When is the last time you completed a “next-best-hardest-thing” you’ve undertaken? A thing that was self-induced, harder than what you have done before in some important realm in your life, and that at times made you want to crawl in a hole and rock for hours in the fetal position. A challenge that pushed you to and beyond your limits, hurt at times, but ultimately yielded a profound sense of accomplishment and personal or professional growth. A thing you had a dramatic love/hate relationship with during the process, but would never change that thing looking back…
Was it a marathon? An Iron Man? Basic training? Adding to your family? Climbing a 14’er? Speaking in front of an audience that terrified you? Going on a mission trip that deeply affected you?
As you reflect on your last-best-hardest-thing, what made it special? What made it memorable? Was it the sense of accomplishment as you crossed that finish line or swore in to serve your country? Was it hearing that new little voice let out her first cry? Was it the view, the applause, the gratitude of those you served?
I bet it was any of those things, and I have one to add: how about the relationships you fostered on the journey through that last-best-hardest-thing: your running pals, brothers and sisters-in-arms, the support of your spouse or family, the guide who reminded you to breathe at 13,900 feet, only 100 more to go? Maybe it was the friend who gave you feedback on your presentation, or the group you traveled with to Haiti that stands out in your memory as a safety net surrounding that last-best-hardest-thing?
I just finished up with a “professional” last-best-hardest-thing: Along with 8 other brave souls, I completed EIM’s inaugural run of the Pain Science Fellowship. I’m going to be perfectly honest here: I loved it. I hated it. I wanted to crawl in a hole once or twice. I even cried a couple of times throughout it (and I hate crying, but sometimes tears can be good pressure valves). I shook in my boots through it: to all who have experienced the terrifying gift of having your peers “in your clinic” with you via Virtual Rounds, you know what I’m talking about here… HELLO VULNERABILITY!
I also laughed WAY more than I cried. I learned WAY more than I bargained for. I thought more deeply about how human beings work, in all their beautiful, messy complexity, than I ever had before. My empathy deepened. My clinical decision-making and treatment skillsets grew. I contributed to the literature along with the rest of my bothers- and sisters-in-arms. I stretched (metaphorically speaking…if you know me you know I hate stretching). I grew as an individual. I grew as a mom, wife, sister, daughter and friend. I grew as a leader. I care more about the future of our country than I ever have, so I guess that means I grew as a citizen too.
Crossing the “finish line” was accompanied by a sense of relief… “Ahh!!!! I will have time to write some blogs again!!! Recreational writing?? What’s that??!! Oh…how I’ve missed this!” Crossing the finish line also made me ask myself, what was the best part of all that? What is the thing I will carry with me and cherish more than all the rest? And I can say, without a doubt, that while the material was exceptional, the format engaging, and the weekend intensives completely rejuvenating, the thing that was the most precious to me was my FELLOW fellows.
Our group had a saying: “Iron sharpens iron.” It comes from a proverb and is pretty self-explanatory. My fellow P-FITs (Pain Fellows in Training… now graduates—does that make us P-GRADS??) are among the sharpest, most brilliant, motivated, caring, committed and innovative individuals that I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. They challenged me, helped me identify my own biases, think in new ways, affirm what I’m doing well and improve on the areas where I need to up my game. They came alongside me during hard times, and they very simply made my life deeper and fuller…#lovethisgroup.
A cool thing happened a couple of weeks ago. Armed with the knowledge from the PSF program and motivated by our “call to action” at the Capstone weekend, my courage was bolstered enough to reach out to one of my state representatives following the Wisconsin PT Association’s legislative day. I had made a nice connection with his staffer while in the capitol, and she encouraged me to e-mail him, as he has a special interest in addiction. I followed up on the staffer’s suggestion, and ended up meeting Jesse James for coffee (yep, that’s his real name! Don’t you love it?).
Over an amazing cup of raspberry chai latte, I got to know Jesse a bit, and he got to know Jessie a bit. We then addressed his issue of interest: addiction, specifically, addiction and pain. As a former law enforcement officer who has seen things from many vantage points, he had some great questions about pain, as our state will soon be more seriously exploring the legalization of medical marijuana. As a parent of teenage kids and young adults, he was curious about links between pain, depression, anxiety, and social media. I was able to share information with him about the nature of pain, what we know about active and passive treatments for it, and what we are doing to try to influence the next generation in terms of active coping strategies and pre-emptive pain neuroscience education.
Jesse was extremely engaged in our PNE crash-course. He even pondered aloud what it might take to get me down to the capitol to address all our state lawmakers on how pain works, prior to them making decisions about laws surrounding treatments which are promoted largely for the reduction of pain. He took a selfie of us and said this meeting would make his highlight reel, as it’s important that his constituents know what he’s up to. (I was mortified, as I had deemed it a hat-hair day…not professional at all)! While I haven’t seen an invite to Madison just yet, I trust that if that door opens, I can walk through it with the evidence, and more importantly, with my “tribe” behind me.
The feeling after that meeting can be accurately described as a dopamine-serotonin-oxytocin-YEEEEEE-HAAAAAAHHH!!!! And as I was describing it later to a dear friend, it occurred to me. This little “win” wasn’t a “Jessie P. victory.” This was a Becky victory, and a Mai Huong victory, and a Nick victory! Steve and Christine and Matt and Eric and Barb… they were all in that coffee shop with me. And so were the instructors who invested so generously of their time and talents to author the material and deliver it with expertise and passion. And so were all our families who supported us, and our friends and colleagues who encouraged us…not to mention our spiritual cornerstone, who crafts and shapes who we are. It hit me with such a rush of gratitude that our “accomplishments” are actually not our own at all, and the shared victories are so much sweeter than the solo ones.
When we do the next-best-hardest-thing, we are so often “standing on the shoulders of giants.” And oftentimes, as we labor through that best-hardest-journeys, we are walking amidst a fellowship of giants. It’s that part of “fellowship” that stands out to me as the most meaningful, and that’s the part that I carry closest to my heart.
So, what’s your next-best-hardest-thing? Who are your giants? I’d love to hear about it and celebrate the journey with you. Whatever it is, you can be rest assured the finish line is sweet indeed, but the giant-filled-journey itself is an amazing reward.
About the Author
Dr. Jessica Podolak, PT, DPT, TPS
Jessie received her Master’s Degree in Physical Therapy from the College of St. Catherine, Minneapolis, in 1998. She completed her transitional DPT from Regis University, Denver, in 2011. She has been teaching pain science and manual therapy techniques at continuing education courses since 2013. Jessie currently owns and operates her community’s first direct-pay physical therapy practice, seeing a variety of patients with acute and chronic pain conditions. She has special interests in manual therapy, Pilates, spine and running injuries. She is a certified clinical instructor through the APTA and has completed her Therapeutic Pain Specialist certification through ISPI. She recently completed ISPI’s Pain Science Fellowship.