Crutch It

The Tale of a Temporary Cripple

My lifestyle had always been running at a fast pace, until even walking became a challenge.

A whistle blew signaling the end of play.

After making the last tackle, I instinctively tried to get up. That’s when I realized: I couldn’t move. My body was unresponsive. Guess I wasn’t going to be walking home today.

It all happened at OYFA’s Winter Classic. Basically, Filipinos from UVA face off against other Filipinos from nearby colleges in a battle of the vertically challenged yet still athletic. Ever eager to relive my high school football days, I signed up without hesitation. Little did I know that we take this tournament quite seriously, to the point that I had to commit myself to learning an entire playbook, complete with hand signals and audibles.

At that point during second semester, I was busy.

Actually, I’m always busy. That’s how I roll. My life consists of alarms, to-do lists, updating calendar events, and working. Playing in a football tournament was just another item to be crossed off my to-do list. But more on that later.

It just so happened that I got hurt playing Virginia Tech. Classic Tech, am I right?

On the play, I was playing cornerback. It was a Cover 3 Scheme- divides the field into three zones to be defended. Quick slant pass to the middle third, away from my side. I flipped my hips, ditched my assignment, and sprinted at full speed to the receiver. As I caught up to him, he dashed for the far sideline. My hand caught the tip of the flag draped around his waist. That’s when this particularly aggressive Hokie decided to try and stiff-arm me.

Now, mind you, this tournament was a flag football tournament, which means tackling and excessive physical behavior like a stiff-arm can result in a penalty. Finding myself with a hand on my face trying to throw me to the ground, I decided that if he wanted to play rough, so would I. So I swatted his hand aside, wrapped up with both arms, and tackled the guy to the ice-cold ground.

Cold hard fact of that day (literally): the highest temperature on that winter day was projected to be 18 degrees.

Unfortunately, the current temperature was barely half of that, which meant that Carr’s Hill Field was a frozen tundra of turf. As our bodies hit the ground, I felt something pop in my leg. The combination of getting tangled up with the other player and hitting such a hard surface had taken its toll on my body.

When I didn’t get up, my teammates rushed over and stopped the game for a medical timeout. They asked me, “Where does it hurt?” and all I could reply was, “My left leg…I can’t feel it at all.” When they tried to pick me up, I initially pushed them off, determined to lift myself off of the ground, which wasn’t going to happen. With some help, I hopped awkwardly off of the field of play before falling back to the ground. My mind was flooded with fearful thoughts: Did I just tear my ACL? Why can’t I feel anything? Am I supposed to be in pain or numb? Why can’t I walk? Am I going to make my dinner meeting?

Through gritted teeth, I gave everyone a quick thumbs-up signal to make them believe I was going to be all right, but in my head, I was far from that. After resting for a few minutes, I was able to struggle to my feet again. I tried to run off the feeling (or lack thereof) in my leg, only to collapse once more on the sideline. I knew I was done for the day. What I didn’t know was that I would be done for much more than just the day.

Despite my long history of injuries, I’d never been put on crutches before. At first, I actually thought it would be fun. Then the sore armpits and general atrophying of my lower body changed those thoughts.

Thanks to the University, I got free rides to and from classes so that I could get across Grounds somewhat on time. But that was strictly for academic needs, which really only take up a certain portion of your time in college. As for the rest of my normal lifestyle, I was hobbled.

The sudden loss of physical ability led me to a new lifestyle, one of isolation, confinement, and helplessness.

I couldn’t even get food at the dining hall by myself. You might be thinking to yourself, how does being on crutches relate to not being able to eat alone? Well, when you need to use both arms to hold onto crutches to get in line for food, you’re out of hands by the time the cook passes you a plate.

I remember my first meal on crutches. I hadn’t realized my predicament until I was staring at a plate of pasta with no way of picking it up. I was already quite winded from having to navigate my crutches up and down the roped path leading to the front of the line. Thankfully, a friend came to save the day, picking up the plate for me as I sheepishly thanked the cook and crutched away.

I was bitter. I was angry. But most of all, I was ashamed.

Ashamed of my vulnerability and inability to function on my own. How did I deal with these negative emotions? Honestly, at first, I didn’t. I was too angry to reach out properly and too stubborn to adapt to a new lifestyle.

I’m a creature of habits. Every day, I make my daily walks across Grounds, to class, to the gym, to the lab, to the dining halls. When it’s time to move from one location to the next, I plug in my headphones, open Spotify, and press play. Then I walk, fast. As I trek down McCormick Road, I quicken my pace to avoid getting trapped behind a group of friends stuck in conversation. I don’t have time to be delayed. On my way, I always run into friends and people that I know. I smile energetically, give dap, then continue on my way. I try not to get stopped for lengthy conversations because I’m solely focused on my destination. I don’t have time to delay. My walk has to be fast.

Well, now I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t work in the greenhouse or the lab without making a mess. I couldn’t do most of the things that usually came with ease. If I wanted to get somewhere, I had to ask for help first. Someone had to come to dining halls with me, pick me up for events, and hold the door as I crutch into class or an elevator. And I absolutely hated that.

One night while hanging out with my friends in Chi Alpha, they stuck a sticker on my shirt labeled, “Cripple.” I was not amused. I ended up not throwing that label away, but instead placed it on the top of my water bottle, a constant reminder of my situation. It would serve as motivation in the gym, once I could get back to working out. When that would be, I had no idea.

I waded through life in this constant melancholy mood for several weeks. I attacked my physical therapy with a furious fervor, determined to force my body to heal quickly. I had too much to do to be hindered for any longer than necessary. At one point, I felt strong enough that I crutched over to the gym. I gave my ID in to swipe in, only to meet a voice of uncertainty from across the front desk: “Are you sure you should be doing this?” Without hesitation, my curt reply was “Yes, I can do this.” Looking back, I was too stubborn to realize when too much was simply too much. I should have listened to the voices of reason around me instead of blocking them out.

I was self-loathing and self-loving at the same time.

I hated myself for my current situation, and loved myself too much to reach out for help. Before this, I never thought such a paradoxical feat was possible. Yet here I was, living it out.

I was so focused on the things that I couldn’t do and the things that were taken away from me that I was blind to what this slower and more stationary lifestyle gave me. Now that I wasn’t always in a hurry, I was slowly able to find joy in conversations that I could have with people. Spending time with friends meant that for the first time, they could talk about whatever they felt like, from daily struggles to dreams of the future. Whatever they said, I would be listening. I literally wasn’t going to be going anywhere soon. And that was okay.

Never before had I questioned why I was so addicted to my super-efficient workaholic lifestyle. Now things were starting to make sense. I was raised to be just another stereotypical aggressive New Jersey driver. Up here in the Northeast, we live life in the fast lane because that’s all we know. The way we drive is the way we live and there’s no exception. On the road, it’s safer to be as fast as everyone else even if that means flooring it and avoiding the brakes as much as possible.

I kept myself so busy to keep my brain too busy to worry about things. Petty things like girls who never cease to confuse me or troubling things that I didn’t want to think about. I ran away from my problems and all things that I foresaw as potential problems by throwing myself into work and never taking my foot off of the gas pedal. The next thing I know, I’m lying on a frozen football field and being physically forced to stop.

Thanks to my injury, I gained more than just my two physical crutches. I had hall-mates who ran out into the cold night and filled Ziplock bags with snow when I didn’t have any ice packs. I had friends from the other side of the dorm who came to my room with a delicious meal of Mac N Cheese and Rice Krispies when I couldn’t move. I had upperclassmen (with cars) who texted me that they were on their way to get me for dinner or church before I could even ask them to come. These were people who went out of their way to help me. My friends were the crutches that I was able to lean on when I couldn’t stand on my own.

Perhaps being put on crutches wasn’t so bad after all, especially since my roommate got put on them himself 72 hours after my own incident. But more on that another day.

I was lucky to only be on crutches temporarily. I was fortunate to realize that this was not a permanent situation, although others don’t always have that luxury. I write this tale not as a way to enhance my own experiences, but to remind everyone, myself included, that we often take things for granted, aggrandize our own problems, and don’t realize that we are not the only people experiencing hardship. It didn’t look like I had a problem, but in reality I had a really big one.

“Crutching it” is not a shameful act.

Sometimes you need to lean on others. And that’s okay. Once you slow down, face the reality that you need help, and ask others to pick you back up, you’re halfway there. Despite what society might try to make you think, it’s okay to ask for help. You’re never alone, even if you feel like that’s what the world keeps telling you. Your friends are the crutches that will help you stand when you can’t do it by yourself. You will get back up on your own two feet.

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