Lessons From Pain and Recovery | Adam Campbell

Words by Adam Campbell. Photos by Cameron Sylvester.

The recovery after breaking my back and hip and the medical complications that followed were the most intense physical and emotional pain that I have ever felt. I was scared about my future and every small movement would send aa searing pain throughout my body. It was constant reminder of what had happened to me and along with the pain, I would get flashbacks to falling down the side of mountain, positive that I was going to die. It was horrible and almost inescapable because the smallest of movements would bring these feelings flooding over me.

In order to try and manage the pain and control some of the trauma, I spent a lot of time working on visualisation techniques that a psychologist taught me. I would sit quietly in a lounge chair in our sun room, with a view of the Rundle Range through our large plexi-glass windows. I would sit quietly, then start deep breathing, in and out with my eyes closed and my stomach ‘soft’. I would let that softness spread from my belly into my legs and upper body, breathing deeply. I would then start my visualisation journey towards somewhere I felt totally comfortable, for me it was walking through an alpine meadow, with spring flowers and mossy, but supportive base. Once I would reach the place where I would feel at ease, I would build up an image that was all about my pain diminishing. For me it would be the freedom I would feel on those magical running days where I feel no pain, there is a spring in my step and my feet barely touch the ground. I would picture me moving from my walk into a jog and then into a full stride. This slow, mindful increase in pace in my mind helped me reduce pain and manage my stress. It was incredibly powerful.

I also learned to look for beauty and pleasantness in mundane senses and moments. I found it easy to be overwhelmed by the physical sensation of pain that I felt, but those moments of distraction, such as the sight and feel of the sun shining through the window, the physical sensation of a wisp of hair being moved by wind on my cheek, the smell of dinner, or watching a leaf flutter in the wind helped minimize the grasp that pain held over me. Paying attention to as many sensory inputs as I could helped ease my pain because it relegated it to just one of many sensory experiences going on in my life at that present moment.

Finally, I learned to be gentle on myself and to have patience. Some days the pain overwhelmed me and I could not control it, so I gave in to the sensations rather than be hard on myself. I accepted that sometimes it is best to feel, to accept the pain and not to try and kill it. I would accept that that day was a down day, or moment, in life’s ups and downs. I would try to be non-judgmental and to be compassionate with myself.  I accepted that recover wasn’t linear, rather it would have peaks and valleys and that the next sensation I had would likely be different. I couldn’t promise myself, or know that it would be better necessarily, just that it would be different. I would try and bring an attitude of kindness toward the sensations, even though they were unpleasant. I knew that my body wasn’t purposefully making me suffer and I would look for places in my body that didn’t hurt, to show myself that my body wasn’t just pain. I tried to look at the picture, to watch myself slowly getting better.

Through this period of intense mindfulness, I slowly watched my body recovery and my abilities come back. Not quite to where they once were, but as I regained strength and ease of movement I found myself not just visualizing myself moving through the meadows, but actually get back there and moving in the meadows and alpine bowls I would visualize. I tried to retain that sense of wonder at minor sensations and compassion for myself, initial I did. I had so much joy for simply being out there, but with time, as my strength came back, my ego began to take over again. I let go of a lot of lessons I learned and applied in my recovery. Rather than fully appreciate what I had, what I was able to do, I began mourning what I couldn’t do any more. Running no longer had the same flow or ease that it once had, rather each step hurt. I lamented that I was no longer as fast as I once was. I desperately wanted to get back to where I once was. I thought that through sheer force of will I could make it happen.

I was fully confronted with how much control my ego had over me at the 2017 Hardrock 100. By all accounts, getting back to a place where I could even contemplate trying a one of the hardest 100-mile races in the world 10-months months after my accident should have been a victory, but it wasn’t. My ego wanted more, I wanted to be competitive. I wanted to challenge myself and the best.

However 100-mile races have an amazing way to strip us of our ego, much like how my accident had. The truth is, my body is not what it once was and as the miles began to pile on and my body started to fall apart and I was rudely confronted by that fact. I could literal see my former self running away from me as I watched the top runners, people I had always run with, move away from me with ease and comfort as my body, and with it my mind, started to break down. As the miles wore on, I began to experience 1000 emotions per mile. I replayed my accident, I questioned why I was putting myself through so much pain after spending so many months trying to minimize discomfort and I wondered why I let me ego take me back there. I hated the experience and I cried a lot. Partly from pain, partly from catharsis, releasing months of pent of worry, fear and trauma.

With each hobbled step and tear, I slowly accepted my new reality. I stopped focusing so much on my inability to perform and move easily and I began to apply the lessons that I learned through my recovery. I tried to focus on the fact that I was out in a truly special place, doing something I absolutely love doing, with amazing friends. I accepted that although I was not moving as fast as I once had, that I was still moving forward, no matter how slowly that might be. I accepted the praise of fellow competitors, each of whom was enduring their own battles and I tried to thank the volunteers for being out there with us. I tried to not let the pain and my negative thoughts take over. When they did, I accepted them as a natural part of the process of running 100-miles on a largely broken body. I tried to be kind to myself and I searched for small victories. I looked for beauty in the pain and in a strange way I found it. It helped me find gratitude again and there is great power and beauty in that.

Although I wish that I had never had my accident and that I could still feel the ease of movement I did prior to it, I have learned a lot as a result and for that I will always be thankful.


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