In a past version of myself, I was convinced of my own immortality. Other people got sick and hurt. Not me. I sustained some injuries and illnesses before, but usually I felt on top of the world.
I was physically active: I ran, hiked, swam, biked to and from the grocery store, and did yoga. On the crisp fall days before my injury, I researched summer surf camps and SUP and looked forward to my first half marathon.
I was a Navy helicopter pilot, trained as a weapons and tactics instructor — the “helicopter version of Top Gun,” as I explained to friends. Happiness came through pushing myself harder and faster than others. I believed nothing could stop me.
I was wrong.
A life-changing injury
In September 2016, I suffered a spinal cord injury. A large portion of my neck vertebrae were fused together. The experience was difficult to say the least, and I’m still in the healing process more than a year later.
Between hours of physical therapy, countless doctor’s visits, staving off depression, the time spent on the couch watching “Golden Girls”, and counting the hours until my next pain pill, I learned many lessons.
The hardest lesson to face was confronting my competitive nature in the wake of this injury.
After surgery, I spent months relearning how to walk. I was often frustrated and angry, not only from the pain and exhaustion but also from jealousy. My lengthy spinal cord recovery meant I had long hours to fill that had previously been taken up with work or social activities. In my boredom, I often turned to the internet. The people I followed on social media posted inspiring pictures of the marathons they ran, their backcountry expeditions, their excursions in Peru and Bali.
I hoped adventures on social media would serve to inspire me in my recovery, but instead they repelled me. Each picture I scrolled past felt like picking at a black hole that threatened to eat me up from inside.
After doctors cleared me to start gentle exercise, I felt pathetic. Months earlier, I could effortlessly run six miles; now I struggled to breathe. My limbs were on fire after jogging half of a mile.
In this state, I obsessed about all the things I couldn’t do. I was jealous of everyone else’s abilities. Instead of viewing the small steps of spinal cord recovery as a triumph, all I could see was how far I was behind everyone else.
My true spinal cord recovery
Slowly, through long talks and gentle guidance given by loved ones and friends, I began turning a corner. I realized that while I still inhabited the same body, I changed and lived in a new reality. The person I was before my accident was gone. Someone with new obstacles to overcome replaced her.
I needed to embrace my competitive side in a new way so that, instead of highlighting my deficiencies, I could feel satisfied with each time I increased my capability.
In a world of social media, I would be flooded with pictures of someone climbing Everest or thru-hiking the PCT. I had to recognize that I couldn’t do that thing and that it was okay. The people in the photos weren’t my competition. Their successes didn’t define my own, nor did their accomplishments equal my failures. I could appreciate their experiences and then move on.
The only person I need to compete against was a perfectly-designed competitor: myself.
My inner competitor and I have spent many hours building strength with stretchy bands in physical therapy, taken countless walks up and down the street to build up endurance. This competitor and I had a spinal cord injury. Together, we had problems breathing from a surgery-induced paralyzed vocal cord. And now, with my new outlook, my inner competitor and I both push each other to do more.
Sometimes I want to only go as far as I could last time and then quit. But my inner competitor wants to go one more quarter mile. So I go one more half-mile to beat myself. I want to win against this competitor, and when I do, it’s victorious. When I can’t push further, that’s okay, too; it builds up the drive to prove myself next time.
Life after recovery
One year after surgery, I stood on top of a mountain. I watched the sun shine across the green valley laid below in Shenandoah National Park. I was on a solo backpacking trip, a goal I set during those long hours laying on the couch during my spinal cord recovery.
En route to the summit, hikers passed me on the trail, trekking poles clicking as they flew by at light speed. Before my injury, that would have been me, powering up hills and ending the day sitting in camp exhausted.
But now I took my time. I rested by the creek, listening to the trickle of water across the rocks. I stopped for a snack, lounging on a boulder in the hot sun. While my inner competitor cried that she could do it faster and better, I hiked slowly and enjoyed my surroundings.
I finally began to understand the importance of the journey, not getting to the destination the fastest. My goal for that trip was not to go as hard as I could but rather to simply try at all.
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