The thirty seconds that completely changed my career

Loss is hard. For the most part, there isn’t any way around it. I’m not just talking about the loss of a person in your life. But sometimes you have a door closed and it changes the trajectory of the life that you imagined for yourself. It could be the loss of a relationship, a job, an illness—anything that takes your life on a detour. My senior year of college I lost something that I wasn’t at all prepared for. I lost my sense of self, and it brought on a mourning period that I saw no end to.

I was an athlete for as long as I can remember, the wild child that my mother would have to peel from the walls before bed. I played sports all through high school, going on to play basketball in college. If I were to set out my roles in priority, “athlete” would’ve been number one. My playing basketball and being the tall athletic girl was woven into my soul, something I never questioned.

It was my senior year of college, and I was the team captain, and it was going to be my year. I really felt like I finally understood my role in the game of basketball, and I was ready to finish college with a season of growing and laughing with my teammates.  The first exhibition game (a practice game against another school) of the year, within the first 4 minutes of the game, everything changed. I didn’t do anything I’d never done before, but for some reason, my knee gave out…hard. Before I even felt the pain of my injury, I looked down and saw my leg move in a way that was very unnatural. My brain told me it was going to be bad, and to brace myself for what was to come.

After a trip to the ER and a couple of weeks to let my knee calm down, the results were in: I tore my ACL, meniscus and MCL. The point is, it was really, really bad. I was upset about the loss of my senior season, and I was embarrassed. How could this have happened to me? I played basketball for 20 years, and had only ever sprained my ankle. What a sick joke this all was.

As time went on, it was clear that my knee wasn’t healing right. The time frame for my return to basketball, or sports in general, kept getting longer. I had been on and off crutches for going on 7 months, and I started to question how temporary my constant pain was going to be. This was no longer about college basketball, or my ego, this was about whether or not I would ever be able to play sports again.

About two years after my injury, I had my third and final surgery. This was just to clear out some debris, and make me more comfortable. The phrase “make you more comfortable” is never good when it comes to medical situations. During the time between my injury, and the physical therapy I went through after my final surgery, I grew in ways that it’s often hard for me to fully communicate.

There were nights that I would wake up at two or three in the morning, and just weep. I’m using the word “weep” very intentionally. It was the kind of cry that would vibrate from my core. I would weep for basketball, and how I couldn’t even bare to watch a game on TV. I would cry for myself, and how I would never play again. I would cry because I didn’t know what the future held for my healing process. Would I be able to walk without pain one day? Maybe run? Would my leg always be this much smaller than my other one? Could I ever wear a dress again? When I had one, would I be able to stop my child from running into traffic? All these and thousand more questions would race through my mind each and every night.

Each morning I would get up, acting like it never happened, but I was ashamed that I was still so broken years after my injury. I didn’t have cancer, my family and friends were well, I wasn’t paralyzed. So why couldn’t I shake this grief? I wanted to have perspective, and to heal physically and emotionally, but I couldn’t see beyond the day, sometimes the hour.

After going to a counselor, I realized what I already knew. I’d lost my identity, and my worth. I always had my athletic ability to offer the world—I wasn’t the prettiest in school, or the smartest, or the most popular but I could always bring pride to my family and friends with basketball. I couldn’t find a date to my senior prom, but I did have a full ride to college. It all balanced out.

Three years after the Chernobyl that was my knee, it became very clear to me that the door was shut. It wasn’t opening, not in the way I wanted it to. I was not playing basketball again. I was not running again. There was no magic doctor that was going to change this. I had to sit with myself, and look at myself, and ask if I was going to let this grief consume me. I had to ask if I was going to let the record play over, and over again. Or, if I was going to confront myself, and look for another door to open.

At the day job that I was dying inside at, I had three co-workers in one week tell me that I should take improv classes. I laughed and acted like I knew what they were talking about. I then went and googled “improv classes Chicago.” Apparently Chicago is the improv hub of the US. Who knew? Well, lots of people, but it was news to me. I decided that I would sign up for classes, because I might really like the team aspect of it.

My decision to open that door and take a class changed the entire trajectory of my life. I’ve realized that I’m a creative before I’m an athlete.  I’ve never been as fulfilled as when I am writing, creating and performing. I’m sitting in Los Angeles, California right now, typing this on my kitchen table.  I sometimes dream that I’m playing basketball, and it’s so real. As weird as it is to say, it’s enough for me. I now coach a recreational women’s team, and it feels good to be able to be a part of basketball again.

I am 100% sure I wouldn’t be where I am without having that door shut for me. I would probably be climbing some corporate ladder that I didn’t even want to be on, and eating at Buffalo Wild Wings on a regular basis. I wouldn’t change what happened. The door being shut made me search for who I really am, and not who I thought I needed to be for people, to make them proud of me, and to earn my worth.

I am now simply who I am.

Brianna Baker is an actress, comedian, and writer currently residing in the land of milk and fame, Los Angeles, California. Follow her on Instagram @bedes, see her perform at iO West in LA, and come support her LA recreational basketball team she coaches, the Beatdown!

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