How a Weightlifting Accident Led to Delayed-Onset PTSD
by George McMillan, Jr.
| PTSD: My Story Project #003
I’ve chosen to participate in the PTSD: My Story Project to help spread awareness, break the stigma, and correct public misunderstandings about PTSD.
On June 20th, 2019, I had a weightlifting accident that led to PTSD.
A common misconception is that PTSD is reserved for military personnel who get injured or go through some kind of traumatic experience during combat. But the truth is, PTSD can happen to anyone, at any time.
The only prerequisite for post-traumatic stress disorder is undergoing a traumatic experience. And everybody reacts to trauma differently.
This past March I chose to share my story online through a Tik Tok video. The video went semi-viral, but sadly I encountered just as much negativity as support.
What the experience showed me was how much of a public misunderstanding there is about PTSD. And the stigma surrounding it.
Meaning, bringing up the subject can get you ridiculed, laughed at, or disbelieved. I had a few tell me I deserved it.
People might even tell you to “toughen up” or diminish your experience by comparing it to something military-related.
It’s enough to keep someone from speaking up about their PTSD symptoms. This is why this post is the first time I’ve shared my story since the video (link below).
My Story of Delayed-Onset PTSD
I’m a stay-at-home dad, so I go to the gym at night after my kids are in bed. And by that time, I’m usually both physically and emotionally drained.
The day of the accident was especially draining, full of extra responsibilities that shouldn’t have been mine to handle. So when I went to the gym that night, I think I just wanted a win. Or to regain some sense of control.
Instead of giving myself an easy arm and leg workout before the weekend, I decided to do a heavy chest day. And needless to say, it turned out to be a bad decision.
I work out at Planet Fitness (PF) since it’s open 24 hours a day and fits my late-night lifestyle.
This also means I have to bench press on a smith machine instead of with free weights. And smith machines aren’t great on the shoulders.
Our PF location had been remodeled recently. One smith machine was wobbly and a couple of others seemed extra stiff.
Meaning it felt like more resistance was being added to the bar throughout its range of motion.
I started low and worked my way up in weight like usual. When I noticed a little bit of shoulder irritation on my second to the last set, I didn’t think much of it.
So I decided to go for one more set at 350 lbs. Nothing I hadn’t done before. And figured I’d record it since I hadn’t posted a workout video on Instagram in a couple of weeks.
What should have been a fun lift, turned into a disaster. I groaned and yelled out, “I think I tore something!”, while a 350 lb bar lay on top of me.
One moment I’d felt stronger than I’d ever been in my life (at 38), and the next moment, I felt powerless. My body had given out on me without warning.
I was pinned under the weight for a few seconds before a friend saw me and ran over. She couldn’t lift it, but then a few other guys ran over and grabbed the other side. Together we lifted it enough to lock the machine, and I sat up.
I told them something had torn, but at the same time, I tried to convince myself that it hadn’t. Turns out I was in shock and denial but didn’t realize it at the time.
The next day I went to the ER to find out the truth.
Luckily I had a video of the incident to show the doctors exactly what had happened. They knew it was a tear before seeing the test results.
It took a week to get in to see an orthopedic surgeon. He told me how severe the damage was and what my options were.
I had the choice to let it heal by itself, with part of the pectoralis major tendon detached, and never get my full strength back. Or to have surgery, physical therapy, and get most of my strength back within a year.
We went with the second option. And I’m glad I did. Because the damage turned out to be way worse than the surgeon initially thought it was.
Warning: Graphic weightlifting accident.
(It took about a year and a half before I could watch the video and decided to post it online.)
PTSD And Surgery
Even though I had an amazing surgeon (he’s worked with professional sports teams), something felt wrong about the surgery.
It was my second major surgery in two years. I had fallen down wet porch stairs the summer before and tore the patellar tendon in my knee. But that surgery had gone fine, and I didn’t feel this type of anxiety or dread.
I didn’t know if it was because I was choosing to have this surgery. After all, it involved getting my chest cut open, or because I felt like I was already lucky to be alive.
So I made my peace and prayed for my kids as I lay alone waiting for the anesthesia to kick in. Because I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wouldn’t make it through this one.
Can You Have PTSD After Major Surgery?
Due to the damage, the surgery took a lot longer than he initially told us.
Both of the major pectoral tendons were torn. So it took over 4 hours, Kevlar strands, and metal screws to fully repair them.
I lifted big and tore big. Luckily the pain didn’t last as long as it had with my patellar tendon surgery.
The first four or five days were tough though, and they had only given me three days worth of pain medicine. So that caused me a lot of anxiety.
And some of the chest pains and shallow breathing issues I was having in the first few weeks following the surgery had me convinced that something wasn’t right.
I didn’t feel safe, but with a house full of kids during the daytime (mine and their cousins), I didn’t have the time or space to deal with my feelings.
When I went in for my follow-up, the Dr. told me I’d most likely never regain most of my strength. Especially since my other shoulder/pec could be at risk of tearing too.
That was depressing news.
My favorite source of stress relief was being taken away from me, again.
Physical Therapy and Recovery
Physical therapy started near the end of the summer. We took it slow, but there was no escaping the pains and fears. The stretches were necessary to regain full range of motion, but sometimes they felt like the tendons were tearing again.
As I regained my strength, I went back to the gym. Mostly to work out my other muscles. Remember, I still had a knee to strengthen, that was only a year post-surgery itself.
I avoided chest exercises and the smith machines altogether. Just thinking about them gave me flashbacks.
Weightlifting had been my biggest stress reliever but had now become my biggest source of stress.
I was ultimately afraid of tearing another tendon. But the fear surfaced with every unexpected pain or sensation happening throughout my body.
Delayed-Onset PTSD Symptoms
I spent my 39th birthday (November 2019) at the ER.
Midway through the day, I convinced myself I was having heart attack symptoms. Due to the chest pressure, arm pains, trouble breathing, and racing pulse. My blood pressure was running higher than normal.
The diagnosis was that it wasn’t a heart attack, rather the stress and pain from my back-to-back surgeries and recoveries had triggered the high blood pressure. The ‘heart attack’ symptoms were most likely anxiety attacks.
Digestive Problems Can Be a Sign of PTSD
A few months later the gyms shut down because of the quarantine. But being away from a gym environment didn’t help.
By early summer (2020), the anxiety had progressed into panic attacks and digestive problems.
The discomfort started as acid reflux and bloating but became increasingly painful over a few weeks.
Meaning, pains running up and down my back, into my neck, and through my chest. This led to panic attacks nearly every time I tried to eat.
It’d been a year since the accident and eating had become another PTSD trigger. Within a month, I’d lost 25 pounds.
I had an MRI and ultrasound but the tests came back negative for organ problems. The doctors changed my acid reflux medications twice, but nothing helped.
How to Respond to PTSD
Eventually, I realized that the bloating wasn’t just a delayed symptom of PTSD, but was a physical manifestation of living in such a fearful, emotional state.
What if trying to shrink my life and control every detail had led to most of my physical health problems?
This turned out to be a big part of it. I needed to stop running from the pain and face it head-on.
Accepting the reality of my situation and remembering to use mindfulness techniques whenever symptoms arose are the two things that ultimately saved me.
Stop Fighting Your PTSD
I had to fully accept how I felt during an attack and take complete responsibility for my reactions.
In other words, surrender to the feelings and situations of the present moment. Don’t push them away or react out of fear. Stay as present as possible.
Allow Yourself to Believe Life Can Get Better
At this point, I dreaded getting out of bed because it felt like there was no way to escape daily panic attacks. But I had to open myself up to the possibility that my emotional state could change and my PTSD reactions could lessen over time.
● I kept doing my mindset work and affirmations even though my situation felt hopeless
● I journaled more often to keep my head clear and to gain a better understanding of my triggers
● Practicing gratitude was surprisingly easy because I was thankful for every day I was alive and with my family
If you’re in a similar situation and need a few journaling prompts, try:
● What did you learn from the situation?
● Did anything positive come from it?
● Is there a way you can turn your pain into purpose and help others in a similar situation?
Can Mindfulness Help PTSD?
Practicing mindfulness is what finally helped to lessen my symptoms.
Uncontrollable emotions and reactions count on us to remain unconscious of them. So every time we light them up with our full awareness, they lose some of their momenta.
The key is to let yourself experience everything going on inside of you fully and without judgment. Your role is to mindfully observe, not participate.
Staying mindful while eating helped me feel “at home” in my body again, and my panic reactions began to fade.
When I eventually did go back to the gym, I used the same technique to calm myself down during my workouts.
Conclusion – Living With PTSD
It’s been almost two years since the accident and I’m back at the gym three to four days per week.
The anxiety has lessened, but it’s not gone completely. Some days are worse than others. But I take it slowly and grow through my pains and fears.
But I’m working on that as well.
The delayed-onset PTSD has become manageable. I educated myself on the subject and have a few tools I can use whenever a strong emotion takes me over.
Thanks for reading and good luck on your healing journey.
George McMillan, Jr.
George McMillan, Jr. is a personal development blogger and certified life purpose coach with a passion for helping entrepreneurs fulfil their purpose through their business. He believes that through self-awareness, a growth mindset, and purposeful living, anyone can make a difference in the world and live a happier, more meaningful life. You can find more of George’s work here www.georgemcmillanjr.com
Share your experience
Do you have experience with PTSD, or do you take care of / live with someone who has? Would you like to share your story in a guest blog post?
I’m not an expert or a health professional, so the aim of this project isn’t to offer professional advice. Neither is it to pity those who experience PTSD. That’s not what I want. My aim is to raise awareness of PTSD. By sharing your story, you can inspire and empower others. You can highlight the methods that helped you. This way, you can encourage others to reach out for help.
And it may help you as well. Perhaps it’s something you feel like you’re not able to talk about within your closest circle and would like to connect with others in a similar situation. It’s nothing more than bearing an untold story inside you.The fact is that our society still lacks an understanding of mental health. Therefore, I’ve decided to share my story and invite others to join me in this project and write a blog post about their experience. By working together, we can help destigmatise mental health problems and promote wellbeing.
To be featured
If you would like to join in and share your story on my blog but don’t have the experience of writing a blog post, this isn’t a problem. You can still DM me or send me a message, and I’d be happy to assist you with the writing. And you can use a pseudonym if you wish to stay anonymous. You can share as much of your story as you want in a way you feel comfortable with.
The only thing I ask is that you mention ‘PTSD: My story project’ in your post and briefly state why you have chosen to take part in it. You will be allowed to approve the post before publishing it, should it be edited.