Stepping Out and The Stakes of Getting Better
The most empowering moments in life occur when circumstance suddenly draws a stark—but favorable—line between what is and what has been. Last weekend, standing on the peak of Insubong, I experienced that sort of transformative epiphany: I am not a broken thing.
When I was ten years old, I was diagnosed with a debilitating congenital disorder that caused the cap of my left femur to disconnect from the shaft of the bone and migrate out of place. As a result, I limped my way through the first six months of fifth grade—a period I barely remember—then finished out the year in a wheelchair, recovering from surgery. The surgery left me with a substantially shorter leg, a thirty-degree outward rotation in the femur and a pair of titanium hip pins. Although my mother shielded me from the long-term prognosis as best she could, I soon learned that, for as much trauma as I’d already gone through, there was more waiting for me: in 98% of cases comparable to my own, the growth plate—the spongy layer of cells located at the cap of the femur—dies, causing serious and progressive degeneration of the joint. Eventually, the pain, a by-product of that degeneration, becomes so severe that hip replacement is required. Unfortunately, hip replacements last ten years and you can only have two of them before the area becomes so scarred and oxygen deprived that surgery is no longer a viable option. After that, you are basically crippled. If you’re lucky, you can make it to 30 without needing a hip replacement, but by the age of 50, most people with my disorder are wheelchair-bound, and that’s after years of debilitating pain and gruesome surgeries.
I, blessedly, am in the 2% of people who are able, quite literally, to walk away from this experience. However, for as lucky as I was, that pain and medical scrutiny, which came at just the wrong stage of development, left mental scars more profound than the tight zipper of pale, knotted flesh, which ran up my left hip. In a fundamental way, I assumed the identity of “the cripple.” I pathologized every ache and pain, a habit which left no distinction between “hard” and “harmful” in my physiological world. From that fear, I learned to hate my body, to think of it as a broken machine that my poor brain—the victim in this scenario—was forced to ride around in. Throughout my teen years, Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Unready To Wear,” resonated powerfully:
The mind is the only thing about human beings that’s worth anything. Why does it have to be tied to a bag of skin, blood, hair, meat, bones, and tubes? No wonder people can’t get anything done, stuck for life with a parasite that has to be stuffed with food and protected from weather and germs all the time. And the fool thing wears out anyway—no matter how much you stuff it and protect it!
In Vonnegut’s always quirky universe, people have learned to step out of their frail and failing bodies with the ease and casualness of taking off a coat. Although they can reenter other (better) vacant bodies, who but the vainest among us would, for the dubious pleasure of being beautiful/young/strong, want all those horrible bodily side-effects: hunger, pain, anger, bondage. “Unready to Wear” gave all those unvoiceable resentments a surface onto which to condense. That yearning I felt, God, even now, it’s still so clear. Late at night, I’d stare at the ceiling and wish that I could just sit up and leave my body lying there. What an elegant solution it would be to just step clear of the curse that had been visited upon me. But that was just a fantasy, and in the real world, there was nothing I could do. I had skeletal issues, after all, and you can’t reshape bone. With that assumption solidly in mind, I spent the next sixteen years doing everything within my power to ignore my body. The hatred I had felt eventually cooled to resigned indifference, but by then, the years of neglect and atrophy had begun to write themselves across my joints: my knees were creaky and painful like an old man’s; my shoulder tendons would get pulled in my sleep so acutely that I couldn’t lift the sheets off myself in the morning; my back was a fragile thing, prone to strains and herniated disks. Essentially, the connective tissue that held me together was tightening like shrink-wrap, strangling joints and muscles in the process.
However, on some very base, indulgent, self-destructive level, I was actually glad that things were getting worse, because finally, the question was resolved: I was a hopeless cripple. There was something freeing about giving up. Not that I’d ever actually done any hard work to better my circumstances, but I could, at last, let myself off the hook for all that future hard work I’d planned to do someday. If it was all hopeless, then I wasn’t responsible for my failings, was I? Of course I’m the last guy across the finish line! I’m broken—you don’t know what it’s like—so it doesn’t matter what you think. As a measure of how out of shape I was, I couldn’t even begin to do a pushup and I couldn’t jog for thirty seconds without feeling like blood was seeping into my lungs. And then there was the shame over which I pasted my excusing explanations. A big guy like me should be able to do certain things, but I was helpless, so I avoided any situation that rubbed my face in the reality of my frailty.
I’d have continued on like that for the rest of what would have almost certainly been a very painful life. But then, one year ago, I started climbing. A friend of mine—a skilled, enthusiastic, kind and patient teacher—invited me for the thousandth time to join him at the gym, and that day, for some reason, I just said yes. Although the physical transformation has been gradual, the psychological transformation was immediate. From my first moments on the wall, I was in love. At twenty-six years old, I enjoyed physical activity for the first time. The exercise high, which is a central pillar for all those proselytizing sportsters, has turned out to be as powerful as they claimed. Those endorphins—a neurochemical staple that had been missing from my life since before I can remember—made a potent, habit-forming, mood-altering cocktail when mixed with the adrenaline of being so far off the ground. And psychologically, to carry my useless mess of a body up a wall? It was miraculous. For all those years, I’d conceived of my mind (self) and my body (other) as being in pitched conflict, and so they were. What I didn’t realize was that I had it all backwards: my mind was the aggressor, my body the victim.
But I would have dropped climbing like every other half-assed hobby I’ve taken up, if I hadn’t forgiven my body for all its frailties: I will never be the best; I will never be the first guy across the finish line; I will always have an inconvenient asymmetry; and nothing will ever be effortless. With that forgiveness granted, I’ve found there’s room for an essential truth that had been obscured by all that hopelessness: I can get better. In a thousand little ways, I can recalibrate the many mechanisms that make up this machine, and through that, I can make this strangeness that I live in a little more comfortable. And, the shame? It’s gone, and that’s a gift as transformative as anything I’ve ever experienced. With all this, I’ve finally managed to settle the decade-long struggle between my two aspects, knitting together what was fractured by those years of resignation.
Although climbing hasn’t exactly saved my life, it has at least given me the kind of life I want to live. Standing on that mountain, 810m above the rest of Seoul, I was overcome by the realness of my recovery. It’s not done—never will be—but I’ve certainly crossed some sort of important threshold.
In the comments below, I would love for you to share your recovery stories, if you have them (everyone does). Or maybe you have something you’re working on? Affirming your non-brokenness feels pretty phenomenal, let me tell you.