BY GRETCHEN BLEILER
A year ago, I was working on double backflips with my coach and I had a very bad accident. While getting ready for the double, I threw my warm-up trick too hard and made a split decision in the air to keep rotating into the double, even though I hadn’t thrown for it. When I landed back onto the trampoline, my knees were still tightly tucked and the force and angle of my body caused my knee to come crushing into my face, shattering my eye socket, breaking my nose, splitting open my eyebrow and giving myself the worst concussion that I’ve ever experienced.
I’ll spare you the complicated and gruesome details of the next week leading up to my surgery, but it was hell. For anyone that’s ever had surgery, you know that everyone heals at a different pace and in different ways depending on who they are and what happened to them. Based on my competitive and pinpoint nature, I expected the fast track to recovery after surgery and it turned out to be a very humbling experience.
After a few post-op visits and debates with different care providers, the prognosis was that I had come a long way since my accident and the quality of my vision was good. It was possible and likely that my vision would continue to get better, but at the same time it was insinuated that if it didn’t, I was in a pretty good place. Thinking back on where my vision actually was at that point now is disturbing because I remember having an extremely short range of motion in almost every direction. Meaning that if I just looked up slightly, I would have double vision. And this was good? They did know that I was a professional snowboarder and that because of this I would need more range than the “average” person…right? In my opinion, though, the “average” person probably wants to look up at the stars at night just as much as I want to look up at that lip that is 22 feet above me and see one lip not two! So, as you can see, not having tangible solutions just didn’t work for me. And after a period of being extremely pissed, frustrated, angry and scared, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands and work with my “A” team (the people who have helped me accomplish my goals in snowboarding and life) to collaborate on a plan to find some solutions and recover.
If I had learned nothing else from this entire experience, then just understanding that doctors are human and most of them are very specialized in very specific areas would have been enough. That’s something a lot of us fail to remember; for some reason we all grow up thinking that doctors know the answers to EVERYTHING in all subjects because they are doctors. Let me tell you my doctor was a super hero in what he did for me. He saved my eye, my appearance and my vision. People tell me all the time that I must have had a really good doctor because they would never have known what had happened to me based on aesthetics. But when the super hero has rescued you, and you’re ready to continue on with your life, you don’t turn around and ask the super hero what you should do with your life now!
And that’s why it’s important for YOU (or someone you trust) to take control over the entire big picture plan of your recovery, no matter how big or small your injury may be. Because at the end of the day this is your life and you get to live it to the best of your abilities. That means if you hear a comment directed towards you like: “this is the best it’s gonna get, so start getting used to it,” then you respond in one way or another with: “I understand that is what you believe based on your experiences and knowledge, and I respect you and your belief, but I’m going to choose to disagree and find someone who believes that they can help me.” It’s taking the initiative and finding a solution. It’s the hard road; it’s the road less traveled. And you may spend a lot of time looking and never find what you’re looking for, but I know that I would sure as hell rather try!
My one-year anniversary of this day has just recently passed and now that I’ve almost recovered, and am back on my snowboard and almost back to my full potential, it seems like this experience is almost behind me and I’m in a place where I can reflect and share the valuable things that I’ve learned. So here goes:
-Don’t let anyone tell you “this is the best it’s going to get” and put limitations on you, whether it’s an injury or life in general.
-S*!t happens. I had just come off a breakthrough season where I truly felt I was on the verge of grasping my full potential, and then I was knocked down to zero. I’ve asked the question, “why?” and tried to look for hidden or not so hidden meanings, but sometimes in life it’s as easy as “stuff just happens."
-You can’t always muscle through challenges, obstacles and life. Once I got back on snow, I figured that because my vision was back that the level of riding I had been at before the accident would come right back. That just wasn’t the case, and the harder I tried on snow to get back to where I was, the worse it got. Only when I let go of the past and rode just purely for the enjoyment of what it was, without expectations or ulterior motives, did I begin to soften and naturally fall back into stride … which leads me to the next lesson:
-Let go of expectations because they will only hold you back. Being gently and easy on yourself may seem like taking the scenic route when you’re in a hurry, but it’s the only way to truly process and move forward in a true and healthy way.
-Do live in this moment. Comparing yourself to where you were is living in the past. You are a different version of yourself now than you were and living for then will surely rob you of who and what you are now.
-Be grateful for where you are right now. For me, having my vision back was the biggest victory that I could have escaped this experience with, but it took a long time for me to truly understand that concept. In the beginning I could only see what I wasn’t doing and where I was lacking. I just wanted to be back at my highest level of snowboarding. Then I found that beating myself up was actually draining my passion and love for what I was actually doing, which directly affected the way I would perform. Gratitude brings you back to being that witnessing awareness that is whole and unwavering.
-Don’t focus on time or a cookie cutter schedule. Focus on what your body is telling you. Your body knows best and intuitively knows how to heal, if you listen and are presently aware.
-Do the rehab every day; even a year after surgery you have the potential to break through any scar tissue or limitations. Just as in life, once you have found what is working for you, you want to apply that routine every day to break through old habits and patterns that are holding you back.
A lot of these lessons are similar concepts but just said or experienced in different ways. But what I’ve found is that we learn the same lessons in different ways throughout life based on where we are in our process. And where I am in my process is heading into summertime riding with a lot of goals that I’m eager to accomplish. And if I’ve learned anything at all from my own experiences, I’m going to go up to Mount Hood and, while I will be aware of those goals, I’m going to detach from their end results and enjoy sliding around on the snow in warm weather and that beautiful environment. I’m going to be grateful for my healthy body that lets me push myself physically and mentally to ride with style and meaning every day because that’s why I love to snowboard, but at the same time being presently aware and listening to my body as I do, and I’m going to laugh and I’m going to soak in being with some of my best friends and husband and dog all the while!