Innovation and Improvement (15 Month Update)

October 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Our Recovery Journal

When doing a critical assessment of life, it is easy to go through the motions when things are going well.  Critical assessments are much more honest (and valuable) when changes in life itself force a complete overhaul in the way you must live it.

Steve Prefontaine was a distance runner and track athlete who is best known for consistent innovation and improvement in his running style that propelled him to break American records in seven different running events.  He is well-known among running enthusiasts for his race results and competitiveness… and was equally recognizable due to his trademark long hair and mustache.  However, the Prefontaine legend has outgrown the reality of his actual race results because of his intense zest for living a great life and the fact that his life was tragically cut short as he entered the prime of his running career.  Steve decided early on that he would be a great runner and determined to live each and every day of his life to that end.  He had the kind of unquestioned belief in himself that all great people possess.  One of the greatest unanswered questions of his life is just how fast he would have run at the 1976 Olympics had he avoided the car accident that claimed his life.

Everyone has dreams of what they wish to accomplish in the future.  No matter what kind of life you have lived up to this point, the potential for change and the possibility of dreams can turn even the most unfulfilling life into a one that is robust and commendable.  When the coffee of life turns cold, a dream is the coworker who unexpectedly brings brand new cup of fresh coffee that is superior to the stuff you drink every day.

Although we all develop habits and vices that keep us from becoming the best version of ourselves, the optimist within believes that improvement is possible and the perfect day could arrive as soon as tomorrow.  For a runner in training, it is awfully tempting to take a day off or take one’s foot off the gas during a workout.  The temptation to choose the easy training path is a constant threat to the progress of a high level athlete.  The body may betray an athlete by questioning the amount pain it can handle.  The brain may throw a wrench into a training session by causing the athlete to second-guess the amount of endurance that he or she has.


Keeping up with the Demands of Therapy

After 15 months of recovery, consideration of Jessica’s progress now involves a greater evaluation of her workout and therapy regimen.  No longer are bad days an excuse to quit during therapy, for Jessica has strengthened physically and mentally to the point where her workouts involve a certain amount of mental and physical toughness to complete.  The hypothetical bar she must clear is continuously raised with each passing month.  In order to continue therapy, she must demonstrate (approximately) a 10% gain during each assessment period in order to continue the therapy into the next period.  The more gains she makes each time, the harder it is to achieve the magic 10% the next time she is assessed.

The pressure of heightened expectations is applied to her constantly throughout her entire day.  It is a personal goal of ours to ride the therapy wave for as long as possible, and her days are constructed so that she is constantly reminded of her goals until they become internalized.  About a month ago, she was under the weather and had a tough time during some of her therapy sessions.  The therapist was concerned that the setback might affect her progress and cause her to miss her goals, so Jess and I had the necessary discussion about the potential ramifications of missing these goals.  One simple conversation about the bumps in the road of her therapy was all that was needed to keep her moving forward.  The underlying implication of just how much her husband and kids desire mom to become more independent became an irresistible force that propelled her to crush those goals and earn another month of therapy.  Motivating her with the fact that short term failure might lead to long term disappointment is extremely powerful tool when working with Jess.  The knowledge that anything less than her best effort might result in a harder life for her family is our royal flush in this poker game that is recovery.  A hand that cannot be played often, but when it is played its power is undeniable… much stronger than the power of any pain or doubt that Jess might feel.

In the evenings, Jess helps when she can and watches when she must.  The kids complete schoolwork and chores as I finish the work I brought home and ready the house for the following day.  When she is watching even the most mundane household chores, the look on Jess’ face tells the story of a woman who would be willing to do anything in order to regain the ability to manage the house again.  The feelings she must have knowing she is unable to put the baby to bed, clean up a meal, or sweep the floor independently stay with her like fingerprints on her soul.

The word guilt generally has a negative connotation, but in Jess’ case she is able to harness any feelings of inadequacy and use them as tools in her quest to strengthen herself.  These feelings assert themselves later as an unseen hand steadying her progress as she tires on the treadmill or an imaginary whisper of encouragement in her ear as she manipulates a peg into a hole for what seems like the millionth time.  While her memory is not what it once was, her situation has forced Jessica to simply sit there and accept what people tell her.  She is no longer fast enough to escape the room or busy enough to ignore the thoughts of those around her.  She has developed the ability to internalize both complements and criticisms and then store them away so that their power can be harnessed at a later time when the setting is most opportune.


The Slow Road to Literacy

When a news station reports that a certain percentage of high school students graduate without ever learning to read, it is hard to construct a mental picture of an 18 year old that has attended school for that long and has not yet become a proficient reader.  One may think that an adult could “get by” in some basic way without ever learning to read.  In the world Jess and I live in, this is certainly not the case.  It is when you experience the inability to read first-hand that you realize all of the problems that the illiterate person might run into during the course of a normal day.

While she can identify sight words and read small chunks of easy words at a slow pace, Jessica wants more than anything to be able to read at a level that will allow her to communicate effectively with other adults.  The frustration inherent in having to ask what a street sign says or whether a few lines of subtitles are important is a terrible feeling for both Jess and for those around her.  Her brain simply can’t process information quickly enough to read within the context of our 21st century pace.  No matter how much work she puts in, the gains she has secured in reading remain few and far between.  Although her recovery story has been generally successful, the biggest disappointment so far has been the snail’s pace at which her mind gains proficiency in language arts.

Despite all the hardships that Jess is forced to deal with during a typical day, she has done an admirable job of focusing her worry on the things she can control.  One of Prefontaine’s best quotes about life is “to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift,” and Jessica does her best each day to champion that mantra.  She is now 3 months past the one year mark and the gains are still coming.  Nothing comes easy for her, but each month she continues to keep her lips above the water line and persevere toward her goals.

Each month, her efforts are elevated to meet the increased expectations of family, friends, and even strangers.  She discovers new motivation to live her best possible life each month.  This motivation is crafted from positive experiences such as the smiles of her kids who know how much their happiness means to her.  It is harnessed through deep contemplation of the praise of friends and strangers and especially the accompanying nonverbal cues that supplement their commentary.  Just as important to her continued progress is the motivation that presents itself as negative feedback… a sneaky glance that catches the disappointing look on the face of her therapist or her husband who knows she is capable of more.  Little does Jessica know that she was destined to see that look and respond to its nonverbal scolding with a heroic effort as life moves forward.  The movie of her life continues on, and she will do everything in her power to keep improving and make it a film worth seeing!


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