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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.

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.

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sage #

    David, this … was so very much what I needed to read right now. I don’ think I can thank you enough.

    April 24, 2012
  2. Oh, love. Broken record time. My heart overfloweth with pride….eth.
    I can relate a lot to thoughts like “why is my body (other) sabotaging my mind (self)?” Or is it my mind sabotaging my body? The thing I’ve had to remind myself is that they aren’t in any way separate entities and to that point don’t have vendetas. That seems a smidge on the obvious side, I know, but when you have a whole extra battle to fight in everything you do, every damn time, it can start to feel like something must be against you and why not blame your body, the perpetrator? So, yeah, I getchya. And I have muchos respect for the fact that it’s an awful easy thing to hide behind but no favor to yourself.

    April 24, 2012
    • This is, like, the primary internal conflict that human people go through. Seriously. It’s equal parts forgiveness and trying your best, truly truly. That’s my big struggle. I don’t succeed but I go for it.

      April 26, 2012
  3. Ann Wilson #

    It is interesting how we all react to our bodies. We want to be young, strong, brilliant and attractive all at the same time and forever. Of course that is not possible and there in lies the never ending quest. I asked your great grandmother Iva Elkins what redeeming qualities lay in aging. She was 92 at the time. She was a strong willed, well educated and enlighten women. She said her favorite years were from 60 and upwards. People no
    longer measured you by your physical appearance or strengths. You were measured by your ethics, compassion and life choices. She had not been attractive in the classical aspect of her younger day and she was happy to be able to shrug off the mantel of being overly tall and large and therefore lacking.

    Your Grandfather, Samuel Elkins was born with a congenital heart defect. He was told from a very early age that he would not live a long life and that he had to live quietly and carefully. It was interesting to see how he learned to cope with this prediction of a less than optimum physical future and life span.
    He was raised in San Francisco and he meet a mentor in the local branch of the Boy Scouts. Sam was encouraged to make to most of every moment and to seize the day. He hiked, skied, fly fished, graduated from UC Berkeley and Columbia University. He married his high school sweetheart and everyday was embraced with a thankful heart. He was a loving, patient and encouraging father.
    I can remember sitting on a chairlift with him and he was inspecting a snowflake on his black leather glove. He was smiling and crying at the same time. He looked at me and said, “have you ever seen anything as beautiful as this snowflake”. His wonder and awe was a special gift that he past on to me. Never take life for granted and alway appreciate and recognize the people and special moment in each day.

    We all our special in our own imperfectness……

    April 24, 2012
    • I really believe that most of my favorite qualities about myself came from that period. Pain and hardship deepen, so if you can manage to not be TOO damaged by it, you’ll actually be better off. It sounds like Grandad managed that difficult project.

      April 26, 2012
  4. Rowan #

    I don’t have a story to share, but I wanted to thank you for this post. The words that you wrote spoke to me today.

    May 4, 2012

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