Why I Love the Sound of Falling Off a Ladder

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Yes.  I really know what that sounds like.

I’ll start by saying memory is a strange thing.  How there are big things you can completly forget and little things you remember with absolute clarity.  Sometimes the memory isn’t really whole, it’s just one piece that you can see or hear over and over again.  And you know the story it’s attached to – so that one tiny thing can bring a million thoughts with it.  Everything that led up to and everything that happened after.

There is a sound in my memory that is like that for me.

If you have ever been around home construction, it’s similar to the sound a board makes when it’s tossed from a roof and hits concrete.  It’s a cracking sound – it’s loud and decisive and clear.  That’s the sound my body made when it fell 8 feet off a ladder and hit a hardwood kitchen floor.  It’s one thing to hear that sound with your ears.  But when it’s your own body making the noise, you can hear it inside yourself.

When I was 25, I was living in a loft style apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with 4 other roommates.  My bedroom was the smallest and there was a tiny staircase that led up to it, about as wide as a ladder and incredibly steep.  One side abutted a wall and the other was free – no railing.  It was advisable to grab onto the stairs themselves going up, and to back down them (like you would a regular ladder).  I didn’t always do the advisable thing.

One night, I was home alone and I got up to take a shower.  I walked out the door of my room and about two steps down the ladder/stairs, I lost my balance.  It’s amazing how many thoughts can go through your brain when you know something terrible is about to happen.  While my brain was screaming, “No, no, no, I don’t want this to happen!”, my body was trying to correct itself.  My right hand hit the wall and needed something to grab onto to steady itself, but there was nothing.  All the muscles in my feet and ankles tensed, while my toes tried to grip the plank I was on.  My upper body swayed and for a moment everything went still.  In that moment, somehow my body must have told my brain, this is going to happen, we can’t save her, because it was like a switch flipped.  As my feet completely lost hold of the stair, all panic left me and one concious thought clearly and forcefully entered my mind.  It was probably the only piece of knowledge I had on reserve to use in such a random situation: the memory of a phone conversation I had with my mother, probably years before, where she had said, “I was watching Oprah today and they said if you ever fall from a high place you should fight the urge to stick out your arms because you’ll just end up breaking them.  Makes sense.”  With that, I tucked my arms into my chest, curled my legs into a semi fetal position and thought, “Make sure you’re head is the last thing to hit the floor.”

That’s when I heard the sound.  The sound of my left hip and thigh hitting the floor.  To this day, whenever I’m really hurt, physically or emotionally, I can hear and feel that sound in my body.  The sound of breaking.

Inertia was still moving my upper body towards the floor with great force, so I did put my left hand out to try and stop it, which probably saved my shoulder.  Then what little force was left slammed my left temple into the floor.

I never lost consciousness.  And I didn’t make a sound.  I took a deep breath, rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling.  Then I quietly and calmly said, “Fuck.”  Out loud.  The same way I would have said it if I was in a store and left my wallet in the car or burned a sheet pan of cookies.

So I was alone.  And hurt.  Perhaps badly.  I still had not looked down at my body – intentionally.  I knew that if I saw something crazy I might start to panic.  Moving to and living in New York had already challenged me in so many ways that I knew panicking right now would be stupid.  So I just stared at the ceiling and tried to analyze.  Was I bleeding?  Were there bones sticking out of my skin?  Could I wiggle my toes?  Can I breathe normally?  Does my spine seem to be intact?  As far as I could tell, the answers to those questions were not scary.  So I prepared myself to actually look.

I should pause here to tell you that I have a relationship with God now – but at this time in my life, I didn’t.  We had not been on speaking terms for quite a while.  Kinda like an old friend you had  a falling out with, I had thought about talking to him when I had found myself alone and in a tough spot, but stubbornly I refused.  Whatever the situation, I was usually determined to get out of it myself, no help needed and most of the time I could convince myself there was nothing there any way.  But this was different.  My job required me to be on my feet 12 or more hours a day.  What if I can’t walk now – or ever?  What if this requires surgery?  I do not have the money.  What if this is really freaking bad?  How will I support myself?  What if I can’t get up and have an internal injury and bleed out right here on this floor waiting for someone to come home?

This was all beyond my ability to fix.

So before I looked down at my legs, I said a prayer.  The first real prayer I had said in years.  I asked God to make whatever this was something I could survive with my independence in tact.  I promised to take better care of my body.  I apologized for being angry for so long, over things that were my fault not His.  I admitted that I thought He was there, or at least I desperatly hoped He was, because in that moment I felt with profound exactness just how powerless I was. I threw all of my hope on His existence because I had no other choice.  I needed to believe if I was stranded in the ocean without a paddle that there was something, somewhere that would be kind enough to notice me and powerful enough to adjust the winds so I would be pushed to shore.

I lifted up my head and looked down at my body.  Everything seemed completely normal.  I lifted my right leg, which I was confident was fine, and checked its range of motion.  Then I checked my left.  I could move it quite well but I knew something was not right.  I just couldn’t tell what.  I was actually more concerned with my left wrist because I was pretty sure I had sprained it.  Slowly, I managed to get on my hands and knees and even all the way to standing.  Then I tried to put weight on my left leg.   And if you can imagine what it feels like to have tiny shards of steel being driven into your bones at about 1000 different points – that’s how I would describe the pain.  So – no ability to bear any weight,   But I could crawl.  So I did – up the ladder to my room to where my cell phone was.  None of my roommates were coming home until tomorrow and I couldn’t go anywhere so I just laid there.

Eventually, I did get to the hospital, thanks to one of my roommates help.  I fractured my pelvis on my left side, in addition to breaking a bone in my left wrist (which actually went undiagnosed for 3 months).  The type of break I had did not require surgery or a hospital stay.  The doctor, handing me crutches and a prescription for pain killers, said “You can’t hurt it any more by putting weight on it, it’s just going to be extremely painful.  It should heal fully in 6 weeks and then you’ll probably need physical therapy.  But try to move around as much as you can, it’ll make your recovery faster.” He said I was lucky and dismissed me.

Luck.  Maybe.

Maybe it was also luck that a job on a feature film was offered to me the following week, which for financial reason I desperately needed, and the start date was 4 weeks after I fell.  That the painkillers made me sick to my stomach so I learned to deal with the injury without them.  That I managed to practice walking, first 3 steps at a time between the kitchen counters in our apartment and then outside, due to the mild November that year.  (One of the first outings I had on crutches was to a burlesque show and my roommates paid a cab to take us 6 blocks – totally frivolous in NY but that’s what friends are for.)  That by the first day of shooting – again 4 weeks after the injury –  I was completely off crutches, despite a bad limp and some serious discomfort, and managed to work the full 16 hour day.  Maybe it was also luck that our first day of shooting was scheduled as driving scenes so everyone, including me, was sitting in cars the whole day.  Or that the following two days of shooting were on a beach and because the sand was a pliable surface, it made walking much less painful for me.  Or that despite my injury, my work did not suffer and I ended up being promoted after two weeks, earning the respect of co-workers that would eventually hire me again.  That I never needed a single session of physical therapy and since that injury, I’ve completed 2 half marathons with no residual issues.

Sure.  Lucky.

Like I said – every time I get hurt now, I remember that sound.  And memory is funny.  One sound and I can see everything that led up to that moment, and everything that happened after.

This may seem odd but I will always be grateful I got to hear that sound and that I remember it so clearly.  The sound of my body breaking means so many things to me.  I remember how terrified I was and how much it hurt, but I also remember that I survived – actually thrived.  That it brought out a toughness in me that ran far deeper than I realized.  And it restored my faith that I was not alone.

When it gets really cold outside, I can still feel the line in my hip where the fracture happened, especially when I walk.  Which just goes to show that time does not heal all wounds.  But you learn to live with them – and live well.

I’ll close by saying that being hurt or falling down – in any way – sucks.  Plain.  Simple.  And you can dwell on that – you can lay on the perverbial kitchen floor for as long as you want.  But eventually, you will have to get up.  (I’m probably writing this because I need to hear it myself.)  I’m sure one of the reasons I never needed physical therapy was because going back to work – being forced to be on my feet for 14 hour days so soon after my injury – became my physical therapy.  So get up as soon as you can.  The longer you stay down, the harder it will be to rise.  You can take a crappy thing that happened and turn it into a badge of honor, an amazing story, something inspirational.  Just acknowledge that you’re scared, seek out help and then pull yourself up.

And don’t forget what it feels like.  It may turn out to be one of your best memories.

 

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