Josie McKee - Through the Injury

Posted in: Athletes, Climbing
By Josie McKee
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Josie McKee - Through the Injury


“Take.” I barely managed to choke out the word. A human form free falling to the ground. For a split second, the image that flashed through my mind was my reality. Then the rope came tight on my harness. Next, I was supposed to lean back on the rope. Then lower to the ground from the top of the 50’ warm-up pitch, which I had just climbed, safely on top-rope. 


It had been a few weeks since the accident. I wondered if I would ever be able to climb again without these visions of her falling (or me falling) popping into my mind. (For more on the accident) Would I ever enjoy it again? I fought back tears and willed myself to lean back, it would be better to just get my feet firmly on the ground. At the bottom, I shakily untied my knot. My emotions seemed to flip-flop between self-pity and anger. Poor me, I’ll never climb again. Suck it up. I’m fine. I wasn’t even the one that was injured. But I can’t unsee what I saw. Stop being stupid. It’s totally safe. No it isn’t, it’s never safe…

For the past decade, climbing had always been my way of managing my problems (or escaping them?), but suddenly climbing was the problem. I either had to come back to rock climbing and be ok or give it up and be ok with that. I couldn’t exist somewhere in the middle. In many ways I was navigating the process alone. It didn’t seem like anyone close to me really understood. And it didn’t seem ok to not be ok.


But I was curious. I wanted to understand what I was going through, to figure out what to do when I was not ok. I studied the relevant psychology (particularly stress, trauma and performance psychology) and began to change my perspective. Through the small personal successes and deeper understanding, I developed purpose – others could benefit from this knowledge. Viktor Frankl (in his autobiography, Man’s Search for Meaning on his experience in WWII concentration camps) expressed that owed his survival in part to his curiosity of the human process of suffering. Of course, what I experienced was in no way on par with the suffering he experienced, but similarly: the desire to understand my experience became my path through it.


It has been 4 years since the accident. My passion for climbing is now at an all time high. It has been a year and a half since COVID upended my life (and the world in general). I actually have a better quality of life than before. It has been 6 months since a major ankle surgery and my longest hiatus from climbing in over 15 years. And I am climbing better than ever. What I learned in my psychological “recovery” after the accident, became the foundation for managing stress in the rest of my life, for recovering from physical injury, performing as a climber and enjoying my life. (NOTE: One can find multitudes of research on this topic. I won’t claim to be an expert nor attempt to summarize it all in this short article. My hope is that by sharing my experience, others will find some benefit. Injuries can present in many ways – if you don’t feel healthy, please see a professional.)

For athletes, because using our bodies is so important, physical injury can cause psychological stress injuries. Not to mention the stress injuries that are caused by being involved in accidents related to the adventure sports we love. For everyone, stress (particularly living with ongoing, unmanaged stress) can be one of the most detrimental things to our physical health. Being “healthy” means the whole system, physical, emotional and psychological. Therefore, I use the term “injured” to refer to any part of that whole self that isn’t healthy. 


To know what to do for recovery, I had to ask: what does healthy look like for me? I was far enough removed from the state that at first this question was hard to answer. What had climbing given me to help me manage problems? What was so lacking when climbing became part of the problem? And what could I do instead, if I couldn’t climb?


Here are the answers I found:

Permission to not be “ok.” Climbing is maybe 90% failure. It allows for failure. It teaches us that it is ok to not be perfect (or even good) most of the time. Similarly, it’s ok to be injured. Whether it’s climbing on a finger injury or thinking I “should” be “fine” climbing, weeks after my partner’s climbing accident, it’s easy to be unaware or in denial of an injury. But it’s ok to not be ok. AND it sucks. We should give ourselves permission to wallow in it. Scream. Yell. Cry. Worried what the neighbors think? Scream into a pillow or underwater in the bathtub or from a mountain top. These things help release cortisol (the stress hormone). They are natural ways to move through the emotion, likely making us feel better and recover sooner. Deciding to do these things is a form of self care. The decision also provides a sense of control. But it’s important not to stay there too long. Set a timer. 5 minutes? 20 minutes? 1 day? 10 minutes every day for a week? Whatever is needed for that point in the healing process.

Fuel and recover. As athletes, we learn to take care of the body. Just like recovering from a hard day of climbing, running, skiing, etc, repairing an injury takes energy. When the “wallow” timer “goes off”, it’s time to the next thing: recharge. Take care of basic needs: hydrate, eat, sleep. Sometimes we need help with these things. And it is ok to ask for help! Connection is also a basic human need. 

STAY OFF THE INJURY. If a climber keeps pulling on the same tiny pocket, the finger injury is unlikely to heal. If someone is repeatedly exposed to stressful situations, injuries from stress and trauma are unlikely to heal. When we keep beating on our injuries, no matter the type, they won’t just go away. Take some “time-off.” Be intentional about choosing the activities to avoid and the activities to participate in. Ask: will this be helpful or harmful to my longterm healing?

It may seem obvious, but therapy works. Doing the work recommended by a therapist (physical or psychological) enables better healing. Other things that have genuine therapeutic effects include: bubble baths, tea, cuddling with your pet, meditation, etc. Again it can be helpful to have a timer. For example: commit to 5 minutes per day of self care. 

News flash, exercise is good for us. But really though! Exercise which promotes cardiovascular health maintains/improves circulation of oxygen and nutrient rich blood, which is what all of our bodies’ cells need to heal and remain healthy. It also flushes cortisol from our system and releases all the feel-good neurochemicals, such as dopamine, norepinephrine and endorphins. These chemical changes not only improve our mood but also promote our physical healing. If an injury makes exercise impossible, breathwork has a similar effect (for example, “box breathing” ). 

A sense of purpose. When an injury takes us out of our activity of choice, it can be easy to lose our sense of purpose. Here’s a different perspective: an injury that takes us out of our activity of choice frees up time in our lives for other things. What is something you’ve always wanted to learn? Or a project you wished you had more time for? Time to learn a musical instrument, write a book, explore new places, spend time with someone you care about. As I mentioned before, this purpose for me was learning about stress and performance psychology and sharing what I learned to help others. Again, be wise about the activity and choose things that are helpful for healing. Have a specific goal with this “new” purpose, eg: I will learn this song by x date. Dedicate a specific amount of time each day or week to this activity. Make sure it’s something you are truly curious and excited about. It should be something that makes you feel energy to keep you moving forward, to help you get out of bed each day.

Gratitude. There are so many bad things in the world. When we aren’t feeling well, it can be easy to get caught in a spiral of focusing on the negative. Yet, there are at least as many good things in the this world, if we only take the time to look. Cultivating a regular gratitude practice can help find these positives. Taking the time to weekly write a list of the things to be grateful for or daily following a guided gratitude meditation (there are great one’s available on apps like Insight Timer) can help change perspective and improve quality of life, especially when times are hard. A growing body of research has shown that regular gratitude practice is not only mood-boosting, but also has physiological health benefits. Listen to this 3-minute NPR clip for more on gratitude.

These 5 things saved my life. They are the foundations of my resilience. Having a foundation is good for everyone! Healthy or injured. I now know that I had these tools all along, because they were part of my life as a climber. But from the midst of injury, it took some deep digging to find them. Having some conscious awareness of what it looks like to be well, while we are well, makes it so much easier to find the path forward when we are not.

September 28, 2021
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