I had completed all forms of therapy and was rehabbing my body on my own at the gym. It was time to move out of Chateau. I had never lived on my own following the stroke. Money was my biggest concern. While I had lived with friends, they had only charged me $400/month in rent. Although this was very little, and despite the fact that I’d had a part-time job at the time, I had continuously worried about money. Living on my own would mean that I would probably have to pay even more in rent, and I might also be responsible for paying for utilities.
There would be a couple of positive changes that could help to make life more affordable. For one thing, I would have food support and a transportation card on the day I moved in. Thus, unlike when I’d lived in Hopkins, I would not have to spend a sizable percentage of my income on these. The kitchen and refrigerator would be mine, so I would be able to store and prepare more of my own food. Because I had often ordered out, this would save me even more in food costs. Although I had never been known for having frugal spending habits, I felt like these advantages would help me to lead a more independent life.
The biggest thing I had to do now was find a new job. It was imperative that I augment my income if I were ever going to make it on my own. There would be a cap on how much I could earn. If I made too much, it could affect my disability payments. I was also enrolled in a student loans forgiveness program for people who suffered long term disabilities. In order to have my loans dismissed, I could not earn $16,000 any year before 2020. I didn’t want to receive government assistance for the rest of my life; it was my goal to one day be a taxpayer again. I just needed the social safety net to help me while I returned to being a productive member of society.
I decided that the best strategy would be to find a part-time position that I could use to transition in to full-time work within the same firm or a similar industry. However, I didn’t know how I might go about finding an employer. I was constantly receiving solicitations from stroke and brain injury support organizations in the form of phone calls and emails. Perhaps it could be as simple as waiting to hear from them. Surely they would know where I should apply. Also, I knew that sometimes there were government incentives for companies that would hire disabled citizens. I just needed to find a list of prospective employers who had a hiring preference for people like me.
Not knowing where to start, I went down to a Minnesota Workforce center. I went in on a Friday in early May. There was no line, so I walked up to the front desk. I started telling the receptionist what I wanted. She stopped me mid-sentence and asked if I had an appointment to see the specialist, then called upstairs to have someone talk to me.
I sat in the waiting area feeling a little apprehensive about my future. What if I couldn’t find a job that paid nearly enough? Or worse, what if I earned enough to survive this year, then the Social Security Administration turned around and adjusted my payment down next year? There had to be a way to make more money without it affecting my disability income. At least talking to someone would give me parameters. Armed with information, I could figure out what my next step should be.
After a few minutes, the job counselor came up to me. I was expecting her to take me to a room and help to start job searching. Instead she told me that we would have to schedule a date for intake. Because of my disability status, they would be adding me to their vocational rehabilitation program. It was a way for me to transition back into the working world with benefit of government aid and expertise. Once again, I had assumed that I would have to do something all on my own, only to find that there were programs in place to make the process easier. We scheduled our session for the end of the month. I wanted to start working earlier, but at least I would be getting guidance with my search.
I really didn’t have time to be disappointed that I couldn’t even start looking for work until June. My housing representative texted one morning, telling me that he had been removed from my case by the county. He had no idea why. This would mean that I wouldn’t be able to move out until July at the earliest. While it ran counter to my plans, it did take the pressure off finding a job immediately.
Secure in the knowledge that I didn’t need to worry about living expenses or working for at least another month, I resolved to ramp up my fitness plan. My occupational therapist had informed me in 2015 that stroke victims could still see muscle recovery for five years, if they really worked at it. Since I hadn’t fully recovered in my first year, I’d set my mind to the idea that I would be on a five-year plan. For the first year, my focus had been on rehabbing to get healthy enough to move back to Minnesota. My second year focus had been on physical therapy in Minnesota. My third year was about starting to lift weights again. So with the third anniversary of the stroke coming up in May, I decided that my fourth year would entail ramping up my workout.
I was working out every other day. My body remained active, but it really didn’t seem to be progressing. SI suspected that at this stage, my muscles could tolerate more stress without as much recovery time. For the month of May, I decided that I would lift weights for four days and take off every fifth day to relax. This would have the ultimate effect of overloading the muscles and limiting the time they could take to rebuild themselves, thus stimulating the growth process.
I had recently upgraded my membership at Planet Fitness, and had access to free Hydromassages, so called because there were jets that shot streams of water in lieu of a finger massage Knowing the gauntlet I was about to put my body through, I gave myself permission to have a massage before every workout. On the first day, I had the attendant set up the chair. It was preset to eight minutes. The sensation was so relaxing that I almost dozed off. When my eight minutes were over, my entire body felt alive. Reluctantly I gathered my things and went to work out.
I had been working out again for over a year. However, my workouts were inefficient. I would arrive at the gym with no real plan and go from exercise to exercise without keeping track of what I was doing. Working out more intensely meant that I would go with a fixed number of reps per set, and that I would steadily increase the resistance during the session. This would mirror my pre-stroke trips to the gym, causing my body to feel like it was really working out again. I settled on fifteen reps per set, with a minimum of four sets per exercise.
In addition to upping the intensity of my workouts, I wanted to target specific muscle regions in order to achieve maximum stimulation. Even though the left side of my body hadn’t recovered enough to work individual muscle groups yet, I could divide my body into two regions and work them on alternating days. For example, Monday and Wednesday would be leg days. While I might mix in an upper body exercise or two, I would make sure to do at least three leg movements – usually squats, leg press, and quadriceps extensions. Tuesday and Thursday would be upper body days. I would perform permutations of lat pulldowns, triceps pushdowns, butterflies, and inclined bench presses. My upper body was weaker, but there are so many more muscle groups to develop that I really didn’t often add many leg movements on upper body day. I would take Friday off, before starting the split anew Saturday through Tuesday.
I sweated more during the first week than I had in years. I would push myself so hard during my leg workouts that I would have to sit and rest at a station before I could get up and walk across the gym floor. On upper body day, I increasingly felt twinges of soreness in my left triceps. I drove myself hard and failed quite a bit during those days, but it is impossible to overstate the secret joy I felt in knowing that the microscopic advances would add up to a greater victory.
Squats had always been the exercise I took the most pride in doing. They were harder to perform than leg press because they required more balance as opposed to relying on brute strength. With presses, all you have to do is push your legs as hard as you can. With squats, you have to pay close attention to your knees and lower back. In fact, because the risk of injury could be so significant, I took a lot of satisfaction in being able to perform squats correctly. It would mean that, despite the inability to move much of my lower leg, the risk of falling would go down significantly.
When I first used the squat rack, I tried doing so with two hands. I grabbed my left hand with my right hand, and moved it into position around the bar. Then I gripped the other side of the bar with my right hand. When a person is in correct starting position for this exercise, his arms should look like someone dragging a cross. My left shoulder still lacked flexibility. It was so tight that my torso was turned to my left side. I knew that attempting to do squats from this incorrect starting position could create all sorts of injuries to my lower back. I was somewhat dejected, but I resolved to perform the exercise using one arm.
I began by gripping the bar with my right hand, then sliding my feet backwards into position. Next I bounced up several times slowly, making sure that my body was in a straight plane beneath the weight. After I was satisfied that I was correctly in place, I began squatting and shooting back up. Each time I had to make sure that my body didn’t deviate to my left side. I had to go down and straighten back up slowly and with maximum concentration fifteen times every set, for four or five sets.
Years ago when I had performed this exercise, it had always been for maximum weight. Seldom had I paid attention to technique. Now I was meticulous about everything. I made sure to inhale each time I went down and exhale each time I stood back up. I could feel the tightness in my inner thighs and glutes; my lungs threatened to explode. As I pushed past eight reps, my body wanted to collapse. But once I stopped thinking about my body, and just concentrated on breathing and counting out the reps, 12 … 13 .. 14 … 15! were automatic. It was as though I was watching someone else.
At 15 reps, I would rack the bar and sit down quickly. My lungs would work so hard to fill with air that the action couldn’t be adequately controlled. After the first time, I began carrying a towel with me to mop the copious amounts of sweat from my head and neck while my lungs roared like the intake of a jet engine. I would sit there, balancing on the bench, often remembering how two men had to hold me seated on the bench the day I had my stroke. But this time my body was growing stronger and more steady.