You’re on patrol. It’s dark out, but a deeper dark ever experienced back home. Hours pass until the sun begins to peak over the distant mountains. Ninety pounds of gear on your back, the shoulders straps dig into and compress your traps. Your rifle ready, grip loose but firm. You didn’t sleep much; concerns about the operation and ponders of Mom and Dad flooded your brain relentlessly as you laid in your rack. A small smooth rock nestled in between the sole of your boot and the soft flesh of your foot. Each step piles on a fraction of pain. All of that doesn’t matter now. Focus on the mission keeps those thoughts of nostalgia, doubt, fantasy, pain out of your mind as you step it out. Selfishness has been stripped from you years ago – boot camp instills putting your brothers and sisters’ wellbeing before you. You move forward, the only direction to go.
On the way, doc notices you’re favoring your left foot. Only aware of the compensation now, you shrug it off and push on. Hours go by, terrain is covered, miles are logged, pain amounts. Simple steps become laborious. Doc’s ever-watchful eyes catch you limping now. He wants to take a look. “It’s just a rock in my boot,” you dismiss. He gives you a that look, the one that says, “…well!” as if you know you should take the damn rock out of your boot, dumbass. You know it, you want to take the rock out, but that means halting the patrol, passing off your rifle, taking off your pack, taking off your boot, possibly find the culprit of a pebble, then put your boot back on, wrestle that pack back on your back, check your rifle, and get the squad going again. The squad leader won’t be thrilled, the other guys will give you shit. “I’m good, doc,” you conclude. The profound look on his face only grows. “Don’t worry, I’ll drink water and change my socks next stop.” Humor diffuses the pain, temporarily.
Let’s fast forward. You’ve been out of the service for 7 years now. You have a family, two kids, a dog, a big house, 2 SUVs, the whole nine yards and a white picket fence. On the outside, it looks great. It appears you’ve done well for yourself. But let’s take a walk inside that house. It’s fairly neat inside. That’s the way you like it. If it’s not, you get frustrated. You know you should be able to shrug that small stuff off, but you can’t. You’re depressed and resentful because you work an unfulfilling office job because of your disability – you left the service with bad knees, a bum back, which means you can’t take over the family construction business. The stress and turmoil puts you and your lover on the verge of divorce. The stress pushes you to pick up smoking again and having a few more beers than usual. Vicodin used to be the drug that made it all better, but you barely have enough strength to not go back to that. Yet you’re overweight, eat like crap, can’t sleep, and can’t even do a single pull up anymore. You wish you were back in, with your squad, in the middle of chaos, because at least it’s out of your control. It’s easier to react with your team than try to fix everything yourself.
Wait, how did I get here? Why aren’t I the lean, mean, fighting machine I was 7 years ago? I used to take responsibility and ownership of my actions, watch out for the people close to me, build them up and love them no matter what, accomplish the mission through grit, determination, and sometimes violence, but still have humility to laugh at myself with the team about tripping over my own boots in the middle of that firefight.
In there it lies- the reason why your life isn’t where you want it to be. You tripped. Just that once. That’s all it took. That innocent trip caused you to sprain your ankle. It wasn’t bad, you fought on, did your duty. But it only got worse as you had to hump back to base on that bad ankle. Doc wrapped it for you, gave you ibuprofen. It helped some, enough to finish the deployment. Months go by, the ankle still hurts, the limp is there. You don’t realize it, but your kinetic chain is out of alignment, causing your knees and back to hurt. Ibuprofen doesn’t do the trick anymore; something stronger is required. The x-rays don’t show much, they suggest a MRI. What a pain in the ass to schedule, I’ll be fine. Vicodin is prescribed and you are sent on your way. It works, for now.
Eventually an addiction is formed. A higher dose is needed. The pain is still there. You can’t exercise like you used to. You eat microwave pot pies and ice cream for every meal because it’s easy and the comfort food does it’s job. Your metabolism slows down, you gain weight. The extra weight gives you sleep apnea, degrading your body’s ability to recover and detoxify. This change in metabolism and lack of sleep also leads to mood swings, causing you to push away your friends and family. Relationships are destroyed, dreams are given up on, and lives are ruined.
All of this, because you didn’t take the damn rock out of your boot. Wait. What? Really? Whatever, shut up, that’s bullshit.
No. It’s not bullshit. Think about it. You’re divorced, diseased, and damn-near dead because you didn’t take that rock out of your boot. That rock impaired your ability to walk properly, which led to a muscle imbalance, increased fatigue, which caused you to trip and sprain your ankle. The resulting pain and lack of mobility caused your drug addiction, which led to poor body composition, due to poor diet and lack of sleep. Lastly, it ruined your relationships and outlook on life.
Yes, this is an extreme and dramatic cascade of events. Does that make it any less real? Sadly, it does not. We all know that our country is experiencing a decline in health and wellness. Chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, obesity, as well as cancer and poor mental health – it’s all running rampant. Our veterans are no exception. What’s the cause of this? Here’s the answer: It’s the proverbial rock in the boot. It’s not only the early signs that we aren’t well, but the choices we make, or not make, to take our own health into our hands and address those signs. You could have taken that rock out of your boot, felt better, and pushed on without pain. You wouldn’t have sprained your ankle, thrown your kinetic chain out of alignment, and resorted to painkillers, and so on.
This doesn’t mean we all have one defining moment in our lives that determines the overall outcome of health and wellness. This also doesn’t mean if you’re in poor health today it is too late. IT CERTAINLY IS NOT too late to start making the right choices for your health and wellness. You can turn it around, starting today.
A healthy life is a series of choices that occurs every single day. Whether we made the commitment to a healthy life years ago or yesterday, all that matters is that we make the right choice today. We can either choose to value our health, or ignore it to push on. We can take the rock out of our boot, or leave it in and trudge on. Some consequences are bigger than others. Some we can live with and be fine, some we can accept now but pay tenfold later.
Here are some examples of choices we can make or not make concerning the major pillars of health and well being:
Nutrition – I can eat well, being intentional with the nutrients I feed my body and mind in order for it to perform flawlessly. OR I can eat poorly, consuming easily accessible yet highly processed food that my body is unable to obtain any valuable nutrients from, hence degrading my body and mind’s ability to perform flawlessly.
Movement – I can move, manipulating, stretch, run, sprint, play sports, lift weights, Crossfit, train, wrestle, hike, swim, play with my kids, meditate, do yoga or jiu jitsu. This will put eustress (good stress) onto my body and mind’s systems, causing them to maintain and improve their ability to perform. OR I can remain sedentary, marathon watch Game of Thrones for the 5th time, sleep in longer, put off exercising one more day/week/month/year in hope my body and mind with be fine.
Sleep – I can make a real, intentional effort to get 7-9 hours of sleep every night to allow my body to properly detoxify and recover. OR I can get less or more than 7-9 hours of sleep, causing my body to hold onto toxins and not recover from the physical and mental stress I put on it the day before.
Relationships – I can make an intentional effort to be kind, helpful, honest, and show compassion for those around me. OR I can ignore them, steer them in the wrong direction, lie to them, or be selfish.
Healthy Behaviors – I can read a book for 30 minutes instead of watch TV for 30 minutes. I can take 15 deep, intentional breaths instead of smoking a cigarette. I can stop and appreciate the scenery around me instead of look at my phone. I can call one of my buddies from the service instead of only liking their picture on Facebook. I can help out others instead of relish the luxuries I have.
To boil it all down, your health is in your hands. Doctors, psychiatrists, counselors, support groups – they all are there to help you with your health. But it’s your decision to address your health now, or ignore it. Each day doesn’t have to be perfect; humans can’t score 100% on the health test everyday. But you can strive for it. Your body will thank you every day for the right decisions. All you have to do is listen and watch out for that rock in the boot.
Chris Joyce is a Marine Corps veteran, serving in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Now he is a functional medicine health coach focusing on incorporating functional medicine into veteran healthcare. Chris is a Huts for Vets Alumni, participating in two expeditions, and is helping future participants with their health goals before and after their trip to Margy’s Hut. His philosophy and work can be found on his website pathtoyourhealth.me.