Not ready for the rocking chair- aging sucks.
March 30, 2008 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Post-injuryFilter: Reclaiming your sense of self after not being able to be active?

This happened two months ago. Once it got better, the resulting stress on the other leg resulted in it being injured too. Needless to say, I am hyper-wary of both legs now and after 3 more weeks of hobbling and resting, I am finally cleared to start PT and work on getting back to "normal."

As I said, it's been 2 months of essentially zero activity, meaning no running, no elliptical, no cardio, no weights (for lower body) as I can't risk further complications to the healing calf muscles and Achilles tendons of both legs.

I've tried a few times to do upper body weights, but my newly-injured right leg makes even driving painful. The mere walking/maneuvering involved in suiting up and simply GOING to the gym (it's winter and outdoors is not an option) was overwhelming. If I'd re-injured either leg while attempting (medically non-sanctioned) exercise would have not been well-received. My doctor understood my issues but frankly said "suck it up, you'll make it worse if you overdo it now."

I have to think about every step I take. I can't hurry up or down stairs, can't dash off to capture a hat blown off in the wind, can't chase after the dog when he sneaks through the gap in the door; I can't even pop up on my toes to put a dish away in a high cupboard.

I'm in my early 40's but I feel like my (previously) active life is over. By now, I would have already run several 5Ks and 10Ks and been prepping for another season towards the fall marathon. I'd have walked my dog, taken my kids to the zoo, ridden my bike. But now,
I've gained weight and lost what feels like ALL my conditioning. I am very depressed and my doctor also pretty much flat-out told me that the days of being able to just "jump up and go" are over.

If you have had a similar experience, please help. I will look to the PT therapists for advice on the physical side, but I need mental assistance here too- how do I stop feeling like I might as well go price canes and walkers? I'm not willing to give up my sense of self.
posted by I_Love_Bananas to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The PTs have seen it all, and that usually includes frequent breakdowns on the parts of some patients. When I had a serious elbow injury (my first involving any sort of rehab), there were days when I would just come in and bawl because I didn't feel like I was making any progress. My therapists were great; they'd take me aside into a private area and they'd listen or give me tips or do whatever I needed to help me get through it. One thing that helped me was to think that it was okay to be a little nuts about it in private (including at PT) if it meant that I would be better off in public.

Talk to your PTs about these concerns. They've likely seen people with much more catastrophic injuries than yours, and they can help in a couple different ways: they can reassure you that this is normal, but they can also recommend ways to help you deal with it and people to get in touch with. Talking to a counselor, especially one with rehab psychology experience, could be a huge help for you right now. Don't feel like you're less of a person for doing so; something's happened that has clearly shaken you in ways that you don't know how to deal with, and working on it now will make things so much better in the long run.

And this is the most important thing: screw what that doctor told you! My doctors told me flat out that my bones were "pretty much powdered" and that I would "never have a normal elbow again." I finished my therapy three weeks ahead of schedule with a left arm that might even function better than my hyperextended right one. Go figure. It's all in how you deal with it. Obviously, you need to watch what you do, but challenge yourself little by little to make every day better than the one before. Borrow some weights and/or an exercise bike from a friend (or put/respond to an ad on Craigslist, or get a stationary trainer). If you have to change your diet a little to stay trim, do what you have to do.

You can do it! Kick ass!
posted by Madamina at 8:04 AM on March 30, 2008

My doctor understood my issues but frankly said "suck it up, you'll make it worse if you overdo it now."

Your doctor is absolutely right. Short term frustration (physical OR mental) is only temporary and you should do whatever it takes to help your body heal holistically. (meaning = take it easy, relax, do some gentle stretching, eat healthy, sleep alot, perhaps meditate,etc) The best way to ensure physical capability in the long run is to "baby" your body now, and make sure it heals optimally. Any shortcuts or stresses you place on your body while healing will reduce your capability later. Yeah, it sucks, and it takes patience, but as I'm sure you are aware, its totally worth it.

Please dont take this as a negative comment, but reading your post really gives me the impression that you are defining your entire "sense of self" by your physical accomplishments. You should be proud of your accomplishments, but dont let them be the sole thing that defines who you are. I'm not saying you should give up and be "old", I'm saying this might be the universes way of nudging you to expand your horizons and develop skills or interests in other areas. (or find new creative ways to accomplish the things you love without pushing your body to the breaking point)

On a related note. I'm of the opinion that one of the reasons death is so traumatic for western cultures is because we spend our whole lives identifying so strongly with ONLY our physical bodies, and (comparatively) less time exercising our intellect or consciousness. Generally speaking, we arent very good at living as whole, balanced humans. (this comment not directed at you specifically, of course)
posted by jmnugent at 8:13 AM on March 30, 2008

Response by poster: jmnugent, I can see why you might say that. Let me clarify and add that part of my struggle is that over the past 5 years or so, I managed to overcome an lifetime of being overweight by losing over 80 lbs. and finally learning to enjoy exercise. Going through all this has caused more than just fear of losing the ability to be active, it's made me afraid I'll slide right down that slippery slope back into Fatville. Every day that goes by where I don't do something physically active has added to that fear.

I know it's wrong to define oneself by any single attribute. I don't think I do that- this post makes it seem so, because it's the first time I've actually sat down to quantify what I've been feeling these past months. I do have other interests and activities. But this is a cloud over me, I can't deny. I've never been brought down by injury or any sort of medical issue, luckily, in my whole life. So here I am in what is sort of an enforced mid-life crisis where I am dealing not only with the healing of my physical body, but with cold hard reality of Getting Older. It sucks.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 8:31 AM on March 30, 2008

Similar experience(s) here. Surgery for a back problem, and a minor motorcycle accident left me depressed and afraid for my future physical health. I also got the same quack advice from my doctors about "the days of being able to just "jump up and go" are over."


I completed my first triathlon two years later. I didn't win or even come close. A seventy-year-old woman zipped by me on the run, and turned back to offer me words of encouragement. (!!!) I was 43, and coming back from major surgery and a torn ligament, and I finished.

Two months is not a long time. Your active life is not over. It might take a year to get back to feeling like yourself again. You may have to change a little bit of your lifestyle. Maybe instead of doing a lot of running, you do a lot of swimming instead, which puts less stress on your joints. Maybe you get more supportive shoes, and implement a more complete stretching routine into your workouts.

It's not the end, it's a brief (in the long run) detour, but you'll get it back.

If you want a goal to shoot for, the US Women's Triathlon Series is a wonderful supportive atmosphere. People cheer for you by name (your first name is printed in big bold letters on your race number). Everyone is happy for you just for participating. Your entry fees partly support a good cause (ovarian cancer research). This is the goal I used as incentive to get me out of my post-surgery/accident funk.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:45 AM on March 30, 2008


I definitely know that feeling. I'll be turning 35 in June, and my body definitely doesnt rebound/heal as fully/quickly as it used to. I was overweight through highschool and college, and (sounds like) went through the same transformation you did. Recently I went from a very active job (sole IT Admin for an entire school district) to a job where I sit at a computer for 8+ hours straight. In order to keep my body from becoming a huge blob of cookie dough, I've completely stopped drinking soda/alcohol, and stripped out all fast food and most processed food. It takes a conscious, focused daily effort, but it seems to be working.

I'm not sure what practical advice I have to help you on the psychological side of things. For me I kind of relish the richness of becoming older and wiser (and not being so young, ignorant and shallow anymore). Remember, the older and more experienced you are, the more resources you have to draw upon to solve problems and appreciate life at a deeper level. FWIW, I'd much rather date an experienced woman in her 30's who has bright energetic eyes, than some young sporty bimbo. The quality of having "bright energetic eyes" tells me there is a fiery stamina/passion for life inside.
posted by jmnugent at 8:48 AM on March 30, 2008

My husband had dual hip replacements, as well as an unexpected thyroid surgery, all within a few years. One of the hip operations did not go well and he had to sit in rehab with a spacer in his hip socket while an infection cleared up. Before this, he was very active (a professional ballet dancer, rock climber, you name it).

He recently got the Garin Bader finger exercise program. He will never run again, never climb again, and cannot go walking without feeling pain somewhere (he has bone growth on one hip replacement and any further surgery is considered "elective," even if he wanted to risk another hospital staph infection, which he doesn't). But he said, "I want to have really strong fingers. Get me this for my holiday gift." And he does have really strong fingers now.

He just got rid of his cane about a year ago. Still uses it if he's going somewhere icy or up a hill. I ask him if he doesn't miss dancing (he still teaches sometimes but only to students who know the steps he calls out). He says no, he prefers to focus on his mind, and the next new thing (new book, new class, etc.). Now he's at the point where he can ride a bike at the gym (no treadmill), lift weights and use resistance bands. He can do tai chi as well, but not the heavy-duty martial arts that he would love to be able to do. If he falls on either hip, he could be back in the hospital.

He looked at it as a vacation. He liked making friends with the nurses, having people take care of him, watching TV and reading all those books he'd always meant to read. Last year he had colon cancer and surgery for that (which was not a vacation, believe me) and he practiced mind tricks to get his body to heal faster. I don't know if it worked but it helped him keep a positive attitude (that and cocoa butter on the scar). The 11-week stay in rehab after the hip infection and then a third surgery with more rehab had to suck. His dog and 2 cats died during that year as well (before we got together). Somehow he made up his mind that he was going to accept this and move forward with what he could do instead of focusing on what he couldn't do.

I think it's going to take time to adjust, and time to figure out new ways to approach life. You're healing your mind from a shock, as well as your body. Maybe spend the time learning about nutrition for healing, or learning new things you can do with your hands that won't tax your lower body? Magician tricks? Origami? Painting? Writing? Anything to keep busy and distract yourself from negative thoughts - they will still be there, but to avoid a downward spiral, be aware of your thoughts and use your former physical discipline, which takes a lot of mental discipline to accomplish by the way, to overcome them. Best of luck to you and {{{hugs}}}.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 9:04 AM on March 30, 2008

I have no advice to offer but I wanted to say I completely understand and am really glad you posted this. My calf muscle's been screwed up for only a week and somehow in my head my whole life's gone in the shitter. I know in my HEAD that it's no big deal, but ....

Anyway, thanks for posting this.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:12 AM on March 30, 2008

I've had a broken hip and broken pelvis., and as a result have spend about 8 months total on crutches. I've been a cyclist and runner. I'm still a cyclist, but can't really run anymore.

All I can say is this: listen to your doctor, and remember that you're going to be around for a long time after you knit up from this injury. Even if, worst-case scenario, you gained back that 80 lb, well, you've lost it once, you could lose it again. But that's not likely to happen. Do what you can within the limits imposed by your healing regimen.
posted by adamrice at 9:44 AM on March 30, 2008

Three summers ago I dislocated my knee-cap playing soccer. I was in my early thirties and it was my first major injury since a broken collarbone when I was seventeen. I was scared as shit, especially as my knee injury hadn't come from a hard tackle or contact of any sort. It was playground soccer; just kicking a ball around with some friends. I'd planted my foot, pivoted, and pop it went. Even as I went down I already was calling myself stupid for not taking the time to stretch before playing.

I could barely walk more than a few metres before pausing because of pain/tiredness. It was the beginning of summer and all my friends were out playing sports which I couldn't. Because I could barely bend my knee for the first couple months (and had to keep it elevated) movie theatres and restaurants were pretty much out too. Oh, and I was single and living alone in a basement apartment pretty much most miserable summer of my life.

My observations/reflections/suggestions coming out of that experience:

1. See a sports-medicine doctor: Neither the doctor at the hospital, nor my GP, specialized in Sports Medicine...and both were pretty cautious in what activities they allowed. I did my physio at a sports-medicine clinic where the recommendations from both my PT and the resident GP pushed my limits (safely) and helped me build confidence in my legs again.

2. Celebrate the little wins: One of the core exercises my PT had me doing was on a stationary bike with my bad leg fully extended (foot on the bottom pedal). My goal was to do one full revolution. Five days a week, ten minutes at a time, rocking my foot forward and back, millimetering it a bit higher with each go. It took seven weeks but I finally did it. I cried I was so happy. I may have even hugged a few people when I got back to the office that afternoon. It was just like in Forrest Gump when ran he out of his leg braces and kept running and running and running. Seriously.

3. Set some goals: Before my injury I used to run regularly and cycle. We talked about how long before I could return to those activities. I added a buffer of a couple months for the running signing up for a half-marathon. I had done some bicycle touring before my injury too, so I put down a deposit on a week-long bike trip for the next summer. Making these commitments helped motivate me to keep up my physio (and to start training again once I was "better")

4. Be realistic and adaptive: My body has changed. I take a lot more time now stretching before/after activities, and I'm more attuned to when something is feeling or sounding "off". I ran the half-marathon though I stopped to stretch out a couple times during. And, to be honest, I find I don't enjoy running as much now as I did before...but that's okay. I did my bike tour too, but again found that instead of attacking hills I would have before I'd mosey up in the granny gear. I don't do much running anymore but I still enjoy cycling. Also, took up tennis, volleyball, and hiking. You'll eventually find (again) the physical activities which are comfortable and that you enjoy.

5. A friend of mine (who had also suffered a leg injury) once said to me that no one has "a" bad leg. Once you injure one leg you start to compensate with the other leg. Try to be conscious of this...try to stop favouring your injured leg. Make sure to exercise and stretch both.

Good luck
posted by dismitree at 11:17 AM on March 30, 2008

The difference between you and the other guy will be your attitude. Period.

Everyone has setbacks and injuries. Since we all age, and we all do cool stuff that probably will come back to bite us at some point, the only thing that makes you the cool person you are is your ability to bounce back mentally. PT and rehab is really hard for everyone. Some folks progress faster than others, but that's largely genetic. Check out the person next to you who has it much worse than you, but who has a good attitude about working on it. Who would you rather hang out with; the person missing a leg who's working towards learning to jog a marathon with their cool new prosthetic, *or* the whiny sniveler who half-heartedly does a set of exercises while talking about how hard it is when they're [insert special reason here]?

I first learned this from my grandma. She's now 104 years old. Still living at home (with occasional day help). "No one needs to hear about your health problems more than once." The fact you're able to articulate them at all means your brain is working and you're still alive. The person who complains while ascending the stairs, while walking, while sitting in a desk chair is not the person you'll want to be around in the long run. So don't be that person.

I've got some cadaver parts in me. Some titanium, too. Most of my scars aren't visible. And I spent most of a decade getting fatter and slower. Then I realized I was hanging out with people who were fatter and slower than me for no reason: No injury or physical defect restricted their actions or accomplishments. Just their attitude. "I'm getting older." "I'm too tired." "Who has time for that?"

So go ahead and be that person. Most everyone else does. Whistle past the graveyard. You'll be stopping there soon enough.

Or. Choose an attitude which allows you to overcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Because statistically we're each going to have our ass in a sling and take a few outrageous arrows from time to time.

[TMI-filter: Yeah, I'm proud of the fact I can now swim a few miles nonstop before biking a half day followed by running entirely too far (triathlon). Yeah, I may be overcompensating :). And I'm pretty frickin' scared about the blood-where-there-shouldn't-be-blood issue I've been trying to get diagnosed and fixed over the last two weeks. Terrified, actually. But there's this nice lady who swims at the local pool who always has a smile for me. I didn't notice for a few months she doesn't have arms.]
posted by lothar at 11:32 AM on March 30, 2008

Let me clarify and add that part of my struggle is that over the past 5 years or so, I managed to overcome an lifetime of being overweight by losing over 80 lbs. and finally learning to enjoy exercise.

Part of being active and athletic is hurting yourself and coming back. It's a drag but it's inevitable. It's also a learning curve- every injury teaches you something about how to take care of your body. I know much more about rest, stretching and conditioning now than I did as an ultra-competitive HS athlete. I've addressed a lot of the core issues that caused me to get hurt successfully. And even when you're hurt there's always something fun you can do- I've had 4 knee surgeries in the last 4 years which has really put a crimp in my ice-hockey time but I took up kayaking and I absolutely love it.

Also keep in mind that running is a tough sport on your body compared to most, especially if you don't get good advice on attending to your form and conditioning from the get-go. Very, very few people can sustain a competitive running career for decades. Those people that can are usually lucky to just be perfectly built so that nothing wears out and also lucky not to injure themselves too much. It's good to have alternative plans for the times you need to take a break from running.
posted by fshgrl at 1:49 PM on March 30, 2008

If you think that seeing someone for help with the psychological side of things might be helpful, be aware that there are likely people out there who know about this sort of situation. My girlfriend (we're both in college) is studying to become an athletic trainer, as in the people who work at a school/university/for a pro team and help injured athletes and do rehab and all that. I know she has to take a class on Sports Psychology and that this is a somewhat common concern. For example, college varsity athletes have often been playing their sport for essentially their entire lives, so an injury which permanently prevents them from participating can be a huge blow psychologically.

In most places, it would probably be hard to find a psychologist specializing in this area or physical therapist interested in the psychological aspects of this situation. If there is a large university in your area, I would consider seeing whether they have a Department of Kinesiology, Athletic Training program, Sports Medicine, program or some other relevant area. You might then be able to find a professor on their website who teaches classes in sports psychology or has it as a research interest. I'm sure that if you sent any professor you found a short email which briefly described your situation without overflowing personal details, they would be glad to tell you of any psychologists/sports medicine people in your area who might be of help.
posted by david06 at 4:55 PM on March 30, 2008

« Older What are oldest known written or visual...   |   To Erase, Press Seven Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.