ME TIME

An Injury Forced Me To Slow Down And It Was Exactly What I Needed

I’m a 45-year-old mom trying to keep it together, feel good, maybe learn a few new skills while I’m at it.

by Angela Garbes

I don’t sleep well, and yes, I blame my children for this (among other culprits). I am reliably awake between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m., absent a wee dose of pharmaceutical assistance. For years, I tried to cope by lying still and overthinking every detail of my life. These days, I use the time for therapeutic self-massage.

Last summer, I sprained my left medial collateral ligament (MCL) while dancing — my primary form of exercise — and I’ve been engaging in these sensual, vaguely clandestine solo touch sessions ever since. I’ve been recovering and rehabilitating for six months, and after months of wearing a knee brace and doing physical therapy, I am getting stronger. Initially, I was impatient for my knee to get better already so I could resume flinging my body about the dance studio, jumping, and moving side-to-side at breakneck speed. But the healing process has been much slower and more beautifully expansive than expected. The slow down required in rehab has forced me to listen to my body in a new way, to see the work of maintenance as the work, what will sustain me for years to come.

I have persistent neck pain, so I start there, applying pressure and running my index and middle fingers along my upper trapezius and supraspinatus muscles. I turn onto my side, poke fingers into the sticky spaces between my ribs, massaging the little pebbles of tension in my intercostals until they dissolve. I feel my blood flow back into these often ignored areas of my body and move on to my forearms. I work my thumb up and down the muscles that flex and extend my wrists. All of these actions create satisfying popping sounds when I move my shoulder, wrist, and elbow joints. Tension and pain slowly give way to softness and warmth and I drift back to sleep.

As a parent, of course, I know stillness never lasts long.

I do all this bodily work quietly, for myself, with no expectation of reward except the chance to continue moving as I’d like for as long as I’d like. I hope to give myself a decent shot at ease, for my body to be less rigid, tense, and stressed as the years go by. I want to be better capable of accepting and understanding pain, handling inevitable future troubles with patience and grace. Having to do two sets of six (seemingly simple) different PT exercises each day that make you tremble, shake, and sweat humbles you, gives you plenty of time to consider aging, to make peace with stillness.

As a parent, of course, I know stillness never lasts long. This winter, we were in the Chicago suburbs for my spouse’s family reunion, and I worried that I had reinjured my knee. The momentary panic I felt is also my child’s fault.

Getting my 4-year-old daughter — overtired, precocious, always quick to anger, her defenses activated in a millisecond — to Great-Grandma Dorothy’s 100th birthday party involved picking her up, carrying her into our rental car, physically restraining her as I buckled her into a car seat, screaming that she hated the ugly car seat and would never, never, never go to Grandma’s party. As my brother-in-law drove as fast as is safely possible, I sat in the back seat, absorbing her punches, kicks, and declarations that she doesn’t love me, that, in fact, she hates me. Then, she reached for the door handle, presumably to make her escape. As I rose up and threw myself across her, I felt a shooting pain and something like a pop in my knee. I pulled her close to me and whispered in her ear over and over, and over her screams: “I love you, I just love you; there’s nothing you could do that could ever make me stop loving you; you can hate me and hurt me; I’ll just keep loving you.”

Of course, what I really wanted to do was scream at her and my body in anger, but in the moment, I pulled off one of those parenting miracles: somehow sublimating frustration into empathy and patience.

Over the years, I have figured out how to tune out the noise and tune into my body, the way it is trying to talk to my mind, what signals it is sending me.

I saw a massage therapist, Irene, regularly for several years after giving birth to my older daughter. I went to her because of persistent postpartum hip pain. I loved Irene because she worked quietly but always initiated conversations — not awkward small talk but meaningful communication about my body. It was not uncommon, as her oiled hands explored around my scapula, to say, “Hmmm… now this is interesting,” then ask me what’s been going on with my shoulder.

Once Irene told me that she sees herself as “more of an interpreter, a translator. I take messages I find in your body and tell you what it’s trying to say.”

The first year of the pandemic changed Irene’s business. She gave up her rented studio space, moved to a more affordable city. I miss her, but it occurs to me that with my self-massages I have taken up some of her duties. Over the years, I have figured out how to tune out the noise and tune into my body, the way it is trying to talk to my mind, what signals it is sending me.

In the absence of Irene and the presence of increased physical difficulties, I’ve acquired some tools: a foam roller, Yoga Tune Up balls, an off-brand Theragun. I follow the account @EasyPainRelief and the hashtags #lowerbackpain and #mclrehab on Instagram. Along with physical therapy and self-massage, I started using an elliptical machine to build back my cardio endurance. I do a near pornographic amount of stretching on the living room floor, along with my husband who is also recovering from a serious orthopedic injury. We joke that we are true geriatric parents as we watch our daughters sit down and get up from chairs with groans and sighs that belie their youth.

Breaking a sweat doing rond de jambes to “Sailing” by Christopher Cross, I am undeniably a grown *ss lady moving my aging body the way it wants to move, so we can keep going.

This fall, I started taking a ballet-adjacent dance class for adults. It’s two hours long and more than half the time is dedicated to a thorough, full-body warm up involving classic ballet elements: pliés, demi pliés, relevés. The instructor is a middle-age Black woman who occasionally moans right along with us students and graciously offers me modifications to protect my knee. Under her guidance, I let go of fear, of childhood memories of being told I could never be a real ballerina because I didn’t have the skin or body type for it.

I’m not trying to be a ballerina, to change myself: I’m a 45-year-old mom trying to keep it together, feel good, maybe learn a few new skills while I’m at it. Breaking a sweat doing rond de jambes to “Sailing” by Christopher Cross, I am undeniably a grown *ss lady moving my aging body the way it wants to move, so we can keep going.

In the middle of the night, if I’ve run through my neck, upper back, and forearm massages and still don’t feel drowsy, I check in on other areas. I run fingers up and down the rice-y, crunchy textured fascia of my upper thighs (always a bit painful) and then I get into my mandible and jawline, loosening them up under cover of darkness.

These hushed, intimate actions are my own affectionate whispers to myself. I think of my daughter and how, with every touch and stretch and toe point, I am gifting myself what I hope will feel instinctual to her: the feeling of being held, loved, secure, capable of facing all the moments when life brings us to our knees.