My bone pulled itself apart, and my scream left the shape of my body in the air as I fell to the gravel trail in pain.
Over the course of the last decade I've mastered the art of falling, collapsing onto my butt, relaxing the rest of my body as I pull tight at the core, tucking myself into the slightest chance of injury. But today it doesn’t work; when I try to swing my leg out and around as I fall, it doesn’t move. The lower half of my leg can’t tuck or extend. Instead, it drags through the gravel as I roll, and blood coats a much worse image: a sharp indent in my knee where my patella has cracked. There was no impact, no twist, just ligaments pulling, and soft bone. Bone so soft that it pulled itself apart.
At first I’m convinced that I’ve just dislocated my kneecap again: bones don’t crack of their own accord. I try to massage it back in place, as I usually do, but it won’t stick. The ligaments attached at opposite ends are pulling the pieces in opposite directions, out of their groove.
My roommate’s voice cuts through the pain, blurred: “...need to get you to...hospital.” She’s drenched in chunks of the banana smoothie I must have thrown in the air as I collapsed. She stops a runner as he passes us and asks him to help carry me back to where we parked five minutes ago. I can’t stop crying even as they lift me. Even breathing hurts, and I can’t help but wonder if I’m at fault: did I mess up in physical therapy this morning? Have I slighted a minor god who now seeks revenge? Was I a banker in a past lifetime? Did some cruel genie overhear my dark innermost thoughts this spring and decide to grant my wish?
Maybe that last one needs some context. After being bedridden with COVID-19 last winter, I never fully bounced back. I slipped from single-room quarantine in Virginia to depression in Arizona. Halfway through the semester, it got so bad that I had to quit my job. I missed classes. The school charged me an extra $9k for not completing my teaching assistantship, while I had no capability to work. I considered checking myself into the hospital at one point, but my insurance doesn’t cover voluntary hospitalizations for mental health, and I was planning to see my parents later that week anyway. So I didn’t check myself into the hospital. What would I have told them? That I didn’t want to die, but I was also terrified of going unwitnessed?
During that time, I wasn’t really eating or sleeping. And when I slept, I had strange dreams, including a recurring one where I was shot in the abdomen. Except it wasn’t a nightmare--it was a relief. Finally I had an excuse to lie still without guilt. One night, as a snowstorm encased my Flagstaff apartment, I laid awake and wondered if maybe I really did want that: an injury so bad that people’s perception of my ability would match what I felt capable of. Nearly every time I walked through the city by myself I had people screaming slurs at me: it wasn’t so implausible that I might be shot. Maybe that’s the thought the genie heard.
While my other hobbies felt drained of affection this spring: no energy for prose poems or bird embroidery or weekend hiking trips, one new obsession kept me going week to week. Thai boy’s love dramas. And, always, I found myself happiest watching the injury/recovery episodes. The episode where one character has a fever or a sprained ankle and the other lead carries them/bathes them/cooks for them/sits on the edge of the bed for hours, expecting nothing of their friend at his most vulnerable except that someday he’ll be better.
Injury is like a cheat code for intimacy. One moment you’re calling each other “bruh” on the soccer field, and the next they have your whole sweaty weight in their arms: they are your encompassing support, your snot-shouldered tissue, your ride to the hospital.
I think that’s why there’s always an injury episode in the dramas. While there’s obvious vulnerability on the part of the person who’s hurting, there’s also vulnerability in expressing care, especially in cultures where nonchalance is cool and “simp” is used as an insult. Offering to spend the night at someone’s place, to cook them their favorite breakfast order (which you’ve memorized), to put socks on their feet...all of this is revelatory of love.
In the TV shows this revelation manifests into romantic tension--revelatory of how desperate we as audiences must be for any sort of intimacy, since we’re often taught intimacy only belongs in committed romantic partnerships. In real life, though, love isn’t limited to your crush on an engineering student/conglomerate heir (thank god). (But after watching all those shows, I do feel a bit angsty that one hasn’t shown up for me yet.) The care one receives after injury is a blessing and a reminder of community, a reminder that individualism may feel less vulnerable for all parties involved, but we’re allowed to care for each other.
In April, I began new medications for my bipolar. They caused some weight gain and made me incredibly sleepy all the time--memories and mornings coated in fuzz--, but they also made me start singing along to the radio again. I was pulling out of the rut. In May, my mom, sister, and I joined a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. I spent the first few days thinking, “These rocks are cool. You’d usually be excited about these rocks. God damn it, act like you’re excited about the rocks.” Occasionally I’d feel real excitement, too: the sun slipping through towering columns of stone to melt green water like glass. Waves washing over the boat through rapids that knocked my whole body sideways. Hiking up a slot canyon and climbing small waterfalls.
That’s where it happened.
Halfway up a seven foot waterfall, I felt my knee about to give, and I prayed for a stay of injury, “Just let me get to the pool on top.” My prayer was heard. I reached the still water above the fall, stood still for a minute, and my kneecap dislocated, tearing my MCL and MPFL and spraining my ACL in the process.
My sister found me in the water, letting the coolness flow over the swelling as I kept moving, slowly bending and extending my leg. I’d popped my kneecap back in place right after I collapsed, but I needed the swelling to recede a bit before I could walk out. My knee was the size of a grapefruit, similarly soft, flooded with the heat of citrus on an open wound. My mom got an ACE bandage from someone with a first aid kit, and twenty minutes after destroying my knee, I hiked out of the canyon.
I cried myself to sleep at camp that night. My tears blurred shooting stars, streaked sand down my cheeks like their trails. I was finally starting to feel like myself again--so much of my identity relies on being active and outside--and here I was broken again. I hate being the weak one. Not that anyone in the group saw me as weak--if anything, everyone was convinced I was a terrifying badass after they saw me hike out. But I hadn’t even pulled fully out of my depressive episode, and I was being dragged back to bedridden.
Two days more rafting, then two days driving up to Washington (my kneecap dislocating once as I drive). An afternoon in urgent care. My orthopedic doctor thumping my file onto the table as the nurse and scribe both comment on how a 23 year old shouldn’t have a knee history so thick. A surgery scheduled for June, my third.
During my surgery, the doctors stitch my MCL back together and reinforce my MPFL with cadaver tissue before affixing it to my patella (kneecap) with a plastic pin. The other end of my MPFL is threaded through a hole drilled in my femur and tightened with a surgical steel screw. I wake up almost immediately after surgery and joke with the nurse as my dad comes in. He dresses me and calls my mom, who’s driving with my sister back to Arizona. The recovery is easier than my first surgery.
The first knee surgery I had was an ACL and meniscus repair my first year of college. After a weekend at home, I went back to campus where I was moved into an accessible room (my dorm had no elevator). It was halfway through my second quarter, and I didn’t have many friends yet, plus I was in a different dorm where I wasn’t part of the community. But on my second day there, one near-stranger brought over a stack of posters for me to hang on the walls, so the new place would feel like home. The LEGO movie poster over my bed watched on as I rotated through my entire skirt collection. Hallmates I’d never met before offered to run to 7 Eleven and buy me ice, and a 7 Eleven employee once walked me home through the rain, carrying the ice bag and an umbrella for me when I tried to buy it myself.
One friend came by twice a week to watch Marvel movies, and classmates stacked full three course meals on a tray for me at the dining hall. Trying to take midterms while bleary with pain and opioids was hellish, as was trying to navigate SPU’s hilly, stair-centric campus on crutches, but my experience after surgery made me grateful I’d chosen SPU. I’d felt very lonely my first quarter, and my injury forced connections I wouldn’t have had the courage to attempt otherwise. For some reason, it’s easier (for me) to ask someone to bring you a coffee and chat when you’ve got a bandage on than it is to ask someone if they’d like to meet you for coffee flat.
After my surgery in June, friends called from around the country asking if they could order food delivered to my house. My gym sent me a “get well soon” card with a cat on it, and someone I hadn’t talked to in years showed up with boba. My mom’s friends brought gifts. My dad, who works on East coast time, made me meals scheduled around my med schedule, helped me put on fuzzy socks, and watched cartoons with me. The doctor told me I was healing faster than most people; I thought it must be all the love.
July and August were a series of house sitting jobs and rejected job applications. I walked a bit further every day under smokey skies. A friend visited me as I house sat in Seattle, and late one evening, on the breezy back patio, she drunkenly announced that she wants to be roommates with me again, like we were in college. So the next morning when she’d sobered up, we workshopped her resume. Within two weeks, she was offered a job near Ellensburg. She moved into the house my parents and I had for the summer, and when that rental expired at the end of August, she and I moved into the back room of a friend’s house--housed but technically homeless until our apartment opens up at the end of September.
Last Wednesday I got home from physical therapy just as she was leaving for a walk, and I decided to go with her.
Her driving me to urgent care--the second time she’s driven me to a hospital.
The first time was my junior year of college. After a traumatic year and two months of medical leave for a depressive episode, I’d returned to SPU and thrown myself into a manic attempt at getting my life back. I had two internships, I was taking over max credits, and I joined the college’s crew team: it was the only sport my doctor said I could do with my bad knees. So I learned to row in a week, and I made it through tryouts. I loved it. I was a collegiate athlete! Unfortunately, my knees aren’t my only health issue.
Stress and intense exercise both trigger excessive menstrual bleeding and cramps for me, and eventually, only halfway through the season, I started passing out from pain and blood loss. The coaches said I couldn’t return to practice until we’d figured out what the problem was and how to fix it. Fair--it’s a major liability to have someone prone to passing out on a boat. But as someone who’s had this issue since ze was fourteen and has never found a solution, it didn’t feel fair. It felt devastating. Regardless, I scheduled with some doctors.
Usually I’d ride the bus everywhere--listening to McCoy Tyner as water streaks the glass gives me major main-character vibes--, but for this specific appointment, an internal ultrasound, I couldn’t imagine catching a bus back across the city afterward. So I asked Vera to drive me.
For the last month, she’d lived in the apartment below mine while working as an editor for the student newspaper. She’d get off work at two am and we’d walk across the city together, muddy sandals at Gasworks park. Or we’d get late night dumplings in Fremont. In my insomniac hours, I trusted her and relied on her, maybe that’s why she’s the one I asked to drive me to the hospital. During the appointment, she waited in the parking lot for me, sitting alone in a car without AC.
At urgent care last week, though, she comes in. She helps me check in, running the paperwork and my insurance and my ID to the front desk, and she waits with me until and after my mom arrives. The three of us cram into a small room with the PA and nurse, my wheelchair blocking off the door. They decide to take some x-rays while I’m there. After my second x-ray, I see the RA’s face go pale through the doorway. The nurse looks queasy. The RA comes back into the room. “Your kneecap is...shattered,” he says. “Take--take a picture for them,” he tells the nurse. Both seem shaken.
Since you’re reading this, you probably know me, so you probably know that I have a scary high pain tolerance, but since they didn’t know me, they aren’t prepared for what the x-ray shows them. They wheel me back into the office, and the RA calls my orthopedic surgeon. He asks me some standard questions before prescribing antibiotics and pain meds: “Any chance you could be pregnant?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yup. Not sexually active. My chances are probably even lower than the virgin Mary because I had access to sex ed in high school.” The nurse laughs, and the RA asks about drug use and drinking.
“I’m like the opposite of rock and roll,” I tell him. “No sex, no drugs, no drinking.”
Vera cuts in: “That’s okay, I’ll drink for the both of us.”
The RA laughs and responds “Teamwork,” as he shuts the door behind him.
The door’s already shut as my mom chips in, too: “And I’ve got the sex covered.” I’m surprised the RA doesn’t come right back in when he hears Vera and I shrieking in response. I’m miserable, but it helps to have everyone laughing and teasing.
Vera drives herself home, and I slide into the backseat of my parent’s car. My mom picks up my dad, and together they drive me to my doctor’s office in Yakima. They look at my knee and immediately schedule me for a Friday afternoon emergency surgery. They’re unsure how my knee fractured like that--it’s a complication that shows up in less than 1% of MPFL surgeries, and only when the bone is soft or weak, which mine wasn’t at the time of surgery.
All Friday morning, it rains, and I sit on the carpeted floor in front of the open door, feeling the rain patter pattern in the way I breathe. Because my uterus doesn’t like to be outshone, my period starts. As my parents drive me to Yakima again, I notice a whole shrubrush hillside has become wet soot. Blackened burnt sage in the rain.
At the hospital, my IV set up only takes two stabs, and they’re able to use a vein in my forearm. I joke that all my time on the upper-body machines at the gym this summer hasn’t been in vain after all. (Before my second knee surgery, it took seven pokes to set up an IV, between three nurses, and the second nurse left in tears after they’d called in someone who wasn’t even working that morning). The joke masks disappointment: I so desperately want to be strong, but instead I keep ending up broken. My surgery is only supposed to take an hour, though, and I’m trying to feel hopeful.
My eyes flood with tears before I have the chance to open them. The first thing I’m able to focus on is a clock: it’s just after 5pm. The doctor comes in to tell me that my surgery took twice as long as expected: they didn’t anticipate just how soft my bone would be. Usually, for piecing back together a kneecap, they’d put in two parallel screws: in mine the screws are going in opposite directions, and there’s a washer. He fades from my consciousness.
From the desk behind me, the nurse is encouraging me to take deep breaths, three at a time. The pain is making it hard to breathe, and my oxygen level is concerningly low. She puts an oxygen tube up under my nose and brings me water. I was intubated during surgery, but I can’t feel the soreness in my throat yet because my knee is overloading my senses. They can’t let my mom come in until I’m stable, but the nurse lets me talk to her on the hospital phone. It’s my fourth knee surgery, but this experience of waking up is much worse than all the previous ones. My hope feels withered, worthless.
Eventually my mom comes in, dresses me. I’m wheeled out to the car. My parents put me in their bed and throw a blue sheet on the couch for themselves. Before I fall asleep, my mom climbs into the bed and holds both my hands as I sob into her side. I’m unemployed. I’m homeless. My master’s is unfinished even though all my friends graduated this spring. This summer my great uncle died, my dog died, and my knee betrayed me twice. I have an amazing support system, but I’m so fucking tired. I’ve spent weeks living out of a suitcase on someone’s couch. And now I literally can’t stand on my own two feet. I’m in so much pain. And I feel so worthless.
On Sunday, I post a selfie on Instagram with the caption, “I’m feeling completely brain dead/betrayed by my body. Somebody tell me I’m cool and capable cause self affirmation isn’t cutting it rn”
A part of me thinks it’s inappropriate to order people to give me some sort of specific comment--like we aren’t supposed to ask for words of affirmation or that they don’t count when I’ve told you what to say. But when I ask people to show up with boba and they do, that care counts, so why can’t bids for emotional needs be valid too? And as the post comments fill up with “You are cool and capable” (and some other emojis and adjectives, too), I feel relieved. These are the words I needed. They’re words that I’ve needed all year, but was ashamed to ask for when my depression stood alone, outside of its conjunction with injury.
Injury is an invitation to intimacy.
If only we treated mental health the same. Why is it so much easier to ask a friend for help turning on the shower when your leg is broken than when you’re three weeks into a depressive episode? Still, I’m finding that all this practice I have with physical injury is training me to better ask for help.
A week and a half ago, I felt myself slipping into a depressive slump, so I asked a friend to come over and tattoo me. We got bubble waffles and bubble tea at a local shop, and then she etched the words “on earth we’re briefly gorgeous” onto my stomach. A friend from Colorado spent an hour on the phone with me. Care is physical sometimes, but sometimes it’s kind words or a gesture. And despite what the Thai dramas teach (most k-dramas, too), it’s not only for lovers.
The fact that my kneecap shattered completely sucks. The whole year feels like a dis-aster--in my mom’s words “Jupiter is not aligned with Capricorn for you right now,”--at the same time so many of my relationships have been strengthened and revealed this year. For that I’m grateful.
Now if it could be someone else’s turn with the injury episode, that would be nice.