By Sara Aranda
This piece takes a look into mental health issues that often coincide with extended injury. I write from my own (current) experience, and that is all this is. 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 are all demons.
Winter this year has been rain echoing through the walls of my room. Sounds are harsh at times – angry, loud and slapping, guttural with a hint of hiss. Other times it is a faint cloud, lazy and trapped by the steep hillsides – a mist that you still feel, see rippling in the puddles, but never see fall from the sky. Everything is green and mud, save the occasional snow, where the white edge creeps down the mountains just across the river. Rock slides damage the roads and eventually the snow melts below 7,000 ft. I walk 3 minutes to and from work, 4 days a week here in El Portal, just a stone’s throw from one of Yosemite’s park entrances. Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it?
“Don’t you have phenomenal trail running there?” a friend asked when I started talking about feeling isolated and anxious.
“Yeah, but…my foot…”
“Oh yeah…” Awkward.
Any other year I would have been running up and down these hills and along the river like a proper mountain goat. I would have practiced skiing every weekend and gone climbing if the rock ever had a chance to dry. I think about that everyday, and especially every time I eat the candy and cookies and goldfish and pretzels at work. I then come home and I 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.
My appetite is still calibrated for what it has always known, lots of fuel for my athleticism. But I am here, rolling out my legs when I remember and trying 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 10 months since I injured my left foot (overuse, too much shoe changing combo) but I had to keep training for my own adventure wedding last summer, and then I kept rolling with it through our road trips and climbing in the Fall. It took 8 months for me to finally commit to resting it completely. Thus, the last 2 have been appropriately depressing.
Here and there 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 weeks and I decided that my foot might be well enough to take a stab at running again. Keep in mind the last time I tried to run was November, and my foot was yelling at me after 20 minutes.
Thus: 1.1 miles. 1.7 miles. 1.7 miles. 3 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). Finally, my lower back starts feeling sore and achy because of bad posture and lifting kids and whatnot at work – why? I’ve been babying my knees and don’t/can’t squat. Shame on me. Basically, I’m spiraling down some injury rabbit hole and overcompensation is something I’ve never had to be wary of before. Long story short, I feel really stupid and disconnected from the very body I used to feel so strong in.
Yes. It’s been a long winter. Back in December I requested a referral to a foot specialist through my doctor and now it’s March and nothing has happened (thanks Medical). So I guess it’s just me and my foot and my knees and my hand and my back and we’re having a good old-fashioned lazy 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. But if it 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. And I like remembering myself like that. I thoroughly enjoy being good at “working out.” Running was my first love and a friend nicknamed me “rock panther” because I climb rocks (of course). But we’re not supposed to hang on to what we once were capable of…certainly…
My body has faulted in ways that are really my fault. I didn’t listen.
Recovery is turning into a long, hard road littered with a mockery of myself. It has its own timeline and that’s nothing new. But boy, like I said, it is really fucking depressing. I try to stay positive 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 athletes find themselves in at some point in their lives. Everything always seems to turn out okay in the end, so it’s all a waiting game now, isn’t it?
My heroes and heroines are out there crushing and doing what they do best. Friends. Family. 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, and failing at self-discipline and thus self-confidence. Everything 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 that they’ll come back to life, regain and re-administer the freeing highs and well-being of running trails to anywhere the mountain would let me, clapping the wind and painting sunlight or even the effervescence of rain. So I remember the best, taint the now. But the now has become “back then” and a dreaded, failure-manifested tomorrow. It crescendos in its palpations against my head, chest, and heart. I sleep stiff and alone, isolated even from my own husband who must temporarily live 40 minutes away for his job.
I am my only critic, my husband tells me. I know. But it doesn’t solve my perfectionist nature nor does it heal my wounds. No one likes taking time to do nothing for a few months or a year – no one who needs athleticism and the wild outdoors to feel herself, at least. To feel relatively sane.
Yet I evaluate that statement. Why do I need these things to feel me, and ultimately, happy?
My conclusion: myself with only myself for any extended period of time yields a spiraling despondency. I’m a natural introvert and self-critic. I need motion. I need change. Stale is stagnant. My mind seeks new input. Inspiration. A will to create. But motivation is wafted aside, habits are hard to break, emotions, frustrations, stress builds and builds when I am not me, doing me things in me places for an endless me length of time with those that make me feel loved and make me want to love. Does that make me selfish? High maintenance? In the sense that it makes me aware of me, you could say so. 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 fish out of water – adapt or be sidelined forever. Add this all up with my monthly womanhood and things are dramatically over-sensitized, especially when I’m not (you’ve guessed it) exercising. And when my womb finally does bleed and my brain finds a way through the mirror, I return to my post as the boss-woman-self-critic, assessing progress or the lack thereof. Cyclical mourning and self-hate.
Yet, mind is all habit.
Pick up some new books, focus on the intellect, friends suggest. I find it harder and harder to have patience to read in this state and I think anyone who has found themselves on the stage of ill mental health finds it difficult to seek self-care at all. So what’s the answer? There is none except for the self. I’ve been here before, several times during my life, actually, but not because of physical injury. There was a small sliver of my life where I relied on anti-depressants, but all before I found the life I live now; before I even really knew the true benefits to trail running and climbing, to nature and its therapeutic art; before I knew what honestly makes me happy and passionate in the first place.
I’ve questioned identity, passion, and my own relevance. Sounds dramatic – it is. But at least I am fervent about my own life. 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 feels and I need that, maybe even more so than athleticism. Thus, while it isn’t necessarily an answer, it at least is an outlet. I still 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, through the blood in my veins. I have to trust in my body and my mind and just 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 light overhead. And while the future sometimes makes me feel impatient, admitting all the dissonance is so necessary. First there’s panic, dread, then release. And, yeah, it’s okay to cry.
So this is for all those who have found themselves dreading a mirror or sulking in a room, washed grey with uncertainty and their ugliest selves. This is for those silent demons that scathe silently through the mind and leave us disoriented and brittle; for that lapse in passion, abrupt redirection, derailment, and all-around sour milk. For the distractions, the noise, the stress, the expectations, shortening attention spans, awkward silences, dwindling social skills, isolation, and self-detriment that happens in all of us.
I truly believe that self-awareness adds to the collective awareness of the human condition and our consciousness as a whole. Talk, even self-talk, is a door. So, again, if there had to be a single answer, then I would say that it is that: talking, listening, acknowledging the stranger in all of us.
“Perfectionism comes from the intellect, not from the heart.” – Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph. D, P.T.
In my case the stranger has been my own body. Yet, suddenly, 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 my mental health. But first and foremost, I am an active listener to what my body is asking of me, what it merely wants to tell, to feel, ache – whatever it needs or doesn’t.
Winter has really been about slowing down and coming back to the building blocks of who I am. My practice now is to receive all pain with love and patience as opposed to anger and hate. That is when things truly change. And apparently we love best with uncertainty in our hearts in acceptance that uncertainty is not an end nor something to fear. We embrace it and we’re free to receive whatever comes. I don’t know how this year will play out, so I’ll just let it happen. Passivity? Not quite. Active listening is not the same thing. Feeding passion in the little ways I can makes all the difference, and I’m grateful that I have the will to listen, to sleep when I am tired, and to reawaken every day.
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” – Henry David Thoreau