The Five Stages of Injury

Three months ago today, my father lost a hard-fought battle with cancer. As I mourned that loss today the way I have so many days over the last three months, I also struggled through yet another long, injury-induced workout at the gym, thankful to be alive and have the opportunity to train, but sad and frustrated not to be able to do the one thing that brings joy to my life. During this long workout, it occurred to me that the process of coping with a serious injury and the process of coping with death are not so different. 

Many people, especially non-athletes, do not realize the emotional impact injury can have. They are not sensitive to this situation because they have never experienced it. For those of us, however, who have experienced what it is like to wake up one morning and not be able to do the thing about which we are most passionate, injury can be a very dark and frustrating time. 

Stage 1 (Denial): Denial is a defense mechanism, the refusal to accept the reality of a situation. "If I just take a couple ibuprofen and RICE for a day or so, I'll be fine. It's just achy. I'll be back by this weekend!" Denial, for me, is fear masked in optimism. 

Stage 2 (Anger): Anger manifests itself in many ways. It fulfills a need to blame someone or something for what has happened, however displaced those feelings may be: "Why me? I do everything right and people who don't have no issues. It's not fair!" My anger surfaces the most when I observe people running recklessly on treadmills in ways that would make most runners shudder. Most recently, I saw a man running down the street with a lit cigarette in his mouth. I considered tripping him, but I couldn't hobble fast enough to catch him.

Stage 3 (Bargaining): Bargaining is the hope that you can postpone the inevitable through negotiation. "I promise I won't run for three days, I'll rest, and I'll even see a doctor. After that, I'll be fine then. I'll be back by next weekend!" For me, bargaining is both the realization of and frustration over the inevitable but it, too, is masked in optimism.

Stage 4 (Depression): Depression begins when a person starts to realize the inevitability of a situation: "It's been two, three, five, six, eight weeks and I haven't gotten better." Burdened by constant pain and feelings of hopelessness, a person begins to question: "What's the point? I'm never going to get better anyway." Constant questions about progress (or lack there of), coupled with the pressure of upcoming events, can be overwhelming. Likewise, it is demoralizing to go to bed each night with the hope of a pain-free tomorrow only to awaken in pain the next day. 

Stage 5 (Acceptance): Finally coming to terms with a situation, a person can begin to move on and recover: "It is what it is, but it won't always be like this. Things will get better one of these days and that day just might be tomorrow."

Recovering from injury, like coping with loss, is a long and painful process. This injury has taught me that time truly is what heals and some things take longer than others to stop hurting. Almost eight weeks from the date of my injury, my body has not fully recovered. I still hurt and I’m still scared that I’ll never feel normal again. I cycle through these stages over and over and over, usually resting on depression. Today, however, as I think about my dad and his struggle, the way he awoke in pain day after day but still persevered, I consider myself fortunate and I’m even a little hopeful.