Catastrophically worse, then transformatively better

How I made it through a 9-month surgery recovery with a little help from my friends

On January 2nd, 2018, I completely ruptured my achilles. It was sudden, unexpected, and I wasn’t even really doing anything – just moving from foot to foot, getting ready for the next play in the rec soccer game I was in. And then it popped. I thought someone kicked me from behind. My friend heard the sound across the field, and thought my shoelace snapped.

The surgeon proposed that I not undergo surgery, and instead remedy the rupture non-surgically. You basically point your foot in a walking boot, and the tendon stitches itself back together. The re-rupture rate is the same as if it got fixed surgically, but it grows back just a tiny bit longer, which means you’re no longer able to generate as much explosive strength. That, and surgery is risky: there’s not a lot of tissue or blood flow at the back of your ankle, so if things go wrong and get infected, it can take a long time to heal.

I told the surgeon that my main sport was olympic weightlifting, and that I’d really like to get back to it. I mostly left it up to him, but I think together, we decided that I’d be best served by surgery.

Two months later, right as the wound seemed to be completely sealing up, I took a flight down to Nicaragua. And maybe it was that it was two flights rather than a direct flight, and maybe it was the swelling from those flights, and maybe it was the heat of Nicaragua, or the long car ride to the beachside villa we stayed at, but the wound opened up again.

I could see what I would later learn was the tendon. A day after I got back to Vancouver, it was infected.

That was when my recovery went from pretty standard, if challenging – to dramatically and uncertainly worse, with no clear resolution in sight. We started me on a portable VAC pump, my constant companion for two months that did its best to make fart sounds and increase bloodflow to the wound. I had another surgery to debride the wound and encourage its healing. After a total of 7 months of twice-weekly wound care appointments, the wound finally closed. A year later, I was finally able to get back to the gym. A year and a half later, I could start Olympic lifting again.

In that time, I learned a lot about how to deal with uncertainty and chaos and catastrophe, without needing to solve it. I learned that I could only do it with the help of others. As I sit here under a new mandatory work from home policy, the lessons from that era of my life are beginning to feel very relevant, again.

Most of us don’t know what catastrophe looks like. And my catastrophe was pretty minor, but it was enough to become acquainted with the possibility of sudden, unexpected, and unwelcome change that I knew was possible, but which only seemed probable in hindsight.

By the time COVID-19 stops wreaking its havoc, we will all learn about catastrophe. If not personally, then we will learn it in very close proximity to people whose lives will be irrevocably changed for no good reason, and often no clear reason at all.

If you are alive to the possibility of catastrophe, things like social distancing seem far more sensible. Things like proactively combatting climate change seems like a good call. Things like waiting until your wound is completely sealed up, even at the cost of forfeiting your expensive trip to Nicaragua, will come to seem prudent.

For catastrophe yawns in the distance, waiting for you to believe that it can never get closer.

You don’t need to live in the shadow of the much worse, though. Knowing about catastrophe doesn’t mean you always bear it, anxiously. You just need to hear what it’s telling you: that the real unlikelihood is that we’re alive at all. That it’s not so inconceivable, actually, that for no good reason, you might not keep living forever. That when you see catastrophe on the horizon, all you can do is to take action to keep it there, to forestall it for another day. Sometimes, it comes anyway.

I’m optimistic about what people can do when they finally conceive of and confront catastrophe. It is the great leveller, the thing that makes truth-sayers of us all. No one who knows catastrophe and survived it can stand idly by in the face of another.

When it lands, finally, despite all of our work and our vigilance, you learn another thing. The only way through catastrophe is to bear it together.

I left my job a couple months before I blew up my Achilles, planning on getting a product marketing consultancy off the ground. After but not exclusively because of the rupture, what little business I found dried up, and all the sure bets I had never materialized into anything real. I began applying to jobs, with little success: it would be 6 months before I’d have work.

I had a faint idea just how much I relied on work to help me manage my feelings, my anxieties, but I never really had to confront just how much until then. Working hard enough left me without the energy to hear the thing that some some small, crushed part of me kept yelling out, over and over: I was out here trying so hard to do the wrong thing, for the wrong reasons. That all of my hard work was not in pursuit of something meaningful to me at all, but meant to protect me from the realization that I wasn’t pursuing what I cared about.

I didn’t want to be a fucking product marketer for developer tools. But it was the only thing I could think to do to avoid staying in a product marketing job that made me despairing, so I made the leap. Before that, I didn’t really want to be the founder of a music startup. But it was the most acceptable version of what felt to me to be a much more shameful truth: that I wanted to just make music, and write, and create things that felt like unreasonable ways to make money. So I just jumped into it, learned to code, and shovelled all the feelings that I was doing the wrong thing into the furnace, and used that heat to push forward.

Before, I used to just try harder! In trying harder, I could believe that the reason I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing was because I hadn’t yet tried hard enough, or completely enough.

Now, I couldn’t try at all. There was nothing left on which to focus. It’s not as though I simply ran out of things in my apartment to do that could’ve given me meaning. In hindsight, I did a lot. I finally learned CSS and made this website. I finished the first draft of Feet of Fury. I made a bunch of songs. I pledged to create apps that I never created. I hoped to dig my way out of this despair, one action at a time, the same way I’d always done. And then that dried up. None of those connected with me, because, again, I wasn’t doing it to connect with myself. I was doing it to try to keep moving away from myself.

Now, I was finally out of tricks to keep me doing what I didn’t want to do but felt I must. And on that count, I can relate to the mythical Achilles. He was a hero whose one weakness came from an act of love: his mother held him by his foot, dipping him into the river Styx and conferring invulnerability upon him on all but his little, vulnerable baby foot.

I was alone, for many hours a day. Alone, and dependent. I had to ask for help constantly, for all the things that previously brought me a sense of self-sufficiency that would dull my sense of self-alienation.

Three dog walks a day. Groceries. Transportation to and from the wound care clinic or the surgeon’s office. I was constantly texting to ask people, sheepishly, for another need I could not fulfill on my own.

Asking for help turned out to be my saving grace.

With help comes obligation. That’s kinda what I was terrified of: I had nothing to offer. I had no way to pay these people back. I had not enough money for a dogwalker, but I still needed my dog to be taken out three times a day. I couldn’t afford cabs to all the appointments I needed to go to.

So I asked for help from my neighbours, who I thought would be the least bothered to help me, as my asks would disrupt their daily routine the least. First from people in my small, walkup apartment building who also had dogs and similar schedules. Then from friends who might come by and stay for a while. Once, in a pinch, from a woman I’d been on a single date with, who lived nearby and really liked my dog. And from my aunt, who really was so generous. And from my friends, who had all been waiting forever for me to ask.

I had ordered a few things to start a bar with in my kitchen, mostly so I could try to recreate all the tiki drinks I’d had at my birthday, a couple weeks before the Achilles rupture. What a night that was! What a time! What a free and beautiful moment with friends! And I set about trying to make that in my apartment, with the folks who’d come over to my place to help, trying to persuade them to stay just a bit longer.

They always did.

There I was, no longer an independent agent, swooping into social settings, the demands on me never exceeding the need to pay my bill and be a capable conversationalist. I was deeply fucking alone unless I asked people to come by, do something for me, stick around with nothing more than a tiki drink and my company, and leave without any expectation that I would be able to do for them what they’d done for me.

Except: they weren’t doing it because they believed I specifically would pay them back.

They were doing it because they believed someday, they might also need help in an unexpected, impossible-to-reciprocate way. And it might not be me who helped, but they’d need someone and maybe many someones to show up.

This is the first time I had ever imagined a world where people did those things for each other. And it was there, in plain sight, my whole life. I needed only to ask for help to be initiated into it.

That changed me. It was the most vulnerable thing I had ever been forced to do, and it is a deeply vulnerable thing to answer, as well. Because if you’re one of those people who shows up, what you’re doing isn’t merely donating your labour into a pool from which to pull later. This isn’t the Godfather. You’re not leaving IOUs on your daughter’s wedding day.

By acting, you’re bringing into being the very thing that seems so unlikely to those outside of it: a world where we are here for one another, even as we’re least able to make it worth someone’s while. A world where we’re united in the mutual sense that we might all face a time when we need the help of others. A world that we won’t know is real or not until we’re asked to show up, or are asking someone to do the same.

This world can’t exist if no one helps. But more shockingly: it can’t exist if no one asks for help, either.

Right now, it might be pretty easy to not ask for help. It might be easy to retreat into a Netflix queue or your partner’s company or the work that you’ve amassed in your long life of believing that the more you work, the more you’ll be deserving of love and help when the time comes.

You’ve always deserved it. You’ve always deserved the opportunity to ask for help. And you’ve always been capable of heeding the call when you hear it. It is in you, and in me, and in all of us. It is what will get us all through this, and it is going to hurt a lot and feel fucking weird to admit the moment when you can no longer get through this alone.

Just know that I am here for you when that moment comes. I have always been here for you.