How to Heal A Broken Ankle

I have this personal trainer, Chris. I first met him at Colorado Athletic Club. I liked him right away. Chris is the kind of person who restores your faith in humanity. He served in the Army in Afghanistan, earning his degree by taking online courses in between missions. He wants to help other veterans through exercise and nutrition. He’s a bona fide hero.

Earlier this year Chris opened a gym with another trainer, Mike. Mike is from New Jersey, a fact he will remind you of whenever he feels misunderstood. He said one time someone complained that he was a misogynist, and Mike replied that he didn’t know what they were talking about and he hadn’t been massaging anyone.

What do you expect? I’m from New Jersey! Mike will say, as if this explains any perceived deficiency in his education or etiquette.

Mike is loud and brash, and he will not hesitate to yell at you as a motivating tactic. Personally, I do not respond very well to this tactic. Mike says he was a chubby kid, which is hard to imagine. One day he just decided to change his life. He joined a boxing gym. He says that you know a really good boxing gym when the guys jumprope double-dutch. I would love to see that.

Mike will not take no for an answer. You can’t do it? Impossible. You can’t lift heavier? Mike doesn’t believe it. Is that all you got? You can’t do 10 more? You can. You will.

This kind of driving optimism must have been how Mike got in shape, how he got out of New Jersey, how he got his own gym. And he’s only like 26. One time I saw him running through Boulder with a backpack on, and you just know he ran all the way up and down Sanitas. He probably ran all the way from Denver.

Mike yelled at me in my first class because I wasn’t trying to win a race across the room. I rationalized by saying something like “I’m just not very competitive,” which is like throwing down the gauntlet to Mike. He vowed to get it out of me, to make me a competitor, to make me want to win.

After a six-week introductory deal, Mike and Chris had me hooked on their exercise crack and I was ready for more. I was pumped. Sore today, strong tomorrow. I prepaid for a three-month membership.

Mike took my measurements so that we would have baseline numbers to assess my future progress. He pinched me with those creepy gym teacher calipers and then measured the circumference of my arms, legs and torso. He was like, “Wow, your legs are surprisingly fat.” That’s not exactly what he said, but it was something about how I was carrying more weight than was apparent to the casual observer. If anyone else had told me this, I might have been offended. But it’s Mike. He’s from New Jersey.

We talked about my goals. I wanted to finally have the body I’ve always dreamed of. I wanted to be a boxer. Mike designed an aggressive schedule of classes in the coming weeks. We were going to do it together. I was going to win. U-S-A! U-S-A!

The next morning, I got up early and went to boot camp. I felt strong. I felt like I could do this every day, get up before the sun, exercise, sweat, start off like a fucking champion.

It was the last round of reps in the last circuit. There was 10 minutes left in class. I was running in place with my hands on the wall. My partner, Kristi, was on the floor doing crunches — I had to run for as long as it took her to finish her reps. I turned my head to see how far along she was, and my left foot landed like a limp fish on the floor.

My ankle rolled out. There was a loud POP! — so loud that Kristi heard it clearly over the blaring music. I crumbled to the ground. I knew something had happened, but I didn’t feel any pain. My ankle started swelling. I was in shock. Mike asked me where it hurt. I found out later that he thought I had ruptured my Achilles. Kristie offered to stay with me at the hospital, but I told her that I’d be fine. I thought maybe I’d just twisted my ankle. Even the doctor seemed to think it was less serious at first. But the x-rays showed a clean break through the lateral malleolus of my left fibula.

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When my foot landed wrong, the ligament yanked on that little protrusion on my fibula and just snapped off the end like a rice cracker. Because it is not a weight-bearing bone, I was able to put pressure on it without feeling much. It didn’t require surgery, but I would have to be in a walking boot for at least six weeks.

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It has been exactly four months. The recovery has been pretty easy, all things considered. I’ve moved from the boot to a bandage, to nothing. But as I’ve transitioned to using my ankle more, walking more, standing more, I’ve been feeling it.

X-rays show that my bone has healed. They actually say that a healed bone is stronger than the original bone. It comes back reinforced, even better than it was before. But now I have the other effects from being in the boot, which restricted motion in my entire foot and calf during the recovery.

All my good intentions succumbed to Netflix and comfort food. I did manage to move to a new apartment while in the boot, so I wasn’t totally inactive, but it’s been the polar opposite of the Rocky workout montage I envisioned prior to my injury.

As I try to jumpstart myself back into shape, I am faced with new challenges — weakness, atrophy, lack of balance. And mostly, I just don’t trust myself anymore. If my ankle could roll once, it could roll again. (I saw this funny thing that said, “I don’t always roll a joint, but when I do, it’s my ankle.”) Even the doctor told me that once you’ve had an injury like this, you are more likely to repeat it.

My medical treatment up until this point has been spotty. The doctors at the ER were cool, but they couldn’t do much more than give me some crutches and send me on my way. My primary care physician is at a community clinic, where they have way more serious issues to deal with. They said that if it swells really bad, go get it checked out. So far I haven’t found any way to measure what really bad swelling looks like as compared to just sorta-bad-normal swelling. But hey, I’m not a doctor.

Last week I had my first physical therapy appointment. My experience with my PT, Lindsay, was totally different. She was focused and present. She talked through her observations.

The fact that I was just running in place against a wall when my ankle rolled told Lindsay that there was a disconnect between my mind and my body. The inner ear controls our sense of balance. She hypothesized that I had inner ear issues prior to my injury, and my ankle rolled because the message from my brain to my foot misfired.

I remembered that my left foot had been acting up the night before and the morning of my injury. I knew my foot was tired. I could feel that it was stressed, but my mindset was to ignore what my body was telling me and push through the fatigue. To power forward.

But sometimes forward motion actually requires that you slow way down.

I was at this bowling alley once where they had automatic scoring — rather than writing or typing in your own scores, the computer scored the game for you. In order for the lane to keep score, the sensors had to read the position of the pins accurately. Any jostling of the pins would throw off the sensors and require the system to reset again.

When it was my turn to bowl, I was chit-chatting and didn’t notice that the system hadn’t finished resetting the pins from the prior turn. I positioned myself just left of center and sent the ball rolling down the lane, only to have it smack against the rail of the pinsetting machine.

The guy working at the bowling alley was sort of a country dude. He had a thick twang, and he looked like a larger version of Eminem in the Slim Shady video. He came running over to tend to the pinsetter like it was a sensitive child.

He turned to me, sounding very annoyed, “Can you pay intention please?”

I remember we got a real kick out of that. Pay intention. It’s a brilliant flip. Rather than simply paying attention, why not pay intention. Don’t just observe; declare your purpose. Participate mindfully.

It is not surprising that my body rebelled just as I was about to launch a huge push to change. That’s the way life works. Just when you are ready to do something monumental, just when you are about to face a challenge bigger than you’ve ever faced before, you are shown your weaknesses. Not as punishment, but to reveal where you are vulnerable.

My body said, OK, if you are serious about getting in shape, you’re going to have to communicate better. Sometimes pushing is not the way. Sometimes you simply can’t force things. You can’t progress to a higher level until you’ve mastered the one you’re on. Life intervenes to show you where you still have some work to do. This isn’t a failure, but a matter of timing and experience. It’s like cooking — you can have all the right ingredients, but then you have to let them blend together. If you take the casserole out too early, you miss the full flavor. If you force yourself to compete at a level that you’re not ready for, you are going to stumble.

I’ve been back to the gym a few times. Chris and Mike have been their typical supportive selves. They modify exercises for me; they look out for me; and of course they just believe in me so much. It’s kind of annoying sometimes.

Mike usually is bursting with energy, bouncing around, singing along to Beyonce with his hair dyed green or purple as he barks at you to run faster, push harder. But a couple of weeks ago Mike and I were alone in the gym, and he was quiet. I asked him what was wrong, and he said that he’d just returned from a trip home. One of his friends had overdosed on opiates, a huge problem where Mike comes from.

The neighbors who found the body also found Mike’s friend’s dog alone and in need of care. The friend’s ex-girlfriend lives on a farm several hours away, so Mike and another guy agreed to drive the dog to the farm. Mike showed me photos of their road trip on his phone. He and the other guy are wearing suits. They are in a convertible. The dog looks elated. They’re from New Jersey.

I can tell that his friend’s death lays heavy on Mike. Having mustered so much personal strength himself, Mike feels a responsibility to show others the way. He knows what is possible and he believes in overcoming obstacles. He believes you can do it, anyone can do it, no matter what you are up against. But, as I learned the hard way, it doesn’t matter how much Mike believes in you if you don’t believe in yourself.

With Lindsay’s help I hope to get back to the starting line soon, back to where I was four months ago. Mustering the energy is very challenging, but no one can do it for me. No one can listen for me. No one can restore the communication between my mind and my body but me. No one can save me but me. Just as the lateral malleolus of my left fibula has grown back stronger than it was before, I know that I will be stronger for acknowledging my vulnerability. I will be wiser for seeing my weakness. I will pay intention. And I will reach my destination better than when I started.

 

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