Physical Injuries + Silver Linings

I feel the most beautiful when I am active, growing up as an athletic, competitive child. But for several years, I have not had the ability to be that physically active girl I remember. Even as I recover from the events I am about to share, I concede that I am not fully recovered, and there still lives inside me a fear of a lifetime of limitations and a potential to never be that active, care-free girl I remember.

In January 2018, I developed debilitating plantar fasciitis while studying abroad in Ecuador. I was unable to walk for two months; I had to lay in my bed, sit in chairs, and taxi-ride myself to classes.  I sat out on social events, trips, and even lunches because I was unable to stand or walk without pain. Instead, I spent time with a select group of sedentary friend—mostly artists;  we would play music together and discuss philosophy. It was not the semester I had planned, but between icing my feet and drying my tears, I found joy in these foreign activities.

Hiking

Adjusting

While I explored my creative, more artistic side, I gave my body time to recover—albeit begrudgingly and impatiently. I slowly gained more mobility as I tried everything I could to heal faster. In March, I planned a trip to Peru for that June with two friends. Ambitiously, and perhaps naively, I also planned a solo travel for the remaining 3 months of summer. Machu Picchu and my solo travels became my main priority, so I diligently committed myself to rehabbing my feet. My future objectives helped me remain patient, giving me motivation to push on despite the difficulties.

I had trouble locating a doctor in this foreign health care system, and I often felt discouraged by a lack of guidance or support. My attempts to call home were often thwarted by the failing WIFI connection; where my tearful confessions were responded to by beeps and dropped calls. It was hard to stay strong when I felt alienated from myself and alone in my struggle. I pushed forward to find my perfect physical therapist, Daisy, who helped me heal, physically and spiritually, by my June deadline. What I did not account for was how weak I felt when June came, having lost a substantial amount of muscle after 4 months of inertia.

I remember how awkward I felt being in this weaker body; a body that no longer ‘listened to me’. My hips felt frozen. Everything ached. I felt like I lived inside a creaky, old house. For three weeks, I walked and hiked through Peru uncomfortably aware of my physical weaknesses, comparing my shortcomings to my two friends who seemingly glided up the mountains. A part of me knew that one day I would feel better, yet that day felt painfully far away. Another side of me believed that a full recovery was a distant future that I would never reach. Was this was my new reality?

On the way to Machu Pichu

These voices argued bitterly between each other until I found myself out of Peru and on the island of Aruba, where I reinjured my foot after a night out. Limping and embarrassed, I weighed my options: I could go home or continue with the trip I had paid for with all my savings. I made the decision to push on with an injured foot. ‘I’d make it work,‘ I told myself, ‘I would suck it up.

Throughout the 3 months on the road, I developed little tricks for managing my pain. Whenever my foot hurt, I bought two cold beers and used one to roll out my injured foot. The other beer I drank as I iced my foot, doing this either in a park or at an outdoor bar or even on a travel bus. I became incredibly familiar with South American parks, pubs, and canned beer collections. In the mornings, I did stretches to improve my mobility. My backpack was filled with NSAIDs, golf balls, and orthopedic inserts. And I pushed on, despite the voices in my head, the fears in my heart, or the tears on my face.

Chile

Cycles

Yet my feet continued to limit my every action. I remember being in a port city in Northern Chile, trying to find a restaurant. My foot was aching—throbbing—that day. The pain incrementally rose as I continued searching for this restaurant. When I realized that I was lost, I panicked. ‘I didn’t have the luxury to be lostEvery second I spent walking while in pain was more damage I was causing. Each minute of activity had to have a purpose, because I still had two months of traveling to go.’

As my anxiety rose, my thoughts spun to the worst—permanent damage to my foot, never being the same again, always being stuck in this vicious cycle. I dropped to the ground of the cracked sidewalk and waited– for a taxi, a person, anything, or anyone that could help me. And I cried.

This emotional cycle continued every two weeks. I would survive on my foot, pushing through the pain and managing the problems, until my mind could no longer remain resilient. I would start believing the worst, those fears in my head that I would never be athletic again, that I would never run or jump or properly walk again. And I would cry.

In these episodes, however, I began to catch myself. I started to tell myself, ‘This experience was changing me. It was building me up as a person. There would come a time when my body would work as I wanted it to, as I remember it working and feeling. When that day comes, I will look back on this day and be proud of myself for persevering, for not giving up, and for finding a way to experience the world in a new way.’ 

I stopped trying to travel like the active girl I wanted to be and leaned into the artistic person I was learning to embrace. I sat in art museums, I wrote poetry, and I dreamed of a future self, a self who would appreciate and care for her body. A self who would see her body for the gift it was, who would cherish every day she could walk without pain. That was the self I wanted to be.

At a gallery in Cuba

Back In The US

Back in the United States, I wanted to take care of myself the way I said I would; I sought professional help to correct the last half-year of muscle imbalances and injuries. Through my university health care, I was connected to a campus physical therapist. I was hesitant about her from the beginning, she seemed disinterested in the pain I was describing to her. But I was desperate, and I did not want to go outside of my insurance plan, so I committed myself to seeing her and to trusting her– only to tear my hamstring in front of her on October of 2018.

The day I tore my hamstring, she had added weight too quickly to my exercise, a move that I had questioned, and she had dismissed. She was looking at her computer when I injured myself, and when I told her of the pain, she pushed me to complete the move. When I was unable to even lift my leg, I saw a twinge of guilt across her face. She had, after all, allowed this to happen in her own office. Frustrated as I was, I was even more desperate; I did not know what to do with an injured hamstring, and the pain was fierce. We continued working together, and after a few months of improvement, she cleared me to return to normal activity.

Not even a week later, I torn my hamstring again and the fierce pain upgraded itself to debilitating pain. Years later, I would learn that I had also damaged the surrounding hip ligaments and my lower back. I did not go back to see that physical therapist, and I felt like an idiot for having trusted her in the first place. Instead, I sat on my butt, taking meditation to numb the pain, in disbelief of my current state. I graduated university and moved back to San Diego, where I was able to find strength in my family, who encouraged me to find a new physical therapist. This time, I felt supported, but I was in a worse state than ever before and unsure of how to handle my pain and limitations.

Due to my own stupidity, I strained my back in April 2019. This back injury made it impossible to do anything; I could not even sit down anymore and had to resort to lying on back. My feet were still injured as well, making it difficult to walk more than a half-mile without pain. Each injury was more painful than the last, each more limiting than the last.

Yet despite the growing decline in my mobility, I had to believe that my resilience rising, expanding—I was consumed by and yet resilient to the nasty voices in my head. These were the voices that told me I would never recover, that I would never be the same. They were the voices that I needed to defeat, that I refused to believe, because to believe in these voices was to lose all faith in myself. As I waited for my body to catch up, I became stronger in my mind and spirit

sydney greer callaway at the lake
Colorado

My Body Now

Four years have passed, and I still hear these voices inside my head as I continue struggle with these injuries and others; the only difference is that I am becoming more resolved to see myself as more than my body. Whenever my injuries flare up, my body gets stiff or fall out of alignment, my sciatic nerve gets pinched, my knees swell up, or I lose my strength, I redirect my mind towards positivity and acceptance. I listen to the cues around me, I do not push myself, and I carefully select who my caretakers are, having learned the hard way that not everyone can be trusted. I am learning to not push past my limits, to respect my limits, and to not demean myself as weak or immobile. I am learning how to say no, no matter how badly when I want to climb that mountain or sprint up that hill.

On my good days and bad, I remember all that I have overcome, all the stress I let consume me, and all the obstacles that changed me as a person. Looking back, I wonder if my fear was not rested in my injuries, but in what these injuries were asking me to do—sit still, listen to myself, and change my perspective. I could not run away, I could not turn away, and I could not explain away my pain. I could only sit with it, an uncomfortable and challenging practice that has become the basis for my spiritual meditations today. The last thing I have ever wanted to do was to be. And my injuries demanded exactly that of me.

Today, I feel grateful for the necessity to slow down, turn inward, and breathe deeply. There are days when the pain takes me over and the fears riddle my soul, but I know I can prevail, so long as I remember to breath.

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