When I was a kid I loved learning about pioneers. I mostly hated reading but I devoured real-life accounts of wagon trains and gold miners and the Donner party, especially. I remember climbing the paved roads through the snowy Sierra Nevadas in our family mini van trying to picture the journey 150 years before. I wondered whether I would have made it through the winter or died of something like dysentery, miles earlier on the trail. I was captivated by the toughness and the struggle and the miracle of it all. I was particularly moved by stories of female heroism and survival, young girls who became wise, old women once they made it out west. The weirdest, most fascinating part of that piece of history was the terrible decision-making that shaped it. Ambitious settlers aware of the many challenges and abundant, life-threatening obstacles standing between them and the pacific ocean could not be deterred.
At least as far as it’s retold in California public schools, the story of westward expansion is one of few, intermittent successes strewn together by many more complete failures. Every person that left the middle of North America to find the west coast had to believe they were special in both physical and spiritual ways. They must have been convinced of their uniqueness and superiority and used some pretty powerful self-talk to motivate their journey.
Or, it’s possible, that all the advice and insight and experience of others is powerless against the will of the self.
The morning after I injured my right knee, I walked to get a latte at Peet’s coffee, seven blocks from my house. My entire right leg was swollen to twice the size of my left one and I couldn’t bend it, or move it, in any direction. I had the presence of mind to swap my well-worn flip-flops for a sturdy pair of tennis shoes, but took no other precautions. I dragged my right foot behind my more mobile left one as I limped and hobbled down the street. It was the week before daylight savings and the sun wasn’t up yet and when I went to cross S street I had a few, fleeting thoughts that I might be in danger as I’d struggle to get out of the way of even the slowest on-coming traffic. I looked both ways, just in case, then continued on as fast as I could.
Day 1 was the worst expression of my old-west stubbornness but the twenty-eight days since have unfolded like American history in the 19th century: small victories emerging from patience and self-discipline scattered among a greater number of difficult set-backs, brought on by my ego and lack of self-acceptance. When I think about the other episodes of my life, especially the challenging ones, it’s clear this one is more a continuation of, than a departure from, those that came before it. I’ve spent a lot of time, on my couch, reflecting on my lifetime refusal to embrace obvious lessons, and adjust my behavior to accommodate their truth.
I picture the first week of law school when I knew, without question, that I could never be a lawyer. I remember crying, inconsolable, on the phone with my mom early in my second semester, feeling like, already, I was trapped. Back then I had twenty-thousand dollars and six months committed and felt completely daunted by the idea of abandoning my career path. When I finally surrendered, four years later, I had one hundred eighty thousand more dollars and forty-eight more months invested. The weight of my financial and emotional debt was magnified by the haunting feeling that I could have pushed open the escape hatch, years before.
There were the four years, or approximately one hundred dinners, where I refused to give up the idea that my best friend was, any minute now, going to realize he was in love with me. Tiny glimpses of (mostly self-generated) hope were sprinkled among many overt, and even more subtle, signs that he wasn’t. Still, it took a four-hundred mile move, a year of intense self-development and nearly destroying our friendship before I finally had the conversation I’d been rehearsing in my head for almost half a decade.
When I was a teenager, I starved myself, nearly to death. The not-eating and eventual purging continued through multiple useless interventions from my mom. She’d beg me to start counseling and book unproductive appointments with any doctor who would see me. My body got skinnier and my lies more elaborate until suddenly I felt winded running, when I shouldn’t be. I started eating again, just a little, after I caught myself staring at a pale, scrawny, ghost-like classmate in the bottom corner of a group dance picture and realized, it was me.
It’s not that I didn’t know better. Acting better was hard.
Today I’m reliving the anxious looks and cautionary words of every person I’ve encountered since my injury. The anecdotal warnings and explicit instructions and the familiar fear in my mom’s voice as she hesitates to suggest I get help. I tend to believe I’m outside the influence of conventional wisdom and experience, that I am somehow special in both physical, and spiritual ways.
A week ago, when I struggled and squirmed into the driver’s seat of my car -short winces of pain followed by decreasingly persuasive reassurances of my wholeness- I cracked open, just a little. My left eye welled up and I could feel the pressure from the surge of tears my last bit of will power was barely holding back. I called my mom, a temporary release valve, but as soon as she answered, the crack deepened, and everything came pouring out.
Three days later an MRI reveals all sorts of injuries I’d been fearing, and denying. A revelation that felt less like a surprise and more like an unpleasant, forced acceptance
I’m trapped in a high-altitude blizzard, I all but knew was coming.
Since then, I feel a mix of relief and deep depression. Grief waves in and out, swirling together with hope and dread and regret. Where I would be slathering on the “I told you so,” the people in my life are compassionate and understanding. Where I want to be grateful and optimistic, I am mostly resentful and angry and worried.
Where I try to be patient and present for the lesson, I find myself wishing that I learned it, already.
But then, I remember, the learning is often the hardest thing, for me.
Before it’s even begun, I can tell recovery is the type of teacher who holds up a mirror in silence and let’s the reflection do the talking. I see that in this process, there is no escaping myself.