By Dr. Jessica Sapp
Associate Professor, School of Health Sciences at American Public University
This week marks five months since my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction surgery. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so it seems fitting that I am writing this article now.
In my post-surgery journey to return to my normal self, I learned that recovery has both physical and mental elements. The mental recovery has been tougher, but I’ve learned valuable lessons about maintaining my mental health along the way.
Dealing with Mental Agony and Depression Involves Day-to-Day Effort
I have always been goal-oriented and determined; some friends nicknamed me Wonder Woman. But my ACL mental recovery has been so far removed from anything that I have ever known. I have suffered from depression (though it was not clinically diagnosed), a lack of willpower, mixed emotions and self-doubt. I have been fatigued and stressed. Most mornings, it is a battle to overcome negativity.
“It’s a dark place because the rehab is pretty tough on a day-to-day basis,” professional football player Darrelle Revis says. “Sometimes you might think you’re not doing enough for that day, and that’s something you have to fight through.”
It’s Okay to Get Upset and Frustrated
I have a philosophy about crying. You get either 20 seconds or 20 minutes. For the frustrating, adrenaline-pumping, not-so-important things, you get 20 seconds to cry. Twenty minutes of crying are for important things – loved ones dying, divorce, major turmoil and other calamities.
Top Five Things I’ve Learned in ACL Injury and Recovery
(Re)focus your priorities: Take care of your family, health and life. We often get tangled in the world’s chaos or nonstop expectations that lead to compromise or unhappiness. Being forced to “be still” helped me refocus on my family.
Susie Steiner’s article in the Guardian, “Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” was very helpful in my recovery. At the time of my injury, I was in a toxic job. I never want to regret working too hard or staying in a job I hate, especially if it negatively affects my family.
Keep it simple: Physically, I can’t do much yet, so I enjoy simplicity. My simple activities include drinking coffee on the patio, sitting on the couch reading or writing, watching movies at home or getting a pizza delivered.
In the beginning of recovery, you will spend a lot of time at home, so enjoy the little things. You want to keep it simple.
Be patient: I am a go-getter who works hard and fast to get things done. As an athlete, I am used to pushing more and more for a better performance.
This practice doesn’t work for ACL recovery because you can’t speed up the physical recovery process. I learned patience and the power of taking baby steps.
Know your weaknesses: ACL recovery, both physical and mental, does not happen overnight. You will have many weaknesses during your recovery, but you will get stronger in time.
Knowing your weaknesses is just as valuable as understanding your strengths. It’s important to be honest and allow time for healing.
Ask for help: Asking for help may be difficult for some people. I am used to being physically able and independent, but that changed with my ACL surgery. I had to depend on my husband and son in the early stages of recovery.
Learning how to ask for help is a skill that is beneficial in life, not just during an injury. As Hall of Fame basketball player Michael Jordan put it, “My body could stand the crutches, but my mind couldn’t stand the sideline.”
About the Author
Dr. Jessica Sapp is an associate professor within the School of Health Sciences at APUS. She has over 12 years of experience in public health, working in various environments including government, hospitals, health insurance, community, international, corporate and academia. Jessica earned her D.P.H. in Health Policy and Management at Georgia Southern University and an M.P.H. in Health Promotion, Education and Behavior at the University of South Carolina. She also has a B.S. in Health Science Education from the University of Florida.