Key lessons I learned from breaking my ankle in the middle of summer

Enjoying vacation without getting in the water - a tough mental challenge.

I had grand expectations for my first summer after graduating college. I was going to find a yoga studio, swim, get beautifully tan, and maybe even find a job.

Enter the 4th of July plot twist: a night with friends in Seattle, nearby fireworks at Gasworks park, and ringing in USA freedom with a stroll through the city. One second laughing hysterically, the Fremont neighborhood flying by me as I sprinted toward the fireworks – the next second, on the sidewalk unable to move, my dress covered in dirt, and my ankle broken. An injury that takes at least 6 weeks to heal, with crutches and multiple casts, rendering any physical summer activity, let alone showering, nearly impossible.

This is the first bone I’ve ever broken, so it’s been a mentally challenging 6 weeks, with plenty of lessons learned. I’ve taken those lessons and still enjoyed a fun, productive summer with my family and friends, whose support I couldn’t have enjoyed this time without.

As I prepare to walk on two feet again and move to Washington D.C., I decided to reflect on the challenges I’ve overcome and the unexpected knowledge I’ve gained from this injury experience. I hope my key bone-break takeaways are useful to others in similar situations, or at the very least, are fun to read:

If you’ve spent your evening enjoying some 4th of July beverages, it’s probably a bad idea to sprint for 10 blocks “to try to see fireworks better.” I was a gymnast and a cheerleader (and somehow never broke a bone), but I am not a stellar runner. I jog. PBR-induced downhill sprinting in gladiator sandals is not my forte and I should have recognized that and stopped instead of pushing myself to go faster. I ended up seeing great fireworks lit up-close by people on the street where I fell and waited to be picked up, anyway. Key takeaway: know your athletic limits.

Secondly, as our favorite yoga instructor on Orange is the New Black reminds Piper, “Your experience here is only temporary. Try to make it meaningful.” Obviously, a broken ankle and the inability to walk are not the same thing as a prison sentence, but it can feel similarly overwhelming, especially when I started to obsess about all of the plans I had that I now couldn’t do with a broken ankle.

Instead of spiraling into a negative depression, I forced myself to be optimistic about the summer. I pushed my thoughts toward still being able to travel to San Diego and successfully kayaking without ruining my cast instead of dwelling on my inability to swim, getting to park super close to businesses because of my disability permit instead of becoming angry about how slow and tiring moving on crutches is, how rock-solid my biceps would be instead of how much thinner and weaker my left leg muscles would be, and how great yoga will feel when I’m healed instead of whining about not doing yoga all summer.

Spending my energy on the positive effects of my injury kept me from wallowing in self-pity too much and allowed me to have a great summer despite the cast. Key takeaway: the injury, the crushing immobility, and constant dependence on others are only temporary.

This brings me to the greatest challenge I’ve faced because of my injury. I pride myself on being a very independent person. I would much rather complete a task on my own, and feel accomplished about what I’ve done, than surrender my independence and let someone else complete a task I was capable of myself. I guess you could call it a pride issue.

Summer injury plot twist #2: the inability to walk or carry anything while using crutches means you HAVE to rely on other people to do things. You don’t have a choice. Putting dishes away, opening heavy doors, cleaning out your car, getting dressed on time for work – these are all everyday actions we rarely think about as difficult because walking and standing on two feet makes them so quick and thoughtless. Constantly carrying my backpack has solved a lot of these problems, but everyday life still encompasses an obstacle course of actions that have never seemed hard, but suddenly do. (Walking around a grocery store? Too tiring for my arms. Ugh.)

Most people in my life are more than happy to help me with these things, and I know that. But in my head, I convince myself that everyone feels obligated to help me but secretly hates the burden, so I avoid asking for favors. It makes me very uncomfortable to have someone interrupt their work to come help me open a freaking heavy automatically-closing door that I’m trying to prop open with my crutches on my own. I look ridiculous, and it makes me feel incompetent and powerless.

However, once I realized that people don’t actually hate giving me a hand, it became much easier to ask for help. Granted, my family is probably sick of putting my dishes away and helping me vacuum out my car (thanks, McNeil), but for the most part, people are very understanding of my predicament and eager to help me out. So I’ve learned to let go and accept the assistance that I clearly need. Key takeaway: depending on others sometimes doesn’t make you any less of a competent adult.

My family has endearingly (they claim) called me Gimpy all summer, which I pretend to dislike but really don’t mind. I understand that having a disability shouldn’t be something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of, and have generally embraced my temporarily crippled state.

But how is a girl supposed to still feel confident and fun when all of her clothes are dictated by how easily they fit over her ugly cast, she’s unable to walk around a party with her friends, and people look at her apologetically all the time? It was like being thrust back into my painfully awkward middle-school stage: I’ve been uncomfortable talking to cute guys (nobody wants to flirt with the cripple), left parties early because I couldn’t flow around the room like everyone else (if you’re immobile and people move, you’re left by the keg looking pitiful and lonely), and generally just haven’t felt attractive at all.

Luckily, learning to refuse to care about judgment from others has helped me through this phase. I have way more pressing issues such as healing correctly and planning to move across the country to address than worrying about other people perceiving me as the “poor cripple.” Before leaving the house I now say to myself, “so what if I’ve worn Soffe shorts and a Gonzaga t-shirt every day this week? People will understand that not falling on your face as you crutch is more important than fashion to you right now!”

Besides, I have some really great friends at home who have worked hard to make me feel comfortable and help me nearly forget that I’m the injured girl. Since I started caring less, I have more confidently attended parties and met new people, and finally realized that my injury is way less of a big deal than I narrate it to be in my head. Key takeaway: the embarrassment about being the “cripple” is all in your head.

Sometimes being injured has huge advantages, anyway. Flying to San Diego to meet my family for vacation was surprisingly the easiest airport experience I’ve ever had, with the best customer service. When you request a wheelchair, you get whisked past all the snaking lines of security, escorted to your gate in less than 10 minutes, and you are “invited” to board the plane first because of your disability. This is definitely worth the very thorough security pat-down (in case you’re hiding a bomb in your cast – it DOES happen in a Dan Brown novel). Key takeaway: breaking a bone transforms TSA agents into your best friends.

I read a message once that said, “sometimes the bad things that happen in our lives put us directly on the path to the best things that will ever happen to us.” This might be a stretch when referring to a smile from the TSA, but it is a poetic way to reflect on how I might have actually benefitted from my broken ankle debacle this summer. Hashtag so blessed.

Using crutches forced me to cut excess out of all my routines (the fear of water seeping through a garbage bag into your cast is enough to cut  your normal shower time in half). I may not have been able to find a hip Seattle job or join Italian-speaking groups like I planned to, but focusing energy on tasks like studying for the GRE and excelling in my work at Global Peace Foundation gave me a lot of time to develop professionally. If I had had the ability to gallivant around the Pacific Northwest doing outdoorsy activities I might have slacked off more at work and not prepared as well for the interview that led to an offer for an internship in Washington, D.C., where I am moving in two weeks. It turns out that slowing down to let my injury heal helped open doors for exciting new opportunities.

I never thought I would break a bone this summer AND have something positive to say about it, but just as I told myself in the beginning – it was only temporary. And now, the best is yet to come.

A huge thank you to everyone who has helped me this summer. My friends and family rock.

– Meaghan

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