Excruciating lessons in resilience and humility
Eulogy for an anterior cruciate ligament
Two weeks ago, I tore my ACL. I wasn’t doing anything foolish or dangerous. I was going for a gentle Sunday morning run near my house, as I often do. About 2km from home, on a familiar bit of road, I lost my footing on some loose gravel (in my brand new $300 training shoes…), tried to regain my balance, locked my left knee fully back and fell backward onto a curb, cracking my right collarbone.
I lay on the ground screaming for what must’ve been 5 full minutes. I genuinely didn’t believe that the pain would ever subside.
See, I’ve been running for a long time and I’ve done physical work most of my life. Not to mention that I’m a hopelessly clumsy human. So I’ve hurt myself a lot. Like a lot a lot. But as I lay there on the side of the road, something deep inside of me knew immediately that this wasn’t like when I had pulled muscles or sprained ankles or even slipped discs. This was different. That moment was a clear demarcation of the period that came before it and the period that would come after.
When I finally tried to stand up, my leg instantly gave way and I fell again. I lay there on the side of the road, hopeless, quietly crying (I do not cry. Like at all. Maybe once or twice a year….) and trying to focus my thoughts enough to figure out what to do next.
I suppose I must’ve made some kind of calculations of who I could call (but there really wasn’t anyone). Perhaps I briefly hoped that someone in the residential area might come and see if I was ok (but no one came). Ultimately, I decided that I needed to move myself. I needed to somehow get home before the adrenaline wore off.
And so I took off my shirt and tied it as tightly as I could around the knee joint to completely immobilise it.
And I walked home.
2km down a busy city road.
In my bra.
It was one of the loneliest moments of my life. And it has led to a string of similar moments since.
I’ve been known to make jokes about how I’m an island. Or a strong, stubborn, independent whatever… But when you suddenly find yourself with hard physical limits that make it impossible (or, at best, excruciating) for you to do simple things like dress yourself or take a shower, well, at that point no one - not even me - is a strong, stubborn, independent anything.
36 hours later, armed with a pair of crutches, a stack of useless painkillers and a custom knee brace that cost more than the phone I had smashed in the fall, I was on a plane bound for some of the most physically demanding work I’ve ever done in my life.
My start-up was due at a multi-day festival, our biggest event to date. Hundreds of miles from home, camping for the duration, cooking outdoors in a field for 14 hours a day, every day.
It was one of few occasions in my life when I can recall feeling genuinely petrified.
But there are those moments in adulting when you just don’t have a choice, right? My business needed me. I was the only one with festival experience. I was managing the staff. I had devised the whole menu and all of the recipes. We had invested so much time and money. So I got wheeled to my gate by airline staff, got on a plane and went.
And then it rained…
Not like a nice summer rain.
4 SOLID DAYS OF A RELENTLESS ENDLESS FUCKING DOWNPOUR.
The mud was 4–6 inches deep in every walkway on the whole site.
And there I was with my kneebrace squeezed into my gumboot, in absolute agony, unable to use my crutches for fear of falling, terrified of drinking too much water lest I have to wade the 100m to the nearest toilets.
It was evident within hours that we were not going to break even. The weather had made our event site an abjectly miserable place to be and the few punters we saw were mostly racing by as quickly as possible just to get off the mud highway to anywhere with even the smallest measure of respite and shelter. And who could blame them?
That first night, all of our tents flooded. What was left of my phone drowned along with all the rest of my possessions. As I climbed into the swamp that was my low-man tent and tried futilely to unstrap my sodden, fetid knee brace, I realised that I had never, ever felt so despondent.
It was actively raining into my tent. I no longer had a single thing that was dry except for one towel which I placed over me like a blanket to try and soak up some of the water which was still pouring in throughout the night. I was quite simply in too much pain to change out of my horrendously muddy clothes in the confined space (though I certainly tried). The neighbouring campers partied loudly until dawn. And during the night my borrowed air mattress (my lifesaver!) deflated just enough to leave my spine flat on the wet ground while at the same time elevating my poor broken leg into a fully straight position which was nothing short of absolute torture.
And, again, I cried.
I had joked to friends when I left town that I was going to test the physical limits of sheer force of will. And I did just that. If I were a praying person, I would’ve prayed for it to be over. If I were a bargaining person, I would’ve given ANYTHING to just be dry and sitting down comfortably somewhere.
But we pressed on. And, at times, we even managed to have some fun.
As we were packing up on the last day, one of the nearby vendors came over and told me what an inspiration I was for miraculously getting through the whole weekend. And at her kindness, again, I cried.
See, all that strong, stubborn, independent whatever stuff is bullshit. And nothing brings perfect clarity like extreme pain.
But with clarity also comes gratitude.
Gratitude for my once long-term partner and now inexplicably still best friend who was out of town when I fell but who talked to me on my smashed phone as I wept on that endless 2km walk home and made me feel just a little bit less alone. For him being the one person on earth who will always, always be there on the other end of my call.
Gratitude for my dear friend who is 9 1/2 months pregnant but still insisted on spending a whole day taking me to see numerous specialists and then later driving me to the airport. (Seriously, if you want to employ an unstoppable team, find two small, stubborn women: one who is hobbling on crutches and one who is about to give birth any minute. That combination of visual elements is apparently like a superpower.)
And gratitude for my business partner (evidently my newest member of acquired family) who stared down security staff and a fucking cyclone and any other god damned thing that dared get in his way as he summoned the strength of 10 men to get us out of that festival site on the last day when he could tell that I was finally about to succumb to the pain.
There is still a long road ahead from here. There will be some considerable amount of further pride swallowed. There will be more pain. There will be time out of work. There will be surgery. I will probably still continue to swear when I sneeze (for real, that hairline collarbone fracture is a real asshole). And, no doubt, there will be more tears.
But I will hobble on. And I will try not to be lonely. And I will remind myself to always gratefully, humbly accept the help of the good humans in my life.