Fitness Heal

Brokeback Lifter: How a Back Injury Helped Me Make Peace with My Body

“The heaviest squat I did before my surgery will be my heaviest squat, ever,” I told my wife as we watched snippets of the CrossFit Games, our laptop perched on her right knee and my left. There’s a difference between being afraid something is true and knowing it is, and this particular knowing snuck up on me.

My wife doesn’t lift weights, but she understands ambition and heartbreak, and knows that squatting heavy used to be my extended personal metaphor.

Before, my metaphor was hunger. When I was a young patient on the eating-disorders unit, part of our therapy was to examine—and write down—what we wanted to eat. Something sweet or salty? Smooth or crunchy? Hot or cold? But I’d fought my hunger long enough that it had given up and gone away.

I remembered “hungry” like I remembered the smell of preschool crayons—how nice, but how very long ago and far away!

What I wanted, to feel like I was OK and not bad, wasn’t on the “What Do You Want?” list. So I just guessed. What would a person want? A real person, not just a body that needed to be controlled and contained; joylessly fed and slept at regular intervals.

A well-entrenched eating disorder is like a strict religion in which you are both the god and the penitent; the one who invents the rules and the one who follows them to the letter. It’s also just as boring: Chewing every bite 30 times. Two full glasses of water before every meal. Weeping on a treadmill and writing bad poetry about Sisyphus. Every station of the cross; every bead on the rosary. Perpetual Lent; never Easter.

This is how I thought it would always be.

I carried disordered eating into my young adulthood in the same way someone fresh out of a cult ditches the wacky hairstyle but still feels uneasy during thunderstorms, because what if it’s the Rapture and she’s being left behind?

When I was 32 (and still more occupied by the thigh gap than the wage gap) I met a brilliant, witty, throw-yourself-face-first-onto-the-sidewalk beautiful woman who LOVED to lift weights. Because her passion was contagious, and because she wasn’t a romantic prospect, I could relax enough to lift with her. Squats? Yeah! The clean-and-jerk? Sure! The snatch? Hee hee! Hee hee hee!

The violent propulsion of a cold, heavy object did for me what hospitalization, outpatient therapy and dozens of books didn’t: I started caring less about how my body looked and more about what it could do. I found a CrossFit gym and met other women—finally, finally—who weren’t trying to be smaller, didn’t want to be less. 

 It was good to go up a weight class! We were going to live to be centenarians who could tie our own shoes and never have to depend on anyone! We were so metal.

We were hungry—for grass-fed beef and sweet potatoes and almonds, but also for achievement; for sex and sleep and fighting back. Feeling hungry made me feel alive. What would a person want? This.

When I squatted 1.5 times my bodyweight, I knew I’d found a new church.

“Strength is power!” I used to say to anyone who’d listen. “Weightlifting is the best way to take back your power!”

People said weights would make me bulky, but I found freedom in strength and size, in small and then larger gains, and in the lifting culture that said, “You can do it, badass!” I was the feminist Chuck Colson of the clean and jerk; the sweaty little Joan of Arc of the weighted pull-up. Not ladylike to grunt and gnash my teeth and scream at the weights? Not caring! Hold the crucifix level with my eyes!

Some things you can say with your body – no matter your body shape or condition – that you can’t say out loud: I need. I want. I will not. I am. I am. I am.

Weights and high-interval intensity training owned me to the exclusion of all else, because every few weeks I saw muscles where there were none before. Muscle tissue, in its way, is scar tissue: It builds itself back up in response to trauma. Lifting weights creates tiny tears deep in the muscle fiber, which heal and re-create themselves bigger and stronger than they were before – in case you ask them to lift those weights again.

And you do.

When a friend took a picture of me squatting, my larger-than-average thighs shaking beneath the bar, my face a cave of righteous pain, I zeroed in not on how I looked but on what I was accomplishing.

Then I broke my back. More accurately, I kept lifting with an undiagnosed spinal fracture, bulging disc, and raging case of degenerative spondylolisthesis, all of which were lurking in there before, but which lifting (and turning 40) had exacerbated.

I was calmly walking through the office at work when I heard, rather than felt, my fifth lumbar vertebra go. The muffled, medium-grade whine in my back shot down my right leg, finishing as a symphonic scream somewhere near my ankle. I sat down. I stood up. I took four Tylenol. I worked until 5 p.m. and then went to the gym. It was deadlift day. No excuses!

Six weeks later, at the urging of everyone who had to watch me limp around, I struggled into an MRI machine and lay there as it knocked about in search of the problem.

“I bet that hurts,” the surgeon said later, pointing out the place where the vertebra had sheared away from the spine and was hanging there, unmoored, just being a sad little  emo vertebra all on its own. “Why didn’t you come in earlier?”

I didn’t come in earlier because I didn’t want my back to be as bad as I knew – knew for months – that it was. I didn’t want to hear my body say, “I’m broken,” didn’t want to be weak and scared again.

After my surgery, I contained two metal screws, two spacers, and two rods. When I’m cremated, I thought, it’ll be someone’s job to rake through the hot ashes and find all this titanium.

I went home, medically forbidden from bending at the waist. I used a “Trigger Grip Nifty Nabber NT080″ to reach the sweatpants on my top shelf (Amazon is still trying to sell me mobility aids). I found a real-life use for pistol squats while brushing my teeth at the sink; straightening my right leg and bending my left until my butt was low enough to let me access the faucet without bending or twisting.

Within days—and though I’d expected this, I was still angry with myself—my body dysmorphia returned. Only this time, instead of feeling fat, I felt shrunken, my skin pooling softly where my muscles used to be.

I couldn’t do anything about it for months but go for long, chilly walks, trying not slip on the ice and break my back again. If I walked too far, I’d wake up in the morning with my scars, a triad of vertical four-inchers, hot and tingly.

I will never again be able to push like a maniac to see how far I can go with a barbell. I am not what I was. Which, I guess, are the six words that sum up the butt-kicking circuit workout of life: Move and pause; work and rest. We get hurt; we heal. We get sick; we recover. Then we get old—painful in a culture that believes personal power and strength always build in a linear, ever-upward trajectory.

Now that I know what it’s like to be a fierce physical specimen one day, and the next need a little footstool to get into bed without screaming, my definition of power and progress is circular. Some days, Fate is with us. We go hard; we stop for breath; we bang out a few more reps and then we stretch. We end in the same place we began, so we want a reason to feel pride in-between.

I’ve disconnected my power cord from the barbell. A workout isn’t a permission slip permitting me to like myself. It’s not a toll bridge to the Land of The Only Way. On a non-workout day, I’m still the same person – a reader, a writer, a wife, a daughter, a friend. I get up to a lot of things, and only one of them is exercise.

Just as I am not what I look like, I am not what I can do.

dumbellsMy back and I, five months post-surgery, treat each other better than ever before. We do a little HIIT, some reasonable weights, and barre here and there. If something hurts, we stop.

My worth isn’t in question. I don’t have to earn it. The weights are only building materials, and the gym is not a house of worship. Iron and titanium are not the making, or the unmaking, of me. After a workout, I look down at the weights and see them clearly: A few innocent hunks of metal exactly like the ones in my back, only bigger. That’s all they are; nothing more, nothing less.

About the author

Sarah Sabalos-Gruber

Sarah Sabalos-Gruber

Sarah Sabalos-Gruber is a committed fitness dabbler who likes
CrossFit, Olympic lifting, barre, P90X, kickboxing, mountain biking,
yoga, and exploring the urban forests of Flagstaff, AZ with her wife
and their dachshund. She doesn't do team sports, but once she did
volunteer as a Pillow Fight League referee (to impress a girl). She is
afraid of heights and worms, but not of snakes or spiders. Nine times
out of 10, she orders the chocolate dessert. Her secret weapon is an 8
p.m. bedtime.


  • I am actually relieved that you were able to make peace with your body. This is one thing that we should keep reminding our colleagues especially those who are just about to begin with weightlifting and bodybuilding–do not overtrain; do not over lift. We all know that all that’s excessive could be very harmful and there, we see people break their spines because of lifting weights that is more than our capability. We cannot rush things, good physique really takes time!

  • Oh how I can relate. I loved heavy lifting & your description here is exactly how it made me feel. Then, out of nowhere, I injured my neck. I too will have someone shifting through my ashes looking for titanium. My recovery process has been incredibly slow and far more painful than I expected. A year & half later I have been cleared to lift up to sixty lbs. No more. I’m finally back at the gym & am frustrated with how much I can’t do anymore. Thank you for sharing this. It’s exactly what I needed to read right now.

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