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How My ACL Injury Helped Reframe Negative Self-Talk

Almost one year to the date, I had ACL reconstruction surgery on my left knee.  It has been one of my life's most challenging and harrowing experiences.


I started skiing and snowboarding at 36 and have struggled with confidence from the beginning. I didn’t have the blessing of learning this daring and somewhat dangerous hobby at a young age - when you have no fear of bodily harm and can absorb new skills like a dry sponge.  Still, I’d been working at it, and at the age of 47, I felt like I was finally learning to control my fear and felt more self-assured about this sport that I had grown to love.


On the day of my injury (our first day on the mountain), I felt GREAT!  My husband and I were on our fourth or fifth run of the day; the weather was decent and improving by the minute.  Tahoe had unprecedented snow that season, so the conditions were perfect.  I was skiing with speed and confidence and TRUSTED in myself and my skills.


Up to this point, I had spent a lot of time feeling embarrassed that I wasn’t good enough or fast enough.  This had a lot to do with the fact that I was always skiing in groups of people who had been doing this since they were teenagers.  While this was a story I was telling myself and certainly not how my friends felt about my abilities, these self-destructive untruths can really f*ck  with your head, which is why this day was so significant.  I was finally feeling like I was good enough!


Yet, sh*t happens (usually at the best of times), and that’s precisely what happened to me!


I was approaching the last stretch at the bottom of the mountain, not far from the ski lift, when I hit a thick patch of snow.  One ski went left, one ski went right, and neither popped off, but I did hear a popping sound in my left knee, followed by a tremendous amount of pain.  I sat in the snow and took a moment.


As a Pilates instructor, I'm trained to assess bodies and work with all sorts of injuries and physical challenges. In turn, when I hurt myself, the first thing that my brain does is assess. I thought I might be fine for a split second since the pain had subsided completely, but as soon as I tried to stand and couldn’t stabilize my knee, I knew I was in trouble. It was like standing on a wet noodle.  That was when I understood the gravity of the situation and that it would likely lead to surgery, rehab, and probably a year+ of recovery. 


I also saw every plan and goal I had set (including leaving my job) flash before my eyes, followed by the devastation of knowing that it would ALL have to be put on hold or (at the very least) delayed.  


A trip to the emergency room would confirm my suspicions, and while I do love being right, I took no pleasure in being correct about this!  Once I got back to New Jersey, confirmed my ACL rupture, and scheduled my reconstruction surgery, things went as expected in that I began “prehab” (prehab addresses physical fitness, nutrition, lifestyle, as well as psychological barriers to healing after surgery).  


What I didn’t expect and, therefore, didn’t prepare for was the shame and existential struggle that would follow.


I recently started reading Dare to Lead by Brené Brown as part of a book club run by Erin’s Faces (if you are not familiar with her clean beauty products, check them out here).  Brené spends an entire section of the book dissecting the concepts of shame and embarrassment and its underlying causes.


If you’ve read Brené Brown, you know she is a master at demonstrating her point through storytelling.  In this case, she delves into the time she recorded the audio for her book Braving the Wilderness, where she essentially knocks herself unconscious after walking into a pane of glass in the recording studio.  This leads to a series of discoveries around her resistance to accepting help from others and accepting her limitations, particularly when recovering from a severe injury.  All of which were (you guessed it) grounded in SHAME. 


I’m no Brené Brown, but given she is a highly successful and intelligent human who managed to knock herself the f*ck out, and this incident propelled her into unpacking her own embarrassment and shame, I realized I, too, had some work to do around my injury as well.


Like Brené, I grew up in an Eastern European household where stoicism was celebrated, injury and illness were met with a “shake it off” attitude, and few excuses were acceptable for not meeting your obligations.  


While some of this can be attributed to my German/Polish heritage (let’s be honest), a lot of it has to do with being a latchkey GenX kid of the 1980s.  


Raise your hand if you relate. 🙋🏼‍♀️


It was a difficult pill to swallow when faced with the reality that I would not be able to walk for weeks. And even when I could walk with a brace, it would not be for any sustained amount of time for MONTHS.  It meant I would have to relinquish specific responsibilities to my husband and others. I felt these obligations were my JOB or at least jobs I shared with my husband, like grocery shopping, general house cleanup, cooking, and walking our dogs.   


Then, there was taking care of ME.  


I needed help in and out of the shower, cleaning my wound, and changing the dressing. I couldn’t do anything that required standing, like cooking or making the bed. Even though none of this was my fault, I was deeply ashamed of needing help. I was also embarrassed that I injured myself skiing, as I felt this was a reflection of me being a “bad” skier.  


To further complicate things, I had given notice at work in late 2022 and agreed to stay until we found my replacement.  This had been dragging on for MONTHS into 2023, and with Spring in the air, I decided I would give a firm exit date once I returned from my trip.  It took courage to arrive at this decision and confidence that my husband and I were financially stable enough to live on one income while I continued to build my business and finish the HUNDREDS of hours I still had left in my Pilates certification.  I was excited and hopeful about this change!  


However, with expensive surgery and rehab ahead of me, I now needed my fancy health insurance, salary, and flexibility to work from home. I’d have to put off leaving even longer.  That hopefulness and excitement were gone, and I was left feeling deflated, reclusive, and depressed.


That’s when the intrusive thoughts started.


“You idiot, you picked up skiing at 36, and over ten years later, you still don’t know what you’re doing.  You’re so f*cking stupid; why did you think you could do this at your age?  Now, look what you’ve done to yourself.  The whole world is against you, and your husband will resent you for the rest of his life.”


Where did this all stem from? According to Brené Brown, it’s shame. She describes shame as “...the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.”


She was right. Having been in a generally destructive, unhealthy romantic relationship for about eight years (before I met my husband), I did not trust that my partner loved me enough to want to care for me. I had been conditioned to believe that every kindness from my person came with some sort of price—because I was undeserving of love. I believed any expression of need was seen as an inconvenience or weakness.


While I had done a lot of work (and therapy) to reframe negative self-talk, it’s often at our lowest that maladaptive thoughts and behavior rear their ugly head.  I was no exception.


There were several instances where I was moving too quickly in my recovery when my body wasn’t ready, like forcing myself to go back to the office in the city and reassuring everyone that I could take public transportation, limping my way between train connections and up and down stairs.  


I insisted that I walk the dogs when I could hardly walk myself, moving at a glacial pace, while worried that if one of my pups launched at a squirrel, I might hurt my knee or lose control of the leash, allowing my dog to run away, but I did it anyway. In fairness to my husband, he tried to talk me out of all of these things, but I wouldn’t listen. 


I think I’ve mentioned that I learn everything the hard way.


It wasn’t until I flew home to Florida by myself for a funeral that I learned my lesson.  I was at JFK and did not realize that with my gate being number 1 and me eating my lunch by gate 52, I would have to walk the length of 52 gates.  Listen, I know this seems obvious, but JFK is traditionally a nightmare and has a layout that doesn't make much sense, and I rarely fly out of that airport for good reason. I had assumed there were shoot-offs with clusters of gates, but that was not the case. 


Not realizing this, I took my time walking to the gate, but as the airport hallway kept going and going (AND GOING) in a straight line, I began to realize it was going to take more time than expected and that my leg brace, suitcase and I were going to have to pick up the pace if I wanted to make my flight!


After about 20 minutes of excruciating pain and hobbling, I made it as they started boarding.  Feeling unsure (and ashamed), I went to the gate attendant and asked if I was (gulp) allowed to board before anyone else - with the “people who need assistance” grouping.  She said of course!  Until that moment, I hadn’t considered myself disabled in any way or needing assistance, but duh – I was!  What was wrong with me?  Why didn’t I make better arrangements?


When I got back from Florida, I made some changes.  


I dove into Pilates workshops and other continuing education for Health Coaching. As soon as I was mobile enough, I returned to the Pilates studio for my hours, reframing my shame and embarrassment around my accident as an opportunity to discuss Pilates for knee injuries. I even volunteered to be a client for other teachers looking to practice on someone with post-op knee surgery.


I found ways to help around the house (for my own sake) while accepting the love and support I needed and deserved from my husband. I created some work boundaries at the office and shortened my hours; soon after, we found my replacement!


Only now do I see how my destructive behavior was rooted in shame.  My shame around needing help and feeling undeserving of love and care.


In her book, Brené ends her story by summarizing the year with, “...more hard things happened, more beautiful things happened…” Looking back, that’s exactly how the year unfolded for me.  I feel incredibly thankful for the privileges that I have had. Not everyone has access to health insurance that covers never-ending physical therapy or the ability and flexibility to work from home. I have learned to be more compassionate towards myself and have been lucky to receive endless love and support from countless friends, family, and even strangers while at my very lowest and, at times, (truly) behaving like an a**hole.


If you are really in the sh*t right now, know you are not alone and deserve support and love. If I can believe that, so can you. ♥️


You are stronger than you think and full of surprises!



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1 Comment

WOW!!! 😳

Julia, you said a mouth full! This was so personal, informative, and real life REALISIM!

Thank you so much for sharing this, because now I do look forward to my upcoming, much needed, knee replacement surgery.

Tammy Zaakyaa Boxton

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