Learning to walk again is not something the average adult ever needs to consider. If you’re anything like me, I doubt the thought has ever crossed your mind? And despite being a firm believer in the daily practice of gratitude (don’t scoff, it works), I have always taken walking (and my legs) utterly for granted. I have never thanked them once.
Yet today, and indeed, these past few weeks, that is exactly what I have been doing. Learning to walk again. And whilst that sounds difficult enough, just as I begin to make real headway, in 2 weeks I’m having an operation which will put me back to square one again. In fact, all in all, over 4 months since 3rd December 2017 to approximately the end of April 2018, I will have learned to walk again 3 times. And it’s been the most painful journey I have ever, ever made.
Ticking off the Wish List
It was December and I was elated to be invited skiing, something I’d put on my wish list for the year ahead. Not only that, we were one of the first skiers of the season, out on the fresh Alpine slopes of Verbier. I was in heaven.
Yet one day into the holiday, an icy slope, a stumble, a gentle twist of the knee and a bit of a pop, was all it took. I tried in vain to ski off the middle of the steep slope that I was now blocking, but my knee gave way. And exchanging knowing looks with the GP friend I was with and with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, we both knew it. I’d torn my cruciate ligament.
Stretched out in the aptly named ‘blood wagon’, being whisked down the mountain by a rescue guide, I tried to keep calm. I was, sort of, calm. It was the second time I’d been stretchered off the mountain, after all. The last time was 20 years ago. I was a pro at this now. And instead of feeling the victim, I focused on the guilt I felt at ruining a day’s skiing for my friend and her husband. The sun was shining bright and I could tell he wasn’t happy at missing a tasty lunch up the mountain. I empathised with his plight and with being an inconvenience and at that moment, I made a commitment to myself to be as easy as an injured guest as I could be. After all, they’d invited me out to their chalet to celebrate time away from the kids and I did not want to the one to ruin their hard-won holiday.
Lessons on resilience through the ages
The first time I crashed out on the slopes, I was skiing way too fast on a black mogul run. I was 27 and back then they also thought I’d torn my cruciate ligament. I didn’t really even know what a cruciate ligament was, nor did I care that much. I had a seasonal ski job and we were out partying every night. People just gave me piggy backs for the rest of the season and it seemed almost fun to be the one on crutches. As it turned out, it wasn’t the cruciate after all, just a ligament strain. Perhaps the alcohol had helped.
Now, 20 years later, careering down the mountain on a stretcher, I figured I was more emotionally this time round. This would be a doddle, even if the injury was worse. After all, I meditated, I did breathwork exercises and I ran a business offering tools for improving emotional wellbeing. It was traumatic of course, I don’t deny it, yet the feeling was temporary.
My GP friend was amazed. She couldn’t believe how accepting I was of the situation and how well I took it all. And whilst she rocked off each day to take on new mountain adventures, I spent the rest of the trip holed up in the chalet, working. I kept myself jolly and helpful to my hosts, even the journey home became an adventure. It turns out that Special Assistance at the airport is rather fun and I joked about it to friends. After all, how else would you get your own private buggy through the back passages of Gatwick airport and a private passport control officer, there just for you?
The fast & the slow route to healing
Back home, the rehab was incredible. I felt hugely grateful to be introduced to a man who’d helped Tim Henman back to health, who worked on half the Chelsea FC players and was pitching to rehabilitate the Bayern Munich team. I was in good hands and within two weeks, learning to retrain my brain around the injury, so that my quads and hamstrings would begin to take up the strain where my ACL had failed, I was learning to walk again. My outlook was positive and I felt proud, both of my mental state as well as my physical. I would be one of the few who could manage life and sport without their ACL. It was hard work, but all rather straightforward. I was humble, but inside I was proud of my resilience and healing ability.
Wham, I hit the concrete face down. Stunned, my brain raced as I tried to work out what had just happened. It was my first day back at work, January 3rd. I was raring to go after the Christmas break and overcoming all they physical challenges of the past few weeks. But the internet wasn’t working in my office and I had to chase (slowly) up and down between 2 buildings to get it syncing again. As usual, not content to do 3 jobs at once, I took on something else in amongst it all.
I’d stepped down. Too far, as it happens. Unconscious for a moment of my injury and forgetting my limitations. My knee, ACL deficient, reeled in pain as it moved out of place and gave way. It had no support for such a long step down.
I was alone. I panicked. I began to sob. Again, I felt that sinking feeling, much deeper this time, that I was really in the s** * now. Crawling to my office I lay there for some time, sobbing, stunned, and I realise now, traumatised. Perhaps it was one accident too much and my system overloaded, malfunctioned. And in that moment, all that resilience I had earlier been so proud of, left, with no word of a warning.
Resilience for life?
Resilience was something else I took for granted, along with my knees. Up until now I’ve felt lucky to have it in enough measure to get me through most things in life. When I was mugged at knife point during my roaring 20’s, living in Brixton. Mugged (not at knifepoint this time) when I first moved to London. When I had my flat burgled twice with the contents completely cleared out each time. When I ran a company, seeing it through a tricky sale and merger where hostility and rivalry were the norm. When I watched all my staff leave, as a result. When I inherited the job of being at the sharp end of a massive lawsuit for a ski operator I worked for, just one week into the job. And much like many of you I’m sure, when I suffered extreme heartache and pined for years over someone I could never have. So, physical injuries such as twisting my knee on that black mogul run and tearing my medial meniscus during a particularly challenging Ashtanga yoga session were painful yes, but I took them in my stride. I’ve had my fair share of tricky life events to deal with, haven’t we all, but looking back, all in all, I got through those events pretty well. And whilst each one certainly knocked me sideways, it wasn’t long before I’d bounced back.
I am resilient, aren’t I?
By way of neuroscience and gene mapping research, we know that some people are hardwired to be resilient and others will experience the same situation in an altogether more stressful way. Genetics only explains 30% of our variability and the rest is down to what we learn from our early years, and from dealing with the challenges which life throws our way. If this is what research tells us, then I should be getting more resilient as life goes on, not less, wouldn’t you agree?
Yet this has absolutely not been my experience these past few weeks. My reaction and ability to deal with the second fall has been so far removed from the first, it’s like it happened to an altogether different person. I no longer knew who I was. I was gripped with fear immediately on falling and much of that fear remains with me now, 2.5 weeks later.
This fear to walk, felt almost primeval. I felt utterly unsafe. I didn’t want my partner to leave my side in the first few days and the idea of going upstairs turned me into an emotional wreck. I broke down. The next day I wrote a poem called ‘The Broken Bird’ because that’s how I felt inside. Broken.
I sought help. Incredible people appeared, from healers to coaches, to masters in their fields who don’t even have a name for what they do. I began with pranic healing to help me overcome my fear of even getting up. The thought of having to even go to the bathroom filled me with sheer dread. The thought of would I get there (even on crutches) just consumed me. It was a kind of trauma I’d never experienced before in my life. The world felt like a dangerous place and everything I’d held dear to me, my independence, my strength, my resilience, had vanished.
Whether you believe this or not, there is (let’s call it a ‘concept’ for now) a concept which says that we create everything that happens to us. We create these ‘experiences’ either as lessons, or as gifts. We either choose to think of ourselves as victims in the world where things happen to us, or that we are some way responsible for everything that happens to us. So, within all our pain, lie gifts of wisdom, if we choose to believe, if we choose to listen.
I was listening. Quietly, patiently, vulnerably waiting. And amongst the great advice from friends and peers and quiet hours of inner work I did to re-connect with myself over why this had happened, what slowly began to emerge were the following lessons:
Lesson 1. Slowing down (mentally & physically)
The pranic healer, who was recommended to me, said in no uncertain terms that I needed to slow down. That because I didn’t listen the first time after the first fall (which is true, I carried on like nothing much had happened), and because I don’t ever listen to warnings, the second fall made absolutely sure that I was flat on my back, couldn’t go anywhere and would be forced to slow down, stop, take stock.
Lesson 2. Find connection with yourself
A man I greatly admire, who works on trauma (I felt like I had PTSD after the second fall) told me that as long as he’d known me, he’d felt that I’d been searching for answers. Answers on whom I was, where I was going in life, how many experiences I could cram in, how much I could learn, how much I could evolve. This, he said, was the reason I needed to slow down. I would be forced (should I choose to accept the lesson) to take the time to connect with myself and not search for answers outside of myself.
Lesson 3. Find the root cause of a ‘fear of going nowhere’
This is a tough one. The fear of being no one, not discovering a true purpose in life, having a meaningless existence.
Lesson 4. Trust Yourself
I wonder how many of us truly trust ourselves. We got into interesting territory in the trauma session on betrayal. We have all betrayed others and thus ourselves, at some point in our lives. Along the way, perhaps we lose trust in ourselves, perhaps we never feel good enough, despite the stories we tell ourselves.
Lesson 5. Surrender
Most of us were raised and live in a culture that emphasizes the ideals of independence and control. The general idea is that we are on our own and we don’t need any help from anyone else, and if we are really successful it’s because we are in complete control. However, true lasting success comes only with surrender, which is the opposite of control. We cannot accomplish anything truly great on our own, without any help, and the idea that we can is an illusion that causes most of us a great deal of suffering. Surrender comes when we see that illusion and let go of trying to attain the impossible. You’ll then begin to see surrender as a great strength, rather than a weakness.
Moving forwards, moving backwards
I became overly reliant on my crutches and was scared of going anywhere. One day a friend held out her hands to me to encourage me to walk without them and I whimpered, like a wounded animal. I knew there was terror in my eyes as I could see it reflected in her own. I shuffled and was instantly reminded of an aged aunt who I’d looked after in the last years of her life. An inspiring, independent woman who had travelled the world alone when frankly, women did not. Yet there she was, terrified to walk in case she fell. Here I was, a mirror image of all the times I’d coaxed her to walk, to believe she could, to trust in me that it was possible.
Yet today, almost 3 weeks after my second fall, as I stand looking down the long corridor, I dig deep. No crutch he said, just walk. And walk I did. A shuffle. Then slowly, a more confident step. Then hesitant once again, when I feel pain in my knee. I question what it is and then again, one foot in front of the other. I’ve done it. I’ve lost the crutch, if just for a moment or two. It felt great.
Now, instead of wanting and expecting great gains in life, I am a different person. I am grateful for small achievements now, less hard on myself, more patient. I am grateful just for the small step forward today. I will go home, sit down and again feel a reluctance to get up and get going again. Now, I see it now as a big leap forward in the grand scheme of all the recoveries I’ve made so far and will need to make over the coming months. I will go back to my crutch, but less and less until in a few days, I have promised to return to my next physio session without it. This crutch which has been so much more than a physical support, but an emotional one, too.
Today, as I begin the steps to walking again, I see ahead of me a long and winding road. The second fall took away my independence and confidence in the world, replacing it with vulnerability and fear. In 2 weeks I will have the surgery on my knee and this process will begin. All over again.
When I told a friend, who is recovering from her second bout of cancer, (and she is recovering) about what had happened; she was full of joyous wonder. She told me then that I would ‘learn to walk again’ and how wonderful that would be. How wonderful that I would see life with fresh eyes and what an opportunity that was. I didn’t really understand her at the time. I told myself I could walk, that I was just going through some difficulty. But today, as I struggle with the task of getting up for the first few times without my crutch, how right she was. Not only would I be learning to walk again, but I would see the world with such fresh eyes. I would notice others who are less fortunate than myself. I would understand, when I hear an athlete talk about their mental struggle back to health. I would see the vulnerability in others. I would experience the kindness in people who hold the door open for me, or take the time to listen when I need to talk, to be vulnerable. I will dig deep and find the courage to tell them how it really feels to learn to walk again.
Not once, but three times in four months.
Useful resources on Resilience
There is a wealth of research on resilience which I have found useful and which we teach at The Life Adventure. Through endless research, one of our tutors, Dr Carole Pemberton, has found a number of key qualities when it comes to resilience in individuals. These appear across a very broad spectrum of ages and abilities, from children to elite athletes. It’s these qualities which, when combined, provide protection when we face difficulty.
If any of this resonates with you and you’d like to start considering how resilient you are, try recognising the qualities below you feel you’ve either learnt or need to learn. Like me, you can wait to learn them through the next big challenge that life throws at you, or you can start learning them through experimentation:
• Rather than keeping a concern to yourself ask someone you trust if they could help you?
• Notice when you are operating from a negative emotional palette, and ask yourself how those emotions are helping you. Is there another emotion that would be more useful?
• Do one thing differently. If you notice that you are becoming fixed in how you live your life, take the risk of doing something outside of that routine — whether it is the route you take to work, the paper you read, the sort of films you watch, the exercise regime you follow.
• Rather than relying on your confidence in an established area. Grow your confidence by moving outside of that area. Find something you would like to do, but assume you can’t and take a risk. Then notice how it changes your view of yourself.
• Think of something you want to do at work or in life, but the resources are not there, and ask yourself “How can I do it without . . .?” Get creative.
• When you feel the passive you kicking in, challenge yourself to take an action. Whether it is phoning a friend rather than waiting to be phoned, instigating a meeting rather than waiting or others, or writing the letter of complaint rather than assuming it is pointless.
Good luck. I’ll see you on the other side.
To read more on resilience click here for articles.