I am resurrecting this long-dormant blog to write about my ongoing process of healing after falling off a 30-40′ cliff in June 2015. I’m still sorting through trauma, pain, frustration, and gratitude to be alive. I think these kinds of experiences change you; at least, I think it changed me, somehow. This is part of a series – check out Part I and Part II, and keep an eye out for more posts over the next few months.
Recently, when people have asked me how I broke my leg, I have been telling them, “well, uh, actually, I fell off a cliff,” and then I’ll chuckle awkwardly (and inappropriately) not because it’s funny, but because I don’t want to think or talk about how horrible it was. Maybe I’ll crack a joke: “after having my jaw wired shut for six weeks, I have a whole new appreciation for solid food! Ha!” or, “with all this titanium, now I’ll always set off TSA metal detectors! Ha!” If I tell you the story like it was no big deal, then maybe it won’t be a big deal, right? Maybe if I spend enough time acting brave, then I’ll actually feel brave.
Triumph narratives have been bothering me. I feel a certain pressure to be “courageous” and to “beat the odds” or whatever, especially because I already survived something that could have easily killed me. It seems like the only culturally-correct way to be injured or infirm is to be a “warrior” about it–there’s no room in our lexicon for vulnerability, frustration, and the banal pains of healing.
I keep having dreams about cliffs and about falling. My mind is stuck on that instant when I went from sliding down rocks to falling off the edge; the point of no return. When I went from trying frantically to catch myself to, “oh shit, this is really happening and I can’t stop it.” That’s an awful sensation.
Now that my physical injuries are healing, the emotional trauma of the accident is beginning to surface. I have trouble admitting that it was a near-death experience, even though it obviously was: had I hit my skull instead of my jaw, or if my backpack hadn’t been protecting my spine, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here right now. And that’s terrifying.
Being optimistic was at first a defensive gesture: right after the accident, focusing on gratitude made my recovery easier. After all, it’s easier to feel thankful I was alive rather than to think about how badly I had been injured. And I am undeniably grateful that I wasn’t hurt worse; falls from that height are often fatal, and people who do survive them often become permanently disabled. It’s really quite miraculous that I only broke (well, shattered) three bones.
And I’ll be honest: having people tell me that I am amazing, that I am so tough and brave and badass, that feels awesome. Please tell me that every day. But at the same time, I need it to be okay for me to feel weak and exhausted and sad.
It’s been difficult for me to accept how slow and uneven the healing process is. I had an expectation that I would be back to normal within three months and started my semester accordingly. It’s been four and a half months, and I still can’t walk without an assistive device and have yet to experience a pain-free day. Even though I’ve graduated from a wheelchair to crutches and now to a cane, everyday tasks are still more arduous than before. I can’t walk more than a hundred feet without getting fatigued. I know when it’s going to rain because my leg and jaw start to ache more than usual. And pain and trauma are distracting. My comprehensive exams start next week, and I am woefully underprepared for them — being in pain has made it hard to focus, not to mention the fact that my calendar is still filled with various appointments for physical therapy, counseling, dental work, doctors’ visits, phone calls and letters to my insurance company, etc. etc. etc.
I assume this discombobulation happens to most people who experience major accidents/injury/illness, but its not something you tend to hear about. The narrative seems to be that you struggle real hard, and then experience some kind of movie-montage of healing, and then you’re all better and everything is fine. But that’s not reality.
I wish it was easier to have these conversations — even when I know my friends will be receptive, it’s difficult to be vulnerable when I’m face-to-face with someone (hence this blog, I guess). I don’t even know how to talk about it face-to-face without minimizing my experience or being quick to crack a joke. I think this is true for a lot of us: we simply don’t have the words or language to candidly and honestly discuss awful experiences, even when talking would be healing.
This brings me back to why I’m so annoyed by the triumph/survivor narrative. Just like with grief or loss, you don’t just “get over” something like this. It changes you somehow, in a way that’s both massive and imperceptible. I have a new sort of wisdom that I never wanted. Now that I’m still alive and healing, I want this to be over and I want to have triumphed (whatever that means), but I guess it’s never really over.