Three nights ago with the sprain still fresh below the ball of my foot, I awoke to the throb of pain and swelling. For a few minutes I tried to ignore it, but sleep wasn’t going to happen like that. I crawled out of bed, took two Advil and crawled halfway back under the covers.
That’s often how it goes when you’re injured. Athletes can often deal with every kind of pain life dishes out except the kind of pain they don’t impose upon themselves. Yet most of us learn not to whine, and if we’re smart, not to rush the recovery process too much.
Grant you, I got up and went for a two-mile walk at the indoor track the morning after my meniscus repair surgery. But the knee did not hurt. Nor was I drugged up or anything from the anesthesia. With all signs go, I got up and went.
Did the same thing the morning after my bike crash in the hills of Wisconsin. Once they pushed me out the door at the hospital with a sling on my arm and some Vicodin in my veins, I knew the recovery process had to begin right away. After a weird night sleeping in the chilly tent on a Labor Day weekend, I pulled on some loose sweats and walked a mile down a big hill to the lake and back.
On the way back up the hill, I chuckled out loud recalling a midnight venture in the moonlight the night before. I’d crawled out of the tent take a whiz and had to let my pants drop to my ankles because I only had one arm free to conduct the operation. I’d make noise getting out of the tent that my longtime friend was sharing to keep an eye on me. He peeked out the tent flap to the odd specter of my white ass shining under a full moon. “What the hell are you doing?” he asked.
I was shivering from the combination of the cold night air and the effects of the Vicodin. My teeth were chattering as I tried to reply. “I’m…taking…a piss,” I laughed.
Like a wasp in water
So let’s swim headfirst into an allegory here. This morning I watched a wasp fly right past me and <plop> in the water. I wondered why that happened, then noticed another wasp lying flat on the water, its body held aloft, for the most part, by surface tension. The first wasp wasn’t moving, but the second wasp was swimming in that way that creatures shocked by immersion in water often do.
And I thought: That’s how most of us respond when we find ourselves in suddenly foreign circumstances. We emotionally flail around a little bit. That’s what happens when we get injured. There’s the shock of immersion in that reality. Then the slow realization of what really happened. A touch of panic and even some feeble attempts at pretending it didn’t happen. And then, if we’re lucky and smart, we figure out how to slowly work our way across the surface of our inactivity and climb out of water to fly again.
Well, I had mercy on both the wasps. I actually put a leaf down to help them climb on and get out of the water. That’s kind of what our doctors and therapists do. They extend the branch to recovery. If we accept it, we typically climb out faster than we might on our own.
But not always. Sometimes our injuries nag us, or even become permanent fixtures in our being. Then we have to find the positives even in that circumstance. We might cut down our running and add biking or swimming. Whatever the circumstance demands. We’re all different. Find your own positives.
The worst thing that can happen is a relapse of the original injury. That means it doesn’t pay to push it too hard, too soon. But there’s also a risk of stiffening up after an accident or surgery, so you must engage in an active recovery of some sort. Typically that begins with supervised exercise under the guidance of a physical therapist or trainer.
Even then, the best approach is to listen to your instincts and learn how to distinguish between types of pain. The soreness of recovery or swelling may be uncomfortable, but it also tells a story. Limited range of motion from swelling is a natural way of telling you “This spot must be protected.”
That type of pain is quite different from the acute pain one feels when an injury first strikes, or surgery is just completed. Those first few days after real pain hits requires ice and pain medication. As need for the meds abates, then you’re dealing with the honest feedback from your body. After that the testing process begins. Stay sensitive to the pain, but keep moving.
And be positive in your outlook. Even small progress is still progress.
Emotional pain and positivity
The same goes for recovery from emotional pain. When we experience a loss or failure in life, recovery can take time. There is no set schedule upon which we can depend. If genuine grief is involved, or emotional shocks from personal loss drive you into anxiety or depression, the process of recovery may be one step forward and two steps back for a time. With support (therapy, friends, time) the recovery balance evens out. Finally, you can make real progress again. Imagine a future. Be yourself.
Back on the bike
Tonight I’ll get back on the bike. My foot was too sore to even do that for the last few days. Over the last four days, I was careful to keep my walking to a minimum. But yesterday I “strolled” down to the drug store print some photos for an upcoming exhibition. That walk went well and I sent a text to my wife: “My foot’s healing up. But I may need some hugs to help it heal all the way.”
Typically I don’t really complain about being injured. It doesn’t help much. But I will confess to milking the situation for some loving arms around me. I will not apologize for wanting that.
And I did get a sweaty hug when she returned from her interval workout at the track. The sun was going down by then and a wide swath of pink clouds spread across the sky behind our house. It was a nice reminder to focus on the positives, and set the stage for a brighter tomorrow.