“Stress is simply a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium. In other words, it’s an omnipresent part of life. A stressful event can trigger the “fight-or-flight” response, causing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to surge through the body.” psychology.com
Stress is normal. Stress is a part of our life. Stress is REAL. And for many of us, stress can be detrimental to our health and our sanity. It can take over our lives, affecting us socially, emotionally, physically and mentally. I have definitely been stressed at various times in my life. First, I am a Type AAA (if that even exists). I am also a perfectionist. It takes me a long time to write a blog post because I overthink everything and never publish something unless it is absolutely perfect. ;( I wrote a blog post last year about confidence and perfection because it is something I have battled my whole life. I always want to do better, get straight A’s, get that pat on the back. I still do…but to a lesser degree these days. Turning 40 was the best thing that could have happened to me. I stopped giving a shit about what people thought of me and started to just be ME. 😉 I have often made myself stressed out for no real reason….I mean, if I am not stressed, what am I really doing? There have been three occasions in my life when I really thought I was going to lose my mind. The first occasion was my year of graduate school. The second time I thought I was going to lose it was the third year of five years at the dance studio when I was the school director. And the third occasion was in September of 2011 when my sister Charlotte was diagnosed with colon cancer, three months after I opened my gym, Fivex3 Training.
Fivex3 Training and Charlotte’s Diagnosis
In November of 2010, my husband and I attended the Starting Strength Seminar in New Jersey with the intention of getting certified as Starting Strength coaches. I was nervous but not panicked. I can’t even remember if Rip made the “You will not pass speech,” or not. If he had, I don’t think I ever would have gone through with the seminar. 😉 It was a great weekend. We passed our platform evaluation, were mailed our exams and passed. We were now certified SS coaches. At the same time, I had signed a lease for a 900 square foot space for one year, a space that was going to be my new gym. I was training well, happy to be embarking on a new journey, starting my own business, opening my doors in order to help others reach their potential. Diego and I spent the winter and spring getting the place ready for business. Every week, we would go to our respective jobs. Every weekend, we spent working on the gym. On June 23, 2011, I finally opened my doors to the public. I was a little lonely in the beginning. There were many, many days and nights when no one showed up for classes. I trained a lot and shot A LOT of video of myself. 😉 And then slowly, people started to come. Someone told someone else who told someone else and next thing I knew, I was actually coaching people. Three months later, on September 14, 2011, my sister Charlotte called me at home to tell me she had been diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer. Suddenly, all of our lives took a radical turn.
About three weeks later, Charlotte had surgery to remove the tumor. A month later, she started chemotherapy. Less than three weeks after starting chemo, Charlotte sang with her Klezmer band at the Creative Alliance for a Battle of the Bands Hanukkah concert. I was in awe. She was completely and utterly exhausted. But she kept on singing. No one even knew she had just had a recent chemo treatment. Those who were there just for the show had no idea she had cancer let alone was in treatment. She was that remarkable a performer. The second she got off the stage though, Charlotte collapsed. Sh had poured her heart and soul into her performance. I knew right then and there just how strong my sister was and that she was going to continue to live her life as “normally” as she possibly could. We would all learn to live our lives as “normally” as possible.
But she was sick. She was not well, no matter how you looked at it. And all of us felt the stress of her cancer differently. My mother wouldn’t eat. My father wouldn’t admit she was really sick. I continued to train but it was hard. I had also started dancing again during this time, but I was still trying to train the same way I had when I wasn’t dancing. It was too much. I never struck the right balance between my training and rehearsals/performances, and I ended up creating more issues with my back despite the fact that I had made such great strength gains. Up until Charlotte’s diagnosis, I was training injury free. I was getting stronger. My lifts were improving every day, and I was really feeling on top of the world with my new gym, my life, my family. Three weeks after Charlotte was diagnosed and right around the time of her surgery, my body started to fight me. I was rehearsing and performing during this time with the company and my body was feeling run down. I decided to take a month off from barbell training and turned my attention to my dancing and focused on other strength training methods. During a dance performance in October, I injured my left shoulder and could not get under the barbell to squat for almost three months. This injury has plagued me for five years. We bought a cambered bar so I could continue to train, but everytime I started to make some progress with my training, something else would go wrong. It was beginning to wear on me. My mother had stopped training because in her mind, if Charlotte couldn’t do it, why should she be able to? That would be too selfish of her. I continued so I could be there for Charlotte when she needed me. I continued because if I was not well, if I was not strong in mind and body, what good was I to her? I kept repeating this over and over again to my mother but to no avail.
After a long 9 months of treatments, Charlotte was finally in remission. From September 2012 through the Spring of 2013, she was living cancer free. In April of 2013, Charlotte joined the Cancer to 5K program through the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults. She was working very hard to gain weight, regain her strength and live life a little more “normal.” When she started the 5k program, she surprised herself with how much she enjoyed running and she quickly fell in love with it. She also discovered that she was really good at it. 😉 Running made her happy. She ran her first 5K, the Cancer to 5K Run in DC with Ulman in early June of 2013 and then ran her next one, the Baltimore Women’s Classic, with me the end of June. A week after her race, she got a call from her doctor about her latest scan. Her cancer was back. She was now diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. This time, however, there would be no surgery.
Cancer, Training and Pain
From this point on, Charlotte started to fight harder. She was pissed. She was sad. She was hurt, angry, scared. We all were. My thought was, “She will simply live with this the rest of her life. In remission. Then the cancer will come back. She will do more chemo. It will go away. Repeat.” But that’s not what happened. Charlotte started her treatments again the end of July 2013. They made her tired and sick. But she kept running. Earlier that year, in March, she had decided to register for the Ulman Cancer Fund Triathlon. She had volunteered at it the year before and told herself that the next year, she would be in it, not on the sidelines watching. I signed up with her. By June, even before she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, she knew that she had no time to train for a full triathlon. She decided she would just do the run and we asked a friend to do the swim part. Her husband would bike. I became Charlotte’s sherpa. When we looked at her chemo schedule in August, we realized that if all went according to plan, she was scheduled to have her long chemo treatment the week before the race. This did not deter her one bit. “I will walk the 6.5 miles if I have to,” she told me. She ended up running the entire thing, not stopping to walk once. This was my sister.
That was October 2013. Charlotte finished her chemo treatments by January of 2014 only to discover in the summer of 2014, that she needed more chemo. In August of 2014, she started her third round of chemo with the same drug she had taken during her first time in 2011. This time, however, she had an allergic reaction to the drug. That did it for her. She was done. She opted to take matters into her own hands. She was getting weaker. Her pain was getting worse. But she refused to have any scans, and she refused to see her doctor. By November 2014, I discovered some things about her own self diagnosis of her cancer and her self treatment protocols that made me very upset, confused and angry. I quickly became an emotional and physical wreck. Charlotte wanted so badly to cure herself that she was resorting to protocols that would never help her although she really wanted to believe that they would. My body started to break down even more. I was watching my sister fighting for her life as she was slowly dying. Her cancer was in her bones. It was everywhere but she did not know this until the end of December. And by this time, it was too late to do anything.
As the pain in her body increased, the pain in my body increased. I was so angry at those individuals who had fed my sister lies about her cancer, who took her money and gave her false hopes. My sister, so alive and full of optimism, could now barely walk down her upstairs hallway to the bathroom. Eventually, she needed a walker to help her. And then one day, even the walk down the hall became too much. As her body slowly deteriorated, so did mine. Every day, I still went to the gym, to coach, to train, knowing that in order for me to be able to care for her, I HAD to care for myself. We often forget this when we see someone in pain. We think, how can I be so selfish? How can I take care of myself when this person needs me? But that is the whole point. She DID need me. And she needed me healthy because she wasn’t. So, I did what I could. I trained the best I could. And everything hurt. Every time. Every day. I trained through pain. I trained through A LOT of pain. Eventually, I had to stop squatting. And deadlifting. My program became a mishmash of stuff, whatever I could do that day I did. My body hurt to such a point that although moving made it better, it also made it worse. I had no idea what was going to happen to any of us.
On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2014, Charlotte’s doctor called her. She had weeks left to live. About four days later, Charlotte ended up in the hospital. After a week at Hopkins, she returned home under home hospice care. She was home for about three weeks. On Saturday, January 30, 2015, I got a call from my brother in law at 5:30am saying that he needed us to come to the house to stay with the kids because he was taking Charlotte to Gilchrist Hospice. This was the phone call I had been dreading. “She isn’t coming home,” I told Diego as we got dressed. And she didn’t. Charlotte was a Gilchrist for about two weeks. The day before she died, I went to the gym to train. I started foam rolling but the pain in my body was so unbearable that I just lay there on the floor and cried. I could do nothing. I finally got up off the floor and got on the stationary bike and biked. I had to move my body some way. But I hurt. That night, all of us, my family, her husband, Diego, were up at Gilchrist sitting with Charlotte. I was lying outside in the hallway of her room, unable to move. Every bone in my body ached. Every muscle ached. I was crying. We were all crying. I had never felt such pain and suffering as I did that night.
Charlotte died the next morning on Wednesday, February 11, 2015.
The day my sister died, a big part of me died that day too. My other half. My “twin.” My best friend. My worst nightmare. What would I do without her? My body started to relax and tried to befriend me again. And it almost did. Until the end of April of 2015. That was the week we discovered that my brother-in-law was dating another woman. At this time, my niece, Eleanor was 4 years old and my nephew Jack was 7. Eleanor still thought Charlotte was still in the hospital two months after she died. Jack understood that momma was never coming home again but he still was confused. My brother-in-law seemed concerned about only one person. Himself. We were stunned. We were hurt. And we were very angry. I stopped talking to him in June 2015. I was still able to see my niece and nephew thanks to my mom who did her best to get them whenever she could. I could not even bring myself to email him or text message him. I had started seeing my therapist again in December of 2014, two months before Charlotte died. I have continued with her during the past year to deal with my anger and frustration towards my brother-in-law. It was a long year. And during this time, my body continued to fight me. I tried to get it to work but everytime, it disappointed me again and again. Physically, there are issues that have been there from dance….but my body has just not felt right since she was diagnosed in 2011. And then with her death coupled with our new “reality”, I just started to give up. I wanted so badly to feel better again, but nothing I seemed to do allowed me to get back on track.
In January 2016, almost a year after my sister had died, I finally decided that I would contact my brother in law, in directly, through my husband. This was the first step to healing myself. It didn’t work. He wanted ME to contact him directly. But I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready. I was still angry and as much as I wanted to see my niece and nephew, I just could not bring myself to contact email him or text him. February came and the one year anniversary of her death hit us hard. Very hard. But we pulled through. March rolled around. One day, I tried to squat, to an 18″ box. Pain shot through me. I was so done and I threw my hands up. Nothing was ever going to feel right again. I got the flu and took a whole week off from training. Once I was better, I asked Diego to write a new program for me. “I am done trying to coach myself,” I said. “I need you to tell me what to do and what not to do. I keep hurting myself and I am tired of hurting.” He laid out a simple program that included squatting and deadlifting. “Just see what you can do and don’t do anything that hurts,” he told me. A week later, I was volunteering at Jack and El’s school in the lunchroom when Jack asked me if they could have a sleepover at my house that weekend. It was the first time that he had asked me directly about staying at my house since the summer of 2015. Then he said,”Can you ask daddy? Ask daddy if we can stay at your house. Please.” And that was it. “Yes,” I told him. “Yes, I will ask your father if you can stay over.” I then realized what I had to do. The next day, I emailed my brother-in-law to see if the kids could spend the night that weekend. Just like that. No drama. Nothing long. Direct and to the point. When he finally responded, it was a huge relief. Nothing about why we have not spoken in a year. Nothing about the “situation.” Because I did not make it about the “situation.” It wasn’t about us. It was about the children. Charlotte’s children. It was about Jack and Eleanor. Period.
A week later, I trained. It was Tuesday which meant it was my squat day. No pain. Another week passed. No pain. I was now squatting and deadlifting every week. And without pain. My numbers were going up. I was feeling mentally and physically strong again. When I reached 135lbs with my squat, I asked Diego if I could go up. “Any pain?” he asked. “No,” I responded, honestly. “Then go ahead.” And I did. 135 became 140. Soon it was 145. Then 155. Two weeks ago, I finally squatted 185lbs. Three months ago, I could not do a bodyweight squat to an 18″ box without pain. The last time I had this much weight on my back was in 2014. And I hurt. This time, there was no pain. And there has been no pain since the day I finally let go of my stress. I let go of my anger. I let go of my hatred. I let go of my selfishness, and I realized who was most important to me. Jack and Eleanor.
For 4.5 years, I trained through pain. At times, I could tolerate it. Other times, I had to stop. This year, although it was stressful in the beginning, has been the best year so far for me training wise. I am slowly beginning to make progress again and once I let the last piece of the puzzle go, everything fell into place. I am training smarter, doing less which is helping me make MORE gains and getting stronger. I keep things very, very, very simple and I am happy, happier than I have been in a long time. I don’t worry. I don’t worry about what is beyond my control. I only concern myself with what I can control. I focus on my clients. I spend time with my husband. I spend time with Jack and Eleanor every chance I get, whether they are at my mom’s or with me. They are now the reason I am living a more stress free life. They are Charlotte.
Stress is real. Stress hurts. But you can help yourself. Think about what is important to you. Think about whom you love, who loves you. Think about what you want out of life. We are not perfect and life is hard. But it doesn’t have to be hard all the time. 😉