How Long This Time?

The aftermath of injury and the stages of acceptance on the road back to recovery and rolling again

Location: London, UK

My forehead is pressed into the mat; the slight give in its surface offers a mere modicum of comfort. As I clutch my left shoulder with my right hand, I kick the tops of my feet into the floor as if the pitter-patter will somehow trick the pain into relenting, just for a moment. A yogi might call this position a poorly executed child’s pose; I call it the “I need to learn to break fall” pose. All sorts of things are going through my mind. Was I too tense? Should I have accepted the sweep and gone with it? Is my shoulder broken? And then the big one comes sailing over the horizon like a conquering hero, as unrelenting as it is inevitable; how long will I be out this time?

As I struggle to my feet, I say something stupid like, It’s just pain. I’m alright.

I hadn’t noticed it before, but my voice had cut through an eerie quiet that would seem well-placed at a loved one’s funeral. Someone hands me an ice pack, and I can’t help but notice the look in their eyes. They’ve all been here, and they’re all thinking the same thing.

How long’s he going to be out for?

I watch them roll from the sidelines for a bit as the initial shock is drowned by the adrenalin still swirling away inside me. I grab my GI jacket and jump back in the mix. Thirty seconds later, I’m back sitting against the wall again, clutching the ice on my shoulder and burying my chin into my chest.

The pain keeps me up that night despite the dull fuzz of the behind-the-counter pain killers I repurposed, courtesy of my housemate’s ongoing back pain.

But it’s not the pain I’m thinking about.
2:30 am; how long will I be out?
5:30 am; how long will I be out?
7:00 am; how long will I be out?

As I write this, I’m standing in line at Homerton Hospital, ready to be admitted to the Accident and Emergency waiting room. The sunshine is radiating through the glass windows and covering my back in its warm glow. I’m starting to accumulate a thick layer of sweat on my forehead, which instigates the worst part of the day; taking my jumper off.

I try not to yell as my arm attempts to crawl its way above my head, but like a dying snail clinging to a windowpane, it keeps slithering back to where it started. It’s just pain, I tell myself again, as I heave the sweater over my head and finally yank myself free from its oppression.
I swear through gritted teeth. There are no children around, but I’m still ashamed.
Clutching my shoulder, I work my way past the counter and over to the apologetic-looking chairs inside the reception area. As I lower myself into the seat, I’m no longer noticing the throb of my arm; I’m just fending off the incessant thoughts whirring away in my mind. It’s not just pain, I realize. It’s the worry of how it’ll affect my job, of missing summer rolls in the park, of the damage it will have on my sex life (although COVID has all but destroyed that already), however, perhaps the biggest anxiety of all, the secret distress that so often goes unsaid, is the fear of people getting better than me while I’m gone.

There, I said it, “It’s not pain; it’s fear.”

Luckily for me (if you can call it luck), I’ve been through all this before. As I sit in the waiting room, hoping to hear my name called sometime before lunch, I look around at the wheelchairs and the crutches, and the crying babies and the terrible coffee, and I remember I’ve been here before—same hospital, different injury. I got through it; I recovered, I got stronger.

And then I’m filled with gratitude.

However long I’m out, I’ll be grateful: grateful for healthcare; grateful for the magic inside each one of us that somehow heals our ailing bodies; grateful for finding something I love so much; I’m willing to take the pain, again and again, and again.

I hear my name, and my heart skips a beat as I fend off envious glances. I follow the nurse into the treatment room, and she ushers me over to a padded chair. At no point am I wondering if this is all worth it; to me, this is just part of it.

I sit down with a renewed resilience. No matter how long it takes, no matter the risks, no matter how much it hurts, I’ll be grateful for even the chance of doing it all over again.

“Does this hurt?” she asks.

It’s not pain, it’s fear.

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