The Effects of Injury on Mental Health

July 11, 2019

Once again it’s been quite some time since I’ve checked in on here. And just like anything, I think, the longer we stay away, the harder it is to go back. Maybe it’s shame for admitting our negligence. Maybe it’s fear that our return won’t be welcomed. Maybe a little of both. But, here I am. I can’t promise I’ll never go on a year-long hiatus again – it seems to be my nature, so I won’t even apologize for it. Instead I’ll thank you for your patience and for accepting me as a whole human, faults and all.

So what brings me back? A whole lot of things combined, I suppose. But if I had to sum it up, I suppose I would say my mental health. I’ve been struggling these last couple months. I’m ok; just struggling more than I prefer, and not handling it in the best way I can. This might be a long one, and admittedly, I probably need to write this much more than anyone of you needs to read it, so bear with me.

Last year was a year for joy and re-discovering myself. I was working out regularly so I was in great shape and felt really good in my body. I learned to line dance and spent most of the summer in cowboy boots ripping up the dance floor with a massive smile on my face. I actually socialized, way more than I have in years, and met some really amazing people. I made it a point to get the most out of each day, and felt like I was really kicking ass at this whole life thing. Last summer was among the best times of my life.  I suppose I’ve been riding that high for a while now, and it has been difficult to accept that sometimes life isn’t always fun and easy. I think it’s the stark contrast of how I feel now compared to the amazing past year, that makes my struggle so hard to embrace.

I hurt myself in the gym earlier this year. I had been out of my routine for a while, and I ended up with a gnarly calf strain after going way too hard in a workout. It was probably pretty comical to watch me try to walk/stand for a whole week after that workout, though it definitely didn’t feel funny. But I healed, at least I thought I did. I got back in the gym as soon as I could, determined to get back in my routine, to get back into shape, since I’d slipped back into overindulgence a bit. I recalled how I felt in my body that time last year, and was determined to get back.

Unfortunately, in my eagerness to progress, I pushed to hard. I’d push hard and then get sick or hurt and be out of the gym for a couple weeks. Then, I’d be back at it pushing even harder as soon as my body would allow it.  Around this same time, after 4 years at the same studio in the same timeslot, I decided to stop teaching yoga. I won’t go into all the details, but I got to the point where it no longer served me, so I had to let it go. The intent of course, was to take that time for me, taking more yoga, practicing on my own. But, of course, that didn’t happen. So here I was, doing sporadic intense bursts at the gym, with no yin to balance out all that yang.

I had been getting pain and discomfort on and off in my right ankle ever since my initial calf strain. It started out as a weakness, feeling like it was going to crumble under my weight. Then it transformed into pain radiating up the side of my leg and stabbing into that deep space in the back lateral side of the achilles. It was painful to walk, to drive, and even just to lay in bed sometimes. I kept pushing through, until I realized that the pain seemed familiar. I started flashing back to my dancing days in college, to the pain I felt leading up to my first and only surgery – lateral ankle ligament replacement. Suddenly I feared that I had ruptured or damaged one of those ligaments and the thought of having to undergo that surgery again became overwhelming. I could feel my blood pressure rise with the thought (worry) of another surgery.  So, after one last crazy push through a 6-week challenge at the gym, and some prodding from some very loving people, I finally gave in and booked an appointment with an Orthopedist.

Waiting for the MRI results was stressful, and I found it hard to keep that stress at bay. Even worse, without knowing what damage I might have done to my ankle, I was afraid to do too much physical activity, for fear of exacerbating the issue. When I needed an endorphin rush, a stress release, a community connection most, I found myself instead holed up at home, wallowing and catastrophizing. I’m happy to say the MRI results found my lateral ligaments fully in-tact – What a relief! But they also revealed achilles tendinitis and peroneal tendinitis. Both of which make PERFECT sense – both because of the type and location of the pain, and the typical causes of injury. My spirits lifted because at least with a diagnosis, and I could hone in and begin my recovery.

I’ve been in physical therapy twice a week since the beginning of June – just over a month. I’ve seen progress, then I’ve backslid. After 8 sessions, I’m still in the ‘calm and release’ phase, and haven’t even begun stability or strengthening exercises. It’s exhausting. My PT tells me there’s really no way to know how long it will be before I’m back in any normal activity, and that I just have to be patient. And I’m trying, really I am. I’m wearing the right shoes most of the time (no more ballet flats or flip flops), I’ve got a heal lift in my right shoe to keep the strain off of my achilles. I’m taking ibuprofen and icing 7,000 times a day. I keep an ice pack at work and have even taken a few days working from home just to avoid having to walk the quarter mile from my car to my desk.

But patience has never been my strength. And while I’m behaving in the ankle department, I’ve been slipping in all the others, and my mental health is suffering the consequences. I’ve always found the greatest joy in movement – for years I found that joy through performing arts and dance, then after my initial injury, I found yoga, and most recently I immersed myself in more rigorous exercise with boxing and strength training. Losing mobility is crippling not just to my body, but to my soul.

Even worse, I’ve learned over the years, that while naturally introverted, I do crave community and I’ve always found community through the people that I move with – the dance team, the yoga studio, the gym. Those are my people. So being separated from my movement routine has had a rather impressive and detrimental impact on my mood and sense of connection with humanity. I’ve retreated to my small circle of friends, whom I love dearly. But, along with that retreat into the known and the comfortable, I find myself feeling separated from my fellow humans and feel my anxiety kick back into full gear. It’s like an invisible force now separates me from those around me and I feel a dark cloud looming over head. It’s suddenly harder again to do the small things – getting gas, going to the grocery store, checking the mail – it all just sounds so overwhelming.

Even with all this struggle, I know that I am lucky. I’m lucky to be able to see what’s happening. I can see the dark cloud approaching. I can see that my mood is changing. I can see how this is affecting the way I behave and exist in the world. And I know that I, and only I, have control over all of this. I control how I react to the circumstances I find myself in, and it’s my responsibility alone to push back on the anxiety, the fear, even the anger, and decide to do and feel differently.

It’s hard work, to defy or alter on our instincts and our subconscious reactions. But it’s work that must be done, for our sake and for the sake of those who surround us. So, while there will be days that I wallow in front of the TV, and days where the pain or frustration is just too much to hold back the tears, I am determined to spend less time like this. I’m determined to take better care of myself and to find other things that bring me joy: cooking, writing, reading, gentle yoga, and sitting in silence. Rather than focusing on what I can’t do, I’m committed to exploring all the things that I can do. Perhaps there is more joy to be found in diversity of experience.

Perhaps, this is a blessing in disguise.

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