I am currently a year and 8 months out from a major injury that has put me off the mats and out of training for the majority of that time. Each phase has been difficult for different reasons and I have gone through all stages of grief multiple times!
Lots of denial here. I at first just tried to shake it off and was going to ride my bicycle home and “rub some dirt in it”. I am used to getting banged up after 10 years of training. I have dealt with chronic pain my entire life and honestly the pain from the injury was less than what I’m used to feeling on a daily basis of just existing. What was different this time was the joint instability.
Admitting I needed outside help was a big step for me. With no health insurance I had always just played the “let’s give it some time to see how it does” approach and was lucky up until this point. Even at the doctor’s office I was talking myself down, telling myself I was overreacting and would regret the money I was wasting on the visit.
After the MRI, I went back to see the doctor and he said he needed to put me in a brace and re-evaluate in a few weeks. I’ve worn knee braces before so I figured it would be no big deal – next thing I know I have two nurses strapping me into a full length leg splint that I was to wear at all times to keep me from bending my knee… It started to feel a little serious at that point.
I was still able to hobble around with a cane, and made it a point to put a positive face forward for the students. I kept telling myself: “I heal fast, this is probably overkill but it’ll be fine.”
The Wind Down:
So began my cycle of physical therapy twice a week with a dr check in every 4-6 weeks. I had no concrete recovery timetable because my pre-existing hypermobility condition made it difficult to determine how much of the joint instability was from the injury and how much of it was my functional instability. I continued improving each week with physical therapy and doctor check ins. He said my recovery would plateau at a point and that is when we determine if I was functional enough to train again, or if surgery was needed to get me back on the mats.
This was the depressed/frustrated/angry zone. People would wish me “speedy recovery” and I had to bite my tongue to keep from snapping at the platitude. Being around Jiu Jitsu gave me no joy and in fact made it worse after months of just watching as everyone moved on and left me behind. There are blue/purple belts who have never known me at my peak potential, and that was frustrating since I don’t want to be an instructor who just yells from the sidelines. I want to lead by example and have not been capable of doing that for a long time. What kept me sane in this time was the students who gave me a reason to keep going when I didn’t even want to get out of bed.
The Light at the End:
After 8 months of being in “surgery or no surgery” limbo, the surgeon assessed that I had stopped improving significantly between checkups and would need to do the reconstruction. At that point I was unable to walk down stairs unassisted so it was still a significant impairment just for daily life. It was a relief honestly! I wasn’t nervous at the thought of my first (and hopefully only) surgical procedure. I knew I had done everything possible up until that point, and knew I had the best possible surgical team to put my knee back together again. Apparently once I was knocked out my knee was as stable as warm jello without my muscle tonicity to keep it in place.
Post op has been a new challenge. It was such a massive reconstruction job that I had to learn how to walk all over again. I had so much nerve damage that I couldn’t feel my foot for weeks afterwards and whole muscle groups were unable to activate and even now almost a year later there are still patches of numbness that probably will not recover sensation. It was still easier than those 8 months pre-op because there was no more “surgery or no surgery” limbo, just a forward momentum of improvement.
Improvement with strength came fairly quickly: what was/is hardest for me is mobility. The surgeon knows what I do for training and told me specifically that he wants me to heal more on the stiff side with more scar tissue to help stabilize everything. We ticked that box and then some – for a while I was on the watchlist for a second procedure to remove some of the excess scar tissue. Every PT session I would cry and whimper while they tried to passively force flexion back into my joint. I had multiple injections of different things in attempt to reduce inflammation and pain.
This was another low point as I started to wonder “is this just gonna be my life now? Is this as good as it gets? Have I gone through all that and still find myself unable to train?”
I’ve been training in classes at my new academy (with my old coach) on a regular basis again and man it feels so good! I am of course everyone’s rest round, and there are a lot of movements that I have to re-learn how to do. The hard part right now is trusting that my knee is okay. The surgeon told me a couple of months ago that he is okay with me doing whatever I want for training, so long as I am careful with new movements. I see him next week for my final 1 year post op check up and release to compete again.
Learning to trust again is the struggle at the moment. I have been super conscious about my knee for close to 2 years now, so just letting go mentally is really difficult. I panic anytime my knee is compressed, whether it hurts or not, which then makes my training partner nervous and unwilling to put the pressure on me that I need in order to actually improve. It will take time, but I’m fast tracking myself by signing up to compete at the European Championship tournament at the end of January. Meaning I have about 8 weeks to push myself and I work best under that kind of pressure!