A few weeks ago, I turned 39 years old. Thirty-nine is kind of a weird age. On one hand, it’s just a number – it’s simply another year and another day. Every day is important, and every year presents a new opportunity. But on the other hand, it’s almost 40… which is one of those milestone birthdays—and one that for whatever reason, feels important. My life has changed significantly in the past few years, with tough changes in my health and relationship status – but undeniable growth in other areas. I’m mentally and emotionally stronger, and much clearer in my spirituality. But turning 39 has been interesting, because it’s challenged me to look at where I’ve been and think about where I’m going – and has brought a certain resolve to get some key factors figured out (to the best of my ability) before my next birthday.
One of the fundamental things I’ve been examining within myself is where I am at with my overall health, and the ways in which I am currently handling it. It’s extremely hard to type this sentence… but I am really unhappy with my body right now. It’s so uncomfortable to put that thought out there, because in my mind and in my heart, I know I shouldn’t feel this way… but I do. My weight and body shape have changed a bit in the past several years, even though by many standards, I understand that I look just fine. Please don’t send me a message about how I am being completely ridiculous about this… I fully realize that this opinion will not be shared by the people who are close to me. But here’s the deal. I have this personal policy – that I’m not allowed to complain or feel negatively about something if I’m not willing to make changes that will move me forward.
So, I have asked myself, “Why. What’s wrong with the way you look?” I’ve never been a girl who has been wrapped up in body image… I’m actually kind of a tomboy at heart. I wasn’t raised to focus on what I look like, and I am so thankful for that. Also, I really do have a generally healthy and very active lifestyle. I eat good quality food, and I lift weights avidly – 5 days a week.
So… what’s the problem, Am??
Like most things, the answer is multifaceted.
Even though I know I shouldn’t be, I’m angry at my brain for the surgeries that I continue to endure. When I saw my neurosurgeon this past week, we made the decision to schedule my next brain surgery – and we counted that this will be my 20th surgery related to my hydrocephalus in 6 years. It will be the 24th overall. The daily pain, the various medications, and the basic trauma of going through all of these episodes has taken a toll on my physical being. There’s just no getting around that part. The only way for me to not be angry about the situation is to believe and understand that God has a bigger purpose for my life, and that He will somehow use all of this pain and suffering in that purpose. If I didn’t believe that, I would be absolutely discouraged and devastated by these trials. I’m working every day to accept the challenge and live out my purpose, but it is so hard to process at times.
The second reason is that I’ve let myself be lazy about the food and drinks I put into my body. Like I said, I generally eat high quality food, and I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge about nutrition over the years. I love to cook, so when I do, I prepare things that are good for me. However, the emotions and exhaustion resulting from the roller coaster of the past few years has made me much less diligent about making the right choices all the time. It’s safe to say that I often eat the wrong things at the wrong times – and sometimes when I don’t feel good, I don’t eat at all. If consistency is the key to forward progress, I’m failing in that department.
Lastly, I acknowledge that my exercise routine has changed significantly since the time when I feel like my body was where I wanted it to be. The frequency has not changed, but the type of training has. In 2012-2017 I worked out with a couple of different trainers and embraced more of a strength and conditioning style of programming. My exercise was much more varied, and I also worked out in a boxing gym off and on during that time. (Keep in mind that this was also about 15 brain surgeries ago!) In late 2017, I changed trainers to the strength coach I currently have and changed my programming to a strictly strength-based regimen. It was a huge shift, but I adore my coach and I’m the strongest I’ve ever been. I love lifting weights, and the more brute strength I have, the more stable and balanced I feel. It’s also made a difference in my ability to sleep and heal from surgery. All of these things hold incredible value, so I don’t have any regrets. But there’s no question that the heavy lifting 5 days a week along with the lack of conditioning has changed the shape of my body. I’m strong, but I’m just not as thin as I was.
I’ve come to this conclusion. Mental discipline needs to be applied to this area of my thought life. The way I feel about my body is completely in my own control, and if I want it to change, I just need to make the decision to change it. How I feel about myself is a choice, and if I’m not happy with something, I am fully capable of taking the steps to modify what I’m doing. I also have the ability to make a clearer distinction between what I want and what is necessary – and separate the emotional part from the necessity. This involves asking myself some difficult questions, then facing the answers head-on and dealing with them.
Do I want to be super thin, or do I want to be incredibly strong?
Why do I feel like I don’t look good enough? Does it have to do with the fact that I’m single? And where does the treatment and recovery from my hydrocephalus fall in all of this?
Am I going to fight this condition from a proactive standpoint, like I encourage other people to do?
Here’s what I know. I am strong enough to face the feelings that I’m having and make choices that will change the game.
I am willing to stay in the arena and battle the demons that tell me I’m not good enough and not pretty enough.
And I’m resilient enough to start over when I have to.
“What are you thinking about, Am?”
I guess I must have gotten quiet, but the question brought me back to the present moment. Aron is one of the only people who has seen the day-to-day, week-to-week battle of the last year and a half. As my strength coach, he’s had to endure the past few brain surgeries and recoveries almost as if he was going through them himself—and it’s been a rocky road. And as one of my closest friends, he also knows that when I don’t say anything, I’m probably thinking about something.
The monkey mind rarely stops thinking.
So, I looked up at him (upside down) and answered. “I didn’t lose any strength.”
Those words are heavier than all the pounds of weight loaded on the barbell I just lifted. As I laid on my back and let my brain unwind, I thought about how hard it was to get back to this point.
The nights I couldn’t sleep more than a few hours.
The days when I could hardly move because of the pain.
The times we lifted weights with a giant ice pack ace bandaged to my torso.
Dose after dose of anti-nausea medication.
The many times I’ve passed out.
Rep after rep of weight lifted off the ground—a symbolic tribute to the promise that I will stay in the arena.
Day after day of stringing little victories together until we can declare that I am finally healed from the latest greatest trip to the operating room.
All of it is part of this crazy, excruciating, confusing, and beautiful lesson I’m learning… that I am living proof that you can find peace in the midst of chaos and catastrophe.
“No Am… you’re stronger than you were. We are stronger than we were.”
Aron, you’re right. We are stronger. I bury myself in this constant drive for progress, obsessing over all the little things and losing sight of the big picture. I need to zoom out and look at the journey through a different lens, recognizing that I’m making it. We’re making it.
As it always is, the physical recovery from the surgeries I had last year (May, September, and October 2018) has been a roller coaster. If you’ve ever had brain surgery, I know you understand this. But truly… if you’ve ever had ANY type of surgery – let alone back-to-back-to-back surgeries – you get it. The effects that the anesthesia alone leaves on your body can take months to correct. The biggest struggle I’ve experienced in this recovery period has been extreme nausea every morning. Naturally, we’ve assumed that this was an issue with the drainage of my shunt – either too much or too little. We’re about four months into figuring out a shunt setting and combination of anti-nausea medications to get this under control. My neurosurgeon has adjusted my shunt setting a few times, and my primary care doctor and pain management specialist are involved in finding the right combo of meds. It’s a constant work in progress – we rejoice on the days when it seems even a tiny bit better, and plough through the tough days when it feels like it will never end.
As my friend and fellow hydro warrior Bryant always reminds me, “Chin up, eyes forward.”
Mentally and emotionally, I am doing well. I have created a routine in which I can regularly have a peaceful couple of hours to myself in the morning, and it has helped me immensely. Between my career, my time in the gym, and the fact that I live with two of my siblings (which is amazing!) I am around people all day long. I decided about a year ago that I would get up earlier every day in order to have some quiet time and a routine time to study, pray, and write. I’ve grown to love this time, and it’s not hard to wake up early any more.
As we near the end of the first quarter of 2019, I’m excited about the plans and goals I have for this year. I’ve got some projects coming up that will stretch my comfort and challenge me mentally. Every day is a new opportunity to grow and learn, connect with people, and be influenced by the good things around me. God has truly blessed me and kept me safe through all the insanity swirling through my world the past few years—and I am prepared to move forward as called.
We’re only going to get stronger. We don’t go backwards.
It’s like riding a bicycle downhill without brakes. We can pedal backwards, but we keep rolling forward.
Let’s do that.
for Aron - Love, Monkey
Towards the end of last summer, I was challenged by my neurosurgeon to dedicate 100 days to getting as strong as possible, physically & mentally. He hoped that during that time, I would be able to stay healthy, and I would go into the fall ready for what we already knew was an inevitable shunt surgery. So, along with a couple of my friends and my strength training team, I jumped into an incredible 100 day journey. I committed to posting once a day on my Instagram account— documenting, recognizing, and acknowledging the things I did every day to become stronger. It was really fun on some days, and really challenging on others.
Unfortunately, my brain didn't cooperate, and I had my 16th brain surgery on the 30th day. I took a few days off, then started up again— pressing myself to find the strength in the many tiny victories of recovery… and using my tears to fuel my drive for better days.
I finished my 100 days of strength on Thanksgiving Day. On that day, I reflected on the path I had followed for those three months. The nights in the gym, and the talks with my friends. The brain surgery, and the recovery that followed. The quotes that pushed me to keep going, and the daily battle to stay in the arena. I had finished the challenge, and I was stronger. In that moment of reflection, I was so thankful that I have people in my life who care enough about me to push me relentlessly, and who are never afraid to walk with me through the valley of the shadow of death. We do it together, and we come out stronger.
I’ve had an incredibly difficult year. I’m recovering again from surgery, and it’s been a difficult few weeks. But, today at lunch time, I was looking through the photos on my phone, and I stumbled upon the video montage of the 100 Instagram posts, that I had uploaded to YouTube. It made me feel a little emotional, because it was a reminder of something I have learned this year… That I may feel like I’m struggling right now, but I am in total control of myself, my thinking, and my actions. If I choose to be strong, I am strong. And I choose strength.
Today, I’m going to start a new #100daysofstrength — and this time, it’s different. Last time, Dr. Yundt challenged me, and this time, I am challenging myself. I’m not able to work out for another week or so, but every day I will honor the journey to more mental, emotional, spiritual, and then… physical strength.
Follow my #100daysofstrength on Instagram @stayinthearena
On the counter, there’s a plastic model of a brain, made up of 8 pieces. If he’s running behind schedule, I take it apart while I wait, and put it back together. I reflect on the simplicity and complexity of this incredible organ, and the power it has to change the world. I carefully put the model back together, and my heart aches that my own brain is so broken. Reassembling the parts brings me a certain peace, as if it symbolizes the journey we take, time and time again. If only it was that easy. I sit in the chair next to the exam table, and wait for closure, approval, and comfort.
Then he’s there, and I get the word. I hear the phrase, and I absorb the challenge. Go get stronger. I feel the concern he tries to hide, and I see the urgency that we experience every day. Over the past few years, I’ve learned to read that resolve in his expression. He’s proud of me, and so happy I’m ok— but we need to be relentless in the pursuit of recovery. Stronger. Go as far forward as possible, before we get pulled backwards again. Stronger, so we can face the unknown. Stronger, so I can walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and fear no evil. Stronger, so I can still be Amy when they wake me up. Stronger.
Right now, I am obsessed with gaining strength, because I can feel that there are tough days coming. It’s a sensation I can’t explain, and there are no words to describe the fear I’m suppressing. On the outside, my walls are up, hiding the fact that behind the brick and mortar, the foundations are cracked already, and I am bracing myself for the fall. I lift even when I hurt, and leave the pain on the gym floor. Every day I keep moving, and I keep pushing. I will be stronger - a little bit, every single day.
If nothing else, I will be strong enough to start over, if I have to.
I’ve always been strong enough, in ways the world will not see.
There’s a hole in the middle of my heart again
But I’m not afraid to start again
Start again, I’m gonna start again
There’s a hole in the middle and it never mends
It never mends
But I’ve got to start again
(Conrad Sewell - Start Again)
Follow my #100daysofstrength on my Instagram account @stayinthearena
In the summer of 2012, I was healing from my shunt re-placement surgery, and was encouraged by my neurosurgeon to work on my physical fitness, and specifically to get my body fat percentage down. I was not terribly overweight, and had never been concerned about body image, so I was hesitant to work with a personal trainer. In light of the challenging physical condition I was in at the time (no strength and zero balance!), working with a trainer could have easily been a disaster, if it wasn’t the right person. Clifton met Joe Locascio, at trainer at our gym, chatted with him a bit, and felt like he was a good match for me. Trusting my husband’s judgment, I went forward - and he was right, Joe was absolutely the right fit, wasn't intimidated by my hydrocephalus, and really wanted to help us. The relationship that formed those first few difficult months resulted in an amazing friendship, and ultimately led to some pretty significant changes in our lifestyle. The strength training and balance work that I started with Joe also led to the current training I do at Courthouse Performance Training here in Salem, Oregon. Being physically strong has been a game-changer for me, and as you all know, is a major component in how we prepare my body for the battles of surgery, and rehabilitate it after the trauma. But the guidance and advice he gave us regarding my nutrition was the most important thing I took away from the training, and started me back on the road to overall health.
Joe introduced me to the concept of an anti-inflammatory diet, and I began to learn about the Paleo lifestyle. Eliminating grains, processed sugar, and processed dairy from my diet greatly reduced the stress and inflammation in my body. I found a lot of great resources and support online, and purchased a book called Practical Paleo, by Diane Sanfilippo. In this book, she outlines different protocols based on your specific health goals, and there was a section on Neurological Health. I was fortunate enough to meet and connect with Diane at a book signing in Portland, and she and her team have been so supportive and gracious to me.
Two years ago today, Diane featured my story on her nationally recognized Paleo blog, www.balancedbites.com - The feedback I received from the article was amazing, and it was the first time that I realized that I could impact other people by sharing what had helped me to manage my hydro. So, here we are, I now have a blog of my own… I really want to thank Diane for the inspiration she gave me to give back, and all of the incredible connections I have made in the Paleo community due to her featuring me on Balanced Bites.
As a result of these changes we made to my diet, and my strength training with Joe, I am a completely different person physically. I lost over 50 pounds of body fat and gained 10 pounds of lean mass (muscle) in the first year, and went from a size 14 to a size 4 in just 9 months. It was a drastic shift, and I know that being in better shape has made a big difference to reduce how hard my body and brain have had to work to get me through the repeated shunt surgeries. My neurosurgeon has been very supportive of this anti-inflammatory diet, as he believes that it assists my body in healing. I encourage everyone to look at their nutrition as a major component in the management of hydrocephalus - as what we eat and drink not only affects healing after surgery, but it also directly affects our production and absorption of CSF. Consult with your medical team to see if the Paleo diet or something similar could be a benefit for you! You can also check the Treatments & Therapies page on my website, and the Resources page - for more information and links.
It’s important to be willing to do whatever it takes to keep moving forward. For me, being strong and eating right helps me to feel like I’m staying “ready” for whatever lies around the bend. I might not be able to control what happens with my shunt, but I can work hard to keep the rest of my body healthy and happy… Which means I lift kettlebells and eat bacon on a regular basis.
Stay in the arena.
My name is Amy but friends and family call me Am. I am a lover of dogs, good whiskey, and strength training. I'm a brain surgery survivor (x29), a fiddle player, a construction designer, and a boxing enthusiast. I have six real siblings, and five fake brothers. I love deeply, and consider my close friends to be family.