Four months ago, a poor landing at a rock-climbing gym jolted me into a new phase of my life. Life has pivotal moments that can change you forever. For some it can be overcoming the death of a loved one; for others, it can be surviving a life-threatening illness. For me, it was a severe knee injury and surgery.
I’ve been rock climbing for almost a decade now. What I love most about scaling rocks is training your brain to go against your first instinct of fear: to return to safety by any means necessary. While rock climbing, that fear creeps into your mind and body, but the trick is to push it down and not let it consume you. You take a couple deep breaths, look ahead, and continue on your path to the finish line.
One unusually sunny day in February, I decided to go bouldering (climbing without a harness) at my local rock-climbing gym. I started with a couple easy climbs and then decided to try one challenging route before calling it a day. I picked a route that ended on an overhang, about 20 feet up. After a couple of failed attempts, I forced myself to try one more time. My competitive spirit wouldn’t let the wall win. This time I completed the climb, let go of the last rock, and then had a freak landing where I heard three loud cracks in my left leg.
Who was I?
I couldn’t walk for days, and my MRI results revealed that I had torn my anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament, and meniscus in my left knee. I would need surgery and it would be a six-month recovery. I’ve always taken pride in challenging my physical and mental limits. This shook me up. Who was I, if not the person who chose fight instead of flight?
Post-surgery, everything hurt. I was nauseated, constipated, and in unbearable pain for weeks. The pain was more than I could have ever imagined. I cried every day and couldn’t describe the sense of hopelessness I felt. I was disillusioned with what my recovery would look like and had no idea that I would not be close to baseline for at least six months.
I know I wasn’t near death, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of rebirth. Everything was new again. I had to relearn how to walk and navigate the world with a giant knee brace and crutches.
A new world
I’m a comedian and had been doing comedy about five nights a week before the injury. Comedy was my world: When I first tried it three years ago, I knew, for the first time in my life, that I had found something I really wanted. I started to put all of my energy into a comedy career.
Being an introvert and a performer is tough. Giving so much of myself on stage every night left me constantly drained. I didn't really have the energy or mental space to think about anything but self-care. I’d prep for a show during the day, perform at night, and then recharge every moment in between. I started to view every human interaction in my day as either a good use of my energy or a waste. I became disgustingly self-absorbed and my world felt very small.
Running out the clock
After my injury, it was hard to return to comedy because I wasn't in the right emotional or physical state to entertain people. When I first started wearing my knee brace, I felt really self-conscious. Being backstage was a strange experience: Some of my comedy colleagues couldn’t look me in the eye, while others stared at me like I was an oddity. It hurt how few people actually asked how I was recovering. It affected me onstage and off.
I always thought one of my strengths as a comic was that I was in tune with my audience. I could gauge what they're into and where I could go with my comedy. My first couple of shows back were rough because I didn’t feel in sync with the audience at all. I was in so much pain that all I focused on was running out the clock. I chose to talk about somber topics because I was in a somber mood. My shows fell flat.
A surprising recovery
But my injury had an unexpected upside. I wasn’t physically able to make comedy my world again, so it became just part of my world, giving other aspects of my life space to flourish. A piece of my old self came back to me. My happiness wasn’t tied to how my show went every night, and my friendships strengthened because I had the energy to care about someone other than myself.
After a couple months of doing comedy sporadically, something in my brain shifted. I’ve been performing improv almost every Saturday night for over a year, and I often felt like I was in a yearlong rut. All the self-doubt started to dissipate while I was performing with a limp. I didn’t care anymore about chasing perfection, because I already felt so broken.
I enjoy performing now more than ever. Being onstage and doing comedy seems so much easier than the brutal months after surgery. All the things that used to scare me no longer hold weight. The injury informed my work as a comic by testing my ego, vanity, and strength. It’s good to know I still have more fight in me than flight.