By Sara Aranda
This piece takes a look at mental health issues that often coincide with an extended injury. I write from my own (current) experience, and that is it. But the more I talk about these things, the more I learn how common they are; yet how silent and detrimental the rabbit hole can be.
We all have demons. Us.
Winter this year has been the rain echoing through the walls of my room. The sounds are harsh at times—angry, loud and slapping, guttural with wet throat. Other times it is a faint cloud, lazy and trapped by steep hillsides—a mist you still feel, see rippling in the puddles, but never know it as something falling from the sky. Everything is green and mud, save the occasional snow, where the white edge creeps down the mountains across the river. Rock slides damage the roads and eventually the snow melts below 7,000 ft. I walk three minutes to and from work four days a week here in El Portal, just a stone’s throw from one of Yosemite’s park entrances. Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it?
I think about preferred lifestyle every day, and especially every time I eat the candy and cookies and goldfish and pretzels we offer as snacks at the Daycare. I then come home and crave. Feel guilt. I stay up later than I used to and wake up groggy and slime-eyed, a lingering cough tickling my throat with snot crusting the edges of my nostrils. I’ve gotten sick and injured more times this Winter than ever before.
“Well you are working with kids,” spoke reason, “and you’re eating too much nonsense at work.”
“True…” le sigh.
I am here rolling out my legs when I remember and try to stretch muscles that somehow have forgotten how to stretch. I’ll watch movies and sit way too long in front of the computer. So what happened? Injury, of course. It has been ten months since I injured my left foot but I had to keep training for my own wedding last summer. It took eight months for me to finally commit to resting it completely. Thus, the last two have been appropriately depressing.
I try to keep in shape through light calisthenics at home or the stationary bike at the Wellness Center in the Valley. But, as luck may have it, I somehow managed to hurt my MCL in my right knee. I made it worse by hiking in the snow one weekend. But hey, it started to feel better after a few and I decided my foot might be well enough to take a stab at running again.
Thus: 1.1 miles. 1.7 miles. 1.7 miles. Three runs with a day in between and suddenly my left knee is swelling and it feels like quadricep tendonitis. What the hell is going on? Then, while dog-sitting for a friend, I punched sharp metal under the sink when blindly reaching for the trash can which sliced into two fingers. Great. Now I can’t use my right hand for a while (thankfully I’m a lefty). My lower back starts feeling sore due to poor posture and lifting kids at work. I’ve been babying my knees and don’t/can’t squat. Shame on me for spiraling down some injury rabbit hole, where overcompensation is something I’ve never had to be physically wary of before. Naïvety is probably my most embarrassing quality. Long story short, feeling disconnected from the very body I used to feel so strong in is, of course, proving mentally detrimental, but it is also incredibly humbling. How grateful I am to still have an able body.
Honestly, easier said than done. It’s just me and my foot and my knees and my hand and my back and we’re having a good old-fashioned Tupperware party with food, candy, copious amounts of tea and self-loathing.
Lacking self-will when confronted with too-good-to-deny/hey-it’s-a-celebration sweets and goldfish is not a new thing (I. Love. Goldfish). But if indulgence happened I didn’t have to “worry” because a week with my lifestyle would typically yield multiple runs of 4-18 miles each, climbing over 2,000 feet, and a session of calisthenics or spinning that would make the average person puke. I’m crazy. I thoroughly enjoy being good at “working out.” Running was my first love. But we’re not supposed to hang on to what we once were…certainly…
Always listen. To your body. Sometimes it wants goldfish. And that’s okay.
But recovery has turned into a long, hard road littered with a mockery of myself. It has its own timeline and that’s nothing new. But shit, like I said, it is really fucking depressing. I try to remain humble by thinking about people that have been or currently are in worse circumstances. I never had surgery but I also never got to see a specialist. Regardless, I’m caught in a strange place that many people find themselves in at some point in their lives. Does it make it any less difficult to overcome? Hell. No.
My heroes and heroines are out there adventuring and doing what they do best. It’s easy to feel bad when they’re making headway and furthering their dreams and careers while I’m losing muscle tone and flexibility, motivation, patience, failing to turn self-discipline into a broad habit, and thus my self-confidence shrinks. Everything I cognitively think I am is in jeopardy—so it feels.
Passivity is now defining the season. Things seem to only happen, lukewarm and amicable. Work, eat, sleep, muse on the internet, rest my accumulating injuries. And when the day is done it’s me and my ugliest thoughts. I ache without doing anything to warrant ache—all around distaste and frustration. My mind is backwards, digs down through the muddy remnants of memory, sticks to itself those happier times, like dead leaves, in strange ritual—a superstitious hope they’ll come back to life, regain and re-administer the highs and well-being of running trails to anywhere the mountain would let me, clapping the wind and painting sunlight or the effervescence of rain. I remember the best, taint the now. Dreaded, failure-manifested tomorrow. Crescendos as palpation against my head, chest; the space that surrounds the heart becomes an echo chamber. I sleep stiff and alone, isolated even from my own husband who must temporarily live 40 minutes away for his job.
Self-critic. I know. But knowing doesn’t resolve my perfectionist nature nor does it heal my wounds. No one likes taking time to do their definition of nothing for a few months or a year. I admit I need athleticism in the outdoors to feel myself. To feel relatively sane.
So I evaluate that statement. Why do I need these things to feel me, and ultimately, happy? I watched a TED talk with Emily Esfahani Smith about how the pursuance of happiness is a misleading endeavor on our part. Happiness is a volatile thing. It’s an impossible emotion to maintain without degrees of variance or absence. What we should be focusing on is a fundamental meaning in our own lives.
My conclusion: my current self with only myself for an extended period of time yields a spiraling despondency. I’m a natural introvert and self-mutilator, remember? I need motion. I need change. New input. Inspiration. A will to create. Stale is stagnant. I pursue what makes my mind flit about and release happy hormones, what makes my body feel strong, confident, and healthy. Strip that away and I’m a twitching lung out of body—adapt or be sidelined forever. Motivation is wafted aside, habits are hard to break, emotions, frustrations, stress piles like sawdust in the corner. Add this all up with my monthly womanhood and things are dramatically over-sensitized that up-ramping week, especially when I’m not (you’ve guessed it) exercising. Holy hell, the sawdust grows exponentially! Fire might as well be dripping the ceiling down. Uteruses are pumpkins that scrape the pulp themselves.
When my womb finally does bleed and my brain finds a way through the bulbous mirrors and fiery hoops, I return to the quiet post of boss-woman-self-critic, assessing progress or the lack thereof. Cyclical mourning and self-hate.
Mind is all habit.
Focus on the intellect, pick up some books, friends suggest. I find it harder and harder to have the patience to read in this state and I think anyone who has ever found themselves on the stage of ill mental health finds it difficult to rationalize self-care at all. I’ve been here before, several times during my life, actually, but not because of physical injury. Because of love.
El Portal is a quaint pocket in the soul. Letting myself be vulnerable and emotionally candid is probably the last thing that keeps me sane. I write, I see, I read, I internalize and process what my mind and body feel, and I need that—maybe even more than athleticism. While it isn’t necessarily an answer, it is at least an outlet. I’ve always questioned identity, passion, and my own relevance. Sounds dramatic—it is. But at least I am fervent about my own life.
Injuries aside, I do have writing and the ability to sense, think, and be. I may feel nasty right now and I may have let circumstances affect me too much, but change is inevitable and it happens every day, little by little, even through the blood in my veins. I have to trust in my body, let it heal. Let it happen. Let it all crash and burn and rebuild. Let it go, let it rise, soak the underlying tones of night, all that dark and sickly thought like the passing of trees overhead, pedals wheeling beneath. And while the future sometimes makes me feel impatient, admitting all the dissonance is a first step. The panic, dread, then release. It’s more than okay to cry.
This is for all those who have found themselves dreading, washed gray with uncertainty and their ugliest selves. This is for those silent demons that scathe silently and leave us disoriented and brittle; for the lapse in passion; abrupt redirection and even derailment—the taste of sour milk in your throat. This is the distraction, the noise, the stress, the expectation, shortening attention spans, awkward silences, dwindling social skills, isolation, and self-detriment that happens. In all of us.
“Perfectionism comes from the intellect, not from the heart.” – Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph. D, P.T.
Winter is ending and my body is slowly but surely awakening. In a month my husband and I will be moving back to Colorado and we won’t have to juggle schedules and sleeping arrangements anymore. That alone will help. But first and foremost, I am trying to remain an active listener to what my body is asking of me, what it wants to tell, to feel, ache. Come back to the building blocks of who I am. Receive all pain with love and patience as opposed to anger and hate. That is when things change for the better; and apparently, we love best with a degree of uncertainty in our hearts. Given that uncertainty is not an end nor something to fear. If I embrace it then I’m free to receive whatever comes. Passivity? Not quite. Active listening is not the same thing. Boil it down and listening can be seen as an act of gratitude. How grateful I should be. To have the will to listen, to sleep when I am tired, to reawaken every day.
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” – Henry David Thoreau