Karrie Rufer: Why I Struggled to Admit I Wasn’t Okay
About two weeks after my second surgery, I woke up alone in bed, left arm in my sling, with a searing pain in my shoulder that would not go away. Not wanting to use the oxycodone prescribed for what my doctor assured me would be severe and persistent discomfort, I took some ibuprofen and tried icing my shoulder and collarbone but nothing helped. I remember thinking, as I finally found comfort laying on my stomach with my left arm draped off the side of the bed, “Is this sport really worth it?”
At this point, I was struggling to do what I’ve always done – take care of myself. I was physically exhausted from not sleeping, mentally fatigued from trying to distract myself from replaying the accident over and over, and emotionally drained from stubbornly declining help from my friends and family. I wouldn’t say I outright refused help, but I insisted I was “fine.”
I don’t think I’ve ever lied so much in my life. I wasn’t fine. And laying there, helpless and alone in bed, I finally said those words to myself - “I’m not fine.”
I was afraid of admitting that I felt depressed more than anything; after all, this was just another challenge in my life and I kept telling myself that I should have had the strength to get through it. The fear led to isolation, and the isolation led to an identity crisis. I had always thought of my identity as something I had already established and knew quite well; however, I came to the shocking realization that my identity was far more fluid and subject to change than I had ever thought.
The first time I broke my collarbone, the mare I was on crashed through an oxer and went down hard. She picked up a longer distance, I wanted one more – and both of us went straight into the ground. It was the first time that I had fallen off and not gotten back on. I had to have a metal plate put in, but the surgery went well, and I was back on a horse a week later. I took three more weeks off, and was cleared to go back to normal.
"I had always thought of my identity as something I had already established and knew quite well."
Not long after, the same thing happened – the horse I was on took the longer distance, and we both plummeted. The titanium plate holding my collarbone together couldn’t break – but the bone at the end of the plate did. The only option was to put a newer and much longer plate in, but this time the injury didn’t heal as well. The pain was excruciating, both mentally and physically. I kept thinking, “What if I never ride again? What if next time the injury is worse?”
Some days I didn’t want to get out of bed – I just didn’t see the point.
Looking back, I think my own stubbornness prevented me from asking for help. If I had called any one of my family members or friends, they would have come to my aid without questions or judgment. Unfortunately, I’ve always been a person who likes to tackle challenges and, at the time, my injury was my challenge. I considered talking to a therapist but something always stopped me. Whether it was my pride or the fact that I had never sought out professional mental help before, I just couldn’t bring myself to pick up the phone. I wish someone had given me the business card of a therapist because I barely trust Yelp with pointing me to a decent restaurant… so how was I going to go about finding a good therapist? The task was so daunting I just didn’t even start the process.
Read this next: Daniel Bluman's Struggle with Panic Attacks and PTSD
I’m an optimistic person – everything that goes wrong is an opportunity for learning. But when you’re in it, when you’re not even able to get out of bed, it’s really hard to be positive.
Never in my life have I been one to lose my temper - I have always been focused, calm, and even-keeled. But I found myself at the end of a short fuse about even the most mundane things. It started becoming more apparent the more I interacted with other people. The rare times when I’d go to my parents’ house for dinner or have my friends over, I found myself generally irritated. My sense of humor, typically dry and sarcastic, now had more of a bitter taste to it. In my own way, I kept to myself to protect my relationships because I found myself saying things that were just not… me. The words would leave my mouth, my brain would hear them, and my heart would sink. I’m not a mean or bitter person but, at that point in my life, I sure was passing for one. I didn’t want my depression, my anger, and my frustration to be taken out on other people, so I isolated myself. I felt like that was the best way to handle it, to just be alone. The scariest part was wondering if I’d ever get past that, if that carefree happiness and optimism I’d always enjoyed would be gone forever.
"I’m not a mean or bitter person but, at that point in my life, I sure was passing for one."
About two months after the surgery, I started feeling better, stronger. My post-op appointments were positive and I was starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The day of my final post-op, I was told I could go back to jumping. I left the appointment, drove straight to Del Mar, and showed the next day.
Anytime you get on a horse you’re trusting them with your life. Even now, long after my last surgery, I won’t take risks the way I used to. If there’s a decent chance that I’ll fall off, I won’t do it. But fear doesn’t get you anywhere – the most dangerous situations happen because you’re afraid. This sport is stressful, and it’s dangerous – your life can change in an instant. After I got hurt, there was the isolation, the depression, and the pain - but there was also a lack of confidence, and that was the hardest thing to get back.
The minute I got myself back on a horse, I felt this weight lift and my spirits with it. That question I had asked myself, lying in bed, was finally answered: yes, this sport is worth it. In that moment, I remember having a small, but important, revelation: What hurt me had also healed me.
As told to Maressa Taylor Levy
Illustration by Shayla Bond