The Price of Pain

On a clear Tuesday afternoon in late January I made the choice to play a round of disc golf. The effects of recent snowstorm lingered and when I arrived at the course I was surprised there was still as much as snow on the ground in areas. The course was mostly soggy and playable so trudged along practicing for an upcoming tournament. It only takes a moment for an accident to occur and unfortunately I failed to assess the slickness of a snowy spot late in my round. My plant foot slipped and all of my weight shifted to my back leg which was rotating and as my body sank quickly toward the ground the damage was done.

As someone who is highly in tune with their body I was acutely aware of the injured bone, I had fractured my fibula, the supportive lower leg bone that runs laterally to your tibia – the beefier shin bone. I hoped I was wrong, but the sense of foreboding was present as I limped over a quarter mile to my car carrying my disc golf bag. That evening I hoped I was wrong and didn’t dare speak what I knew was likely. I had heard the pop and I my understanding of anatomy passed a real-life test that I wish it wasn’t given.

Our friendly doctor entered the patient room explaining that at least my spiral fracture was stable, meaning the bone hadn’t displaced and did not require surgery. I would be immobilized for three weeks and then reassessed. I took the news with calm understanding. I was determined to remain optimistic.

In addition to my anatomical expertise I’m currently armed with fresh information on athletic injury and rehabilitation. Interestingly one month ago I had completed a graduate level course, the Psychology of Sport Injury. I had just studied the similarities of athletic injury and the stages of grief. I am armed with interventions that I would employ as sport psychologist to help an injured athlete cope with the challenges that lie ahead.

However as the hours and days creep by the initial shock of the news has spread and run its course when I’m not occupied with schoolwork, entertainment, or one of the few small tasks I can handle around the house the pain increases. During the first days especially, I noticed a gradual and unconscious accumulation of tension throughout my injured leg, a protective, ‘guarding’ physiological response. In order to release the tension building around my ankle I consciously employ techniques I know well from yoga, slow, diaphragmatic breathing. ‘I got this,’ I think in my mind. ‘This isn’t ideal, but I’ll come back stronger,’ I said to myself. I repeated the mantra “It will be ok.”

Nights are the hardest. When activities slow down and entertainment ceases I’m lying alone in the dark. I feel left foot and ankle aching and throbbing as the pain and swelling increase. Then the replay of the accident flashes in my mind, and I relive the trauma. My mind screamed, “What did I do to my precious body?” as the first tears came two nights after the accident.

“Why was I so stupid?!” “I should have left the course, gone home.” “I didn’t need to play that day.”

I wish I could go back in time. I’m bargaining. It’s one of the 5 stages of grief and the journey of injured athletes parallels this process. A theory developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross suggests that we go through five distinct stages of grief after the loss of a loved one: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Hold on, I had already accepted this like a champ days ago. The stages of grief don’t always play out in order, and if they feel deeply familiar to you it’s likely that you’ve experiences them through all of the losses caused by this pandemic, loss of safety and routine, loss of community and togetherness, or the loss of a loved one.

Denial was my first hope and I tried hard to latch onto that the first night, back when I could still put some weight on my left foot. I’m lucky and unlucky as an Aries being so stubborn, but also physically resilient. I could have put my body in more jeopardy. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced a pain level 10 out of 10, but I have lately. This causes anger. I’m angry at myself…

Meaghan, my loving, nursing wife, and I have a trip planned to Sedona, AZ in less than a week. A trip that was scheduled as a 40th birthday gift with my parents that’s been postponed two years by the pandemic. We love the Southwest and hiking, which we get too few opportunities to do outside of our community. There has been so little to look forward to for us in the past two years, what a disappointment?! More denial, anger, and bargaining occur.

Breathe. My leg is healing slowly. I unconsciously tense my leg from my hamstrings down to my foot, again. I employ well-versed breathing techniques and apply Progressive Muscle Relaxation from feet up to my head. PMR, relaxation techniques, positive self-talk techniques I’ve known for years and reaffirmed through my graduate studies.

I recoil when I hear someone say it can take 4-6 months to recover. The fibula only carries 17% of the body’s weight. I was thinking I’d be fine after 3 weeks. Stubborn once again. Here’s where I struggle: Withdraw from an upcoming tournament I’m scheduled for? I have no other choice. Cancel our Sedona trip? I won’t be able to put weight on my left foot for two more weeks and I almost fell on my knee cart in the driveway yesterday Why did I do this?! I’m used to being capable and strong. I’m smarter than I was in that moment. I psychologically beat myself up for a while.

These are the prices of pain. The good and the bad. I believe that the universe had a lesson in store for me. I realize how I have taken for granted my health and physical capabilities on a daily basis. I have minimized compassion for others who have disabilities. I can only sympathize with those who have lost much more than I and for much longer, such as my friend Quinn Brett who I once worked alongside as an adventure activity guide for teens. Their experience of pain and trauma could break the most resilient of spirits, but also teach some amazing lessons.

I took an Inclusive Recreation course in my undergraduate studies that included a project where I had to emulate a disability and observe the response internally and externally. I kept to my schoolwork MO at the time and did as little as possible. I didn’t really take it seriously, and I made up some BS and earned a good grade. Now, what would have been a simple task for me days ago is demanding or impossible. reliant on my wife for so much help to make my life easier while I heal. I’m finally getting the lesson I was offered so many years ago. I am feeling more sensitive to the disabled lifestyle and it’s immense physical and social challenges especially in a pandemic world.

Thankfully, my injury is temporary. I will get through this. I will be back on my feet and hopefully still capable of the things I enjoy most. It’s my work to learn from my mistake; honor my body with healthy and safe choices; bear in mind how my choices impact others; look for how I can make life better/easier for others and be understanding of and compassionate toward their capabilities and/or limitations; and to be grateful for all that is good in my life.

One of the most important factors for an injured athlete is their social support. Frequent check-ups and any small act to show that you are thinking about them really helps the healing process and keeps moral high. I’m certain this applies to anyone who is suffering or going through difficult times, as so many are at this time in history. Reach out to your friends and loved ones and show them that you care, it can be life-changing.

If you have a related story, then please share it with me. I’d love to hear what you’ve learned from injury experiences and the healing journey.

James Elhart, E-RYT500