This summer I faced one of my biggest challenges. Those of you who have been following me since the very beginning know that I used to play basketball – professionally. Six severe shoulder injuries were the reason I had to quit playing basketball. This was one of the most difficult things I had to overcome – both physically and mentally. Over the past ten years I have made a lot of efforts to recover and achieve the best shape of my life so far. I had never had the physical capacity I had now. Many people could not believe that I, who had had so many injuries, was doing the handstands, the walking bridge and all the other stuff I post every day in my Instagram account. During the past year I had never once thought about my shoulders or my injuries. All the limitations I had been struggling with were a thing of the past. Sometimes it even felt like all that had never been a part of my life – it seemed so distant. And yet, my biggest fear has always been to experience yet another injury of this kind. The last time the injury took away my dreams and the world as I knew it. I had hoped that in this lifetime I would not have to go through the same thing… again.
In June we went on IFS Bootcamp. Everything was going great until, in a quite absurd situation and not during a workout, I dislocated my shoulder. That was a moment when time stopped and all I could wish for was that it would turn out to be just a dream. A nightmare that I would wake up from with my heart racing and know that everything was fine. But to my regret it was the reality. Ten years after that horrible day when I said goodbye to my dreams, I dislocated my shoulder again – in the most ridiculous way. At that time I could not even think about it. All I could feel was the atrocious pain and the horror that slipped out of my mind and settled in my body. I didn’t know what to do. I was at a place where there were no good doctors. I knew that my sister’s room was next to mine and in tears I started calling her name. She might be unable to help my shoulder, but I knew she would know how to help my soul. I knew that with her help everything would be all right eventually. At that moment Gabi and Ivaylo appeared at the door.
I just told them I had dislocated my shoulder and since I could not put my arm down, because every movement caused increasingly brutal pain and my shoulder was slipping more and more out of place, I had stuck my nails into my skin and was clutching my arm. I started to go down the stairs slowly. I still could not believe what was happening. The pain was getting stronger and stronger. We were in Sinemorets and there was no doctor around who could relocate my shoulder. We went to Ahtopol and then to the hospital in Tsarevo, but there were no competent orthopedic surgeons there who could reduce my shoulder. Our only option was the hospital in Burgas. My shoulder had already been dislocated for about an hour. All the time we were traveling the pain was getting worse and it was beginning to dawn on me more and more what had occurred. I did not have the strength to think about what was going to happen. All I could wish for was to find someone who would relocate my arm. Someone who would rid me of that pain. And then… whatever life had in store for me, I would deal with it.
I started staring out of the window and repeating to the pain to go through me. I could feel my whole body getting tight, because relaxing would mean that I would succumb to the emotion. That was not the time to do so. Every five minutes I asked how much longer we had to travel. The panic returned. How would I stand this for another hour? I could not stand that pain. I didn’t want it there. Why was that happening to me? A shoulder injury had been my biggest fear. Something I had hoped I would not have to go through again in this lifetime. Nevertheless, it was now an inevitable reality that I had to deal with.
All the time we were traveling my sister kept holding my arm so that the shoulder would not keep rotating. And yet, with every kilometer the pain kept getting stronger. It had been almost two hours since I had dislocated my shoulder and I was already feeling exhausted when we arrived at Burgasmed. There we were lucky to come upon a very good doctor whose name I unfortunately did not remember, because that was the last thing on my mind at the time. They X-rayed my shoulder to see what kind of luxation I had and then the doctor took me outside and made me take a seat on a bench. He said that since my shoulder had been dislocated for so long, I might need general anesthesia, because the pain you feel when the shoulder is getting reduced is quite strong, but I assured him I would stand it. I won’t describe the shoulder reduction procedure, but I can tell you this is a very strong and brutal kind of pain.
I felt piercing pain and then my shoulder popped back into place. That was a moment when all the emotions I had been suppressing for the past two hours overwhelmed me. My tears started streaming down my cheeks and he looked at me and said: “Don’t cry. Why are you crying? Are you in a lot of pain?” I looked at him and didn’t know how to explain that I was not crying because of the physical pain, but because of the mental one. Because of everything I would have to overcome, and I so desperately wished to be spared.
Recovery from an injury of this kind lasts for 3-6 months. This is a long journey I have embarked on and I hope to be able to get as much benefit as possible from this challenge.
It has been more than 40 days since then and below I am going to describe some of the main lessons I have learned so far.
- There is no limit to the pain you can endure
In times like these you realize there is nothing a person can’t stand and there is no limit to the pain you can endure. It’s just that when you are feeling well, thinking about negative experiences makes you assume you can’t go through that. This way you sometimes surround yourself with fears, because you doubt you are strong enough to be bigger than them. When the undesirable comes crashing down on you, you realize that at any given time you have exactly the amount of strength it takes to handle the challenge. Just like it is at the gym – the strength you exert is proportional to the weight you get. That was also what happened to me. At the time of the injury I didn’t believe I would have the strength and the willpower to go the long journey that was ahead of me. And now I am walking this path with determination and have no intention of quitting.
- Everyone judges pain depending on the amount of their loss
I left the hospital, got into the car and experienced a mental breakdown. I started crying and my sister kept telling me not to and that I would be fine. I asked her to leave me alone. I knew that the physical injury would get better sooner or later. But no one could even begin to realize what that meant for me. You can’t understand a pain you have not experienced. Sometimes others see you and judge you based only on your momentary state. They judge your experience, but they don’t know that what hurts is all the other stuff you have been through before that. All that has accumulated in your body and mind. Others don’t see your personal battles. They know nothing about your sleepless nights, the tears you have shed, the lost dreams. What is merely an injury to some, means going back several years for another person.
The average person doesn’t know what goes on in the mind and soul of an athlete, when they have to recover from a severe injury. To most people movement is not a priority and being immobilized is an inconvenience, but not always something that turns their lives upside down. Then they get well and go back to their previous rhythm of life. In an athlete an injury like this does not heal after a month of immobilization and two rounds of rehabilitation. This is only the beginning. The real battles come afterwards. The average person can’t imagine the fears that surface in your mind, the countless hours you spend convincing yourself that you can compete again; that nothing bad will happen to you, if you try to do a movement that involves the injured extremity. They can’t imagine how something you used to do with dedication and without fear suddenly vanishes. All that is left is you, the numerous scenarios how something can go wrong and the endless comparison between where you used to be and where you are now. They have no idea what it means to go back to the gym or the field and for your mind to know what you were capable of, but for your body to be unable to follow. The self-preservation instinct that paralyzes your willpower, your desire and your passion. The sensations that grind you down every day and that you have to overpower, if you want to get back to the level you had achieved before the injury. Every injury reminds you how fragile you are and how everything that you have been striving at every day can vanish in the blink of an eye. It reminds you how ephemeral the result of the countless hours of efforts you have invested is.
- You are the only person who can find the answer to the question “why”
I could not stop thinking about the reasons. Why had this happened to me? This time I had not deserved it. I had not provoked fate. It did not even occur during a workout. I had not been playing the hero and I had not been testing my boundaries. It was so preposterous. Why did it happen? Also, many people shared their views why this of all things had happened to me, but at the end of the day each of us is the only person who is always present in our own lives. You are the only person who knows what you think about and do all day and you are the only one who can tell for certain why something happened to you.
I could feel that life was of the opinion that I was ready to be confronted with my biggest fear, so that I could understand I was bigger than it. It placed us face to face with each other, so that I could realize that fears are nothing but limitations we put on ourselves and which often stop us from achieving our potential. When you face your fear, when it is a reality, you realize you have no other choice, but to beat it. Doesn‘t this make you stonger? Doesn’t it open the door to your unlimited potential and to everything you can be, when you break through your limiting convictions?
- The only way to endure change is to find new meaning in what is happening
I kept going back to the time of the injury. I wished I could rewind the tape, but I couldn’t… because that was my life and not some old tape you can rewind. There was no going back. I couldn’t just close my eyes and skip this scene that had filled me with terror, because there was no one else there – I was not a spectator, but the main character and I had to be fully present in what was happening. Feel it with all my senses and then integrate it into a new meaning. I had not been given the choice to change the channel or quit, because I had to bear everything life had put on my plate. All I could do was hope that my life, just like it is in the movies, would have a happy ending and that everything I had to endure was only preparing me for the good things to come. All I could do was hope that the challenges and what I was becoming, as I overcame them, would make me worthier. During the past month there have been many times it has been quite hard for me, but the very next instant I have realized I should not compare the person I had been a month ago to the person I am now. Life ends with “before” and starts with “after”. The events that put an end to who you used to be, also mark the beginning of who you are now. Comparing who you are now to who you used to be yesterday grinds you down and puts you back. So the more you live in the present moment and try to make progress with what you can do now, the better you manage to feel.
- Fear does not go away – it simply transforms in inverse proportion to your desire to go on
The injury brought back many fears I had put behind me. Just as I had been feeling very strong and invincible, I suddenly felt weak and fragile. It felt like everything I had worked for could vanish in the blink of an eye just like that. As more and more time goes by, I can feel that the fear is still there. It just shrinks in proportion to my desire to go on despite everything. You can’t run away from fear. It is there and follows you like a shadow. It walks after you, reminding you that you are transient and have no time to waste. You have to seize the moment and live it to the fullest. Be present with your entire being. Because what is now may never come again. Do you understand? Never again! At times like these you ask yourself why you felt bad yesterday or were unhappy with yourself, when you were healthy and had every opportunity ahead of you. You ask yourself how you could experience dissatisfaction, when everything was completely fine. Maybe this is why we need pain – it is the contrast that emphasizes the beauty of life and the thing that helps us recognize the moments we are happy.
- The past and the present should not be compared
I become more and more convinced that life is like a spiral. You climb higher and higher and it feels like you are moving away from what used to be, but you often realize that you turn around and go through the same things again. Only this time you are standing much higher and your level of understanding is different. You have a different perspective, and this changes the whole situation. That was also what happened with my injury. The first week my thoughts and the sensation were crushing me, but then I decided not to go with the flow. Just five days later I went to the pool and got into the water with the bandage on my arm. I trained for an hour and I swam with my legs only. During my subsequent workouts I started swimming with one arm. I had not believed I could do the breaststroke with one arm only, but as you can see in the video, it worked. This time I approached the injury differently and even though it sometimes feels hard, knowing what a long journey I have ahead of me, I know that things are different this time. This time the injury did not take away everything I had been building, because this time I am much more than my body and the things I can do. Yes, I do identify with what I can do in physical terms, but I am able to do a lot even now. I can’t do the things I was able to a month ago, but I can move in different ways.
- An injury is not an excuse to immobilize the whole body
Despite the difficult moments, for the past 40 days I have not once allowed myself to feel sorry for myself and say there was no way this could work. I have not stopped working out. I work out mostly for my lower body, but I also include my left arm. I try not to overwork it, because I use it to do everything. And yet, there are numerous studies that show the connection between the two extremities and demonstrate that training one also stilulates the other one to develop. Also, at night, when I go to bed, I spend time visualizing. I imagine myself doing handstands and how it feels in both my arms. I do the same when I train my left arm. I imagine I can feel tension in my other arm as well and that I am training that one too. A big part of what we can do is the result of what we have come to believe in. This is why training mindfully and focusing on something helps. Also, I have never understood why, when someone suffers an injury, they decide to immobilize their whole body. An arm injury is not an excuse not to move the rest of the body – yes, it is more difficult, but it is not impossible, and it is useful too. Movement is important for the way we feel. If we immobilized our whole body, we would nto only have to rehabilitate the injured extremity, but also the whole body. This requires a lot more efforts than maintaining the shape we have already achieved.
- Diet and injuries
Many people worry about getting fat when they are injured. I think a person really has to accept that the body changes in some way. In me this has to do with the lack of strength in my arm and the visible imbalance between the muscles in my both arms. Nevertheless, it is up to us to minimize these changes. At any time we can control what we eat. As I said, I have not stopped moving, so I have not changed my diet substantially. The injury has not affected my weight, so a person should not worry about things that are up to them. Just don’t go with the flow, when you find yourselves in a situation like this, but try being stronger that what is happening to you. This makes you feel motivated and put the experience behind you faster.
- “Random words” are the words that provide the most comfort
The day I injured myself, or rather the next morning, I posted something on Facebook, telling people what had happened. I can’t describe the feeling and the emotions that everything all of you wrote stirred in me. You have no idea how the minute you spent writing something encouraging to me was the meaning that rekindled my desire to be strong and not to give up. And yet, two of the messages still echo in my mind. Maybe the women who wrote these comments no longer even remember they wrote this, but often, when things get tough, these words give me courage and strength to overcome the wave of negative emotions and the desire to just stop. One of the women is Branimira Stefanova, who wrote to me: “Ines, I don’t know you, but I have been following what you do. You are an athlete, Ines. This is what you, guys, are destined for. To fall and get back up, and keep going every single time. After all, someone has to show us how it is done. This is your mission. To give people courage, to motivate and inspire them. Sometimes the price is too high. This is not a new beginning, Ines, but just another lesson you have to teach us!”The other woman, whose name I can’t remember, wrote: “Ines, you do know that life is simply calling you for an encore, right? It wants you to show us your strength once again and inspire us.”These are words I keep repeating to myself every day. Sometimes taking the time to say a couple of words to someone may be the strength that helps them overcome their own weakness. So never miss a chance to give strength and courage to other people.
- When you believe in something, life challenges you to demonstrate it
When you believe that something is true, there will come a time in your life, when you will be called upon to demonstrate this truth. I always say that the gym and a workout are like life itself. The qualities you need to overcome the challenges at the gym are the qualities you need to overcome the difficulties in life. Maybe the time had come for me to demonstrate this once again. Nothing at the gym can make me quit. I always find the patience and the willpower to trust the process and I work hard every day to get where I want to be. After so many rehearsals in the gym, maybe the time had come for me to put what I had learned to practice in my life, too. It hasn‘t been a long time since my injury, but I think I understand the lesson. I was meant to go through the thing I had been most afraid of in order for yet another limitation to melt away. In all that whirlwind of pain and emotions I came upon incredible people who helped me recover a lot faster than I had expected.
- What hurts is not change, but your refusal to change
Every one of us has our own idea of how our life should unfold. We cling to it so desperately that we have assumed that nothing else can divert us from the path we have traced for ourselves in our minds. In reality this is seldom the truth. Things happen all the time that make us change and adapt. My father always says I have to learn to adapt, so that I can feel all right all the time. When there is something I can’t do, instead of focusing on it, I find something I can do at that point in my life, so that I can feel satisfied. I make it a point to do that thing, although the process is not always easy and there is always a time I resist reality, but then I simply find another path to take me where I want to be.
- Everything happens at its own pace and we can’t speed it up
This is a lesson I try to learn every day. As an athlete, I am always prepared to invest more efforts, work harder. When it comes to recovering from an injury, this is not always a good thing. Sometimes “more” is the very thing that can slow down your progress. Rehabilitation must be precisely dosed, and doing more repetitions and more sets can only cause more pain and slow down your recovery. The body has its own rhythm and recovering from an injury is the art of learning how to follow it.