A year ago, I fell.
Some unseen force picked up my feet and dropped me on a protruding rock inflicting a remarkable amount of damage to my pelvis. Twelve months later I am still healing, and just beginning to understand the message behind my fall: I cannot control the world.
Of course, I knew this intellectually before I fell. I knew that I was not God. I knew there was nothing I could control but my own behavior in the present moment. I’d memorized the Serenity Prayer, but still, my subconscious–the part that plays old patterns like LPs, even the ones that are scratched and skip over the best part–believed wholeheartedly that if I tried hard enough, I could make everything work for everyone all the time.
Some people have life transforming experience through facing down cancer, or surviving harrowing accidents, or even losing their job and having to start over. My life was forced to change because I fell on my bottom.
See, if I were in charge of the world, I wouldn’t have done it that way. Nor would I have had it happen while I was on vacation with my family exploring tidepools at Montana de Oro along the California coast. But, as I was to learn, I’m not in charge, despite the fact that I tried to hold onto the reins of power a while longer. Like by refusing to go to the emergency room in Cambria where we were staying. Instead, I insisted my family continue to explore the area and enjoy our vacation time. I thought I could tough it out by downing ibuprofen and believing that I wasn’t really that hurt.
Prior to falling, I’d never known physical pain, no broken bones or surgeries. I had experienced relatively easy childbirths that I chalked up to my high threshold for pain. But during that first 48 hours after I fell, I whimpered audibly as pain repeatedly whacked me with a stick. I’d previously thought that defeating pain was simply mind over matter. I quickly discovered that there was nothing in my mind that could conquer how badly I hurt. During those first excruciating hours and the later painful hours of recovery, I reevaluated my pain threshold and developed a new empathy for those who suffer from chronic pain. I now know that pain rubs against your best self until you are raw and irritated. Pain eats away good intentions and nibbles all the pleasant edges from the day. Pain stripped away every illusion I held that I could be kind and gracious under physical distress.
When I finally relented and visited an E.R., the diagnosis was that I’d broken my sacrum. The sacrum is the heart-shaped bone at the base of the spine, and like ribs, cannot be set in a cast. All I could do was wait for it to heal and avoid sitting, bending, standing, and driving for at least eight weeks. In other words, I had to completely drop out of my life and lie on the couch in a depressive tunnel of pain medication.
During those weeks, as friends came and went, driving my children home from school, dropping off groceries, meals, and movies, I asked with increasing desperation, “What do you think this all means? Why did this happen? What do you think I should be learning from this?” No one had an answer, and I could see that they thought my questions were boarding on bizarre. One of my friends finally said, “Maybe this doesn’t mean ANYTHING. Maybe you just fell.”
But it HAD to mean something. Accidents don’t just happen; there had to be a reason. And I believed if I found that reason, learned the lesson, essentially “fixed” myself, I would be healed overnight. I would get a Pass Go card and could move on to another life lesson that was less painful and inconvenient. But despite my relentless searching, I could not find the meaning behind my fall.
At eight weeks, when my pain level did not seem to be decreasing, my doctor prescribed a CAT Scan. This revealed the good news that my sacrum was not broken as first thought. I was overjoyed. With no bone to mend, I was released from my prison of inactivity. I was so busy planning how to jump back into my life that I hardly heard my doctor’s next words: there was quite a bit of soft tissue damage, torn ligaments, muscles, etc…and that it could take quite a bit of time, a year perhaps, to heal fully. And that I was only to resume activity based on tolerable pain levels.
This last piece of medical advice I ignored completely, even when it was later discovered that not only was there soft tissue damage, but I had dislocated the complicated sacroiliac joints, the joints that connect spine to pelvis, and that there was no protocol for getting them back in position. Despite the ongoing pain and questionable recovery, I charged full steam ahead. I dove back into household duties, plunged into activities at the girls’ school, and tried to pay back the huge debt owed to friends who kept my life going while I rode the couch for two months. I had a lot to do to get my world back on track.
There is a scene in Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love where a friends tells her, “You know Liz, your hand doesn’t turn the crank that makes the world spin.” Gilbert replies, “It doesn’t?”
I find this passage painfully funny, because somewhere along my journey I’d picked up a similar idea that I was responsible for the happiness of my friends, family, and the occasional stranger. Only after I’d made their lives run smoothly and easily could I allow myself to be happy. It was a tremendously powerful and heady position, Master of Happiness, and I was fairly good at it, being blessed with over-the-top organizational skills and a creative mind. But as much as controlling my little universe was an adrenaline rush when all was going well, it was crushingly demoralizing when it went poorly. And, of course, it did go poorly at times because everyone has their own crisis, their own bumps in their journey, their own lessons to learn that had nothing to do with me. But I took it all on anyway, and frantically tried to glue the pieces back together and put out the fires no matter how much this effort ran me ragged.
But after I fell, I couldn’t seem to get the world around me running smoothly again. It felt like everything was spinning out of control. I was juggling faster than ever before to keep everyone happy, but with much less efficiency. My old trick of setting my will against chaos and trying a little harder was wearing me thin mentally and physically. By the end of summer, pain was a constant sidekick and I’d taken to carrying my pain medication in my purse.
Then, in the fall, my husband’s cousin got very sick from a lifelong heart problem. But Molly was a fighter, she’d won many uphill battles against medical odds, and she was a simply lovely person. It was inconceivable that anything happen to her; she just needed a little support. I jumped right in sending her prayers and healing energy, composing cheerful, inspirational emails, and mailing little presents now and then to lift her spirits. I asked everyone I knew with a pipeline to God to call in a special favor for Molly. I believed with all my heart that I, along with all her friends and family who were surrounding her with love, could hold her here with us.
But we couldn’t. Molly died. And I was shocked and heart sick. All the balls I’d been juggling dropped to the ground and I was just too damn tired, grief stricken, and demoralized to pick them up.
In the horrible months that followed I slowly began to realize two things. First, there wasn’t some bigger force that picked up my feet and made me fall or let Molly die just so I would learn a lesson. My friend was right to a certain extent. These things just happen, and if there is a bigger pattern to all the chaos, it isn’t necessarily for me to know. Second, although there wasn’t a specific lesson to learn, the things that happen in our lives give us the opportunity to grow and change. Falling had led me to the realization that I couldn’t control anyone’s happiness but my own, and had no desire to continue to try. The world could spin without me, no matter how wobbly or inefficiently. Friends, family, and the occasional stranger could find their own happiness or not. It wasn’t for me to say. I was too worn out to do it anymore, and my butt hurt.
Letting go of control is hard. In the past few months I’ve locked swords with guilt (at not doing enough for others) and boredom (because life is mighty flat when you give up the high of being Queen of the Universe). But I have mostly won the duels, and when I don’t, when I anxiously start organizing the happiness of others, the pain in my pelvis flairs up, and I am reminded to let go.
Ironically, just a few days ago, I fell again. I felt the now familiar “ping” sensation as my sacrum moved out of place. The pain isn’t close to what I experienced a year ago, when I first fell, but I’ve had to become reacquainted with my pain medication and my life has been unexpectedly disrupted again.
As soon as I hit the ground, my mind began to spin: Why did this happen? What does this mean? What am I not getting?
This time it took me two days, instead of twelve months, to come up with the answer:
I fell. It happens.
It is as simple as that.