When I broke my neck, I heard it break. A crisp “pop!” from the base of my neck. I’m told my gymnastics teammates heard it, too, from across the gym.
I’d broken some bones in my feet, the occasional finger, and sprained my ankles a zillion times, but never experienced such an audial reminder that we are, physically, not so different than our tree friends – made up of limbs that can be bent, snapped and broken with just the right amount of force.
That I can tell this story means I’m lucky. That my fingers can hunt and peck to record this story means I’m very lucky. That I can stand up, refill my coffee cup, and walk back to my desk to type the rest of this story means I am very, very lucky. The luckiest.
I fell out of the air onto my head and walked away from it.
It was a relatively easy skill – a transition element – one that gets you from the high bar to the low bar, while demonstrating your ability to hit a handstand. It wasn’t a new skill; it was part of my bar routine so I’d done it countless times before. But these things happen in gymnastics – you lose focus for a nanosecond, your timing is a hair off, your body is slightly askew, you slip – you make a mistake, even on a basic skill, and you open yourself up to injury.
I let go too early. I was supposed to swing on the high bar, release it, flip a little and catch the low bar in a handstand. Instead, my feet and hips whip backwards so wildly – and with such speed that reaching the low bar is impossible. With nothing to catch, my arms flail at my sides, and my body continues to flip, feet over head, sending me free-falling – or, maybe more like careening – toward the ground, head-first.
There is a weird silence to falling. My ears swallow everything up: the air, the light, the din of the room, my breath, time. In the vacuum, flashes of thoughts jockey for my attention: What happened? Where did I mess up? There goes another season. Slow down! Stupid, stupid, stupid. What now?
I am still falling.
This is going to be bad.
I am a rag doll, a dummy.
One of the first things you learn as a gymnast is how to fall. Because you will fall a lot. How to mitigate a fall depends on the skill you’re falling out of, but generally speaking, you want to roll out of a fall. This helps absorb the shock, and protect your head and neck.
And so, I tuck my head just slightly to the right. I believe it’s this split second of clarity, this deeply ingrained lesson, that keeps the fall from being totally catastrophic.
Weird strings of stinging pains shoot down my arms. My body is folded over on itself, backwards, like a scorpion. The world goes dark for a second. When it’s light again, I think, I heard it snap. Can I move my toes? Please let me be able to move my toes.
I wiggle my toes. I wiggle my fingers.
I am okay I am okay I am okay.
My lucky break is called a clay-shoveler’s fracture. Named after laborers in the 1930s who sustained the injury digging deep ditches, tossing clay 10 to 15 feet over their heads again and again, the fracture is caused not by blunt trauma, but extreme muscle force. The muscles along the spine, in tandem with the ligaments, contract and pull so powerfully that bone tears away from the spine, usually at the C6 or C7 vertebra.
According to MedicineNet, “Symptoms of a clay-shoveler’s fracture include burning, ‘knife-like’ pain at the level of the fractured spine between the upper shoulder blades. The pain can sharply increase with repeated activity that strains the muscles of the upper back. The broken spine and nearby muscles are exquisitely tender.”
According to me, it was painful, but the physical pain paled in comparison to the painful thought that I might not do gymnastics ever again.
I was built to flip and twist and swing and leap and balance. I loved it with a passion, and I was good at it. I wasn’t, I should say, one of those phenoms you hear about, whose parents sign her up for gymnastics class after noticing their 4-year-old somersaulting onto furniture, who is scouted by the elite coach during class and groomed to become an Olympic champion. Quite the opposite.
When I was 7, I asked my mom to sign me up for gymnastics class. My oldest sister was a gymnast, and I wanted to be just like her. She was the picture of grace and form – beautiful and balletic when she danced, and even when she tumbled. Elegance for me, however, did not come naturally. I was awkward and clumsy – forming jagged lines when I swung and flipped, stiff when I danced – and I couldn’t remember a dance sequence to save my life.
I was so awkward, in fact, that my mom – unbeknownst to me – asked my coach if she thought it was worth it for me to continue when clearly I was not improving, and even on a good day, resembled an inebriated baby deer, struggling to corral my limbs. This wasn’t my mother being mean, mind you – this was my mother trying to protect me from the embarrassment that would surely accompany my inevitable awakening to reality. But, awkwardness be damned, I loved gymnastics. The jumping, the weightlessness, the dizziness, the upside-downness, the challenge. It was all so exciting. If you’ve never flipped or twisted in the air or swung from a bar like a monkey, take my word for it: it’s really fucking fun.
In the beginning, I didn’t care that I wasn’t as good as the other girls. Or, probably I did care, but my gymnastics euphoria far exceeded any concern about my position on the totem pole. So I kept on keeping on. And then one day, something happened: I started getting better. I started to compete. And then I competed some more, qualified to the next level, and then the next, and so on. I even won a “Most Elegant” award at a competition, which made my mom and me chuckle. By my senior year in high school, I was ranked in the top 10 in the state, setting school records, and strangely enough, executing a skill few gymnasts were doing at the time.
I was successful, but not so successful that I expected a full ride to a major university. Still, there was no question in my mind that I’d do gymnastics in college, so my freshman year, I walked on to the NCAA Division I women’s gymnastics team at the University of Iowa. Which is where I lay, two years later, limp on the mat, “knife-like” pain searing in my neck, squinting to see how many fingers my bars coach was holding over me, and fighting the idea that my gymnastics career was over.
When my heart broke the first time, the summer before, I did not hear it break. It did not pop like a neck, or snap like a tree limb. But I knew it had happened. I drove to my best friend’s house on a sticky August night, and as she hugged me in the driveway, I heard myself cry, “I feel so broken.”
My brokenness was born of a current that had coursed through me for a very long time. At first the current was small. At first it wasn’t a current at all – it was a reservoir, placid until one day something tapped at its edges, creating a tiny crack that opened it, ushering the current on its way. Maybe that first crack was my parents fighting. And then after that: a crack for the panic attacks that would send my little sister and me running into the woods behind the house, gasping for air, for stillness; one for the yelling, for the red hot rage; another for my mother crying; one for realizing that numbness can be worse than crying; one for learning that love was not the stuff of grace; more for never feeling smart enough or perfect enough. The longest, spideriest crack was his pain, and it gave the current its dull, aching force. This pain had been given to him by his parents, and not knowing what to do with it, not knowing how to get rid of it, and not knowing how to carry it alone either, he gave it to us, his wife and children. This hand-me-down pain was seemingly endless, lonely and sad. None of us knew what to do with it.
These cracks under our surfaces, gone untreated, beget more cracks. They carry the current to deep, dark places. They coax you to say yes when you should say no. I can trace my current back through the ancestral cracks, through the misguided yeses that kept it moving, like a scavenger hunt in reverse: there is my divorce, being choked against a wall by someone I loved, betraying that someone, sitting on my bathroom floor carving letters into my ankle to see what the current looked like on the outside, feeling trapped in a life that no longer felt like my own, searching for some kind of stability, searching for wholeness and validation in all the wrong places.
When I was 17, I began a 2-year relationship with one of my gymnastics coaches. He’d been coaching me since I was 13. He was my mentor and friend – and 33 years old. It was, unsurprisingly, rife with drama and cliché, much like a made-for-TV movie. It was also very real, and for a girl who had zero experience with boys – much less men – it was especially confusing. The destruction wrought by it lasted well past a tidy 2 hours with commercial breaks, and demanded many tough therapy sessions to repair.
It was that relationship that left me on my best friend’s driveway, broken. It turned out he was cheating on his girlfriend with me, and cheating on me with his girlfriend. And I have a vague memory of a third young woman in the mix, too. His deceit was disclosed to me by the girlfriend, who punctuated the reveal with, “I hate you. I know I shouldn’t because this is all obviously a surprise to you, but I hate you anyway.” He didn’t have much to say for himself, except to ask me – and even now I flinch at the sheer stupidity and sincerity with which he did, “Was it only about the sex?”
“How can you justify what happened? How could you justify having sex with him?” someone close to me once asked.
Well, how could I stop him? How could I stop myself? How could I say no to a man who had desire for me in his eyes? How could I say no to a man who wrote me poems and letters? And made me mix tapes that opened my world to Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and David Bowie? Who listened to me, who lent sympathy and understanding to my problems? How could I say no to a man who said I was smart and beautiful and wise beyond my years? I had been Girl With Buck Teeth and Red Itchy Skin – the quiet, shy skinny one with messy hair, uncool clothes, an awkward gait, rolled shoulders and sad eyes. I was all these things but never beautiful – especially never beautiful to boys. He was the cool guy with tattoos and a motorcycle. How could I say no? How could I say no when he said, “I love you”? I wanted to believe the trick.
And so I believed it. First, I let him take me with his eyes. At the gym, while he coached me, while he spotted me. When I was 14 and he told me I could be a model. When he bought me a Rolling Stones T-shirt for my 16th birthday. When he told me about the sex dreams he’d had about me. In the parking lot, when he picked me up from high school during my lunch hour. At the mall, drinking cappuccinos. In his parents’ backyard, on the trampoline.
And then when the weather grew balmy, and mosquitos pinched our skin, I let him take me with five shots of tequila, maybe seven. I let him take me on his futon. I let him take me on his mother’s couch. I let him take me in my pink leotard, my favorite – the one with the confetti print. I let him take what little armor I had. I let him take and take and take.
Sports psychologists talk about how an athlete’s personal life significantly affects what happens on the field. That an athlete’s personal unresolved issues tie directly to her ability to focus, and manifest themselves as mistakes during practice or performance.
Sometime between my blindly euphoric beginning and later success in gymnastics, a cruel voice began growling in my head. This voice told me I was not as good as other gymnasts, that I would never be as good. It cursed at me, and told me I would fail. That I would fall or get hurt. Somedays, I could fight the voice, other days I succumbed to it, either self-destructing by tantrum or paralyzing fear and self-doubt.
I had trouble visualizing skills – not the skill itself – I understood the mechanics, but when I pictured myself, in the moment, executing the skill, I had trouble. If I envisioned myself flipping, for example, sometimes my dream-self would stop mid-flip, and rotate the opposite direction. Or, if I envisioned myself running toward the vault, instead of jumping on the springboard and catapulting over the vault, I would see myself slam into the front of the it. It’s no surprise that I crashed a lot.
Skills that I did repeatedly in practice were somehow unimaginable feats in competition. And then they became impossible in practice too. Several routines were watered-down, and stayed that way until the end of my gymnastics career. There was a bug in my programming. I was aware of it, I just didn’t know how to fix it.
The doctor tapped on the light box hanging on the wall, “See that?” I squinted at the illuminated X-ray of my skull and spine in profile. “There,” he pointed. Near the bottom of the film, a small, pointy chunk of bone floated in the outer-space between my skin and my vertebra.
The rogue bone became rogue when my head hit the ground and my body collapsed over it, forcing my neck into a hyper-extended position. Rogue but stable. I wouldn’t need surgery; instead, the bone would naturally fuse back to its vertebra over time. But most importantly, my spinal cord was totally unharmed. I’d sustained the mildest neck injury possible.
I was fitted for a neck and back brace. I applied ointment to my nose and forehead, where I’d gotten minor skin abrasions from skidding across the mat on my face. I did physical therapy to regain neck movement and build muscle. I got massages to work out the sizable knots that formed on my neck and shoulders daily. I had some trouble sleeping due to discomfort. That was it, though, time would do most of the work.
And it did. By next fall, my senior year, our team doctor cleared me to practice. I was elated. Before the neck injury, I’d been competing on bars and beam, but not yet competed collegiately on floor, which was my favorite event. I had a new routine, and was excited to debut it.
Coming back from injury takes a great deal of rehabilitation and strength conditioning. And patience. Maybe I wasn’t ready. While practicing my floor routine, I landed straight-legged on a front flip, fracturing the top of my left tibia. This was too serious an injury and too late in the game to hope for another return. That was it; I was done. My gymnastics career ended on a basic skill, before the season began.
In the Band of Horses song, “No One’s Gonna Love you,” Ben Bridwell sings, It’s looking like a limb torn off/Or altogether just taken apart/We’re reeling through an endless fall/We are the ever-living ghost of what once was/…/The whole thing’s tumbling down/Things start splitting at the seams and now…/It’s tumbling down/Hard.
It took its time – it didn’t happen just after the breakup or the year I stopped doing gymnastics or when I graduated or while I was in San Francisco for awhile or when I said “I’m okay, it doesn’t hurt anymore” even though I was lying to myself or when I got married at 25. I was nearly 30 when the whole thing finally tumbled down. I had a loving marriage, a house, a fledgling career, a circle of friends, a plan, a life. But the brokenness caught up with me. It all felt wrong. And I felt wrong in it. People wanted to know why. I couldn’t say why exactly, back then, and I can’t say why exactly now either. It was because of a lot of things. Mostly – and this is as close to an explanation as I can get – everything felt like it was built on brokenness – even the lovely things, even the sweetest things, even – and painfully – the things I loved. I felt the foundation collapsing under the weight of my brokenness, and I wanted – I needed – to start over. I needed to build a life on unbroken ground. And so, my life – and many people I loved in it, including my then-husband – split at the seams. It tumbled down. Hard.
I fell out of the ether onto my head and walked away from it.
It’s been 16 years since my last flip, and still, I miss gymnastics. I miss feeling the beam beneath my toes. I miss the crunch of adjusting the Velcro straps on my hand grips, the smell of chalk in the air, and the bow of the bar under my swing. I miss the rhythm of a run towards the vault. I miss tumbling, twisting like a top, and dropping out of the air. I miss things I never thought I would miss: sweating profusely in the summer, rips on my hands, uphill sit-ups, bruises on my shins, handstand push-ups. I miss busting my ass. I miss the energy of a really fucking amazing practice. I miss the high of competition. I miss surprising myself. I miss dreaming about what’s to come.
There is a picture, still, of routines I wanted to compete, skills I wanted to master. More than that, there is a gymnast I wanted to be – fearless and self-possessed – who remains out there, unrealized. I look back at my gymnastics career, and at the girlhood I had, and think, I wasn’t done yet.
A few years ago, my now-husband signed me up for a rock climbing class. This is the single greatest, most beautiful birthday gift he’ll ever give me. It was love at first climb. Climbing swelled my heart in a way only gymnastics had; it energized my spirit in a way gymnastics had when I was a girl. It did those things and more. More, because I was different. Because I could give it more, it gave me more.
I made a pact with myself: this time there would be no mean voice, no cursing at myself, no paralyzing self-doubt and fear of failure. There would be no destruction of a beloved thing to prove myself unworthy of it.
I regret that destruction. I regret the way I punished myself. That I couldn’t see my own potential and couldn’t fully appreciate the gift I’d been given. I wish I’d known how to protect myself (though I also wish there had been adults who’d done some protecting for me). I wish I’d known how to be good to myself.
There is beauty in gently carrying regret with us. It reminds us of what we had, what we could have had, what we lost, and what we don’t want to lose again. It reminds us to be kind to ourselves. It reminds us to be compassionate. It reminds us to be grateful for second chances.
I carry mine with me when I climb, and it’s a sweet companion. I squeeze my feet into impossibly small climbing shoes, tighten the harness, tie the rope and grip the rock with my bare hands. My body, arms and feet move in unison, along the rock face, up up up. Maybe I fall along the way, but that’s okay. When I get to the top, I lean back from the anchors to take it all in, some one hundred feet off the ground.
I stretch my hands out in front of me. They are strong, chalked and worn. I look down at the ground where I stood not so long ago, where things have become small, blurry and a little foreign. I twist in my harness and crane my neck to look out across the landscape behind me, following rows of trees, stack by stack, up until they meet the sky. There, the blue-white expanse billows above me, like a parachute softening a fall.
Betsy Lam is a nerdy web developer, writer, artist and rock climber. She lives in Chicago with her husband, little boy Louie, and pup named Mr. Deuce. She eats soup in the summertime, and will finish her illustrated novella someday very soon. This is her first published essay.