In a League of My Own

I still remember the first time I played volleyball. It was at a party hosted by a grade school friend.  I can’t remember which friend, and I very vaguely recall a fancy house, lots of food and a swimming pool. But I vividly remember the volleyball court. Because I spent the entire day there! I was hooked. And I couldn’t wait to play on an actual team in high school!

Unfortunately, my body had other plans. One day in middle school, I woke up to a left knee that wouldn’t straighten. It was stuck at almost a 90 degree angle and would not move no matter how hard I tried. As if middle school isn’t awkward enough on a normal day! While still going to doctor after doctor for tests to try to figure out the cause, the problem also moved to my left wrist and ankle. The doctors finally gave me a diagnosis of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (mainly because they didn’t want to say “We don’t have a clue.”). I was told I would most likely improve as I entered adulthood, but there was a chance that my joints could continue to get worse and that I would end up in a wheel chair. Not a fun “wait and see.”

Months of physical therapy did nothing, but suddenly the problem disappeared just as mysteriously as it appeared and I awoke to a perfectly functioning knee. But it didn’t stay that way. For years, a wrong movement would easily send me back to hobbling around or wearing a wrist brace. It sadly happened frequently enough to keep me off of any high school sports teams. *Cue sound of dreams shattering.* But my desire to play volleyball didn’t end. As hoped, my joints did get better. But my knee has always remained a problem.

Although my JRA improved in adulthood, I would eventually find out that wasn’t the only autoimmune problem I would have to deal with. Those of you who are long time readers know my medical woes (You can read more about that HERE if you’d like.). But in the fall of 2014 (about the same time I stopped writing here!)… I felt sicker (than normal) and was going down hill fast. I had been bitten by another tick and I believe that’s what sent me spiraling down again.  My immune system cried “UNCLE!” and freaked out/shut down. I hid it on the outside, but my insides were an absolute wreck. I remember getting the call from my doctor while watching my son’s Saturday morning basketball game because she didn’t want to wait until Monday.  It was a scary time. At first I was sad. Sad that I felt my body was just too tired to fight any more. But as I started treatment and prepared for surgery (a second tonsillectomy!), I got mad. Mad at all I’ve had to miss out on from being ill so much. I told myself that when I got back on my feet again, I was going to do all the things I’ve always had to put off because of my sucky immune system!

Fast forward  to March 2016. I won’t go into all the ups and downs and treatment it took to get me there, but the important part is that I had made it an entire year without landing myself in the hospital! That was a big accomplishment for me! I proclaimed it the “year of no fear” and if I wanted to do something…I promised myself I would JUST DO IT. And the first thing on the list was to sign up for a volleyball league! I may not have been able to play in high school, but now 30+ years later I was going to play on my VERY FIRST SPORTS TEAM!!! I heard my teen say one day, “I think my Mom is going through a mid-life crisis or something because she’s going to play volleyball.” Maybe he was right since that month I also went ziplining, repelled off a cliff, went snorkeling (I don’t do well with being in the water with sealife!) and chopped off a foot of my hair!

I may have called it the “year of no fear” but that didn’t stop me from being TERRIFIED about playing. I mean starting volleyball at my age with a bum knee probably isn’t the smartest decision.

I didn’t know a single soul playing in the league, which I oddly found comfort in. It was nice to go somewhere and not be known as the “lady who’s always sick.” Don’t get me wrong, I love that my friends care and ask how I’m feeling…but it was nice for a change to be able to completely hide that part of me away. And just simply be a teammate!

The league was described as recreational, but as I saw more and more players introduce themselves in the Facebook group, I realized my definition of a rec-league may be different from others. Comments such, “I’m a little rusty. It’s been a few years since I played at a D1 college but I’m looking forward to getting back on the court!” sent me into a mini panic attack. I was tempted to post, “I look forward to putting you all to shame with my extensive church picnic and family beach volleyball experience!” but decided my humor may not be well received.

The day of the first game, I was so nervous that I got dressed and was ready to go 2 hours early. I was convinced I was going to embarrass myself and that my knee was going to freeze up and that I was stupid to be trying this at my age. I paced around for a while and then had the bright idea that I needed to put on make-up. Because nothing screams CONFIDENCE like sweaty mascara running down your face!

I arrived to the game and confirmed my suspicions that I probably had the least volleyball experience and the most life experience (a.k.a. oldest!). BUT I didn’t humiliate myself during the game and had the BEST TIME ever. All my serves went over and I even got high fives from my teammates for some good hits. I have no idea if we won that game.  The score didn’t matter because I was just trying to win at the game of life.

The second week was even more fun because I didn’t have the nerves to deal with before hand.  BUT – there’s always a but with me isn’t there – the third week it all fell apart.  About 10 minutes into the match, it happened. I lunged for the ball (OK, it was more like a big step. Actually just a normal step. Maybe even a small step.) and I felt a pop in my leg. I know what you are thinking. My fear of my left knee freezing came true! But nope. It was my right calf. I don’t know much about anatomy, but I knew pop=bad.

I went to the ER and found out I had ruptured my gastrocnemius. That’s a fancy word for my calf muscle. They had to put on a cast and when they were finished, I had a realization. I couldn’t get my leggings back on over it…so I had NO PANTS TO WEAR HOME! The nurse left the room and came back in holding up a pair of “post surgical panties.” You know, basically mesh booty shorts! I guess the look on my face must have said “you’ve GOT to be kidding me!” because she instantly said, “Umm…I will look for something else.” Luckily for me – and everyone else in the ER – she found a pair of hospital pants, so I didn’t have to leave with my derriere waving in the air like I just didn’t care.

True to form, I couldn’t just have a “normal” injury. The injury carried a risk of a DVT, and with my Lupus clotting disorder and history of having a blood clot, the doctors decided I needed to be on blood thinners. Lovenox shots in my belly to be exact. Whoever named those is evil because there’s nothing to “love” about getting shots in your belly! The day I started the shots, my leg started feeling much, much, much worse. At first I chalked it up to one of those “has to feel worse before it feels better” situations. But after a few days of excruciating pain and being too miserable to move or have anything touch my leg, I finally called the doctor to see if that was normal. It wasn’t. Turns out the thinners were doing their job too well and I was having excessive bleeding from the injury site. After another week, I was finally back to “normal” pain. I had to go for weekly sonograms and trips to a hematologist to make sure my veins were ok. I really do seem to be incapable of having a run-of-the-mill medical issue. I always give the doctors a nice challenge I suppose.

I was on crutches for a month. The last time I was on crutches I was 17 and I thought it was tough then. Being on them 30 years later was a hundred times worse. The most ironic part though? The “bum knee” that kept me from doing what I wanted when I was younger was now the same knee that was forced to entirely SUPPORT me. I guess that’s how life works too: you sometimes to have to rely on the weakest part of yourself to get through some of the tough times!

I had several more weeks of physical therapy after I was off crutches, so I missed the rest of the regular season. I was a spectator at all of the games though. While I sat and cheered on my team, I watched them all get better and better. Those who were “rusty” at the beginning found their groove. The more I saw them gain their confidence, the more I lost mine. I realized how little I knew about the game.

By the time I was cleared to play, it was playoff/championship week. I was so worried about re-injuring myself, I couldn’t even focus on the game. But I made it through and we ended up coming in second place in the league for the spring season. Even though I had to sit out most of the season and go through quite a bit of misery, I didn’t for a second regret playing because I had a blast. Plus at least I had a “cool” injury story instead of my usual idiotic injuries like those described in my Top 20 Dumbest Injuries.

The summer season started the next week, and we had a few new players join our team. Things instantly got much more intense. Strategies were discussed, player rotations were set, techniques were critiqued, things were more serious. And I was still standing there thinking, “I’m just still trying to figure out how the hell to set the ball!” Needless to say, the first game of the summer season was a disaster for me. I was so stuck in my head with thoughts swirling around about making sure I didn’t hit one handed when bumping and didn’t carry the ball when spiking and let the setter hit the second ball and and call it if I’m going to hit the ball and – oh yeah – don’t get hurt again. I was my own worst enemy that game and couldn’t do a darn thing right. I walked off the court after the game and wanted to quit. I thought I should have just stuck to being the team cheerleader.

But I didn’t quit. I grabbed a ball and walked over to the corner of the gym and spent an hour practicing against the wall. And I came back the next week and the next and the next. I made it through the entire season (with no injuries!). It didn’t feel very recreational any more though. Most of my teammates were supportive of each other, but I definitely noticed more eye rolling, sighs and snapping at each other. We finished the summer season in second place again, and with almost twice as many teams as the spring season.

The good thing about having a lot of strong players on your team is that you win a lot. The bad thing about having a lot of strong players on your team is that they want to win even MORE. And that led to a hurtful bump in the road for the upcoming fall season. One of our players decided to disband our team and start a new team. She is taking 4 of our teammates with her, leaving 3 of us behind basically up the creek without a paddle. Or more accurately up the court without a team. I’m not stupid; I know “forming a new team” means “we think we can do better without you.” And I’m not going to lie, that stung. Not just like a little bee sting either. More like an entire hornet’s nest full of stings.

At first I was sad. Sad that I am one of the weaker players. Then I got mad. Mad that someone was trying to take away my fun. And then I remembered how long I had waited to play on a volleyball team. And I got determined. Determined to figure out a way to continue playing. And then I got excited. Excited for the chance for a fresh start to get back to the thrill I had those first 2 games before I got hurt. When it wasn’t about whether I won or lost. It was about making up for lost time. And about telling my illness to kiss my ace!

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P.S. My 2 remaining players and I are forming a new team for the fall and have found enough new players to round out our team (plus another teammate who isn’t playing this fall because of travel will be a sub for us when she’s in town.) so I WILL be able to continue playing.  I’m even going to be the captain! When I told the boys, Eric said, “You should be captain. You are good at yelling.” While I gave Eric the stink eye, Greg added, “Uh oh. I think she’s going to practice captaining on you.” I think they are confusing captain and coach, but it still made me laugh.

P.P.S I don’t fault my former teammates for wanting to win more by forming a more competitive team. And I also don’t fault the little part of myself that (unrealistically) wants to beat them. 😉

 

 

 

 

 

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