I broke a lot of bones as a kid, for embarrassing reasons. On two separate occasions, I fell on my left arm after deliberately jumping out of a tree. At 16, I tripped on a perfectly flat sidewalk, and ended up with a cast on my arm for three months. A year later, I tipped over while trying to jump a shallow curb on my bike, breaking a bone close enough to my left knee to require a full-leg cast.
As a high school senior taking a climbing class, I jumped onto a mat from a 7′ bouldering wall, broke my ankle in two places, and left the gym in a wheelchair. I needed screws inserted into my ankle, but the surgeons couldn’t operate until the swelling went down. So I laid on the couch, out of my mind from both pain and painkillers, for two fairly agonizing weeks. When I finally had the operation, I remember regaining consciousness while holding my leg straight up in the air, manically hyperventilating.
I spent maybe half of high school with a broken bone of some kind. The life of a young injured person isn’t worth pitying, but it does get old quickly: carrying a Sharpie to school so that strangers can sign your cast, dealing with your newly terrible handwriting if you’ve broken your dominant arm, keeping a stash of trash bags under your bathroom sink for the shower.
I was never really upset by an isolated injury: it sucked, but accidents happen. What bothered me was their accumulation. I couldn’t trust my bones.
A few years after the surgery, I was biking to a college course with my hands off the handlebars, holding a notebook and pen instead. This was a practiced skill: I had spent weeks in high school biking around the football field, learning to ride with no hands. But this time, I lost my grip on my notebook and tried to shift it to my other hand, thus losing my center of gravity.
I fell and slid thirty feet down the asphalt, scraping the right side of my torso raw, fracturing my right arm’s scaphoid and radius bones. I went to college in Bar Harbor, Maine, so I felt tourists’ eyes on me as I stood up in the mid-September sun. Honestly, I felt more embarrassed than traumatized. After receiving a ride to the hospital from a sympathetic passerby, I calmly walked into the ER, my arms dripping blood onto my shirt, and greeted the receptionist.
“Uh, hi. I need some assistance.”
I dropped out of college later that year. It wasn’t a voluntary decision. Formally, my grades were terrible, and the dean placed me on academic probation. But once I had left, I never seriously thought of returning. At the time, I didn’t have the requisite emotional maturity to live independently, and I was a mess: socially inept, totally sedentary, and 60 pounds overweight from drinking four liters of soda a day.
Since then, I’ve lost the weight and regained some confidence, but my relationship with physical activity is still rocky. Exercise carries with it the fear of incapacitation, so I keep it light: walking, biking, slow hikes, zero sports. I am afraid of pushing my body to a normal capacity.
It’s difficult to believe in your ability to evolve as a person, to overcome your history, when the historical evidence to the contrary is so overwhelming. I still feel like the same kid that breaks his arm every year. I still feel like the same guy who can’t handle social interaction, and could move back in with his parents at any time.
I’m just starting to realize that the beauty of belief (in yourself, if not a deity) lies in its irrationality. Even when all visible evidence indicates you can’t escape from a rut in your life, belief allows you to move forward.
I haven’t fractured a bone since falling off my bike in college. That was eight years ago next Monday. I know the date because I kept the X-rays: they’re in a manila envelope on my bedroom shelf. When I looked at them while writing this, to double-check the date, I was very surprised. It feels like four or five years ago, at most.
Until I moved to California, I also kept the bloody shirt I wore that day, unwashed, in a Ziploc bag. I packed and unpacked it when I dropped out of college and moved in with my parents, when I finally got a job and an apartment, even when I got a better job and better apartment. I just assumed that, no matter how my life progressed, I would probably need to wear it again.
Originally written for my newsletter.