This is the second of two posts explaining my one and a half year recovery from a chronic knee injury, and reflecting on the experience. You can read part one here. This post reflects on my injury, recovery, and lessons learned.
Part of what kept me going was knowing I could share my story and hopefully help other people. I view these posts as part of my healing process.
I haven’t been myself since February 12, 2012. That’s the day I injured my right knee running up a hill in San Francisco, on my way to a casual five mile race. I was fit, active, and bursting with the energy and perfectionism typical of a driven young professional in his early 20’s. But over the next year and a half, I would be tested mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, whittled down to nothing but the core of who I am as a person. A core that’s been shaped and re-defined by the experience.
What started as a little swelling and soreness when the injury occurred, turned into nearly a year of rehab that didn’t help, a cortisone injection that worsened the symptoms, and over seven months on crutches, nearly four months of which was spent without me able to leave my apartment. Not only did I lose the ability to remain a highly active and engaged athlete, I lost the ability to do the simplest things in life, such as taking a walk outside or meeting a friend for dinner.
Part of what kept me going throughout my recovery was the knowledge I could write this when I got through it. That one day I’d be healthy enough, physically and emotionally, to pour out all the feelings I’ve been grappling with. This story is a part of me now, and it’s important for the people who know me to understand what has shaped me as a person.
But this isn’t a call for attention or pity. It’s a cleansing of my mind, a purging of my thoughts. So with that lens, let’s dive into the most difficult and harrowing experience of my life.
Loss of Body
The first thing to go was my ability to remain active. There were certain things I simply couldn’t do anymore, unless I wanted to make the pain worse. For the first several months of my injury, I was almost in denial. I kept taking salsa classes, went on hikes, and even continued running races. After a while, I started taking rest more seriously. But looking back, I didn’t know what true rest was. My knee would bother me every time I stayed out at night, walked up and down hills, or generally loaded the joint too much. If you read my first post, you know I was misled by the conventional wisdom of doctors and physical therapists I was seeing at the time. Still, that didn’t make it easier to hide my pain and discomfort when I was trying to remain socially active.
Finding a trustworthy doctor didn’t relieve the stress. He recommended I start using crutches, and had no idea how long I’d be on them. This made daily living a reminder of just how much freedom I had lost physically. Everything was difficult. Getting in and out of the shower, putting on my shoes, opening the bottom drawer of the refrigerator. Daily, hourly reminders I was now physically inferior to my former self. Forget running, I just wanted to get through a day without pain.
So not only did I have to go through daily life with chronic pain in my knee, but I had none of my primary coping mechanisms available to me. I couldn’t work out, go for a walk, or socialize and meet new people. I had to remain sedentary, with the stress of not knowing how long this would last building up tremendously. This led me into a downward spiral, culminating in mental and emotional dis-ease.
Loss of Self
“Whoa, you look like nothing but skin and bones man! What the hell happened to you! You’re supposed to be all young and fit. You’re way too skinny, man.”
That’s what my neighbor said to me as I returned home from a physical therapy visit late this past summer, in the middle of my nearly four months of glorified bed rest. It was a common theme throughout my recovery; people making seemingly innocuous comments that, in reality, felt like a sharp knife through my chest. Whether it was a comment about the weight I had lost, asking me how much longer I needed crutches, or even simply asking “What happened to you?,” these comments made me more and more anxious. People generally meant well, but their comments only fed the beast.
I knew I was losing weight, and didn’t like it. Everyone has a certain body image for their ideal self, and mine is definitely not a skinny guy on crutches with no muscles and a severely atrophied right leg. Looking at myself in the mirror each morning was a daily stressor, a reminder that I was falling further and further from my physical ideal. From anyone’s physical ideal. My jeans no longer fit properly, so I avoided wearing them as much as I could. Shorts I never had to tie before would now fall to my ankles if I didn’t pull them extra tight around my waist. There are clothes I still can’t wear, since my normally broad shoulders are too bony to fill them out properly. This was not, and is not, easy to deal with.
Furthermore, I had no idea how long I’d be on crutches. How do you deal with such a situation? There was no conclusive surgical procedure that could cure me, and no typical timetable for recovery. Chronic synovitis is so rare, especially in young people, I was having a hard time even finding examples to look to for guidance and hope. As the months passed, and my recovery dragged on, the crutches became more a part of me than I ever wanted them to. My identity was moving further away from my active, athletic self, and becoming melded with an injured, perpetually recovering knee patient.
Finally, it was hard to describe “what happened,” since even my new doctor couldn’t explain my diagnosis with 100% certainty. Not only is chronic synovitis a relatively unheard of injury, but it’s nearly impossible to diagnose without surgery to look inside the knee. The fact that it didn’t show up on any of my medical images makes it even more mysterious, and hard to explain to people. And if all that weren’t enough, the cause of the injury is just as perplexing. The inflammation could be caused by an irritated synovium, but maybe not. Onset was probably a result of overuse, but no one could be sure.
So, yeah. Asking me these questions stirred up all kinds of emotions, tweaking the stress in my chest I was already carrying around with me. Slowly feeding the beast that would overwhelm me.
Loss of Mind
This was the darkest phase of all. I’m not sure when it happened exactly, but at some point I started feeling like a constant dark cloud was hovering over my life. Every thought I had led to more stress. I couldn’t stop thinking about my knee, and why I wasn’t healing. I felt like shit every day, and didn’t know how to shake it. I woke up sad and in despair, and went to bed upset and frustrated. It was not uncommon for me to cry five times a day.
I just wanted my life back.
In the past I had always viewed depression as a kind of mental weakness, something level-headed people didn’t really deal with. But now I know it’s unequivocally real, and it’s a monster. The worst part is, your mind literally becomes poisoned. My negative thoughts were causing stress hormones to send all kinds of fight or flight signals to my brain, resulting in negative physical symptoms and more negative thoughts. The cycle was vicious, and I almost felt like an entirely different person. It was like the “real me” was watching me struggle as an outside observer, but not knowing how to help.
As I mentioned before, a big part of my stress revolved around not knowing when and if my knee would heal. I scoured the internet for as much information I could find, which often served to scare me even more. There were points where I legitimately thought I might struggle with this injury until I was 30. It felt like I was standing still, watching life pass me by. There were so many things I wanted to do, places I wanted to see, and new people I could be meeting. I couldn’t bear the thought of me wasting away the rest of my 20’s, the supposed prime of my life, on crutches, let alone lying on a couch.
Exacerbating all this were the “missed opportunities.” I’m a huge believer in creating your own luck, and the best way to do that is by exposing yourself to as many opportunities as you can. Good things come from seeking out new experiences, going to new places, and trying new things. Clearly, I couldn’t do any of that. I was stuck in my apartment, healing a knee I thought may never heal, for a timeline I had no insight into. Each missed milestone was another dagger in my chest, sliding me deeper into the cloud of darkness.
I missed a bachelor party and a wedding. I had friends visit town I couldn’t hang out with. I had to cancel several planned vacations. I couldn’t enjoy beautiful weather and attend street festivals. And I had no idea when this would end. I felt helpless.
Believe me, I know how this might sound. “At least your life wasn’t at risk,” it’s tempting to think. “A lot of people have it worse off than you.” And I had the same thoughts. But this only made me feel worse, not better. I felt guilty I was so depressed from something as seemingly silly as a knee injury, especially when there were people dying from cancer, school shootings, and terrorist attacks. It took me a while to realize chronic pain and depression was its own beast, that it physiologically messes with your body as well as your thoughts. It was perfectly reasonable to be struggling, and I had to learn to accept that.
Even still, the isolation was tough. I don’t know what’s worse: getting invited to things and not being able to attend, or not getting invited to things at all. I felt like I was falling off the face of the earth to most people, and didn’t know how to handle that. I’m not the kind of person who desperately reaches out for help, even if I need it. I like to think I’m pretty good at handling stress on my own, and never want to come across as pestering or needy. This left me unwilling to broadcast what I was going through, but desperate for people to reach out and lend their support.
When you’re depressed and want people around, you’ll think some crazy thoughts. I never seriously considered taking my life, but I could see how someone could be pushed in that direction. My mind was irrational, and certain thoughts raced through my head that were completely out of character. I thought about something drastic happening to me, which would cause everyone who was now “ignoring” me to send their attention my way. I know this thinking is illogical, and I knew it at the time. But when I say my brain was poisoned by this injury, this is what I mean.
These circumstances taught me some valuable lessons. When you go through something traumatic, you find out who your friends really are. The people who love and respect you as a person will be there for you no matter what. Those who are needy in relationships won’t be around when you have nothing to give.
I had nothing to give. There was no reason anyone would want to be around me during this time. I was constantly down, depressed, and not very lively and engaging. I couldn’t leave the couch in my apartment. But the people who loved and respected me as a person were there for me no matter what. They gritted it out with me, and offered me support. Whether it was a call, text, or visit, I learned who my truest supporters were.
To those who were there for me, I owe you for life. You never had to say you’d be there for me. You just were. I love you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you.
Learning To Live
I started this post saying I haven’t been the same person since my initial injury, and it’s true. I’ve changed for the better. Although things looked good from the outside, something about the way I was approaching life wasn’t right. I was too hard-driving, too controlling, too single-minded. This injury was a warning sign I couldn’t keep operating business as usual. Having my body, mind, and sense of self stripped away forced me to transform my core into something different. Something better.
Apparently I needed a profound signal to reset myself. I had to relearn to walk. I had to learn how to live.
This version of myself is more resilient, more sustainable. I’m more conscious of what it means to live a happy life, and have a deeper appreciation for the things that matter. When you spend months simply wishing you can walk down the street, I suppose that will happen.
But there are lessons I will carry forward. People my age talk about fear of missing out (FOMO), you only live once (YOLO), and generally prefer to live life fast. It seems if you’re not cramming your calendar with parties, festivals, day drinking, and exotic vacations, you’re not “living it up.” No one says this overtly, it’s more of a subtle pressure to do what other young, ambitious, people in their 20’s are doing. It’s a modern-day version of keeping up with the Joneses.
I’ve got a new perspective, one that helped me turn the corner in my recovery:
Life is long. Slow down to live it up.
Enjoy moments. Learn to appreciate where you are right now. Live consciously, not based on some external perception of what life should be. Surround yourself with people, places, and actions that make you happy. Be honest, with yourself and others. Avoid jealousy, drama, and negativity.
People who “live fast” defend their lifestyle by saying they’re enjoying “the best years of their life.” They’re always chasing the next best thing as fast as they can, trying to squeeze every ounce of “living” out of their “best years.” But where does this get us? Instead of mindlessly chasing after what we’re told living is supposed to be, what if we slowed down?
Breathe. Relax. Laugh. Play. There’s really no rush.
Happiness doesn’t exist in some future state, or in an experience we can check off our bucket list. Happiness is created on the daily. If we learn to enjoy life every day, it’s always the best time of our life.