Good Grief: Emotional Recovery

| March 10, 2009

Many athletes use sports as their therapists, lovers, and friends. Go ahead and grieve. When you blow a knee, you really have lost a loved one.

By Ali Geiser

At the age of six, I discovered endurance sports, and they quickly became my umbilical cord to heaven and happiness. For 19 years I trained and trained hard, pushing my body through minor injuries and never experiencing any major ones. Then, six months ago, on a lovely, heartpounding Sunday run through the mountains, both my knees gave out. In excruciating pain, I managed to hobble the 3 miles to a trailhead and call a friend to pick me up. A week later, while negotiating a tricky mantle problem at the rockclimbing gym, something cracked, hot and final, in my left shoulder. When a week of rest, ice, and push-ups didn’t fix everything as it usually did, I sacked up and headed to the doctor.

At first it seemed that everything would be okay. The doctor said that my joints had taken a beating in the past 25 years (patellar tracking disorder and chondromalacia in the knees, a minor bone spur and rotator cuff impingement syndrome in the shoulders), but it was nothing that some rest and physical therapy couldn’t fix. Eager to get back to training, I threw myself enthusiastically into pulling on the colored rubber straps my therapist gave me, took up a serious ab-training regime, and spent lots of time soaking in the bathtub while drinking beer and watching climbing videos. But after a month or so, this started to get old. The weather was cool, the sun was high, and I wanted to be out working 5.12s and racing half marathons. I tried to run, again and again, every time limping home after 10 minutes. I tried to climb, but after five pitches of 5.7, debilitating pain set into my shoulders that lasted for days. I began to realize that everything was not okay. The umbilical cord was cut, leaving me abandoned and gasping for air. And I was not happy.

Back in 1969 Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, outlined the five-stage process by which people deal with grief and catastrophic loss. Unbeknownst to me, I’d just gimped though stage one, denial, and was entering stage two: anger.

First I got pissed at my physical therapist. Something about shelling out all that money only to have my condition worsen just didn’t sit right. Then I got pissed at myself, since obviously it was overtraining or understretching or something of the like that got me into this situation in the first place. It was easy to be pissed at my doctor; he was now telling me that I’d done enough climbing and running and that I should take up a more gentle sport. The rest of my world—my boyfriend, off climbing in Rifle or the Tetons; my friends, climbing in Switzerland, France, Squamish, Yosemite—they were supereasy to be pissed at. Luckily, rather than break things, I used this bitter rage to propel myself into stage three: bargaining.

The first thing I bargained away was all the money I’d been hoarding for climbing trips: sports massages, MRIs, second opinions, acupuncture, more physical therapy— anything to get better, regardless of the cost. When my sister suggested I might have Lyme disease, I bargained with the higher powers. Sweet Jesus, Lord up above, please let me have Lyme disease so that I may be on intravenous antibiotics for a couple months and then go back to training! But no, the tests came up negative, and though I realized that it was probably for the best that I didn’t have a potentially chronic illness, my mood began to dive as I reckoned that maybe the doctors were right; maybe this was the end of my athletic career. Welcome to stage four: depression.

I gave up on physical therapy and doctors and everything else, other than drinking too much and sleeping too much. Depression is a funny thing because while you’re in it, it feels like it will last forever; there is no hope, no future, and your body seems too heavy to ever move again. Yet when I began to lament to fellow rock climbers about my condition, they didn’t pat my hand and share their stories of being couch-bound and nursing the burning bottle—though I’m sure they’d been there. Oh no, they made it clear that injury is not, in fact, the end of the world, and they pushed me toward what Dr. Kübler-Ross deemed the fifth and final step of dealing with tragedy: acceptance.

Dave Graham told me how his worst injury led to a major breakthrough in his climbing. Sarah Watson said that it was through dealing with a deadly staph infection that she learned to have balance in her life that in the long run has made her not only healthier but happier too. Chad Greedy told me to eat more bacon. And Naomi Guy gave me a simple, critical bit of advice for healing: “You get outside and you get some fresh air and you move about.” She said, “I think if you sit and stay stagnant, then you’re gonna have problems. It just leads to depression, doesn’t it?”

So I did something novel. I went for a hike. Not to the top of anything, not to reach a climbing area. Just a leisurely hike. And somewhere along the trail I let go of the attitude that training must mean always improving and pushing, and I accepted my body for where it was. My shoulders relaxed and began to loosen; the gentle pace didn’t bother my knees at all. I felt at home with the mountains and the trees. My mind stilled. I breathed deeply. The air felt fresh and new in my lungs.

Category: Health

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