improve much more rapidly.

In late 2016 I started deadlifting again very lightly, and in March of 2017 I started attending Crossfit classes again (after having quit in February of 2014 from my back injury). I told myself that this time, I would be much more careful about my form and about how hard I drove myself. I now knew how to rest properly, and I knew how to reverse minor injuries if I needed to. After a few months, I was able to deadlift the same weight that had been my previous maximum before quitting. I was back, but this time I had a foundation of experience that would enable me to work out better than ever while avoiding injury.

In September of 2017, I decided to move to Mexico because I knew my future lay abroad, and I finally felt well enough to start traveling again.

It’s hard to put into words how much joy every moment now gives me, when I look back at how broken I used to be. I want to shout every day, so that everyone can hear, that, if you are broken, you absolutely can fix yourself, and you should, because it is worth every ounce of effort to try. There might be dark moments when you feel depressed – like you can’t go on anymore. But if you focus on the light at the end of the tunnel and strive to make every day just a little better than the last, eventually you will find your way out of the darkness. Even if every step causes you pain, listen to your intuition and aim for the “good pain”, which means you’re improving. Listen to your inner voice of hope, and have the determination to just keep taking the next step. Every improvement brings knowledge about how to improve faster the next time. When you finally step into the light, the light will be brighter and more glorious than ever, because now, not only do you know how to avoid the darkness, but you’re also no longer afraid of it because you know how to escape.