The Stigma of Injury

Pink cast, don’t care

When I was a toddler, my Dad nicknamed me “Bruiser.” I broke my first bone at the age of 6, and by the time I was 25, I’d broken my wrists, collectively, seven times. I suppose you could call me injury-prone, but I just thought I was more “accident-prone.” I never really thought much of this – I played hard, and I crashed hard – it was just part of being an active kid.

But I wasn’t in the world of endurance sports, and I certainly wasn’t a runner. Stress injuries were foreign to me, as was the silent stigma that surrounded them.

From an early age, I’ve never been one to hold things in – sadness, disappointment, anger, fear – they’ve always just exploded out of me. So when I cracked my femur back in 2016, I didn’t think twice about sharing that with the world. For better or worse, I’ve always been an open book, and I work through my emotions by writing and sharing. People were incredibly supportive, and I’m grateful for that. What I did not expect, however, was the flood of questions from the peanut gallery:

“Do you take calcium?”

“Have you had your Vitamin D levels checked?”

“What’s your bone density?”

“Are you getting your period?”

“What’s your mileage?”

While I understand that many of these are well-meaning folks, I started to sense an undercurrent in the tone of these questions implying “you are doing something WRONG and that’s YOUR fault.”

And from that moment, for the first time in my life I started to experience a new emotion associated with injury: shame. The overwhelming guilt that I had done something wrong – something that a wiser and smarter and superior athlete wouldn’t have done. The questioning of the would-haves, should-haves, what-ifs – the one-way ticket to the never-ending merry-go-round of self-flagellation.

It took me nearly two years to get off that dizzying merry-go-round. When I wrote about my experience at the Barkley Marathons, I wrote about how that race enabled me to finally regain confidence in my body – confidence that I wasn’t broken.

Yet somehow I felt like I couldn’t shake the identity of being “that” injured girl.

I imagine I’m to blame for a lot of this, given I’ve been so vocal and open about my injury saga. I don’t regret that, at all. But somewhere along the way I realized I started to become a victim (in my own mind) of that identity. I started to live in fear of others thinking that I was “that” injured girl, and I, whether consciously or subconsciously, started to feel the need to disprove it.

And at the same time, I became increasingly fearful of what WOULD happen if I did get injured again. I felt like I had some obligation because I had written so extensively about battling back from injury, like I had cracked the code to “not getting injured,” and that if I did get injured again after everything I had talked about, I was some kind of fraud.

So when I screwed up my foot this past month, I had to face down my worst nightmare again – I was injured, again. The funny thing is I had zero worries about the physical part – the body heals, and while not running sucks, I’ve been through that song and dance before. And frankly, this was a minor sentence – 4-6 weeks. Yet I couldn’t understand why it hit me so hard, given that the physical sentence was so light.

It wasn’t the injury, it was the meaning I gave it: It was the mental part that immediately haunted me: the shame and the guilt came flooding back, and the merry-go-round beckoned me to hop on. I’d spent the last two years trying to rid myself of the feeling of being “broken” and of the constant jokes about me needing to be encased in bubble wrap, and admitting that I had an injury threw me straight back into the identity I’d been so desperately trying to escape.

In the middle of a prolonged session of self-flagellation, I pulled out my notebook and wrote in all capitals at the top of a fresh page:

INJURY MEANS…

I sat there staring at that page for a half an hour, and the only two words I put on the paper were “weakness” and “failure.”

I was so fearful of being injured because it meant that I was weak and I failed. And because I had “beat” injury once, I wasn’t allowed to be injured again. If I did get injured, I was a fraud because I should have figured out by now how to prevent it.

And then I remembered the words I wrote after the Barkley Marathonsthis past year: “Failure is how you define it. And it’s never final.”

Words that were so easy to apply in a race context, but I couldn’t give myself permission to apply to injury. Why did injury mean weakness to me? Why did it mean failure? Where did I learn these associations? I’ve never viewed another injured athlete as failing, or as weak, so why am I so quick to rush to judgment of myself?

And I kept coming back to this: it wasn’t the injury – it was that I felt trapped by an identity. At first, I was angry – feeling like it was the rest of the world thrusting this identity upon me. And actually, I had an entire blog post written along those lines. But I let it sit, and I let it percolate.

And, as the time passed and my foot healed, it became crystal clear: like so many things in life, the identity was all self-imposed.

The shame was self-imposed.

The guilty was self-imposed.

And it was entirely in my control to change that.

Injury is a time of healing – healing my body physically, but more importantly, healing my relationship with myself. While I healed a lot of that two years ago with my year on the sidelines, I’ve learned that I’ve only just cracked the tip of the iceberg. When I view injury as an opportunity to learn, I have a mission. And when I have a mission, I do it whole-heartedly.

So what am I taking away from this go-around?

Stop thinking that everyone is judging you

In other words: Amelia, get the eff over yourself. I was SO paralyzed by admitting injury, by feeling like I had an identity that was thrust upon me, that I didn’t even stop to consider that maybe I just created it all myself.

A funny thing happened: aside from a few questions and sympathetic notes, nothing happened. I didn’t get tarred and feathered. I didn’t get banned from calling myself an “athlete” or a “runner.” It turns out, oddly enough, that  most people really don’t care – they’ve got their own shit to worry about. So note to self: no one is every going to judge you as much as you judge yourself. 

Create a mission

The common wisdom for injured runners is to cross-train in a way that is as close to running as possible in order to retain your running fitness. Smart people have said that, so I imagine it’s true. But it’s also dreadfully boring (#sorrynotsorry deep water running).

So this time, I said eff it: I know the running fitness will return eventually, but what can I do in this time to give myself a purpose beyond just “maintaining fitness?” Where am I lacking, how can I make myself a better, more well-rounded athlete/person, and what is an itch I’ve been afraid to or haven’t had time to scratch?

In one of my daily journal entries, I wrote this: “I spent all of 2016 waiting around to be able to run again. And it was awful. Life doesn’t stop just because you are injured and can’t do what you love. Stop putting your life on hold until you can run and race again.”

I asked two questions: (1) Where has my training been lacking that could be contributing to injury, and what can I implement now to help prevent that in the future?;  and (2) what is a new skill that can give me a purpose?

For (1):I picked up a barbell again, with earnest, for the first time since I stopped CrossFit a few years ago. I’m deadlifting, squatting, pressing, and throwing around heavy shit again. It’s nowhere near to what I was doing back in my competitive CrossFit days, but it feels good to load up some barbells again.

For (2):I picked up swimming. Not just as a “pass the time until I can run again” filler, but as a legitimate venture. I know how to swim and I’m not entirely awful, but I’ve always hated it, probably because I associate it with injury. But I realize in terms of physical life skills that will carry me far, loving swimming will do me well, especially when I’m 90 years old and still want to be kicking ass.

This ain’t so bad

I was cleared to start up running again the other day, and it’s funny – a part of me was like WAIT BUT I’M NOT DONE CONQUERING SWIMMING YET. So I’m actually making the voluntary choice to keep the swimming as part of the schedule because I’m actually enjoying it for the first time in my life (my Olympic swimmer best friend is SO proud).

I’ll get injured again at some point, and that’s ok

If I’m 100% honest with myself, I let the constant fear of re-injury the past two years cloud some of my joy running and racing. I have a nasty habit in many areas of my life of constantly, as I always put it, “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” I’ve spent so much energy resisting, and praying that I’d stay injury-free. I can do all the injury-prevention things in the world, as I’ve been doing (rest days, rehab exercises, strength work), but sometimes your number is still going to get called.  Fretting over the anticipationof injury, however, is wasted energy. This isn’t the first time, and it isn’t the last, but I can choose to not fear it, and accept it as the inevitable process of riding the ridge.

Sometimes all you can do is laugh 

When I injured my foot, I did everything “right”: at the first sign of pain (after a super graceful fall), I stopped running immediately. I rested. 10 days later, I went in for an MRI (I’ve learned the hard way that injuries can take 7-10 days to show on imaging). The MRI came back clean as a whistle. A CT scan a week later confirmed. “Yay no broken bones,” I thought, but it still didn’t explain why I couldn’t bear weight on my foot without excruciating pain – I started to feel like it was all in my head, but I knew better. Doctors diagnosed me with a plantar plate tear/capsulitis, that they imagined was didn’t show on the MRI. A month later, still not running, still unable to bear weight on my foot, I begged for another MRI. This one showed it: a non-displaced fracture. At first, I was livid about this – how did it take two MRIs and a CT scan to show a broken bone?! I wasted a month gimping around treating it like a soft tissue injury. And I started to get indignant – I did *everything* right. I was smart. I didn’t run through pain. I didn’t ignore warning signs. Well, guess what? Sometimes there are no warning signs. Sometimes accidents and freak things happen, and while it sucks, getting angry doesn’t change it. So I decided to laugh, and to take it as a good lesson that imaging isn’t foolproof, and neither is the medical profession.

So when I went back for follow-up imaging to confirm healing, I got another little surprise: it actually was a displaced fracture – broke it clean through (no wonder I was in so much pain). The good news was that it was pretty much healed. The bad news was…it healed back crooked. Doctors said it shouldn’t cause any issues, but once again, I found laughing more productive than tears. Things get messed up in ways you can’t always control, and let’s be honest – I’ve never been an “easy” case. (Side note: trust your gut with injuries and be your strongest advocate. Imaging is only one piece of the puzzle).

Don’t like your narrative? Change it.

As I alluded to earlier, when I was first sidelined, I fretted over spiraling back into the narrative and identity of injury.

It’s not the first time in my life I’ve felt trapped by an identity.

When I started in obstacle racing, I lived and died by the “beastmode all day” mantra.

When I started winning world championships, I felt boxed in by living up to a standard of the racer who never missed a podium.

When I broke my femur/sacrum, I felt like I was irreparably broken, and fell into the trap of feeling like “that injured girl”.

When I started racing again, I had to beat the drum of the girl who had “overcome” injury and was now in solely for “racing happy.”

I know that I thrive on structure in my life, sometimes to a fault. And creating identities for myself is a form of structure: it’s a playbook which you can guide your decisions. But sometimes the playbook no longer serves your purpose, and sometimes that structure is keeping you trapped. I’m an athlete. I play hard, and shit happens sometimes: just because a physical body part is broken doesn’t mean that you are broken as a whole.

In all aspects of my life, I’m working on letting go of these narratives, of these identities I’ve formed, of that structure that has kept me safe, yet very, very rigid. And part of that letting go is not letting that identity of injury take over my life. Surprisingly, and much to my relief, this go-around hasn’t flung me back into that pit of despair. Sure, there were a few times where I started dipping my toes in or stood teetering on the edge, but each time I got close, I’ve been cognizant enough to pull myself back.

Finally (and clearly, most importantly),

I will always get back up again

You can’t always control how you fall. But you can always control how you get back up again. Of all of the self-doubt I’ve dealt with in the past few years, this is one this I have never questioned. Never once have I considered throwing in the towel, despite the bumps, bruises, blood, broken bones, and getting knocked down repeatedly. Never once have I considered that maybe I’m just not cut out for all of this, or that my body isn’t built for ultra endurance events. At my core, I always know I’ll get back up. In the infinite wisdom of the genius poets Chumbawamba– you ain’t ever going to keep me down.

Four-year old Bruiser would be quite proud.

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