Legend Before The Fall

legends-of-the-fall-0026A rugged Brad via Sincerely Sassy

One of my best traits and biggest weaknesses is that I think I’m a complete legend.

Seriously. Bad moments and days aside, I have a lot of love for myself. I laugh at my own jokes, enjoy my own company and often catch myself tilting my head and making that ‘hmm, interesting…’ face in response to my own thoughts.

This is very healthy. Except when it’s not. Sometimes that self-love teeters on the brink of ego and very often, when I dance too close to the edge, Universe erects a funhouse mirror to show how grotesque, silly and small I look. Or nudges me into the abyss for a spectacular fall.

I’ll give you an example of the former. Going to language school one day, I was trying to ride my bike with no hands. I saw this guy do it when I was about 7 and it blew my mind. Of course many people here in Florence—from children to retirees—are capable of this feat. But I’m not that confident and have only just started feeling okay riding one-handed, so hands-free is still a distant dream.

However, I’m trying.

When I have an empty stretch to coast in I loosen my grip on the handlebars, engage my core, sit tall and pedal hard, concentrating furiously. I can go a few revolutions before I start wobbling side to side and have to reinstate my grip. This particular day I got a little further than usual, hands hovering around the handlebars. I gave myself a mental pat on the back, looking around to see if anyone had witnessed my amazingness.

At that very moment, the guy riding in front of me lazily straightened up, released his hands, fixed his hair, retied his scarf etc. He may as well have been playing a violin, so effortless was he in motion. My mental pat on the back turned into a swat on the forehead. You idiot.

This is a mild example, but a far more dazzling check took place in winter last year. I remember the afternoon: coming home from yoga, doing a bit of cleaning while dancing around my house, feeling healthy and vital. I was in a good rhythm of active exercise, feeling strong, and maybe even a little bit proud about how my body looked and felt. And I was excited to get back onto the netball court after a three-year hiatus.

Netball is a very fun and completely deadly sport. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a soft game for girls — if there’s anything scarier than a solid, 6-foot defender in a short skirt that knows how to use her body to keep you out of the goal circle, I haven’t yet faced it.

Oh yes, I know all about the physical dangers of netball. As a child and teenager I dealt with countless sprained ankles and wrists from this vicious sport — perhaps more than the usual amount given my delicate and graceful Pakistani joints (there’s a reason why sub-continentals are such good spin bowlers in cricket). And in year 9, I tore several ligaments in my right ankle trying out for a representative team. It took months of slow and painful recovery, with the added indignity of hobbling on and off the school bus whilst trying, and failing, to maintain a sense of cool nonchalance in front of the hotties from the local boy’s highschool.

Time heals all wounds, in my case a tad unfortunately. Because after a few years of dedicated yoga practice in my late 20s and early 30s, and feeling the need to build some cardio into my regime, I thought defiantly (stupidly): ‘I am not a runner, swimmer, biker, or gym-goer. I’m a netballer!’ So I signed up for a local social comp, very low-grade (in fact, no-grade), with my flatmate and good friend, Tina.

Our first game was that evening. I laid out an appropriately sporty outfit and even secretly conceptualised a post-game photo for social media, featuring me in my tights and t-shirt, all sweaty and fit-looking with my rude finger up, rebelling against the rules of society, my parents and the cold winter night. What a bad-ass! I think it may have been this detail that spurred the gods into teaching me a lesson.


                          Me so cool sticking my rude finger up. Illustration via Ausbosnian

Excited, I got ready. I was pumped to have a run, flex my netball muscle and impress everyone with my fitness, team spirit and shooting accuracy. Although I’m on the shorter end of the spectrum, I’ve always prioritised honing this skill as it delivers the most glory for the least amount of work (there’s that ego again, as well as my fairy slothmother). We started a player down so I took the position of Goal Keeper, generously offering to field the circle defence with plans to orchestrate a dynamic attack sequence in the second half.

Seven minutes in, I was leaping to intercept a lob to the opposing Goal Shooter. I landed awkwardly and my right knee buckled. Which is pretty normal in netball — except this time it buckled sideways, towards my other knee. I actually saw it bend the wrong way and heard something pop. I went down. “Fuck!” I whispered. Then moaned a much louder and longer “Fuuuuuuck!”.

It hurt like hell. I knew it was bad. I was carried off the court, where I was told that the social comp didn’t cover insurance for injuries (great) and my knee was bound with makeshift ice packs. I bundled myself up in several outer layers of clothing and feebly cheered my team on as they won the match, shivering pathetically in the cold and pain. Later, people joked, “Well, it was worth it. At least they won.” I, however, was not in the mood for joking, and flung filthy looks at whomever dared to utter these insensitive words in my miserable presence.

After the game, Tina and I strategised how to get to the car, which was a short walk and a long staircase away. First I tried to hobble, using her as a crutch, but each hop sent shooting blades of pain up my body, beads of sweat pricking my skin in the freezing winter night. Deciding I would rather take an hour to walk slowly than endure the hopping, I tentatively put weight onto my right leg and almost fainted. Tina ended up piggy-backing me down the whole flight of some twenty-something steps to the car. And then up another 15 steps to get to our front door. She got a really great workout that evening.

Eventually, after a few hospital visits, an X-ray and MRI, the verdict was in: a ruptured ACL, the Anterior Cruciate Ligament being the thick band of fibre that goes through the centre of the knee and connects the thigh bone to the shin bone. Having completely ruptured, rather than just torn (“Think of it as an elastic band that’s snapped,” my surgeon helpfully suggested), there was no hope of natural repair and risk of further damage if untreated. Some people elect not to have the surgery, as you can actually function to a certain level without an ACL — but the level I needed was 100% dancefloor-fit, so I booked in for an ACL reconstruction.

ACL tears and ruptures are common in sports that demand high-speed, sudden and unnatural changes in direction, which places immense pressure on the knee joint, as well as the muscles and supporting structures surrounding it. Those of us that ski, snowboard and skateboard, or play soccer, football and, of course, netball, keep orthopaedic surgeons and their families well-fed.

And so, I underwent my very first surgery, floated in my very first experiences of morphine and oxycodone and woke up for the very first (and hopefully last) time in a pool of my own blood (not as dramatic as it sounds; my drip fell out in the middle of the night). I was on crutches for a short while, with daily physio on an exercise bike for months. Slowly, tentatively, this and yoga brought strength and mobility back to my knee.

Now, 8 months post-surgery, it is still at times stiff, painful and fragile, particularly in the cold. It has been—still is—a huge lesson in humility: having to ask for help, move slowly and sometimes feeling older than I am. I will never play netball again — my choice. Many people do return to the court, but as much as I love the game, for me it’s not worth the possibility of going down this long and painful road again. Although it has been difficult to walk away from the very lowest grade there is.

Despite the mighty crash of my body and smash of my ego, there have been many silver linings. I was forced to slow down, which has made things quieter and clearer. I have developed deep empathy for those who are or have been injured, who are old and/or frail — particularly valuable to my future yoga teaching. I am full of respect for those that live with permanent disabilities, conditions or diseases that restrict them from physically moving frustration out of the body. I have a new-found gratitude for being able to do things I used to take for granted, like drive, practise yoga and dance myself into sweaty ecstasy.

Wonderfully, when I moved to Florence, I found myself living in perfect rhythm with my 90-year-old flatmate. “Everything in this house moves slowly,” Claudia remarked while we waited for our bread to toast one morning. “Including us.”

After a fall, we get back up again, bruised and battered, but hopefully more determined and sure of why we want to ride the horse in the first place. There will be more spills in this lifetime, no doubt about it. But when I tumble again, my safety net—family, friends, yoga, laughter, meditation and music—will be there to catch me. And THAT is the moral of this story (legend).

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