It happened, as most accidents do, in an instant.
One moment I was aiming a punch at my aikido partner, preparing to take his subsequent throw, and the next moment, instead of executing a neat forward roll, I found myself falling shoulder-first into the mat.
The fall hurt a little, and I head a distinct crunch as I landed, but when I put a hand up to check the area things felt pretty good, so I was determined to keep practising. I’m tough. I can take a hit like a guy. I bounce back. An instinctive voice inside my head told me to STOP, however, and so I quietly moved to the sidelines to rest for a few minutes. I got an ice pack to put on the shoulder, and mentioned to a couple of people that I’d hurt it, but I figured it was just a sprain.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I decided to go to the Urgent Care Centre, where my shoulder was x-rayed and I was given the unexpected news: my collarbone was broken. Truthfully, I was pretty nonchalant about the whole thing. My first response was, “Cool. Can I take a picture of the x-ray?” (That’s the photograph at the top of this story.)
Both my family doctor and my physiotherapist told me, when I visited them in the following days, that I must have an extremely high tolerance to pain, because not only had I broken the collarbone, I’d also dislocated the AC joint (where the collarbone joins the shoulder blade at the shoulder), and in many people those injuries are extremely painful.
I was given strict orders not to raise my arm, push doors, or lift heavy things, but I was also cautioned not to keep it immobile, or I would risk getting frozen shoulder (I’m the prime demographic for that immobilizing condition (women 40-60)). So I set aside the sling they’d given me at Urgent Care (I figured that since it was, in the words of the attending resident, “for the pain,” and I didn’t have much pain, I could manage without it), and forged ahead with my day-to-day life. I’m a strong and independent woman, and a little broken collarbone wasn’t going to slow me down. To be honest, I felt kind of badass to be a 47-year-old with a teenager’s injury. It was nice to see the shock (and respect?) on people’s faces when an overweight, middle-aged woman told them she’d broken a bone doing martial arts.
Thankfully I have a sedentary job where I sit at a computer or in meetings most of the day. And although the injury was to my right shoulder, I was still able to drive my standard transmission car. I was going to have to give up aikido for at least four weeks, as well as give up putting my hair in a sock bun and unpacking the rest of the boxes from a recent move, but that seemed a small price to pay. The biggest hardship was sleeping on my back every night. (I’m not a back sleeper.)
What I didn’t count on was a turn in the November weather, which left the sidewalks slick and slippery. I suddenly became terrified of falling – not because I didn’t know how to take a fall, but because I knew that if I fell, I could really mess up my shoulder and prolong my recovery by weeks or months. (To add insult to injury – or injury to injury, as the case may be – I’m also dealing with a serious tear in the meniscus of my right knee, which is itself vulnerable to further injury from falls.)
And then one morning during my first week of healing, I tripped going up some concrete stairs at my workplace. Since I couldn’t carry my heavy rolling briefcase in my right hand, I had it in my left, which meant that when I fell, my right hand was the one that instinctively reached out to break my fall. So much for not pushing things with my right arm.
When I got to my office I cried for about five minutes – not from pain (thankfully I hadn’t done any more damage to my shoulder), but from the feelings of helplessness and vulnerability that were now washing over me. I started wearing my heaviest Sorels (a brand of winter boots with lots of traction on the soles) whenever I had to go outside, and walked between my car and the indoors with a tentative, old-lady shuffle.
I also started seriously worrying about my return to aikido. I’m a big fan of Dr. Google, and I was doing all sorts of research into collarbone healing. I realized that, as an adult practising a high-contact sport, I was a) going to take a lot longer to completely heal than I had originally hoped, and b) going to be putting myself at increased risk of re-injury when I did start doing aikido again.
A few of my aikido colleagues came to me with stories of their own broken or dislocated collarbones. One older female black belt talked about being fearful when she had to start doing breakfalls again. Yeah, don’t remind me, okay?
My injury was five weeks ago, and at four-and-a-half weeks I had a follow-up appointment with my physiotherapist. He examined the collarbone and shoulder, gave me the okay to start moving the shoulder through its full range of motion, and sent me home with exercises to strengthen and stabilize the dislocated AC joint.
Aikido weapons movements feel like a great supplement to his exercises, since they involve large, circular slicing motions with a wooden sword called a bokken (think Fruit Ninja). And I was excited to start lifting mats again at my last aikido class (I’ve been going faithfully to classes since my injury, but sitting on the sidelines). Before my injury I would help set up and put away the 20-lb. mats four times a week, and I loved what months of this activity had done for my biceps, deltoids and traps.
I wasn’t prepared for how freaked-out everyone was to see me lifting mats again, though. It took a lot of reassurance on my part before they let me continue. I have to say it felt really good to lift again. It made me feel strong.
I’m going to be off the aikido mat for at least another six weeks and preferably eight, on the advice of my physiotherapist. Between now and then I’ll be faithfully doing my rehabilitation exercises and, if I know myself, probably a lot more than that.
I’m not as scared of falling as I was – I can handle a backwards fall now. The real danger is a bad forward fall. I have a feeling I may still be very nervous about aikido throws, pins and forward rolls when the time comes. I know that being nervous may itself lead to greater chance of injury, through not committing to a technique.
I don’t want to live in the fearful place, though. Three-and-a-half weeks there was enough (the time it took for the nauseating pain that I felt whenever I accidentally raised my arm after the injury to go away).
I’m still struggling with how to reconcile my self-image and my ability level, however. I don’t like feeling weak and vulnerable. But I’m not sure how to feel strong and capable when my body’s broken. I don’t want to live in a bubble. The body’s going to get broken again from time to time. Maybe there’s an aikido lesson still to be learned about diverting the fear…?
Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.