How a Teenager Found Inner Strength During the Hardest Trial of Her Life

Lessons I learned rehabbing my body and my mind.

POP. The split-second sound echoed in the Gym.

POP. The dreaded sound every athlete fears.

A popping sound is a classic sign of a severe ACL knee injury. Up until this point, I was a happy, joyful, smiling teenager who never saw anything wrong with the world around me. During a routine basketball drill, my world turned upside down.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. How does an ACL injury relate to mental health? My high school basketball injury demonstrates the key to achieving our physical dreams is to address our emotional needs and mindset.

Junior Year of High School

The summer before my junior year in high school I was a basketball gym rat. I played for two summer basketball teams and was excited about the upcoming season at Birdville High School. I was hopeful and excited to see how far we would go in the playoffs. In practice on October 26th, I tore my ACL. The tear happened following the 15-minute warm-up we had every day. Thursdays were always box-out and defensive focus days especially since we had an upcoming scrimmage. We had done this box-out drill all the time. 99 times I was fine, but this one, I was not.

On November 1st, I had my ACL repaired. Every athlete is terrified to go through surgery. Six months of rehab, training, and being unable to play the sport you love was horribly challenging. On one level I expected the physical challenges. What I did not expect was the mental effects of being unable to compete with my team every single day. It’s mentally draining watching other people do what you love and not be a part of it.

Basketball was my outlet and my stress release. Adding knee pain and rehab increased my high school anxiety. Not being on the team lead to social isolation. The split-second when my anterior cruciate ligament ripped in two I lost my most important outlet, sports.

I was awake all hours of the night, and began failing classes. My anxiety skyrocketed. I cried…a lot. I was reaching the breaking point. I struggled with the emotional and physical suffering. Lying on my tear-soaked pillow, I wondered how much more I could handle.

It turns out I had only touched the tip of the emotional iceberg. No one could prepare for what was to come.

The coach that changed my life

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There was a dream-crushing head basketball coach at my school with a reputation for being intimidating and belittling. I was naive. I thought I would be okay. My situation would be different. I was a straight-A student and a star athlete. Why would I have a problem with a coach?

After returning to school post-surgery, I met with my coach. This woman was clear in her guidance. She told me I would never play basketball again. Leaving no room for doubt, no college coach would ever be interested in me for my abilities. I was damaged goods and I “needed a new dream.”

I listened carefully to every word she said. Through my tears, her words filled my head and heart. She was my coach. I trusted her opinion. I never expected someone I respected to tell me that my dreams were worthless. My dream since age 5 was to play college basketball. Being told it wasn’t worth it was heartbreaking. I left her office and went back to class, ignoring what was said to me and how I felt. I had to get back to class. I didn’t tell anyone about the conversation.

I hid it. From everyone.

On team picture day she asked me to remove my knee brace because “that thing was not cute and needed to be invisible.” My new brace was ugly, but hearing her words, I felt ashamed. I was being ridiculed. An adult was making fun of me for something that was now a part of my body. My coach took away my jerseys so they could be used for someone “who could do something for her team.” I always trusted my coaches. They molded me. This 17-year-old girl was unsure how to process a trusted adult crushing her dreams like stomping on an empty soda can.

I felt worthless, but still, I hid my feelings.

Tough athletes don’t whine after all.

Straight A basketball star Abbey didn’t have problems. She does not let others see the pain inside. I made constant remarks of how great my life was. I pretended everything was perfect when in reality, none of this was true. My smile was my mask to hide my emotions so no one else could see that my life was going downhill fast.

This is when I started crying myself to sleep every night.

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A mother’s intuition to make the call she didn’t know was needed

After school one afternoon, I walked to my car. As soon as the door closed, I broke down. I was alone. It was safe to show my emotions. No one could see me crying in the school parking lot. All of a sudden, my phone rang. It was my mom. She had a feeling she needed to call. Her intuition saved my mental health forever. Her simple phone call finally gave me the courage to share everything that had been going on. I knew I wasn’t myself and I knew it was only going to get worse. Any more of this mental anguish, and I would reach my breaking point.

She drove to meet me, and I shared everything that had happened. I was no longer afraid to suffer in silence. I let everything trapped inside of me out. She listened. She understood. She helped me see I have an injured knee and mind, but I am not a broken person

As a family, we decided the best move was to transfer to a new high school. During my senior year I had the privilege of graduating from Nolan Catholic. I met the most amazing people. I had the most amazing coach. Coach Blok knew about my past and worked in every way he could to raise my confidence and allow me to be an even better player and person than before.

My dad would come upstairs every day after dinner to check on me and talk about my day. As I cried, he would hug me tight saying “everything is gonna be alright, kid.” My mom would make sure she was awake before I left for school. Both parents were ready to talk about anything when I needed it. We all need a shoulder to cry on and an ear to hear us.

Don’t let your critics win

I proved the coach wrong. I completed rehab and finished my senior year season. I got a full scholarship to Western New Mexico University. I just completed my Freshman season. I am living my dream. I was depressed, anxious, and didn’t know what was going to happen next. I questioned everything. But I overcame these challenges. Now I am back to the happy positive person I was before but stronger. My faith is solid. Two years out of surgery, and I am playing college basketball and running four miles a day.

I am more than okay. I am great.

Mentally, I am strong, capable, and better than what others think of me.

Critics are always there. We can’t change that. What we can change is how we react to them. I chose to ignore the critic and apply the drive and determination I learned as I child to continue towards my dream. It worked. My 5-year-old self looks up at me and says, “I am proud of you.“

Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness

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Teenagers struggle. They worry about their looks, friends, relationships, grades, and their future. What I learned from this experience is no one has to suffer alone. For any teen suffering in silence, the first step is to share with a trusted adult. Never be ashamed of your feelings.

Talk to someone, anyone. I know in my heart that if I didn’t have the family support system, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. I would have let the coach win. You should be the controller of your mind and spirit. Never let anyone tear down what you worked so hard to build. Your mental health matters, and there is always someone there to help in any way.

Don’t let critics win. Don’t let what is in your head overpower who you know you are and everything you can be. Take control of your mindset to achieve your dreams.

Have faith. Be hopeful. Pray. Stay strong. One day you will make it out of the hole. Keep fighting. There is someone for you ready to help. Find that someone.

You are not alone. We are all in this fight together.

The critic’s words cut so deep, but the wounds healed. I learn so much about the world, the people around me, and about myself. I rehabbed my knee but my mind was healed. I developed the mental strength to overcome anything I put my mind to. I am more prepared to cope with challenges and to deal with difficult life situations.

I will never allow another person to dictate my happiness. This 17-year old who was still dependent upon her parents evolved into a young woman with the confidence to defend herself and to take on the world.

Now I’m gonna go out for a four-mile run. I do it with a healthy knee and a strong mind.

Thanks to Dr. Jeff Livingston.

Thank you to ILLUMINATION for publishing this article on Medium

Blog Author: Abigail Walter

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