Waxing physically and philosically...

After literally years of deliberation, and as a result of some delicate and some less delicate prodding, this blog is my effort to organize - to bring together - my thoughts about my work as a conductor and as a personal trainer, to rant and rave as necessary, to celebrate the little things and the larger moments of brilliance, and to share some conductive magic and life lessons gained through 'waxing physically and philosophically'.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Saying goodbye to MrsVB

One of my long standing pet peeves about telling people what I do for a living is the sigh, head shake, and smile that come before the standard stereotypical comment about how "wonderful/patient/special/angelic I must be" to do "such hard work" that "they would never be able to do", but "how rewarding it must be". The comment is always well intentioned, and the moment is never right for a rant and a rave about seeing the person instead of the disability, and my awkward response is almost always something equally standard about being lucky enough to find value in my work or to do work that I love.

I wish that more often there were moments when I could gush exuberantly about the amazing people I work with and amazing little things that these people say and do; to explain that I never have to look far for everyday heroes and inspiration and simple pleasures and joy. I wish that the moment was appropriate to talk about the genuine relationships and friendships that I have developed with participants and clients over years, based on mutual trust and respect, based on shared experiences of battles won and lost and overcome and worked through over hours, weeks, years of working closely together. Shhhhh -- I know -- I'm supposed to be all professional and objective, to keep a professional distance -- don't tell anyone, but I often find myself really caring about, really loving the people that I am lucky enough to work with. In fact, even the ones that drive me bonkers have this amazingly special place in my heart.

One of the big challenges for me personally with the Enable Me project is that the clients are in the program for only 9 weeks -- in other words the relationships have a pre-determined end date. My other clients and participants drift in and out or fade away, and often stay in touch by email or facebook when they aren't actually seeing me, but the Enable Me bunch are literally discharged from the program. We have a running joke at my gym that when a training relationship ends it feels a bit like breaking up -- with the Enable Me project it feels like I'm breaking up with people every few weeks.

Mrs VB is in her mid 80s and for 2 months we worked hard to find ways for her to use exercise to manage her back and sciatic nerve pain while learning strategies to move and function with as little pain or aggravation of pain as possible. It was very hard work for both of us -- learning to manage inoperable and untreatable chronic severe pain can never be anything else. There was tears, exhaustion, frustration -- much more often than moments of joy or relief. While we worked she told me stories of her late husband and of her life, her passions, her hobbies which included volunteering at a museum and genealogy. She lent me her Leonard Cohen box set when she noticed me noticing it.

On the day of her last session (her 'discharge'), Mrs VB invited me to stay for coffee and a chat. Though I didn't really have time, I stayed back, and looked at wedding and antique photos. I stayed because I recognized that the gesture wasn't about saying thank you, but about acknowledging the end of the relationship, and more importantly acknowledging that something 'magic' had happened in the exchange that had meant something to us both, that wasn't tied up in whether or not the goal of pain management had been achieved, but in the gruelling experience of working on it together. I knew that if I didn't stay, I wouldn't have honoured the fact that we hadn't just worked together, but that she had let me in, had exposed so much of her fear and her pain to me. I wasn't done; I really wanted to be able to keep working with her -- I felt that if only I had a bit more time I might be able to find something that worked, or worked a bit better. I left feeling sad about the end of the relationship, and sadder that I had not been able to help her, and that I was leaving her with the same pain that I found her with.

I have just had an email from the case manager saying that in the post intervention interview Mrs VB reported feeling more positive and in control of her life, and that even though the pain was still there she had more things she could do that provided her with some relief, and that trying to remember and do the exercises distracted her from the pain for a few minutes. And she said that she didn't feel as alone in the whole thing, and that she was going out with her daughter and volunteering more often even when she was in a lot of pain, because she knew that having a laugh was better than sitting at home in pain.

And I can't even remember what exercises I left her with. But I can remember the green coffee beans that were too hard for her to grind so we drank instant, the wedding dress that she made herself, the pictures of her grandmother as a baby, and the Leonard Cohen dvds.

"I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah"
                                         Leonard Cohen


  1. Brilliant post. Yeah, the comments about the work we do make me want to either barf or slam my head against a wall. We're the lucky ones who get to see tiny miracles everyday. Being professional and keeping a distance from clients/participants is next to impossible. I fully encourage really getting to know the person, not just the diagnosis. It helps us all grow and learn. Mrs.V was right about going out and doing things on a bad pain day, I think you taught her how to live instead of survive, and that's priceless.

  2. Thanks Nakki --

    So often the real benefits of our work are discounted because they are literally immeasurable -- so deemed worthless in stead of priceless. It is this 'magic' that I want to try to articulate with this blog -- because it is important to me in every aspect of my work, and time and time again my participants tell me that these subtle, subjective, psycho-social benefits are what matter to them too. In this instance the identified 'goal of the intervention' -- pain relief -- was not achieved. Standard research would have deemed the intervention a failure. I'm so pleased that this research project -- by careful design -- reflects qualitative and subjective outcomes -- such as learning to live instead of survive as you said.

    You can read more words of wisdom from Nakki at http://flexabilityandcreativity.blogspot.com/