Crash School

Four weeks ago I crashed hard. Days before Ironman France, on my last ride before packing up the bike, a girl darted into the bike lane in NYC’s Riverside Park—I swerved, braked, went over the handlebars and my right shoulder took the full impact of the pavement. Torn ligaments, AC shoulder separation grade 3, road rash and a bone-deep technicolor bruise on my hip.

Just like that.

I was at my strongest, most fit, tapered and hungry to race harder than ever, and in an instant, broken. Unable to lift my arm. Body shaking with a cocktail of adrenaline, rage, confusion, and increasing pain. I didn’t at first realize the extent of the injury. Hadn’t yet felt the lifted edge of the clavicle bone. Hoped that with enough ice and rest and anti-inflammatories, I could somehow race in a week. When Urgent Care rerouted me to the ER, hope dimmed and pain started to amplify. Within an hour my arm was frozen into a right angle across my chest and my hip swelled into a gnarly sunset. I spent Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend with an unlucky, beat-up crew at St. Luke’s Hospital ER, realizing this summer was going to look very different than I had imagined.

This is my first major injury and the longest recovery I have navigated. Pain shifts from an 8 to a 5 to a 2, and back to a 3 the next day. More range of motion, tons of optimism, then plateau, then less, then more, then less again.

4+ weeks without downward dog.

Without the meditative bliss of running.

Without rocking out with my worldwide tribe of Peloton cyclists.

Without any hard-core, explosive, rhythm-resetting movement.

With a constant dull or burning pain that has its own mantra: your body is broken.

Here’s what I am learning.

Deep healing is slow. But most important stuff is. I believe in slow food, slow love, slow friendship, slow wine, slow base training, slow change. Slow is how something becomes systemic, full-bodied, complex, deeply rooted. I stopped using anti-inflammatory drugs as soon as I could handle it because inflammation is part of healing and pain is part of monitoring healing. (Actually, I swapped them out for a twice-daily ginger-turmeric-lemon-pineapple-honey cocktail and food to give my body the tools is needs to efficiently process, rather than dull the register of inflammation.) We like to treat and doll-up surfaces. We want the life hack, the quick-fix. We’ll settle for the 60% recovery as long as we get to look and kind-of feel like nothing gets us down, or at least not for long. But deep down, I want the unmatched satisfaction of the long haul and the slow burn. One of my Peloton tribe passed along this gem: Patience IS a form of action. Yes.

Sit in the pain.  Mornings are the worst: the joint has been immobile all night and all the lymph of inflammation has built up. The first movement I make in the morning as I reach for the alarm clock is a radical reminder that I’m seriously injured, and it feels the worst it will feel all day. So I go sit in that. Soon after I’m out of bed I sit down and do whatever version of meditation I’m capable of that day— a mantra, a whiney, crooked prayer, a banging Bob Dylan song, as close to nothing as possible—and breathe. From that pain. To that pain. 70% of the time, it goes to some wild, creative, demanding places.

Strength Train. There’s a good chance I will not be physically stronger on the other side of this recovery. This joint has been radically compromised. I believe in the body’s miraculous ability to heal beyond imagination and prediction, to possibly heal stronger— but it doesn’t always. So it’s a good thing we’re a helluva lot more than bodies. And that physical, relational, vocational strength comes from a strength of soul that can only grow in response to seasons of darkness and pain. Also: strength train. What an opportunity to do some funky mobility work. The first couple weeks all I could do was one-armed Warrior asanas and some really simple Pilates moves. So I did them really slowly and really well. If I had broken my leg and could only move my feet, I’d end up with the strongest feet I’d ever had. Everything is connected. I never realized how the shoulder absorbs movement from so many other parts of the body, or how much of the body will shut down to protect one compromised joint. Or how working muscles around an injured area increases blood flow and minimizes scar tissue. Maximize the opportunity to work in unusual ways.

Feed your body as though it is a miraculous, divine organism that has perfect intelligence. Because it is. Give it a rich toolbox of nutrients.

I hope I am moving again in the ways I love very soon. I have never wanted to do a pushup so much. But I hope I won’t be able to return to normal. I hope this injury scars me with gratitude, attention, generosity. Because nothing is a given. Everything is gift.