Good Sport: On playing through pain

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by Jeff Laughlin

I’m 33 years old, and I have trouble walking.

I get up in the morning unsure if I can stay stable enough to get the blood flowing in my legs. It’s terrifying.

I usually try not to take a bunch of medicine — I weaned myself off of Vicodin earlier than doctors asked me to and have cut my ibuprofen intake by roughly a ton in the past year. If I can manage a few deep-knee bends, I’m fine to step in the shower with near-full mobility. I’m 33 years old, and I can’t imagine running at a full sprint.

This is what I get for playing hurt.

People spout that maxim constantly: You gotta play through the pain. If a competitive bible existed, its King James Version would start with something akin to that phrase. And if I were in that bible, I’d be akin to Job.

Since I began writing this column some seven months ago, I’ve learned a lot and had a lot of ideas reinforced. Each time I see a player do something incredible, I see 10 other plays that look so dreadful and so painful I want to shout at them. I want to tell them it’s not worth it. Look at me! I’m living proof of how the sporting life can turn out.

I’m playing basketball again, which means I’m entering the seventh phase of reconstructive knee surgery. The phases go like this:

1) Pain: Post-surgical life is awful. For knee injuries, it’s all pain and laying down. Peeing is so arduous that you avoid drinking water. What little relief the meds give you, they take back in constipation, dizziness and people tiring of your constant bellyaching. The fact that my last relationship survived my constant whining is a testament to my nursemaid’s patience.

2) Small Victories: Recovery is a joyous and awesome time. While the Pain Stage lingers, walking, cooking, showering and stairs no longer leave you cowering in fear.  You no longer smell like a sticky, sweaty bedsheet. You can live again, just really slowly.

3) Rehabilitation: Small victories often turn to large ones now. You shed your crutches so quickly and then, before you really understand why, you can put weight into your strides. No longer harrowed, you might even try to go too far. You might succeed too much, but even setbacks prove joyous.

4) Loss: Then it gets weird. No one cares that you are hurt anymore. You walk with exuberance to the tune of most people ignoring you. After months of pity, your normalcy seems rude and obstructive. Work still sucks and mobility still hurts. You’ve lost so much, but you have to power through.

5) Remembrance: The Loss Phase never really ends; it just becomes remembrance. You will never forget how to be hurt. That grunt as you take a low seat, the wince of pain when you step into a hole or bump into something, the flood of relief when nothing goes wrong — all of the beauty of autonomic functions now rely on remembering not to do anything without thinking about pain and suffering. This will be for the rest of your life.

6) Transcendence: At some point, your doctor will say, “Go.” She will allow you to be free from her watchful eyes and run again, jump again, drive again. Life will seem brighter and less painful, and it is. You are free — not of pain but the idea of pain being the root of all that used to be.

7) Return: Then it all begins anew. The setbacks and awakenings — days you wake up so sore you know you got hurt again, days where joints and muscles feel 15 years old again, days where you make the same mistakes and play through the pain — team up to become your sporting life.

Only now I know the consequences. The seventh, and hopefully final, step toward being a mediocre sportsman again completed, my life has regained normalcy. I’m tired and losing surgery weight. I look less balloonish and cartoonish, more like I used to.

I still lack confidence, though. Planting on the bad knee scares me to hell and back. I can’t shoot a basketball without thinking too much. I can’t backpedal without worrying if something behind me will take me out.

I can’t do surgery again. Amputate it all before I do that again.

No, no, no, no , no. Not the Pain. Not the Loss.

So, mostly, I watch from afar, scared to death for everyone playing the game. I know too much. I know way too much and I am scared.

When referencing that false verse, the Genesis of Pain, remember how awful it can be. Remember the seven steps. I’ll never criticize anyone again for not playing through the pain.

Mostly because I’m 33, and I may not be able to anymore.