Tearing your ACL is any athlete’s worst nightmare. It means surgery and a slow, painful recovery. For me, it meant having to sit out of my rookie season, and an insurmountable amount stress added to my first year of university. It meant doubting myself constantly and working twice as hard to see only minimal results. The thirteen months between the day that I tore my ACL and the day I was finally able to step back onto the field were the hardest of my life. My injury was not only a daily struggle physically, but a constant mental battle.
I’d always considered myself an athlete. Some of my earliest memories are sports related, and my longest lasting friendships had started with teammates. I tried just about everything growing up, and eventually found ‘my sport’ when I was thirteen. But what if I couldn’t be an athlete anymore? What else was I? What else did I even want to be? Of course I had other interests, but was I going to be able to give up rugby? What if I was forced to? After receiving what I’d considered the worst possible diagnosis, these were the things running through my mind.
Looking back now, I guess I should consider myself lucky to have managed five years of playing rugby without injury. I mean yes, of course I’d gotten hurt, but bruises and turf burn were just part of the game that I loved. I’d never been told that I couldn’t play before; I would just get taped up, grab some water and head back onto the field, because that’s what being a rugby player was to me, getting up every time I got knocked down no matter what.
I moved to Ottawa two weeks earlier than my fellow first years in order to participate in my team’s training camp. In those fourteen days, I pushed myself harder than I ever had before, putting myself in a rugby bubble in order to prove myself to my coach and new teammates. After only two weeks of training, during practice on the morning before the first match of my rookie season, I was tackled, and a flash of pain in my knee kept me from getting up for the first time. A minute or so later, the pain was gone, and I got up and walked off the field, seemingly fine. I didn’t think much about my knee until I woke up the next morning with a knee four times the size it should be. Needless to say, I did not get to play in our first game of the season. I had just entered the exciting new world of being a varsity athlete, only to feel like it was all slipping out from underneath me. I’d come to university with every intention of fulfilling my potential as a student/athlete, but what if I was only a student?
I completely shut down when I found out that a practice injury would sideline me for the entire season, and began to panic when I realized that I was going to need surgery. My first weeks of university were spent mostly in my room on residence. I didn’t socialize with my team, my roommate, or anyone.
Once the swelling in my knee went down and I looked completely normal physically, I became seriously anxious. I felt like I couldn’t relate to anyone. I couldn’t participate in practices or workouts, so I felt like an outsider when it came to my team, but I also couldn’t go out partying like everyone else, so that kept me from making friends on residence. I isolated myself. I woke up, went to class, to athletic therapy, and back to my room on res. I tried to watch practice from the sidelines, but got incredibly discouraged, as I was watching the rest of the team work hard and improve while doing what felt like nothing. There were many days that I couldn’t even bring myself to get up for practice – what was the point? I didn’t have a place or even presence on the team, they barely knew me. I sat quietly on the sidelines down field while they worked their asses off every morning. I began to resent the teammate that had tackled me in September even though I knew it was absolutely not her fault.
It didn’t feel real. There was no way I needed knee surgery. This was all just a bad dream, and I was going to wake up feeling like a strong, active part of my team who was thriving in school and had made tons of friends. I began to have panic attacks. Moving to a new city, starting university, seriously injuring myself, it became too much. I would hyperventilate if I got overwhelmed with class material or thought too much about my knee and what it was causing me to miss out on. I remember causing a scene on the silent floor of the library when, while studying for an economics midterm I had an attack that made someone call the campus emergency line. I never talked to anyone about it, I told my family that I was fine and slept all the time to avoid social interaction. I felt like the opposite of the ‘me’ that I thought I would be as a first year student and varsity athlete.
As my surgery day came closer, I started to feel better. There were other athletes that were recovering from ACL surgery at Carleton who seemed to be making huge gains every day. At least after surgery I would be able to make actual progress.
I had surgery two months after I tore my ACL. My mom took a week off of work to stay with me, and I took the week off of school to just relax. The week after my surgery was the most positive of my entire recovery process. At least then I had a physically obvious reason to not be participating, and I was actively recovering – and was that much closer to getting back on the field. I was highly optimistic about my recovery, my anxiety levels were down, and I wasn’t sad. I was just excited to start feeling like an athlete again after two months of doing almost nothing. I didn’t realize at the time that the next year would be the most physically and mentally difficult year of my life.
It took only two weeks of recovery, when I actually had to be shown how to properly walk again, for me to realize that this process was going to be painstakingly slow, painful, and tiresome. Recovering from ACL surgery is no joke. I worked hard every day for weeks before I was able to even bend my knee fully. It took almost no time for my post surgery optimism to disappear. I shut down again, beginning to think that I would never actually be able to reclaim my spot on the team. I’d never considered myself a crier before, but my anxiety levels went through the roof and I cried all the time. Someone would ask me how I was doing and I would be doing everything to hold back tears. If I couldn’t finish a set of something in athletic therapy, I would start crying. I began to resent anyone who told me that I was doing a ‘good job’. I felt like I was accomplishing nothing, and that anyone who told me that I was doing well just felt bad for me. It was impossible for me not to compare myself to other athletes who were recovering from ACL surgery, even though I knew that they were months ahead of me in the process. I kept setting unrealistic goals for myself and my recovery, and not achieving them discouraged me even further. Nothing made me feel better.
I felt fragile, and the slow periods of my recovery just seemed dark. I broke down in front of our team’s Mental Skills coach when she asked to have a meeting with me. She wanted to have a conversation with me about coping techniques, my perception of my place on the team, what I thought my teammates thought of me, my strengths and weaknesses – and I couldn’t even speak. I had a panic attack the moment she asked me about my presence within the team. I didn’t feel like I had one at all. What was supposed to have been a half an hour long chat became an hour and a half of her attempting to calm me down and then consoling me.
I gave up a little, there was a period where I started missing appointments and gym sessions. My goal of getting back on the field seemed impossible. When recovering from surgery, your mobility is extremely limited. I was fixated on my limitations rather than what I had been able to accomplish, I wasn’t celebrating the fact that I could finally squat, I was disappointed by the fact that I couldn’t run yet, or that I had been doing the same five things in the gym for weeks. I lost faith in myself and my capabilities and it slowed my recovery down more and more.
Thirteen months out of the game. Eleven post surgery. I’d told myself 8 months and I’d be back on the field, and then I told myself 10 months maximum. It was my ultimate disappointment when the season started this year and I still wasn’t cleared to play. Knowing how close I was (it came down to percentages on a machine), killed me even more. There was no way I was losing two seasons to this injury. I probably worked harder in the last five weeks of my recovery than I did during the whole process. Playing was an actual possibility, it was right there and I was so close. My return to play surprised me. I didn’t hesitate to go into contact, or to quickly change direction. I wasn’t afraid of anything or worried about what I couldn’t do, I just felt lucky to finally be able to play again.
Tearing my ACL taught me a lot about myself. I learned how important it is to me to be an athlete, and that the thought of losing my sport almost changed who I am, or at least who I thought I should be. I learned that a sports injury isn’t just felt physically, but mentally, every damn day. I never thought I’d be the type to give up on myself, but I know that for a period of my recovery that I did. I really wish that I had a bunch of positives to take away from the experience, but I don’t. I still resent hearing the words ‘good job’ and I will always shudder to think about the person I became when things got hard. I know now not to take my good health (physical and mental) for granted, and as a side effect I think I’ll always cringe when I see someone doing anything that could result in knee injury, but I know that it’s important to remember how you got to where you are, even if it was the worst thirteen months of your life.
Because one moment you’re ready to give up completely, feeling as though you haven’t made any improvements, and the next you’re running, and jumping, and tackling and you feel better than you have before. And in that moment, you’re going to thank yourself for choosing to have surgery, and sticking with your absolutely exhausting recovery process. It’s been four months since I was cleared to play, and everything I’ve just written about seems like it happened a lifetime ago. Though I wouldn’t recommend the experience, I know I’m better/faster/stronger for it.
If you or someone you know has a similar story and is in need of help, click here for services in the area.