It’s been three months since my injury, 11 weeks since surgery, and five weeks since ending IV antibiotics to treat infection in my wrist joint that reached the bone and gummed my tendons together and to the skin. At first, mixed with the physical pain and limitations was an odd element of excitement in being injured, as if I was really living something *real* and I saw not being able to lift a fork or tie my shoes as permission to pause, reset and prepare to come back from injury with renewed purpose and drive. Yeah, well now I’m over all that positivity.
In fact, my wife has always accused me of being a bad sick person and especially for the last few weeks, I’ve been proving her right: Grumbling around the house with my aching hand held like a stiff-wristed T-rex and laying on the couch playing hours of the puzzle games Polytopia, Carcassonne and Pandemic. Suddenly, not being able to do the things I love is weighing on me. I certainly can’t rock climb or play guitar and even baking bread is impossible (the Dutch oven is too heavy…). Books were good at first, but they take too much brainpower. I just want to be miserable.
Unfortunately, my wife is a psychologist. And so instead of letting me wallow in my misery or even feeding my misery by stuffing me with dessert foods and bad homemade wine, she’s doing her best to force me into actually productive things to take care of my mental health. Here are five of her recommendations that I have tried my best to shirk:
Let Yourself Feel Awful
When you’re sick or injured, you don’t have to stay positive all the time. Instead, give yourself permission to feel your feelings, whatever they may be, positive or negative. Negative emotions that have been locked away have a nasty habit of showing up much later as physical and mental health challenges. But in the same breath, letting yourself stay locked in negativity can lead to a cycle that’s hard to break in which feeling awful can make you feel even more awful. At the same time you are accepting the emotions you feel, you can be working to shape the emotions you want to feel in the future.
I climb every Wednesday evening after work with a posse of idiot dads. We make bad jokes. We watch swallows worrying insects in the updrafts. Heck, we even climb a little. But until last week, I hadn’t joined for three months. I mean, what am I going to do, just sit there? Actually, the answer is yes. Even if all I do is sit there like I did last week, I felt a heck of a lot better than every other Wednesday I’d spent laying on the couch playing puzzle games. And it wasn’t just about being outside. It was about connecting with a community of support. Here’s an important point: At least for me, I’m finding a BIG difference between sympathy and support. I don’t need sympathy. But I do need connection with people who are rooting for my recovery.
When you’re sick or injured, there are many things you can’t do. (Like, everything.) But making concrete plans provides light at the end of the tunnel or, to use another metaphor, the carrot leading you toward recovery. For me, this was making plans with a couple idiot dads to climb a very easy route in Rocky Mountain National Park with our kids in August. By then I should at least be able to hold a rope. And for now this vision of the future keeps me motivated to do little things like go for short jogs in the afternoon with the dogs so that I’m not so horribly out of shape come August that I can’t hike to the climb.
Find Joy in Small Successes
I almost refused to put this on the list because it’s so cliche and cheesy. But it’s also true. My son and I have a bedtime ritual where I bring him a bean and cheese burrito and we chat about the day. Until a couple days ago, I had been bringing him the can of beans and the opener. But I found that by bracing the handle of the can opener with my bad hand against my chest, I can turn the can with my good hand and open the damn thing all-self. Yessss! These successes are a double-edged sword, though: Being excited that I can accomplish something as simple as opening a can or picking up a coffee cup or signing in at the physical therapy office with my bad hand also highlights the depth of the injury. So I try to revel in these successes and move on quickly before I think too deeply about them. (Don’t tell my wife…)
As the former science writer for an NCI-designated cancer center, I’ve seen many ways of dealing with illness. One that’s more common than you’d think is simply putting your head in the sand and refusing to believe the problem exists. (Newsflash: This is a BAD way to deal with cancer.) Closely related is the tendency to show up halfheartedly to the required appointments and procedures while vaguely hoping things will get better. But then not only does your illness or injury make you feel bad, but down the road when you’re still struggling, you end up feeling bad about all the things you should have done to feel better, but didn’t. Take physical therapy. I always thought PT would be like getting a massage. Nope. It’s a solid hour of Spanish-Inquisition-style torture three times a week. I swear my PT would an excellent dictator of a small banana republic or maybe a dental surgeon. But the torture is oddly worth it — and at least so far, not because it’s made the hand that much better. I leave each PT appointment with better mental health, knowing I’m doing everything I can to heal.
If you’re going through illness or injury, I hope this post made you chuckle at least a bit: Humor is one of my more positive coping mechanisms. And I also hope you will tell my wife in the comments that she should feed me desserts while I play puzzle games on the couch. But I also hope you’ll put some of her strategies into action. You are not your injury. Life goes on. And one thing I’ve learned through this experience is that life is largely what we make of it whether or not we are injured or ill — it’s just that rather than coasting through an okay existence, injury throws us into the deep end of the pool where we are forced to sink or swim. I’m doing my best to paddle like hell. I hope you’ll join me.
Garth Sundem is a parent, husband, and author of books including “Real Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change”.