One of the tropes of sports or dance movies is the mysterious character who “blew their knee out” and was never heard from again.
I am one of those people who has suffered a knee “blowout,” is still here to tell the tale, and honestly, I’m thankful it happened. This devastating injury and lengthy recovery were the shocks my system needed to finally heal my disordered relationship with my body.
Disordered eating and negative body image manifested in my life around age thirteen. Nothing specifically triggered my spiral into a full-blown eating disorder. It just…happened.
Throughout my adult life I consistently exercised and did sports I passionately loved such as swimming and taekwondo, a Korean martial art. Exercise, as it had been in my teens, was still a means to keep my body to what I deemed an acceptable size. It was also something I loved to do because it was fun, at least when I wasn’t thinking about my stomach or the backs of my arms.
My body was a source of both pride and anxiety. Coworkers assumed I lived on kale and dumbbell reps. Relatives praised me for staying fit while other people my age gained weight. I prided myself in keeping up with much younger classmates in taekwondo. If the number on the scale was below a certain magical set-point during my daily (and sometimes multiple) weigh-ins, I allowed myself to be in a good mood. If it wasn’t, my day was ruined. I felt I had a reputation for being thin to uphold.
I don’t want to paint exercise or sports in a bad light. Not all my moments at the gym or in the taekwondo school were centered around body image. I truly love to swim, kick, do Pilates, and move in general, and I plan on doing those things as long as my body will allow me to. Staying active helps boost your mood, keeps your internal organs healthy, and hopefully helps you live a long, high-quality life. Unfortunately, I took healthy movement to an extreme and used it as a means for control and punishment.
My identity as an athlete, a martial artist, and a beatifically fit person came crashing down when I literally came crashing down. In early July 2020, two days after my forty-first birthday, I was practicing kicks on a hanging bag in taekwondo class. After a small, seemingly insignificant jump kick, I felt a stomach-churning pop and blast of hot pain in my right knee. Before I could comprehend what happened, I was lying on the floor clutching my leg, telling myself and my instructors it was surely just a sprain while I silently panicked.
An orthopedic surgeon confirmed I had a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), or as we know it from dance and sports movies, the knee blowout. An ACL tear is a serious but common injury seen in athletes ranging from football to taekwondo to skiing. The repair he attempted on what was left of my ACL didn’t take, so, while I was still under anesthesia, he opted for our agreed-upon Plan B: full reconstruction using part of my quadriceps tendon as the graft, or my new ACL.
There is life before knee surgery, and there is life after it.
I couldn’t shower for the first three days because I had to keep my incisions wrapped in gauze and bandages. I could barely sleep for about a week as I used an ice pack machine at night that required me to lie flat on my back with my leg propped up on pillows. I spent the first two weeks lying on the floor for up to six hours a day with my leg strapped into a continuous passive motion machine, all the while answering work emails and completing tasks for my publisher in anticipation of my first book. I used a shower chair for at least two months. I learned how to walk up and down the stairs of my second-level condo with crutches.
A year later, I still attend physical therapy sessions and spend hours doing rehabilitation exercises at home. Knee rehab does not stop for work, household duties, or vacation. However, it was a strange relief to have a break from my fast-paced life so I could devote most of my time and energy to recovery.
Despite my progress, though, my untreated eating disorder was becoming louder and more demanding. Even after I was felled by injury and singularly focused on rehab and recovery, I continued to weigh myself multiple times a day and restrict food. This was likely a coping mechanism since I could no longer exercise other than prescribed physical therapy. Once I was more mobile, I felt guilty for not exercising as much as I “should.” Personal and professional stress compounded in early 2021, and I desperately ran (or, briskly walked, what with the knee and all) to therapy. I was diagnosed with atypical anorexia and had to face demons I’d been avoiding for decades.
Eating a variety of foods regularly was surprisingly easy to do once I committed to overcoming my eating disorder. It’s amazing how fueling your brain can almost instantly improve your mood. I’m sad now to think that restriction was possibly impeding the recovery of my poor quadriceps muscle, which had been reduced to mush after surgery. My body shape has changed, and while that’s still a psychological hurdle to cross, alleviating my anxiety and depression by properly feeding my body is a huge relief. That’s one less thing to worry about on my road to full knee recovery.
Meanwhile, I’ve re-examined my relationship with exercise and movement. I stopped tracking my weight and exercise and committed to enjoying movement as a simple pleasure and an additional way to rehabilitate my knee. My first post-surgery swim was painful but exhilarating. The physical asanas of yoga (which I do not consider “exercise” but include here as part of my joyful movement repertoire) were a means to both gently stretch and strengthen my right leg and quiet my troubled mind. I re-discovered the beauty and uniqueness of my neighborhood with leisurely walks. I’m not yet the fast, agile, limber athlete I was before my injury; instead, I’m giving myself some grace and making recovery the priority over performance.
My body is a strong, complex instrument with which I express myself, experience pleasure, and move through life. Although my knee injury was a painful and expensive ordeal, I believe it was the “rock bottom” I needed to re-imagine my relationship with my body. My broken body reflected my broken mind, and the only things that were going to literally get me off the floor were self-compassion and self-care. I had to make friends with my body and care for it rather than punish and push it. Through physical and mental recovery, I finally learned to respect my body for its inherent worth and let go of the unrealistic expectations I’d placed on it to be perfect. I can only go up from here.
About the Author
Melanie Gibson has worked in the healthcare industry since 2004, with roles as a hospital librarian, corporate trainer, and learning designer. She is also the author of the new memoir, Kicking and Screaming: A Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts. In the book, she shares the story of her life-changing journey from troubled, lost soul to confident taekwondo black belt.