Acceptance: The first and most important step
“You have to break, take breaks, or both.” - Yrsa Daley-Ward.
This quote, in time, has become my mantra for the last year and half. In a sea of constant waves of “why,” I have come to find that there may never be an answer to this question. Why me, why now, why can’t I be healthy? Many of us ask this question to ourselves all of the time. Whether it pertains to physical injury, mental insecurities, or the current state of our lives, and I think that is why setbacks are so hard to handle. We never fully understand the reason behind it, or what we could’ve done differently to change our current course of trajectory. I can start with a bit of my background. I am a 24 year old professional triathlete in Boulder, Colorado. Though typing those exact words, “professional triathlete,” makes me even laugh at myself. I haven’t felt like a professional of anything in quite a long time. I feel, that I now find myself explaining to those around me that I’m more of an “aspiring professional.” I live and train with full time professional athletes daily and this constant stimulus of success, especially at this point in my life, can be a bit hard to bear.
It all started last May with a twinge of foot pain. I didn’t think much of it and continued to train knowing my goals for the season. When that “twinge” became more pronounced, I knew something was not right. Scans were performed and I was clear to go. I had taken a sigh of relief, feeling like I had just escaped another stress fracture, but I don’t think lady luck was on my side. From this point on issues escalated and pain increased. I battled through hip and knee pain for a year before I finally was given the answer of a torn hip labrum. I felt a wave of relief rush over me when I read my MRI report. This moment, is when I thought I finally learned my “why.”
Flash forward a month and I find myself in an operating room to fix this injury. Recovery was going well and yet I found myself again being told I needed surgery on the other hip as well. Fast forward 7 months and here I am today, recovering from double arthroscopic surgery (doing well) but still trying to fix all of the “little things” that had turned into what seemed like an avalanche of “bigger things.”
Was I sad? Incredibly. Did I want to accept this is what my season and year was going to be? NO. Did I have to accept it? Yes. And not to sound like a AA meeting, but that was the biggest hurdle I felt that I had to overcome in the beginning, acceptance. Accepting that what I had originally planned would not come to fruition. Accepting that this is what was necessary if I wanted to continue to try to make a career out of this sport. Also accepting, that this is going to take time. Time. At this moment, it feels like I don’t have enough of it. This entire year has gone by in the blink of an eye and my immediate thought was, “I have wasted so much time.” And that is where the problem lies. I had viewed this entire process as a “waste” for so long. That was the real time wasted, the thoughts of negativity surrounding this entire injury. I feel as athletes and people we prepare ourselves for what we expect. We allot a certain time frame for events to occur and when things do not unfold in that specific bracket of time, that’s when the train goes off the rails. That was when I, myself, was least prepared and most vulnerable.
I believe that I had prepared myself for the ensuing recovery. I continuously told myself that things would be better “in a few months.” When my initial “5 month plan” turned into a “12 month plan” I felt rather detached. For a person who is as determined and driven, as I do view myself, I had lost a lot of that fire. I seemed to try to distance myself from the deep emotions I had for this sport. I believe a lot of us go through this phase of questioning. Wondering how a thing we love so much, and give more of ourselves to than anything else, can make us feel this way. I would say for most athletes who invest their heart and soul into their sport, that it is one of the tangible parts of their life that make them feel “whole.” When this snowball turns into what seems like an avalanche, we no longer feel whole, and that is how I did feel. I felt rather empty at times as if I wasn’t really doing much with my life and time. I understand that sounds very dramatic from the outside looking in, but I had uprooted my life post college to pursue this as my career and dream. So when I was no longer able to do what I loved, a bit of me felt lost. What seemed more upsetting and daunting to me, was that I began to feel myself become impartial to picking up where I had left off in training. The first month of ceasing exercise seemed to drag on for years. Going from sometimes 3 times a day of cardio vascular exercise, to 0 was a shock to my system. It was hard for me to digest every morning when I woke up, knowing my training plan had zero exercise on the agenda. After the first 3 months, I began to no longer yearn to go out for a ride or run and had began to acclimate to just normal everyday functioning. Wake up, work from home, eat, sleep, and repeat. Imagining my life back into a constant cycle of training was the furthest thing from my mind. Looking back on it, I believe I was using this as a coping mechanism. Mentally pushing myself far away from what had caused this “hurt.” When I had returned back to Colorado following the second surgery I had discussed this with my coach as a worry I did have with returning. I worried I didn’t have the same spark and fire inside me that I had before. I worried I was no longer truly invested in this dream and you can’t do this job without a desire inside. My one goal at that point, was to get that appetite for training and competing back.
This brings me to my road to recovery; both mental and physical. Physically I am the most unfit I’ve been since probably the age of 5. It’s funny to think that during our “off-season,” we come back feeling sluggish, and out of breath. Right now I feel like that, but on a scale to 10 of out-of-shapeness, I’m an 11. Physical changes will happen, and I know I will get back into shape. Mentally, I’m doing better. I have accepted where I am. I have understood that this will take time (that word is starting to sound like a curse word now!) I have also realized the amount of support I have around me, and that is what has helped me out of this ditch the most. I worried about my drive to get back into this sport, but I have witnessed my training partners perform amazing feats and while watching it I get a stomach full of butterflies. I didn’t lose my fire to compete, it just had to be put on hold for a little while. I also had a strong support from my family throughout my entire first and second surgeries to remind me that there really is more to life than swim, bike, run. Which is really quite important to recognize when dealing with an injury. Just because you can’t exercise, life goes on, and so should you.
I also believe I have even grown mentally and have learned from past mistakes that have lead me to my current state. I have learned that the little things are the backbone to larger things. That the smallest of details can have the biggest impacts. There are so many factors I had overlooked before that I can take with me from here on out and implement in training. I began to grow tired of the saying I had heard from many that, “you’ll come back stronger from this.” I had heard this mantra too many times in my athletic career. I grew tired of hearing it and honestly felt it was cliche. Now, months later, maybe those people were right. I may not feel “physically stronger”, but I do feel more prepared for what is to come.
Finally, I think the best way I dealt with this year plus long process has been
perspective: I believe as most humans it is normal to complain. We complain about the hardships we endure and the things in our lives that could be better. Some of our complaints are small, others are much larger in comparison. Personally, I am the Chief Executive Officer of complaining, and those close to me can laugh in agreement. One thing that has helped me in this specific journey is: perspective. I have a great example daily of what people can be going through that I am fortunate to be rid of. My mother is a registered nurse at an oncology center in town, and treats patients who are stricken with cancer. Hearing the stories of what others are dealing with versus a small surgery for a tissue tear puts it into perspective that I am fortunate to have great health, despite minor setbacks. My mother admires and values the positivity her patients exude, and I know I can take a chapter out of their books. My entire first surgery recovery was done at home in Pennsylvania, and having this bit of perspective throughout it all really helped. I remember specifically my mom telling me about a patient, (don’t worry no names were given, she follows hippa oath!) who was battling about 3 different types of cancer; breast, bone, and lung. As this woman was getting hooked up for chemo, with her hair disappearing, she exclaimed that: it can always be worse. Imagine that. A woman in one of the greatest uphill battles not surrendering. So how can I?
We all have different ways to cope with the loss of something we love. When it comes to injury, we have to understand that it is not a death march we are on, but more of a road to recovery. Your outlook on the injury process can dictate not just your emotional state, but your physical as well. Seeing the positives that you can gain from this experience and learning from prior mistakes can help you gain more of an insight as to how to prepare for the coming days, months, and years. At some point we all have our own crosses to bear, but it is how we deal with the weight of it that will dictate how we come out on the other end.