About a year ago I stumbled during an MMA practice and managed to very nearly rip my big toe right off. I had a serious dislocation– so serious that my toe was almost severed from the inside out. I spent the next month on crutches, and even longer after that in a walking boot while the pins that skewered my toe gave the joint time to fuse together.
As I’ve written elsewhere, though the ligaments that I ruptured were small, the impact that it made on my life was much bigger than I let on at the time. The injury and all of the crutching/ boot-wearing hullabaloo that accompanied it deeply changed the way that I was interacting with the world around me.
From the first instant that I saw that slick white bone sticking out of my toe, I knew everything would be different. Mom always said, “Don’t cry over spilt milk,” and I saw right away that the milk was spilt, big-time. I had to pull out the fight scheduled for just four weeks later, pause my training, and put my training business on hold. But (perhaps because I was in shock) I wasn’t freaking out about any of that at the time. Even as we drove to the hospital, it was clear that “the milk” wasn’t going to get un-spilt. I was disappointed… but it was also very freeing. All I could do was clean it up and move on.
Having never had such a serious injury before, I had no idea what I was in for. When you can’t use your hands because you need them to navigate and keep yourself standing, well, that really changes the game. Stairs? Difficult. Holding a glass of water and moving? Fucking impossible. Even crutching a few blocks to the bus stop was exhausting.
(One friend shared some creative ways to ameliorate the frustration of not being able to transport anything while on crutches. I can’t praise her enough for the suggestion to wear an apron for extra pocket-space, and put beverages in bottles and to-go mugs.)
My friends Anna and Michael gave me a ride home from the hospital the day after the accident. The hospital didn’t give me crutches, so I eased out of the wheel chair straight into Anna’s backseat. When we got to my place, Michael picked me up in his arms like Superman and carried me up the flight of stairs to my second-floor apartment.
Months before my injury, I agreed to speak on a panel of career mentors at my alma mater, Reed College. The event was less than two weeks after my accident, but I still wanted to attend, so I rented a car and made my way back to campus for the day.
My memory of the campus where I had spent practically all of my first four years in Portland must have been a bit foggy, because I had a mix-up with the location of my panel’s room. I ended up hauling ass across campus on my crutches in order to arrive, stressed and sweaty, just as the talk was about to start. Everything went fine, though I felt a bit awkward touting the joys of being a professional athlete with my bandaged toe hiding under the table and crutches leaning right beside me…
My panel was in the morning, and for the evening Reed had scheduled me a few short meetings with a few students who were interested in my career path or academic major. In between the morning and afternoon sessions, alumni were encouraged to grab lunch and socialize with (“mentor”) current students in Reed’s cafeteria.
I got out of my panel session around lunchtime and headed over to the cafeteria, stopping just outside when I realized there were three stairs to the door. Reed must be ADA compliant, because there was also a ramp leading up to the door, but it would have required turning around and crutching ten feet away to the ramp’s entrance and then crutching back. I also saw that it would be hard to open the door, and once inside, I wouldn’t be able to carry a tray.
In order to eat lunch on campus, I would just need to ask a stranger for help.
I’d love to say that I wasn’t ruffled by that realization, that I took the opportunity to reach out to another human being and ask for a small favor. But I didn’t do that. Instead, I crutched back across campus to the parking lot, got into my rental car, and drove home.
I had about an hour to eat, so I opted to drive 20 minutes each way for a 15 minute lunch at home. I had to drag myself up a lot more than three stairs to get into my apartment, but figured that at least this way no one would see me struggle to do it. It was just as hard to eat in my kitchen as it would have been in the Reed cafeteria, but at home I could set down my crutches and carry things while hopping from counter to table on one foot. I looked like a kid learning to swim for the first time, hanging onto the edge of the pool, sometimes darting out into the open and then paddling frantically back to the safety of the wall.
But hey, at least I got to keep my pride in public, right?
And, of course, that was not the only time that I ever went out of my way to avoid asking for help. I’ve probably inconvenienced myself far more in situations where I didn’t even realize it, but this time stayed with me. I couldn’t get over how weak I felt when I was on crutches. I’m used to being strong, being tough. The day before the accident I was an undefeated professional cage-fighter set to fight in the biggest female MMA promotion in the country, and the day after it I was limping around my house unable to carry a plate or take a shower or stand up without frustration.
Leaving campus to eat at home instead of asking someone I didn’t know to carry a tray a few feet for me was NOT a proud day for me. I was afraid of the vulnerability of asking for a favor that was important to me, but probably would have been very easy for the person doing it. I let my fear immobilize me. I shrank from it, rather than rising against it.
But allowing someone to do you a favor you can’t repay isn’t a blood debt– it’s a social bond. It’s honest, vulnerable and bold. It makes the person doing the favor feel good, and it makes the person asking appear confident. Mark Twain said that “Courage is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it.” In the same way, real vulnerability isn’t weakness, but strength.