That’s why you’re good”. “The best , they always try to push through the pain. They have to.”
My right hand was warm, covered in clear ultrasound gel. A probe was pressed against the base of my right ring finger, the same place that had been achy for two weeks. A computer monitor to my right displayed a coarse black and white image. In the center was a thick line made up of different shades of gray. It reminded me of a river. Below the line was a large black gap, and then a bright white base. The gray river was my tendon. Normally, it sits flush against the white line, the bone. My tendon was held well above the bone- 40cm at minimal resistance- because I had torn the ligament, the pulley, that holds it there.
The doctor only made a noise, a quick and sharp “tsk” when he first passed over my A2 pulley. A silent, fleeting moment of understanding passed between us until he said the words.
“It’s a full tear.”
I was not expecting this. I expected a partial tear, perhaps even a strain. A full tear felt incredibly wrong.
His words whirled in the room like little violent eddies, whipping around and making the large open area suddenly feel tight and constricting. Something released in me and my heart sank to the floor in a way it hadn’t for years, in a way that physically hurt.
I heard “end of career.” I heard “never back to full strength.” I heard “year off climbing.” I heard “surgery”.
I was beyond tact, beyond being embarrased to show emotions to a stranger. The power of his words caused me to well up with tears immediately, at the flip of a switch. A reflex, as if he hit my knee with a doctor’s hammer and was waiting for the jerk. “I shouldn’t have pushed the pain. I shouldn’t have tried the route. I shouldn’t have..”
“That’s why you’re good” , he repeated.
He finished the exam to ensure that the rest of my pulleys were not compromised. They were not. I tried to make small talk as we walked out, asking him about his son, but as soon as our paths diverged I took out my phone.
I paced the parking lot. It was a beautiful summer day, a light breeze flurrying up the water and amplifying the energetic hum to the air so common to University campuses. I was oblivious to everything.
I called Tom. I called Maggie. I called Nic. I called Sage. I called my Mom. I called the most important people to me, and they all tried to comfort me. They all told me I was strong, and that it would be difficult but I would certainly heal. I knew I had fallen deep when I realized their words had no effect. The dramatic pinpoint precision of isolation and alienation was too overwhelming, too painful. I felt so very alone. No one knew if I could heal. No one.
I stumbled into the Arboretum, a half mile walk from the doctor’s office. With a dramatic thud I dropped my bike on a grassy lawn and sat under a Garry Oak. I put my head in my hands and wept in a way I had not done in a long time.
Eight days prior to the scan, I had a moment of flow and strength in rock climbing unlike anything I had experienced before.
Over the course of the summer I was
working on a route called “Voodoo.” Powerful, thin, steep, and with a
perplexing and difficult double digit boulder problem guarding the anchors, the
route represented a novel level in climbing movement I had yet to access.
I had returned Seattle to earn some extra money and experience TAing for my University. I also dusted off some cobwebs of my PhD work. Balancing a TAship, PhD work, and training as well as getting out to the cliff to try my project seemed daunting, yet very doable. In fact, I tend to thrive in these regimented routines. My training plan seemed simple and conservative enough- one to two days outdoors combined with two to three days indoors, with very few double days. It seemed to click in with work.
Yet, towards the middle of the summer I began to seriously question whether I should be doing the PhD. Anyone who knows me knows this is a jagged edge in my mind, scar tissue that hurts when I prod it. A significant crucible I had been carrying for a year. I began to lose sleep for no particular reason in July and August. I would fall in bed at 10 or 11, tired, yet wouldn’t actually doze off until 1 or 2 or even 3. Still, my energy was good.
Towards the middle of August, on a
fun day in the gym, lighthearted and cheery, my finger began to ache.
Just a phase, no big deal. Just a niggle, it will calm down.
Voodoo is a very hard rock climb. I made progress on it, but decided to take a break in the middle of the summer heat to focus on training, other routes and temper my feelings of low confidence due to poor performance.
That day, eight days before my scan, was my first day back on the route. Prior to this, I had only performed a shaky two-hang, desperately pumped.
My first go felt incredible. I executed flawlessly, and climbed with a confidence I didn’t know I had. I didn’t get pumped. It felt like 5.11. Despite the fact that I did not succeed on that attempt, it was one of the best performances of my career, coming with an extreme feeling of mastery and flow that I hadn’t ever felt. My other projects had never, ever felt that easy. It was a feeling of strength that I had never experienced before. I also felt my finger yowl.
I considered the pain diligently, only to dismiss it. I was at the pinnacle of my climbing fitness, the culmination of years of dedicated effort. I was about to break into something new. My body was otherwise primed. I’ve pushed through aches before, I reasoned. I did not consider the fact that Voodoo is incredibly hard on your fingers, one of the most difficult sections being particularly stressful for the right hand. My particular beta made it all the more intense, as I would backflag off of that poor right hand, meaning I was only using one foot to take some of my body weight, putting additional stress on the fingers.
I rested for one day and went back , drawn intensely to the route like a magnet. The pain was present, but familiar. Former finger niggles felt like this- manageable pain that eventually went away. I launched into the climbing , all pistons firing. Again, I felt so, so good.
I found myself quickly at the first crux, plenty of energy and power left.
A full right hand crimp. Shifting all of my weight onto one foot. A sudden sharp pain.
The rope tightened as quickly as the cheers turned to silence.
I slumped deep in my harness and felt eyes on me. I gazed upwards. Only twenty or so moves guarding me from the top. My tick marks blazing white against the high dull clouds, labeling the rock so precisely. I knew I wouldn’t be touching those holds again for some time.
“Dirt” I said, curtly, a climber’s way of quickly indicating to be lowered to the ground.
“What happened?” my belayer asked.
I answered by way of a shallow breath, shifting my body so I was not facing anyone directly. I was irrationally annoyed with the question- he knew what happened.
The same day of the ultrasound, I received a brief voice mail from my father. My mom must have told him what happened. That evening, as I was dunking my hand in ice, my now ritual pre-bed contrast bath, I tentatively rang him.
Previously, my father had expressed concern that climbing had become, as he put it, “the axle upon which my life rotates.” I was concerned he would turn this injury into a lesson about how I got what was coming to me and that I would be too vulnerable to argue, or perhaps, too vulnerable to be patient. Still, I wanted to talk to him. His voice was somber and tired, but so comforting and familiar. Instead of a lesson, he just sighed quietly.
“When mom told me about your injury, the first thing I said was she has been through worse. She is strong”
He was referring to a period of six months in 2012, where I, for a then unknown reason, was not able to walk or stand without severe foot pain.
I have written an extensive account of this experience here.
The pain was severe, sudden and extremely debilitating. One day I was 21, young and thrumming with energy, excited for an upcoming year abroad in Spain. The next day, I couldn’t stand up for more than a few minutes without excruciating pain. I can’t properly express how swiftly I progressed in my symptoms. For an entire year prior to this moment, I had already been dealing with knee pain. Unable to resolve it , I had abandoned hopes of returning to my then serious athletic pursuit of running. I do recall, however, finally accepting this fate, and moving forward, focusing slightly more on my new climbing hobby.
Then, as soon as I mentally recovered from my first injury, I was blindsided by yet another. It felt as if my body were fundamentally broken in an inherent and immutable way. After months of absolute rest and countless doctor’s visits to a variety of specialists, I never improved and never received a diagnosis. According to every test imaginable, I was “normal.” I fell into a depression, sleeping 12-14 hours per day and cutting off contact with almost everyone in my life. Then, in the middle of November, I was finally diagnosed with exercise induced compartment syndrome, a rare ailment that only requires minimal surgery to cure. By January I was in Spain, hiking around clubs and bars Barcelona in thick hiking shoes to protect my still sensitive feet. By the end of March, nine months later, I was running again. I wasn’t running as much as I was climbing, though, having fully embraced the sport while living in Catalunya, a region considered by many to be the mecca of sport climbing.
Nor was this my first climbing injury. Last summer, I suffered some type of pulley strain, partial tear, or potentially tendinitis of a pulley at the onset of a six week long climbing trip to Europe. I decided to climb through it, since it was tolerable, but I certainly could not try or enjoy myself as I would have otherwise. I was constantly worried, anxious, and dealing with achy, painful fingers. Though the symptoms started at the end of August, almost exactly a year from when my current issue first presented itself, it did not heal until the end of December, largely because I set back my healing by deciding to climb through it while abroad. The rehab process was difficult, especially as it was in the middle of the prime season of rock climbing, I was trying to take qualifying exams for a PhD I didn’t know that I wanted to pursue, and was navigating a fresh and confusing relationship.
This is not my first rodeo.
Yet, I linger. I am so floored by this injury. While intense and debilitating, compartment syndrome, once diagnosed, was relatively simple to fix. My former finger problem never stopped me from climbing for more than a few weeks and I never doubted I would heal. I received two cortisone shots in my knee at age 19. I broke my wrist. I had another foot surgery to remove a chipped bone in my left foot. I have chronic skin inflammation due to an autoimmune condition that never seems to truly go away, most painful in the winter when , at times, I can’t even get a hairtie around my hand. In fact, I climbed my hardest route to date, To Bolt or Not to Be, while in the middle of a bad skin flare up. Every night my entire hands would throb and ache.
Like most everyone else, I am far from perfect. But, I’ve always adapted and healed.
Still, I never fundamentally broke myself in the way I have now. Stressed the body with intention. Not traumatic like a broken wrist or genetic like an autoimmune disease, but rather a result of a chosen, deliberate decision to continually expose myself to pain. I shattered a ligament. My body failed me, or rather, I failed it.
A day after the scan, nine days after the injury, I lace up my shoes for an evening run.
I examine the two scars adorning both my feet. As I begin to tie my knot, I try not to be reminded of my pre-climbing ritual, of precisely tying my climbing shoes before every burn on Voodoo.
Sluggish at first I find a rhythm. Legs warm with effort. Muscles beginning to loosen.
Then my mind begins to split. I know how sharp it can slice-a bottomless flood rising behind me with no way to get back once crossed. It is best to just sit in the crush and wait. It will only take a second.
I begin to run faster. Each stride a swift, jolting pound.
At first there is nothing. Then a faint, deliberate ripple in the darkness begins to unfurl and I see you.
So young and thrumming with energy, bored and restless in your grandmother’s apartment in Sarajevo. Combing through a stack of her books to occupy yourself. The word “ENGLESKI” is stretched on a pallid, blue hardcover binding. A numbness overtook you when you realized what it was- a basic English grammar book, filled out diligently in her strong, smooth penmanship. She would only bother to do this for one solid, earth-shattering reason. You turn to a random page and are met with blue ink in a familiar penmanship you recognize from her letters, filling in the correct conjugation of verbs.” We went to the store” The sight of it nearly pulled your heart right out. Clenching your jaw so hard it might break. That piercing tug left permanent damage.
Feeling the tingle as blades of grass graze your cheek. Leaning in, warm and charged with desire. Feeling damaged cells repair themselves. Months later, watching him cry with an indifference that shook you apart. The dull dim glow of the bedroom light. His face sullen. Watching him running right into sleepless nights, away from you.
Leaning against your car. “I won’t forget you.” A shy wave goodbye. Hands on someone else.
In the city that you hate. Vowing not to spill your guts out. A subtle glance enough to feel that ludicrous spark of warm weave straight to the soft spot you hate yourself for having. Surrounded by glazed eyes on the metro, horizontal sheets of light, so monotonous, everyone living inside of themselves.
The tinge of embarrassment as I explain what I do. Feign confidence and interest. No one cares and why should they. A feeling of inadequacy, years wasted because you weren’t smart enough to see what was happening. The sound of a keyboard clacking. Bright red LED lights humming in the darkness.
From the clipping stance get a quick shake , but not too long. Float the left foot up to the ticked ashy smear. Back flag the left foot and grab the positive edge. Crimp the left crimp hard and with intention while you place the left foot on the ticked smear on the ramp, the location you spent several days determining was optimal. Press with the left and bring the right foot up to the very high but decent foot. Perch and go to the right hand. Crimp hard, backflag the left foot….
The smell of fall in the air, crunching maple and oak leaves underfoot. Crisp air and sticky granite. Everyone with chalked hands and rough skin, beers in hand and grinning with stories of their accomplishments.
It is not just the finger injury, it is everything yoked to the finger injury. When my pulley tore it weakened the ropes holding me upright. When I received the diagnosis, heard the words “full tear” it all collapsed, the ricochet too much to bear. Who am I without a career? Who am I without a family? Who am I if I cannot participate as a member of my community as I have before?
I am so terrified. I am terrified of that first day, weeks away, when I test my finger on a 5.8 and it screams at me. I am terrified of being alone in the middle of a buzzing scene vibrant and most alive in the fall. I am terrified of the alienation. I am terrified I will never get as fit as I once was. I am terrified I’ll never experience that feeling of flow I felt two days before the injury. I am terrified I won’t work. I am terrified my relationships will crumble due to my lack of emotional stability.
What I’m most afraid of, though, is that I failed in a fundamental way. I failed at the hands of myself. I tried to do too much in every part of my life , and as a consequence, will lose what is most precious to me. That my drive, the one thing I loved about myself, will be what ultimately destroys me.
Part of me fundamentally believes this narrative. Part of me, currently a softer, more quiet part of me, thinks it is utter bullshit.
I am not on the right side of this problem. I don’t believe believe that my drive will cause me to thrive, but rather it may cause me to fail. I don’t believe that my drive will push me into a fulfilling career and healthy relationships. I don’t believe that my drive will be what allows me to heal, to learn , to come back stronger. I don’t believe my drive will allow me to love and be loved.
I do not know if my drive is what
makes me good.
But, the one thing I do know, is that my drive is what made me leave my quickdraws on Voodoo.
And there I am, sprinting, so fast and hard. The air smashing and scathing into my ribs. My legs screaming, but it does not hurt. Right now, nothing can hurt.