I remember reading somewhere that an anorexic who has starved herself almost to death can look in the mirror and see a fat person.
I never truly understood that until my latest (permanent) knee injury. Within a period of about 16 months, I tore my ACL, started running again, had a cartilage-crunching fall, had surgery to reconstruct the ACL, started running again, started running more, and then experienced a sudden inexplicable worsening of all my knee symptoms: pain, “locking”, swelling, and inability to straighten my leg.
That time, August of 2010, was probably the second-lowest point in my whole running life, eclipsed only by the depression I experienced after injuring my knee three weeks before the 1984 Olympic Marathon Trials.
Suddenly I couldn’t run at all, and thought I might never run again.
It was during that time that I would stand in front of a mirror and feel a helpless hatred at the sight of my knee. It looked grotesque, swollen, ugly. My legs had to be hidden, even though it was summertime.
Yet my injury was actually almost invisible. I had the anorexic’s vision. Only from a side view was it apparent that I couldn’t straighten my leg completely. Both of my knees were equally ugly; I had always had knobbly knock-knees.
As good runners, we get accustomed to our bodies’ being tuned to perfection: strong, fluid, agile, economical. When injury strikes, it often seems unbelievable that one damaged part of the body can cause running to become painful or impossible. When you are used to being supremely fit, and running is part of daily life, being forced to stop causes physical withdrawal symptoms and psychological torment.
I’ve always found the psychological anxiety to be the worst if an injury is so severe that I can’t walk without being reminded of it. In the winter of 1988, when I was living in Brussels with Paul, my heel bursitis got so bad I was afraid to get out of bed in the mornings. Sometimes after getting out of bed I crawled for a while to delay the early-morning pain of the first steps.
The heel bursitis was an especially frustrating injury because it seemed such a small part of my body to be capable of stopping me from running. Yet that heel bursitis nagged me for eight years, until I finally had surgery in 1996.
Now I know that my knee injury is permanent, the result of cartilage damage and cartilage loss that accelerated the progression of arthritis in the joint.
I’ve written in other posts (here and here) about my adaptation to the injury, and my acceptance of my limited running capabilities. I’ve learned that I go through repeated cycles of running a little, gradually running a little more, being tempted to run too much, and then having to stop completely for a while when my knee rebels.
Now that I’m older, I need to have a different reaction to imperfect body parts than I did when I was young. It was my boyfriend Keith who made me see that clearly. One day during my latest non-running period, I was depressed, and kept repeating how much I hated my knee. Keith said, “But you should be thanking your knee! Think of all the years of great running it gave you! Think of what you accomplished with that knee! Maybe it deserves a break.”
I realized he was right.
Keith liked running—until he was in his early twenties. Then he developed a rare condition in his left knee—part of the bone had died. He had major surgery and was in a full leg cast for four months. Two further surgeries (arthroscopic) still didn’t allow him to do much running, and pain in his other knee has added to his difficulties. However, Keith discovered North Shore mountain biking a few years ago, and he still beats me on trails requiring any technical skill or bravery.
Sometimes it takes another person’s story, or another person’s sense of humour, to put one little imperfect body part into perspective. I guess my knee isn’t an Alien after all.