Losin' It (And Gettin' It Back Again)
It's the one thing that unites all surfers, be they Joe Pro, weekend warrior, absolute beginner, or lifelong corelord. We all get hurt.
Time spent injured is time spent out of the water. Sooner or later you're going to cop it, and the more time you spend doing it, the more chance you will cop it good.
Knees and ankles sprain and tear, even when you're young and spritely. Aerials are brutal on ankles. Later on, the stress and strain shows on shoulders and backs. Hips give out. Elbows cop tendon sprains. Ears develop bony growths that need drilling. The easiest to deal with are sharp trauma injuries - fin cuts and reef wounds. Skin is an amazing healer, although bacterial infections often claim the last word in the tropics.
Cataloguing all the ways to get injured is a subject for a book and I intend to make a different but related point. That being: How you deal with these injuries, especially the chronic ones as you get older, will make or break you. It'll be the difference between getting fat on the couch or enjoying the shreds into Slater vintage years and beyond.
What follows is a personal journey, not medical advice. The hope is some of it will be common to all injuries and may be of benefit.
The first order issue is pain. In my case, I injured my back rocking off. A samurai sword spike of pain in the lower back, then a horrible growing feeling of numbness, electrical jolts of nerve pain and muscle disability. I tried to sit and shake it off. It got worse by the minute. In the end, I couldn't paddle. Had to sidestroke in rescue style-along the length of the point and stumble up the rocks. By the time I got home, I couldn't get out of the car. The bass throb and the high-pitched nerve pain was just manageable under industrial quantities of Neurofen and Panadol.
Stupidly, it being the week before Christmas I got on the booze with a mate that evening, which dulled the pain beautifully until 3am the next morning.
Even more stupidly, a few days later, thinking things had settled a notch I spent an afternoon in the yard trying to fulfil promises I had made to get the joint ship-shape for Christmas. Mowing, clearing a fence line etc etc. I was ready for the opioids that night.
Pain control has risks and consequences. Opioids are crazily addictive and require long rehab if you do get hooked - a problem that can be bigger than the injury you are trying to ameliorate. Anti-inflammatories eat up the gut lining over the long haul. The safest course is to do what you can to reduce inflammation generally and limit painkillers to the bare minimum. Get off the booze is step one. Eat clean food with minimal crap like sugar and takeaways is step two.
Luckily for me, on that program my pain subsided to manageable levels within a fortnight. I could sleep at night and phased out the painkillers within a month.
The second order issue is getting medical treatment if required. Any acute or chronic injury is going to require dealing with the medical establishment. That can be a Kafka-esque nightmare journey in itself. I had little luck with the local GP. Despite being so crippled I couldn't walk a hundred metres without stopping he sent me home and told me to take painkillers as needed. It took a couple more visits before I more or less demanded a referral for an MRI, which he acceded to.
This is where the difference between a John John Florence dicky knee and a Joe Bloggs back injury becomes apparent. John will have access to the best medical treatment, whenever he needs it, at whatever the cost. I had access to Dr Google, and had to beg and plead for basic diagnostics like an MRI, which came out of my own pocket. Injuries ain't cheap.
The human body is complicated; injuries are idiosyncratic. Backs are a nightmare to diagnose correctly. Ideally you want medical opinions from experts who have dealt with that particular injury on that particular part of the body. Problem is, they tend to be specialists who cost an arm and a leg and are hard to get hold of, let alone get appointments to see. The battle to try and figure out exactly what is wrong, while haemorrhaging cash on medical procedures adds to the mental stress.
Fortunately, my MRI confirmed my Dr Google research. Herniated disc between L5 and S1 squeezing the nerve root which feeds the major neural pathway down the left leg. The pain was not an issue now. The problem was functional. Crippled, unable to surf. Muscle weakness. Depression and despair on the periphery, pushing in.
The GP recommended the spinal needle, which made no difference. Elevan weeks post-injury I was stressing. I finally got in to see a local physio who had experience with this injury. He took one look at the MRI and said, “I think you should get a surgical opinion”. My blood ran cold yet that transpired to be the turning point. He asked me if I had private health insurance, to which I replied in the negative. He then suggested I drive to the Gold Coast University Hospital, admit myself to emergency and not leave until a neurosurgeon had examined me.
I left in the dark and came home in the dark. It wasn't the most pleasant way to pass the time but it worked. A neurosurgeon called my name, looked at the MRI, poked and prodded me and said, “I think you will not need surgery. Give it two more months of conservative treatment and see how you go”.
The mental relief was enormous. In fact, the placebo effect of now not having to think about surgery may have been instrumental. There was rapid improvement in conjunction with physio and rehab.
Chronic injuries create mindset uncertainty. The reality is, there are season-ending, career-ending, hobby-ending injuries. We are biological creatures (for now) with limits and parts that wear down and break.
How to avoid fooling yourself? How to know if rehab is working? I took a simple approach to this quandary based on my science background. What can be measured can be managed. Every day at 10am I gave my injury a number out of 100. 0 is dead, 100 is full capacity, as good as it can possibly be. When I started three weeks post-injury I was at 26. Scores went up and down, on a slow incline before the surgical opinion and intense rehab. By the middle of March I was at 67. By the first week of May, on the two month mark set by the surgeon, I was at 77. Good enough to have a crack at getting back in the water.
Staying dry during that time wasn't easy. Being injured is boring, especially to other people. You become obsessed by this thing that no-one else wants to know about. Surfing is about doing it, being immersed. The participants - those doing it - don't care what the spectators think. Being rendered a spectator was humbling.
A few things really helped pre and during rehab. Walking was number one. We are bipedal hominids, evolved to walk the savannah of East Africa. Steps can be counted, every one of them moves you towards recovery. Before I could walk a hundred metres on dry land, I could wade in the lake in chest deep water, letting water density defeat gravity.
Random interventions came at opportune times. A rehab chiropractor from the South Coast took the time to reach out and send me a few emails, offering encouragement, expertise, and a broad pathway forwards. He helped me set weekly goals. If you are reading this, thanks a million.
Inspiration is where you find it. A morning walk at the point put me in contact with a local concrete cutter who had experience in rehabbing serious injuries. His overwhelming positivity led me to go home and write some simple affirmations, despite not really being a spiritual guy. Looking at these affirmations, putting a date on them every time a milestone was crossed was like hitting the accelerator on motivation and progress. My back is healing. I'm getting stronger. I can comeback better. It sounds like trite nonsense writing it down. It made a difference.
Coming back to surfing itself was a humbling affair. I was able to kneeboard a foamy to start, ride some babyfood peelers on a mal, with a pop-up that took half the wave. It was more of a slow climb up with more stages than the Tour de France.
I tried to surf a four foot day at one of the local points with a bit of ragged sideshore wind and backwash. I got so obliterated three waves in a row. It was back to the drawing board.
Finding surf gentle enough during a wet and wild la Niña autumn where blue water, offshore wind, and small surf just weren't on the menu was a curve ball thrown from nature. I couldn't rush it because I wasn't up to the task of surf over three foot. And it was over three foot day after day after day.
A grey, still Sunday afternoon finally presented itself. I ummed and ahhed, walked up and down the headland in a nervous state. The clock was ticking as the light drained quickly out of the deep autumn afternoon. Everyone came in. The hardest part was rocking off. It was more of a gentle, geriatric flop, off the front ledge. The second hardest part was popping up, past the pain points. A throaty little point wedge came to me on dark and I spun and stuck the drop on my feet, pulled a highline to speed run and simple cut-down on a voluminous 7'3”. Came in ecstatic.
May turned to June and Mother Nature came to the party. Endless swells and all day offshores. The 7'3” turned into a 6'6”, then a 6'3”, and a 6'1”. The program was a long warm-up, shorter surfs to avoid fatigue and plenty of stretching at night. Within the month, I was able to surf every day, doubles even, with no pain or hindrance.
I sat out a couple of big days then had a go at a six foot east swell. Everything still worked and the conditioning was up to the task after a long period of enfeeblement.
Father Time wins every war. We all end up in the pine box or the incinerator. Along the way though, how many good years, how hard you fight against the dying of the light, is largely up to you.
// STEVE SHEARER