I’m sitting here currently crying. Earlier today I found out that the women’s premier soccer league (WPSL) in America will be back in action this year. Try outs are approaching rapidly, May 6th and May 7th for the Atlanta Silverbacks. This is the team that my former assistant coach and role model played for and captained for numerous years. I’m ecstatic. Especially given that I read earlier in the year that there wouldn’t be a W-league because there wasn’t enough funding for it. A little perspective, since I was about 13 or 14, I have dreamed of playing W-league. In Australia or in America, I didn’t really care. I also had dreams to play for my country, and I had a glimpse of that when I was 16 and 17, but after some strokes of misfortune and doing both my knees as well as moving to America, I made my goals a little more realistic by aiming to simply play W-league.
So why am I crying? Perhaps it is partially due to me about to start my period, but I think it’s more than that. I’m reliving fears that I have ignorantly put aside because I haven’t needed to confront them. But with the prospect of playing WPSL and my first individual session after doing my second knee in the morning, I now need to confront them. It’s not so much the fear of re-tearing my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) that debilitates me, but the fear of what I lost and what I went through as a result of doing my second ACL that debilitates me. Frightens me. Paralyses me. Tearing an ACL is traumatic. Particularly if you lose something that was a central part of who you are. And soccer was for me. It still is, but I’ve had to learn to put that part of me aside in order to salvage my emotional sanity.
I remember when I was institutionalised and the psychiatrist I saw diagnosed me as suffering from “grief” – the loss of soccer. Granted to me, that was a very basic and misunderstood interpretation of what I was experiencing because it was more than just grief of a sport that I loved. It was a grief of myself. It was a grief of all my hopes, dreams, and expectations. All of that was shattered the moment I heard that dreaded pop. Every athlete’s worst nightmare. Especially if it makes you feel like you’re experiencing déjà vu.
I lost everything that day. September 7th 2014, at 1:19p.m. to be exact. I was coming back from a mild right ankle sprain in which I was cleared and felt okay to play. I had played about 20 minutes during the Friday night game and felt great. That morning though, I started my period. I intend to talk about this experience in more depth in a future post, but for now, I’ll just state that emotionally, I was not there. Something had happened a week prior that pushed me over the edge emotionally. I was not in a good head space. And given that I started my period that morning, I was at a higher risk of tearing my ACL. As I was getting my ankle taped for the game, I recall my trainer stating, “Now please, no more injuries today.” For whatever reason, my mind immediately thought: ACL. Was it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Was it because of my emotional instability? Was it because of my period? Was it simply just a matter of time before I did my second one? My doctor apparently says yes to that last question. The truth is, none of those questions matter. Because it happened. I tore it. All of my hopes, dreams, and expectations for my senior year vanished in a split second. And not just my hopes, dreams, and expectations either, everyone else’s hopes, dreams, and expectations for me vanished in that moment too. Imagine investing your entire life; emotional, physical, and psychological wellbeing into a team and sport only to have it stripped away from you because of one mere motion with your body. A motion you have performed thousands of times before with no repercussion, yet on this day, your ACL decided to tear completely in two. On this day, your heart broke. Actually, I feel like that’s an understatement. It shattered. Into tiny, unrecognisable fragments. And then it froze. Became numb. And that’s what you called living for the next six months until you considered taking your own life. Until you had to physically inflict harm on yourself just to feel again. Yeah, that’s what it was like to tear my ACL for the second time.
So where does that leave me now? For the past 19.5 months since tearing my ACL, I have lived a naive, ignorant dream. For a period, I believed that I would never play soccer again. And, given what I just shared, could you blame me? I was 21 years old and I had now done both of my knees. Would I even be able to play again? Would I ever recover from this physically? Mentally? Emotionally? I didn’t know. I still don’t know. But I’m starting to challenge those fears because I’m having to. To complicate things a little more, my recovery wasn’t smooth. Still isn’t smooth. You see, I had a quad graft on both of my knees. On my first one, I suffered excruciating tendinitis for about 7 months, but it was isolated to the two inches of my scar. I pushed through the pain and eventually made my comeback game 11 months post-surgery. For my second one however, I am suffering from tendonopathy (apparently that’s an interchangeable word for tendinitis) except this time, it’s not isolated to just my scar. It’s my entire quad. And it’s persisted for the past year. I gave up running last August because it was too painful. Any time I try to demonstrate something to my kids that I coach, I clench at my quad in agony. It feels like an acute burn. It’s as though my leg is being ripped open. The pain eventually subsides, and then I’m just left with a feeling of a bruised quad for the next day or so. No big deal, right? Pain is temporary, right? Albeit true, this pain has prohibited me from participating in activities I enjoy; running, lifting, tennis, soccer, and coaching. I again, for numerous months, questioned whether or not I would ever be able to run again without pain. And according to my physical therapist over here in the US, she suspected not. Not a very comforting thought, especially given the nature and degree of the pain.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining. And I found that a few weeks ago at my coaching course. True to tendons, once my quad tendon is warmed up, the pain subsides. It’s the warming up, however, that is excruciating. At this coaching course, I had the first real glimpse of playing soccer again. I was playing with some very talented individuals and one who used to play for Kennesaw State University’s in-state rival, Mercer. We got talking and she is part of a rec team that was looking for a few extra players. I was dancing internally. YES! Please! Sign me up! I have been yearning to play the sport I so desperately love ever since doing my knee, but I have lacked the motivation to truly recover and pursue it. And I also wasn’t aware of any leagues here in America and that was a strong motivating force behind me considering moving back to Adelaide. Now, with the prospect of WPSL, that changes things a little bit.
So I have a goal. And I have the motivation. What is stopping me? Why am I so upset? Because I’m scared. I’m not scared of not being good enough. I realise and accept that there’s a big abyss between where I finished playing and where I’m at now. I can’t trick physiology. I can’t make up for the 17.5 months I’ve lost since surgery. I learnt that the hard way after receiving a stress fracture (that completely separated after playing on it) after my first ACL. So my performance and ability doesn’t scare me, okay, great. So what is it then that I am so afraid of? Ultimately, yeah, I am afraid of doing my knees again. Okay, that's an understatement. I'm fucking petrified. I not only have to worry about one knee now, but two. I haven’t just lost one year of my soccer playing career, but almost three due to just two injuries. I lost more than just time though. I lost a part of me. I lost a part of my game that will take years to rebuild. A part of my game that made me, me. A part of my game that you can’t teach. A part of my game that got me my starting 11 position. And that part of me was fearlessness. Because when I return, I will be afraid. I will be scared. And I will have fear. I can convince myself consciously that I’m not afraid. But I’m lying. Subconsciously or consciously, I’m scared that I’m going to do my knees again. I think what contributes to this fear is also the lack of organised preparation to return to activity. I haven’t done a lot of plyometrics in controlled conditions. I haven’t done the cutting or practices in a controlled environment, either. And that lack of preparation plays on me unconsciously. My egoic mind convinces me that enough time has surpassed and I have done significant strength training and rehab with my physical therapist, but again, my mind cannot trick physiology or preparation and my subconscious knows that. This can be fixed though, and I can work on plyometrics, cutting, and practices in a controlled environment and I have every intention to do so. But my fear still persists. Why?
We’re often told to not be governed by fear and that fear inhibits us from taking risks and that is true. I am not denying that. But I also know this fear is warranted. Much like you can’t trick physiology, you also can’t trick learning and behaviour, particularly classical conditioning. I have been conditioned to fear tearing my ACL. Particularly because the event was so traumatic. And not just the event, but the aftermath too. Naturally then, the fear response is intense. The only way to eradicate this fear? Through the process of extinction. Through confronting them. Through training. Through practicing. Through playing again. Through successfully making my first tackle and surviving. Through landing on my left leg with my body still intact. Through time. And through patience. I have to be gentle with myself in this process, and I am aware of that. I also know that it is okay to have fear. And to have doubt. All of that is a necessary component of recovery. Without them, I’d probably be a sociopath. This post doesn’t have a resolution, nor was it intended to. This is just me communicating in real-time, what I am experiencing. So with my first individual session in the morning, I ask that you wish me good luck. In the meantime, I vouch to be gentle with myself and accept my fears to be a necessary component of my recovery. As necessary as surgery itself.