What It’s Like To Have A Chronic Injury In Your 20s


Chronic. It’s not a word inspiring hope when you’re 23 and sitting at the physical therapist’s office, for the 7th session out of an indeterminate amount.

“You gotta have faith”, the PT keeps telling me, “it’s only been 6 sessions before today.” I catch my reflection in the mirror and wonder if this condition is going to define the female I see and have worked so hard to create in the entirety of its image. “I get that, but if this is a life long management kind of thing, that changes things.” I’m not sure it actually changes anything right now, but I’ve been sitting in a year-long acceptance of a stubborn injury that, at it’s very core, was life’s way of telling me I had to slow down, by physically slowing me down.

“It could be”, he says to me, “but sometimes that’s a good thing. You know what to look out for.”

That’d be comforting if it were true, but it’s just plainly not. When it comes to your genetics, it’s a lottery ticket you never chose to buy. We can work with our bodies, but lifestyle only goes as far as basic biology allows it. Some of us are more susceptible to injuries, that little bit more prone to catching the seasonal bug, less able to take it day by day, more quickly and severely impacted by anything other than vigilante.

As he’s massaging my ankle at its most tender — what’s apparently called the peroneal tendon (I’d have easily lived the rest of my life without knowing that) — I’m gripping at the massage table, repeating internally that, if it isn’t painful, it isn’t helping me heal. Yet ultimately I feel stupidly helpless and powerless against this.

My injury is not the kind that is persistent or constantly in my thoughts, it’s the kind that lives in my body and breeds a fear of basic movements. Stepping down from the curb side to the street; the first step out of bed in the morning; uneven streets, where a wrong misstep could be the difference between calculated caution and sudden shooting pain. The sharpness of the short pain, when it does come, makes me cringe each and every single time. Mostly from the physical sensation, but also from the strong reminder that, I’m not in control. This injury is still very much there, even if I try to ignore it.

The thought of living with — and having to accept — lifelong pain management at this age confuses me, each time the anxiety-ridden dialogue in my head begins. You’re meant to heal when you’re young, right? That’s how I’ve told myself most things don’t matter now, that my job will be another job in 10 years time, that a failed relationship will filled by more a meaningful one. But my ankle won’t be replaced by another ankle, and certainly some of the motions I enjoy most-running, jumping, rigorous physical activity-can’t be substituted by anything other than lower intensity versions of them. It shouldn’t matter as much as it does every time I think about it-but if it’s a lifetime thing, then is it a lifetime prohibition?

Too young to accept limitations-that’s what I keep thinking. I couldn’t definitively tell you a thing right now about myself, in a flurry of thoughts and influences and changing mindsets. To accept the permanency of a physical weakness, a life-long higher probability exposure to aliment-I never thought I was invincible, but to be here after only a few months of serious exercise exertion? I thought this body of mine was built a little better than that.

A coworker recently commented that they, though I would inevitably fail some times, they took my personality to be one of ultimate perseverance and success; tenacious and strategic stature, if you will. It’s a funny perspective to have whens sometimes the things most basic and essential to success-your health, physical and emotional-are inherently and fundamentally out of your control for the most part.

With my foot elevated, iced and resting, I’m wondering about those “other” failures. Hard-earned success is good, but success you can’t formulate, the kind of intuitive and timely acts that have less to do with tenacity and everything to do with getting it right at the right time-is just better.

You can’t win them all. I wonder if what the PT was really saying was a nicer way of talking about my guaranteed failures.