The Challenge of Injury Depression

Nothing will shift a person into depression in Colorado like an injury, and since Coloradoans tend to be extreme outdoor enthusiasts, (and rightly so), it stands to reason that the level of depression that descends when an injury takes someone out is unique to this place. Athletes here are nothing if not over-achievers and I would say that they are equally adept at epic injuries. I say this from experience as well as from observation. For the record, I don’t actually consider myself an athlete by Colorado standards, but I am typically a very outdoor active person sans injuries. Truthfully, the hardest part about living in Colorado is not being able to go outside and enjoy it. With an endless supply of outdoor activities from hiking, running, cycling, rock climbing, skiing & snowboarding to name a few, and an average of 300 sunny days a year, being sidelined from an injury is like a prison sentence.

Since moving here, I have slipped and torn my acl, mcl and medial meniscus with the latter requiring surgery, custom orthotics and endless hours of physical therapy. I’ve also gotten a mild concussion, severely sprained my ankle and had a two-year battle with debilitating Achilles tendonitis pain. When I first sat down to write about this, I was prompted by my own surprise that what I had been experiencing the past few years may have been a form of undiagnosed depression.

At the time though, I wasn’t consciously aware that I was depressed. I just thought that the “bitterness in my heart” at seeing other people achieve amazing feats of physical endurance hiking 14er after 14er, running mile after mile up mountains and doing every physical feat that I could not was the direct result of being in pain every time I attempted to do something that I loved. I felt like a complete failure because no matter what I did, I could not figure out the cause of the tendon pain, and neither could the army of physical therapists that I saw. During the course of my injuries, I gained a lot of weight and couldn’t fit into anything but yoga pants which only added to my feelings of hopelessness. I came home from work each night and turned on the tv, watching 3-4 hours every night. I slept all the time, and I had no real ambition because I was just desolate in my agony.

It wasn’t until I visited a new gynocologist to see about getting on hormone replacement therapy that a glimmer of hope appeared, but first I had to have a certain come-to-Jesus moment, when we are literally trying shake ourselves awake. My moment came during the obligatory weigh in that happens at all doctor appointments. I was shocked into silence and shame by the number on the scale. I weighed more than I had when I was pregnant, and I simply did not recognize myself anymore. Being depressed is a lot like screaming into the void, or screaming at yourself with the mute button on. As soon as I stepped on that scale, the mute button released and I could hear everything loud and clear. Once I let go of the judgement, I was able to shift into action. My doctor suggested I try an elimination diet that she had used herself called Whole30 and since I was out of options, I reached for it like a lifesaving buoy.

The next day, after downloading all the information I could find, I had my first cup of black, no sugar, no creamer, no nothing coffee. I almost gave up before I started, but it was imperative for me to begin with the most difficult task first. The only reason I drank coffee was for all the delicious coffee creamers, so black coffee or coffee mixed with plain, zero sugar almond milk became my new normal. I realized quickly that I had to establish a new relationship to food and it started by going cold turkey and cutting out all the dairy, grains, legumes, sugar and alcohol for 30 days.

A few weeks into it, a funny thing happened. I just sort of noticed that the pain was less in my Achilles tendons. This pushed me to continue and to learn as much as I could about my body, my food cravings and sensitivities. Once the pain faded, I started turning off the tv and finding new and fun workouts, I was able to start running again and hiking longer and more challenging trails. So far, I’ve lost half of the weight that I gained and my relationship to food has become less dysfunctional. Now, food is for energy and since my taste buds have been re-trained, I can taste the sweetness in things that I never noticed before. Seeing my body change and heal has been a powerful motivator, but feeling better and being able to enjoy Colorado in all of its glory is the greatest reward.

During my injury-induced depression, I started to wonder about the gifts that being sidelined can be. I have many friends and acquaintances who inspire me with their endless physical prowess, who have also recently been injured and forced to sit on the sidelines and heal. I do know that slowing down is not something that we usually do willingly. Life demands a certain amount of our undivided attention and taking time for ourselves feels almost selfish. Perhaps that is the gift. Perhaps having the unwelcome opportunity to sit still and observe is exactly what we need sometimes. One thing is certain, once the pain has vanished and we are able to resume the joys of doing what we love, we never take one single second for granted.