The forward was coming on fast, perpendicular to me, both of us racing for the same ball. I was on defense, and my team was up 1-0. I beat him to the ball, but just barely, and he made his arrival known. I can’t remember how he ended up on the ground, the ball and my right leg trapped by his legs, but it didn’t matter. I heard the audible pop in my right knee and immediately knew that I had torn my Anterior Cruciate Ligament, or ACL, playing a semi-competitive game of intramural co-ed soccer. I fell to the ground, crying out in grief. Not because of the pain—it was surprisingly numb—but because of the vision that flashed in my mind of what the coming months would entail. It wasn’t my first ACL tear. Ten years ago, at the age of fourteen, I tore the ACL in my left knee during the second basketball game of my freshman year of high school. I knew the drill. Rest, ice, compress, elevate, crutches, doctors offices, the diagnosis I already knew, the atrophy of my leg muscles, the loss of independence, the seemingly endless physical therapy and co-pays, the withdraw from the outside world while I healed, the physical pain, the psychological pain, the anger. I was intimately familiar with the process, even ten years later.
The injury felt like a betrayal. It was like my own body was pleading with me “I can’t do it! I’m not strong enough! Do less or I’ll break!” Despite that I had been weightlifting seriously for eight months and could deadlift 200 pounds prior to the injury, I felt like a failure. It felt like everything I had worked for was lost. Most of all I was angry. Angry at myself for not being strong enough. Angry at others for their pity. Angry at my colleagues for their constant earnest and sympathetic question of “What happened?” and angry at my worn and recited response: “I tore my ACL playing soccer.” “I tore my ACL playing soccer.” “I tore my ACL playing soccer.” I was angry at myself for feeling anger when other people in the world knew inordinately more pain than I could ever fathom. I still had both my legs. I would be able to walk again eventually. I had a wonderfully understanding and supportive group of family and friends, and a workplace that allowed me to take sick leave and work from home. I was even privileged for the age that I live in, when ACL reconstruction surgeries are commonplace and the technology is outstanding. I had no right to be angry.
When anger boils within your soul and takes up your mental state for extended periods of time, it is oppressive in the way that fire is oppressive. It may look and feel inviting, but it will burn you. After the initial blow had passed, I realized that the anger was only a surface emotion, as it always is, that covered up real feelings of fear, sadness, and grief. Instead of being angry at the thing that had already happened, that I couldn’t have controlled or prevented, I channeled it. I showed up everyday. I was ten minutes early for physical therapy appointments twice a week. I did all of the exercises they asked of me and then I did an extra set. I took notes of my doctor’s advice. I researched what had changed in the past 10 years since I had last researched ACL reconstruction and rehabilitation. I did everything I could to get back to my normal life as fast as I could. What else would I do? In my mind there was simply no other path to take. Recovery was my path.
Day by day I healed. My body surprised me with every new milestone: achieving a flexed quad muscle, achieving a fully-straight leg, making one full rotation on the exercise bike, walking with only one crutch, walking without a brace, walking without crutches at all. My body was resilient despite the setback. In the process, I relearned something I had forgotten: my body was strong. I am strong.
I hope you never suffer from a devastating injury. But if you do, find solace in this: the adversity is worth it. It’s always worth it.