First week after surgery

Still alive. Not even barely. In pain, yes, kinda sorta. Immobile, for the most part but getting better every day. Freaked out from time to time about my neck healing right, oh yes. But alive and reasonably well.

surgical pen

I spent one night in the hospital and was able to go home the next day in the afternoon, after having pretty much every person at the hospital tell me that the pain meds and the anaesthesia cause constipation and I got plenty of meds, poop-related and pain-related, sent home with me. The pain is actually manageable for the most part. The pain and problems relating to the disc issues were completely gone after the surgery — no more tingling, no numbness, no pain in the shoulder blade area. There are other pains, because, you know, major surgery has happened which involved pulling stuff out of my spine through an incision in the front of my neck, but the initial pain is gone. Just a lot of soreness and some difficulty swallowing. And I get weirdly out of breath when I sit for too long without moving.

The collar is terrible. I understand why I need it and to be honest I’ve gotten crazy anxious about the position and movement of my neck, but it sucks. Washing is difficult, everything is difficult.

Ends and beginnings.

The story so far: I started BJJ about 4 years ago when I was 34. I did a lot of different things at that time; submission grappling, BJJ, kickboxing, and regular boxing — I was in the gym every day for about two hours at least. That was a lot. One day we were drilling in class, some kind of guard attack. I was in guard, got pulled forward, didn’t pay attention and posted with my left arm without really bracing my upper body, and boom — disc herniated. I assume my neck must’ve snapped back at a weird angle. I didn’t think at the time that this was a disc issue. I thought it was an especially bad tweak or pulled muscle and didn’t go and see a doctor until a year later, when the tingling started and the pain just would not go away. I had stopped doing anything but BJJ at that point, because it was just too much and I kept getting hurt in small ways (toe, knee, etc.). The pain came and went and it felt as if someone was pressing the tip of a broom into my back right next to the shoulder blade really really hard. Sitting in a chair was difficult, driving was terrible, because it caused my left arm to tingle and have ‘pins-and-needles’ to the point where it was so tingly that it felt numb.

So I started physical therapy and after 3 additional years I was ‘almost pain-free’ up until summer 2015, when I ended up being completely pain-free…yay!

November 2015 I stayed for open mat, rolled with an outside visitor, got greedy, went for a kimura from guard that was maybe 20% doable and didn’t let go when I should’ve. I got stacked hard and I immediately knew something popped again. Pain in the back and shoulder. Nothing I hadn’t had before, so I just thought ‘Shit, here we go again. Oh well, back to PT it is.’ It was completely my fault and it was ego, plain and simple. I really wanted that tap.

This time it didn’t get better, it actually got worse. The pain was constant, there was no position or contortion I could put my body in that would relieve it (believe me, I tried them all) and I went back to the doc, who prescribed pain medication and more PT. Pain didn’t go away until end of February and I hadn’t really slept for six weeks at that point because of the pain and believe me, that does something to a person. I stopped going to class or roll in December, because it aggravated the pain and tingling.

The pain let off towards the end of February/beginning of March, but with the pain receding (not gone, mind you, but tolerable levels for the most part) and being finally able to sleep again I noticed that my triceps on the left side was gone. As was my left pec. That freaked me out and I wrote my doc, who transferred me to a sports medicine doctor, who did a bunch of tests and ordered x-rays and an MRI. After the results came in he said that I need to see a surgeon for a consultation, saw that one the next Monday, with the result that I will get spinal fusion on c4-c7. The discs are herniated and pinch almost half-way through the cord. Oh, did I mention that in addition to the atrophy I had also developed a slight tremor in the left hand? It’s scary shit. And as I’ve learned, when it comes to spinal injuries it turns out that pain or lack of pain is not necessarily an indicator of improvement or healing. People can be completely pain-free but have continuing nerve damage.

I got a couple of second and third opinions but basically there is no other option at this point than surgery. The pressure on the cord is so strong that the nerve damage would continue, which is bad news. As to the muscle coming back…time will tell if the nerve can regenerate itself. Which sucks but to be honest, I’m looking forward to not being in pain, to be able to sit in a chair for longer than 1 minute without squirming all the time, drive a car without discomfort…you get the idea. I’ll deal with the atrophy later, all I can do right now is stop it from progressing and work on rehab.

As far as returning to BJJ — that’s an open question. It will take at least a year for the bone to fuse together and I will have screws and plates in my neck, so to be honest, I’m not sure if I will ever go back again. Maybe, maybe not. I love Jiu Jitsu and it has been a huge positive element in my life, mentally and physically. However, I’m a hobbyist, not a competitor. I like rolling hard and it’ll be difficult to change that mindset. I’ve never been into all that spinning shit, but I still would have to re-think my game A LOT in order to protect my neck…hah!

I’m getting surgery this week. The ideal timeline, if there are no complications, is that I will be able to return home the next day, and return to work in about 10 days (or work from home if I can’t). There’s a two week and a six week check-in with the surgeon. Neck brace for six weeks, after three months I should be able to start lifting. Total recovery time should be a year.

Given that BJJ is out, my plan is to start doing Starting Strength again as soon as I’m able, this time for real. I’ve done the program for 8 months five or six years ago, but half-assed it a bit. There are some weightlifting gyms in the area that have coaches, so I can actually work with someone who is certified check my technique and whatnot. I’ve always liked weightlifting but doing BJJ and weights together was just not possible if I wanted to do other things, like, I don’t know, spend time with my wife, hang out with friends…you know, nice things.

Baby blues 

Three years after I walked on the mats for the first time, I got promoted to Blue Belt a couple of weeks ago. Do I feel like I deserve it? Nope. Do the same people still wipe the floor with me? Yep.

So, taking stock of the process so far:

  • I’m in better shape now than I have ever been and I can probably go ahead and call myself athletic, but it is a trait that was never realized in my teens or twenties, which is a shame and I try not to think about it too much. It also turns out that I’m a kinesthetic learner (a good thing to realize at some point I guess) and that means that I just have to embrace the grind. I tried taking notes, watching videos…nada. I have to do stuff again and again and again. And again until I finally carve it into that part of my brain that processes motion.

  • Turns out that I’m physically stronger than I think and feel. Granted, several years of grappling and kickboxing before that probably have something to do with that, but it’s just now dawned on me that I’m not ‘weak’. Regardless, I’ve started a kettlebell strength program about 5 weeks ago, mostly to address imbalances and an injury-prevention measure, because hey — there is no such thing as being too strong!

  • There is always someone who has your number, regardless of your belt. And if you have a good day and feel too good about yourself, don’t worry, next class you will roll with someone who will just grind you into the mats for five minutes.

  • Switching to a BJJ school from my previous school was the best decision and I should’ve probably done it earlier.

Anyway, it does feel good to not be a n00b anymore and leave the white belt behind, even if that only means wrapping a different colored strip of cotton around your waist.

My belt is demoting itself…

As you might or might not know, a lot of BJJ gyms give stripes on your belt. You start out with not stripe and then collect your four stripes and then get your next colored belt. Not all gyms do it that way, but the one I’m at does. I’ve received two stripes at my old gym last year and fairly quickly got two more at my new gym after I switched.

Expectedly, if you wash your belt at least three time a week those stripes will come off at some point. No big deal, you just but them on again. However, lately it feels like my BJJ sucks and my belt loosing stripes feels like a very fitting metaphor for where I feel I am at right now. I’m trying new things, work on stuff, but I’ve received some major beatings over the last couple of months and don’t feel like I’m improving at all. More the opposite, really.

Now, that could be because I’m trying out new stuff and make an effort to break old patterns that I’ve picked up and developed, but now everything seems muddled and chaotic.

And of course I’m back on the mats two days later. Where else am I going to be?

It’s already waaay into the new year!

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…and I haven’t written anything here! No weekend posts, no photos, nada! What’s going on! Not too much, really, I’ve just not really been in the mood lately and there doesn’t seem much to report. We both took time off over the holidays, actually, we have been terrible about taking vacation last year, so we took it all in a bunch at the end of the year.

Which was nice.

Christmas was okay, as well. Drama-free this time, just the way I like it. The only weird thing is that this winter here was unusually mild. It’s not like the Pacific Northwest gets harsh winters, at least West of the Cascades, but trees had budding leaves a couple of days before Christmas and the sun was shining. That ain’t right.

New Year’s Resolutions…well, I did do some of the ones I had last January, but not all of them…so what do we have for this year;

  • Be more conscious about taking day or weekend trips and actually plan them and actually do them. Both me and the wife are not great about the planning part of this, so this is kind of a biggie. Well, kinda sorta. Still something we need to work on.
  • Do more stuff with friends. We’re both social but, again, we’re also bad with planning stuff and keeping in touch with folks. So that’s something I want to work on. Again, kinda sorta. I’ve made more of an effort but with everyone working, everyone doing things, this is a lot more difficult than it was when I was a teenager.
  • Figure out what I actually want, career-wise. I have a job, but it’s definitely not a career and I don’t want to sound harsh, but it is somewhat a dead-end job in the sense that there is nowhere to go within the company. This is a tough one, because I have a lot of anxiety about this issue that I somehow need to untangle. Maybe try a career coach or something… Oh, the endless question. I’m still not sure, but by the end of the year I’ve started to seriously look for a new job, possible in sales, bless my heart…
  • Keep recording the It’s Unclear Podcast. It’s been not very regularly, which supposedly is what you have to do in order to grow an audience but I guess doing it at all is better than nothing. Our schedule have been wonky and it’s hard to find a date and time that works and sometimes you have a date and time that works but both of us a tired, etc. — be that as it may, expect more episodes in 2015. You can download the episodes on iTunes and stick them in your head! Ha, that didn’t go so well. It’s going to be a plan for the new year, as well, and fear not, this is not dead, just very difficult to organize. Kudos to all the folks who manage to put up a show every week and have done so for years.

I’m actually not a huge fan of resolutions, I guess I’d rather think of them as To-Do lists. Some of it is stuff I’m already doing and want to be more consistent with. Or I know I should be doing them and am not, for whatever reason, and might just have to let them go and move on. For example, I’ll never be a master whittler, because I just do not enjoy it. I maybe enjoy the idea of it, but the actual whittling — nah.


The major change this year is probably that I have changed gyms and now attend a pure BJJ academy — no more cross-training for me. If anyone of you ever had to change academies you know that this can be awkward. And it was. There were some awkward email exchanges and I admit that I’ve so far avoided conversations with some people. However, this is the best decision for me and my development and it makes a huge difference to roll with all belt levels and not just with one group of white belts. I’m not saying that the group of white belts does not progress, however, I’ve (and a friend of mine who also switched to the same school) noticed that there are some glaring holes in my game — in addition to the ones that are there anyway — that stem directly from rolling with folks who don’t know how to exploit them. I was blown away by the differences between rolling with the different levels in one evening, from white to brown. The white belts I can handle and, sometimes, at this point also dominate, depending on how far they are and if they weigh 200 lbs. or are closer to my weight. The other ones are smashing me (no news here) in oh so many different ways. I think last week a brown belt used the ‘shoulder of justice’ so enthusiastically that I thought my eye would pop out. Good times.

The switch also means that I’m going from 1.5 hours to 2.5 hours of class in the evening, which is great. I have to figure out some of the scheduling, but I want to try and continue to go 3x per week, which seems to be the sweet spot for me. If I do more my body says no-no-no, if I do less I get antsy.

I will miss the guys at my old school and will probably drop in from time to time, but I think this was the right decision and I’m not feeling bad about it. Plus, it’s nice to finally have actual grappling mats and not roll on super-hard tatami-ish mats. My shoulder immediately noticed the difference and let’s face it — I’m not getting any younger and my old and brittle body likes to be pampered.

If you’ve been involved in any martial arts and had or wanted to switch academies, what was it like? Was it awkward and horrible or easy-peasy-we’re-friends-forever?