A first-hand account of suffering from and learning how to come to terms with major setbacks.
No human body is built perfectly, and if you’re an exercise nut, you’re bound to face some sort of injury eventually. And if you’re not into exercising, you’re probably more prone to injury than the healthy people, so all of you, listen up. I have a story to tell.
My aha moment came during my training for my first marathon. I was smack dab in the middle of a 14-mile early-September run when I felt a sharp pain in the left side of my lower back that caused me to slow down and eventually come to a screeching halt. When I tried to walk again to start my long drag home, I found that I couldn’t put any weight on my left leg because the pain had suddenly become excruciating.
So there I was, stuck in the middle of a heavily wooded area that I wasn’t familiar with on a rainy morning, terrified by my eerie surroundings, nearly 7 miles away from home and barely able to walk. I had to call my (thankfully helpful) boyfriend to come and pick me up, and I immediately put in a phone call to my doctor.
Two weeks later, after X-Rays, MRIs and several trips to various doctors, the diagnosis was a sprain in my lower back, the facet joint to be exact, which was causing my muscles to spasm and pull my spine out of alignment. The sprain was pressing on my sciatic nerve, and that compression was sending shooting pains diagonally down the front of my left thigh. Yeah, not fun.
The worst news of all: I wouldn’t be running in the marathon I had spent all spring and summer training so diligently for, and on top of it, I had to miss a significant amount of work time because of the pain.
At one point in my life, I was an elite athlete. I swam competitively for 16 years and took a full scholarship to a highly competitive Division I school for swimming in one of the biggest collegiate conferences in the country. I beat my body to death growing up, and did so nearly injury-free. I always had the best athletic trainers on-hand to turn to when I suffered the slightest ache or pain or tickle in my throat, and now suddenly, there was no one around to help me. I felt lost with a serious injury.
I got so frustrated with myself for getting injured on that run that I stopped exercising altogether. After about a month more of pain, I knew that the problem wasn’t going to get better anytime soon, so I lost the motivation to continue eating well and I stopped dieting. I completely let myself go and fell into a major funk. I had nothing to get out of bed and look forward to going out and doing anymore. My run every day was my escape, my joy, and suddenly it was taken away from me.
I spent the next several months moping around and complaining about my back pain instead of trying to do something about it. (I’m 24 years old and at times I sounded like a 95-year-old woman ‑ oohhh my back! My back!) Long story short, it came to a point where I knew I had to come to terms with my injury and face it head on. I couldn’t keep letting my health and fitness slip away like that. And besides, I was really starting to annoy my friends, family and boyfriend with my constant negativity, and that’s just not who I am.
It wasn’t until just recently that I began setting goals for myself again. New Year’s resolutions, actually. I did an extensive amount of research on dealing with my injury and started considering what else I could do to help myself get back on track. I’m an athlete at heart. Not being physically active sinks me into a depression that I can’t dig out from without gearing back up and getting moving.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but a lot of overcoming a major injury is psychological.
I re-trained myself to set more realistic goals. Instead of running a marathon, I just wanted to do some kind of physical activity again, anything. Visualization is big, too. I started seeing myself injury-free come summertime. I learned how to breathe correctly. I learned how to relax and accept my injury.
My next step was to finally get moving again. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to immediately hit the streets and start running again. I had to find something else that worked for me. I did some research on yoga practices, only to find that while it works well for many people, it’s not an appropriate fix for people with certain injuries, like mine. I also discovered that I would need to strengthen my core to counteract the muscle spasms going on in my lower back, and I would need to correct my posture to regain proper alignment in my spine.
Done and done. I replaced my desk chair at work with an exercise ball that forces me to sit up straight and tall while keeping my core engaged while I work at my desk. I also researched some exercise options and found that my best bet would be a workout program that utilizes my own body weight that I could do easily from home, in case I ever get hurt again.
Bringing peace and balance back into my life was the next challenge. I’ve done yoga before, and I do enjoy it and like how it makes me feel. I felt that it wouldn’t be right for me with this injury. I had to re-learn how to find peace in the little things in my every-day life, like going to get a coffee after work, or taking a bubble bath with some candles or lying in bed with a book. When I feel discouraged or overwhelmed by my injury, I practice my deep breathing techniques.
Nearly five months after my injury, I am happy to report that I am starting to see small improvements. Yes, small. When you’re used to training at maximum effort for four or five hours a day like I am, it’s hard to step back and realize that you might only be able to do 20 minutes or a half hour to start. I don’t like set-backs. I like challenges. I’ve learned to look at this as just another challenge, and I encourage anyone who ever suffers from an injury to do the same.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to run again, especially that marathon that I was so hoping to have under my belt before I turned 25. But I’m spending more time with my family and friends. I’m not snapping at my boyfriend anymore out of frustration. I’m doing things that I enjoy again. And what I have learned is that an injury does not literally have to cripple you. An injury may try to stop you, and if you’re not prepared, you will let it cripple you. That’s what happened to me, and that’s what I can safely say will never happen again.
I have come to peace with my injury, and accepted it as a part of who I am and something that I may need to deal with for the rest of my life. And I know how to make it improve – I just don’t know if it will ever disappear completely. But instead of being discouraged by that, I accept it. This injury threw a wrench in my entire life it seemed, and I am beating it now. I am bigger and stronger than the pain. And I know that in my own way, I will beat it.
Edited by Kate Bartolotta
Maya Richards is a writer and workoutaholic. She loves long runs on the beach and holding hands on the boardwalk (no, really, though). She works closely with The Life Divine, a Martha’s Vineyard-based retailer who sells inspired jewelry and gifts that follow in yoga practices and beliefs.