Off Track: Coping with injury and chronic illness
By Savannah Westeinde
At some point, everyone has an event that causes them to realize life has the control panel and we are simply tagging along for the ride, whether that be an unexpected injury, health complication, sudden loss etc. For me it was chronic illness, going from being someone who was really starting to progress in kayaking, to someone who often lacked the energy to roll up on the first try, the second, and sometimes even the third, was not easy.
A couple years ago I picked up a parasite, schistosomiasis, while kayaking the Nile, this really did not hinder my life or ability to kayak much. However, the combination of my newfound friends (the parasite), paired with chronic Mononucleosis has posed some significant challenges on my day – to – day life.
Mononucleosis is a common virus amongst people in their teens and early twenties, its symptoms are extreme fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, inflamed liver, muscle cramps and so on. However, chronic mono is a rare complication of the virus where instead of going away after a few weeks, it can last years. While I am flattered that I am such a likeable person for organisms and viruses, that they refuse to leave my body no matter how hard I try to kill them, they have made my life considerably harder.
I’ve learned that everyone faces an experience that causes them to derail their life, at least for a short period of time. While it might not be the same experience that I have with Hank, Frank and the Gang (yes, I named my swollen lymph nodes and organisms living in me), the frustration that comes with being unable to kayak is mutual. Through talking with other paddlers, and my own personal experiences, I have come up with a few tips and tricks to cope with these unwanted setbacks.
1. Know your body/ what works for you
If you do find yourself injured or sick, you have the wonderful opportunity to learn how to listen to your body. It can be hard to figure out what your body really needs, there is a fine line between pushing yourself, while simultaneously taking it easy. The best trick for this is simply learning from experience. Overall learning to be ok with not being ok, and knowing what you need is the most important thing. Stand by what you need, even if friends and family try to push you. Always remember that it’s ok to feel sad or discouraged, it’s ok if you have to spend a day or several on the couch with a book or movie, it does not make you lazy. In the end you’re the only one who knows how you feel.
2. Don’t compare your journey to others
We’ve all been there, lying on the couch scrolling through Instagram or Facebook,seeing who just stepped up and got some crazy first decent, your friend who just ran their first class v or got their first airscrew. Everyone is seemingly living life to the fullest, travelling to amazing places running beautiful rivers, and you are stuck at home recovering, it’s disheartening. What you don’t see however is the challenges they too have had to overcome, because whether it’s evident or not everyone faces or will face some sort of barrier. When I start to feel stuck I remind myself, it doesn’t matter how I get there, as long as I reach the finish line with a smile on my face. I think a lot of people overlook the journey when planning their goals, and it’s important to remember that there is so much that needs to be learned along the way.
3. Small Stepping Stones
I used to find myself getting so discouraged when I thought about all the things I want to do in life, and how being sick is stopping me from achieving that, then I would think maybe I’d just be sick forever, maybe I’d never be happy again, what if after what if. Eventually I realized A. that’s extremely dramatic and just not a logical train of thought, and B. I spent all this time worrying about whether I’ll achieve my goals rather than actually trying to achieve them. Just because you are sick or injured doesn’t mean your dreams have to go on the back burner. Depending on whatever it is you are dealing with, find something that you are able to do to work towards your goals. Rather than focusing on the finish line, break it down into all the small little steps necessary to get there. This can be finding a way to make some extra cash, so that when you’re better you have the financial means necessary. Doing something like yoga or stretching every day to strengthen your body, if you can, spend time on the water even if you can’t do much that’s more beneficial than sitting at home. You can also watch videos to inspire you, or to help learn how to do a new trick once your back in the game. Once you get in the habit of focusing on the present moment, the possibilities are endless.
4. Support Network
No matter what you are going through it is so important to have people to talk to and help you stay positive. I find that my mood is very easily swayed by the atmosphere I’m in, so I sent out a message to all my friends and family telling them to try and be as positive as possible, I didn’t want sympathy or anything that would remind me of my predicament, just love and support. This ties in with knowing your body, I’m sure there are lots of people who want to help out anyway they can, but just don’t know how.
5. Get on or by the river!
a reason taking a rest day is so hard, kayaking is awesome, not just the physical act of paddling but also the community, and being outside. No matter what it is you’re going through, stay involved, if you are capable of doing some light paddling, epic, if not even just sitting by the river with a book, listening to the rapids and watching your friends is bound to be beneficial.
Also, just because you can’t paddle, doesn’t mean you can’t hang out with your regular paddling crew, I know it sounds crazy but you don’t always have to be kayaking to have fun. I’m sure your friends would be ecstatic over a night in watching the latest reel world videos, bomb flow, or planning a big trip that may never happen but a fun pass time anyway. Just find a way to get your fix because life can be pretty bland without kayaking.
We’ve all battled with our pride before, and being in a position where you need more help than usual is never easy to come to terms with. Admitting that you might not be capable of doing things you used to is hard, but everyone has to do it at some point, whether that’s now or when you’re 80. For me personally I found it extra hard being a girl in the kayaking community because I already feel pressure to prove that I am capable. Since I’ve been sick sometimes I just physically cannot put my boat on the roof, it’s not a big deal when I am around friends who know my situation, but when it’s someone who doesn’t know me I feel so embarrassed. If people judge you for needing extra help then so be it, and remember, they don’t know what’s going on in your life so their opinion shouldn’t count. Eventually I’ve realized that everyone has to ask for help sometimes and that’s not just ok, it’s encouraged, life is hard and there’s no shame in needing a hand. Dealing with an injury/sickness is never easy no matter what, but in kayaking it poses some extra challenges. If you are aspiring to compete or make kayaking somewhat of a career, there’s a lot of pressure to be good at a young age, something with a long recovery time can make you feel like you are missing your only chance. That being said there’s always time to improve, and once your past this hurdle it will be a small blimp in the timeline of your life. So, if you are someone who has been struggling with any of these things, I hope this article helped in some way. Hopefully soon all of us injured people or sickies will be good as new and crushing on the water. Remember- life may be in control of the switchboard, but we still have the power to change our mindset, sit back and enjoy the ride.
Sincerely Savannah, Hank, Frank, and the gang…
About the author: My name is Savannah Westeinde, I am a 19-year-old whitewater kayaker from Ottawa Ontario. I grew up doing camps at wilderness tours, such as the keener program, and then attended world class kayak academy for my last year of high school. I was also on the Canadian freestyle team in 2016. Currently I am living at home trying to figure out my health problems. I was in my second year of university in Carleton’s global and international studies program with a specialization in global development, but have had to take the semester off. While I am currently not working I have worked as a kayak instructor in the past.