True Grit: Discovering Your Strength Within and Without

What was responsible for my “miraculous” awakening and the level of my recovery? We can quickly chuck the God “theory” into the garbage pit in which it belongs. Physical strength will be laughed at by anyone who knows the pencil-armed couch potato I was at the time of my coma. Luck had huge role to play. Yet for anyone trying to find ways increase their chances of recovery it’s difficult to obtain. What we’re left with is perseverance, what psychologists often term grit.

It took a coma and some strangers to show me the grit and determination that lay within me. You have it in you, too.
Via Keith Onstad.

After my awakening my friends kept telling me that my awakening was due to my strength. Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone weaker than the 90 pound weakling I was at the time of my coma and strokes. (Though I’ve always been skinny, I had lost a lot of weight due to my dermatomyositis.)

This absurd contention continues comes up even to this day.

Though I had nothing to do with my awakening, nor the basic level of admittedly remarkable recovery, I can fully own my recovery after that. It’s been hard work. I accomplished it with much help, but it still required massive heapings of grit and inner resolve.

Screenshot of Kate Allatt.
Screenshot of Kate Allatt.

Like me, Kate Allatt nabbed the Golden Ticket of full recovery against all odds. She, however, attributes her recovery from locked-in syndrome to her extreme fitness as a rabidly avid runner. That may have contributed, but remember, I was a complete slug before my coma.

Kate also credits her anger at being told she couldn’t do this and would never do that. She eventually regained movement in those toes thanks to her extraordinary perseverance. As Kate says in her involving and often funny memoir, Running Free: Breaking Out from Locked-in Syndrome, she used to lie in bed and stare at her big left toe. Willing it to move, she thought, “Bloody move, dammit. Just move.”

Weeks passed as she did this repeatedly. Then, one day, she felt the tiniest of flickers. When she tried again, nothing happened, so she assume she had imagined it. She tried it again 10 minutes later and the toe flickered again.

It was like all my Christmases had come at once.

I agree that negativity — and the motivating anger it generated — probably did play a big role in Kate’s recovery. Still, I think it’s what underlies this fire that was the true animating spirit of her unlikely recovery.

In short, Kate has true grit.

Perseverance, made her continue an activity that could’ve been considered an act of insanity for weeks on end…with the same result every time. Until “all her Christmases came at once.”

At every stage, she proved the naysayers wrong. I think Kate and I share a quality I like to term…stubbornness. In this context, stubbornness is another word for determination. And yet another form of grit.

I didn’t have doctors and other medical personnel telling me I would never walk, talk, or care for myself as Kate did. The naysaying stopped at my awakening. Then again, I wasn’t paralyzed from head to toe, with only control of my eyes.

It took a coma and some strangers to show me the grit and determination that lay within me. You have it in you, too.
Walking a few steps before resting in my wheelchair on our very first rehab walk, in a wildlife reserve we now hike. Via Keith Onstad.

Oh, I couldn’t walk, don’t get me wrong. But my doctors thought — with enough physical therapy and determination — I would one day regain the ped in biped. And, of course, I eventually did.

Yet it was an arduous road along the way. And my stubbornness, I mean, determination drove me to regain the last remaining physical deficits.

Balance exercises helped goose my brain to rewire the broken circuits of its balance centers. My personal rehab program also entailed spinning six days a week. On the seventh day, instead of resting, we hike.

Hiking has been good for my strength, endurance, and balance, not to mention the mood-elevating effects of being in natureUsually.

Last Sunday started off sad and somber, after we witnessed a young cat struck and immobile — but not yet dead — on the freeway. There was nothing we could do. I sobbed and afterward, this cat lover couldn’t get the image out of her mind.

Naturally, it was upsetting for Keith, as well. He wished he had the presence of mind to have run over the poor cat to end its suffering quickly. It didn’t help that we drove past fire-scarred hillsides that had been verdant on our last visit to Descanso Gardens.

Death, suffering, and destruction. Have a fun hike!

Grit: Giving Defeatism the Boot

Now that the cam boot for my broken left foot is finally off, we’re getting back to rougher hikes. My pulmonologist said that many people would’ve used the boot as an excuse to slack off. But I wasn’t about to let a broken foot set back my recovery.

This boot really wasn't made for hiking,
This cam boot really wasn’t made for hiking,

My recovery-related anger has always been directed not at people, but my physical impediments.

I’ll show you, broken foot!

As it is, my left leg was extremely sore on Monday because it had become a bit deconditioned from the easier hikes we had been forced into by the cam boot. It would’ve been far worse if I had stopped hiking entirely.

On one hike when I was still wearing the cam boot, a man called out to me to say,“That was some good effort you put out there today!” He meant despite my cam boot. They’re curved on the bottom, so you can’t walk on uneven ground or steep grades. I was attempting both (though I turned back when a trail seemed to have grown unsafe).

The last thing I needed was to break the other foot.

Flash-forward to our hike last Sunday. After hiking steeeep steps and trails in the hilly, backcountry chaparral of the otherwise groomed Descanso Gardens, we wended our way back. I was more exhausted than I would’ve been before the cam boot, but we took a side trip to a small succulent garden.

As we passed a man, he said, “You’re my inspiration.” “You’re so strong,” added his female companion. The had been watching us as he hiked the rough (for me) terrain. I think the reason they were saying that to me instead of Keith was that it was obvious how much physical effort it took for me, with my short legs, to power myself up.

I showed grit every time I strained to pull my other leg up one of those deep steps. Keith breezed up them with ease.

We thanked them and Keith explained that this was rehab for a six-week coma. He told me, “I’m glad that you’re here,” and repeated that I was his inspiration. “Look at me,” he said, patting his well-padded belly. “I need to get in shape.”

It took a coma and some strangers to show me the grit and determination that lay within me. You have it in you, too.
My first rehab walk at Descanso Gardens. You can see my walker hooked onto the back of the wheelchair. Via Keith Onstad.

I didn’t tell him that — while I was skinny — I too was once in terrible physical shape myself. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a coma to force him to change his ways.

I’m sure he has it within him. I think most people have far more inner strength than they realize. The challenge is find a way to tap into this grit without a calamity to unlock it.

I used to think of myself as weak. Indeed, even now I often have to stop to catch my breath due to my damaged lungs. But I can do it. And I didn’t know that before.

I never pushed myself physically before the coma. When I started to get tired I simply stopped instead of resting, then pushing on. (I now know that resting helps me recharge my batteries. It’s the reason why Keith and I picnic in the middle of our nature hikes.)

I was the little engine that couldn’t. I think I can’t. I think I can’t.

But now I know that I always had the strength and grit required. I just needed a push to realize it.

As we parted ways, the man repeated yet again, “You are my inspiration.” I smiled broadly at him.

Thank you. You made my day.

On a day that started out so sadly, I had a sudden moment of clarity. Before my coma, we turned back before we made it to the succulent garden. The hill was just too steep for me. Now, I climb it with relative ease. I still get out of breath, but I catch my breath and push forward anyway.

In many ways I’m still weak, but I guess I am strong, after all.

This self-affirmation message reads, “I AM STRONG AND BEAUTIFUL.” No, I didn’t write it. Via Keith Onstad.

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