As a boy I was something of a wanderer. Our family home, broken and then repaired into a chimera of middle-class normalcy, existed in a state of perpetually coiling tension wound ever tighter by dysfunction and abuse. To escape it I often fled outright in long excursions around the neighborhood; at first on foot, and later through the greater range afforded by a bicycle. When I was about nine years old we moved into a house directly abutting a dry stretch of the San Diego River. I spent hours walking the arroyo with a wooden sword in hand and the family dog at my side, looking for ogres to slay.
Most of all I loved climbing trees, which I did with a dexterity my sisters envied. Family outings inevitably found me up a tree, frequently with a book; I read my first Sherlock Holmes mystery while nestled one hundred feet off the ground in the boughs of a swaying pine tree on Palomar Mountain. I had no fear of falling. My strategy for getting down was simple: I would descend to a safe enough distance, and jump. Countless times I did this, and while I sometimes misjudged the landing I never injured myself beyond a few scrapes. It was always a moment of pure exuberance, that leap, like I was a tumbling gibbon from a nature documentary, free for just a moment from the sustained fear of my daily life.
In the fall of 2010 I developed a slight ache in my left foot as I walked in to work one morning. By noon that small seed of discomfort had flowered into a surface abrasion no bigger than in circumference than a dime, inconsequential in size and yet so tactile-sensitive that I couldn’t keep a shoe on without wanting to scream. A coworker delivered me half-shod and hobbling to an emergency room where after some exploratory prodding that left me alternately flinching and yelping the duty doctor diagnosed me with an inflamed joint sprain and sent me home with a bottle of ibuprofen. My instructions were to medicate, elevate, and apply the cold compress.
It didn’t work.
So began months of shot-in-the-dark diagnoses by an increasingly refined list of specialists, all of which inevitably turn out to be incorrect: sprain, gout, bursa cyst. My doctors all agreed something was affecting the nerves in my left metatarsal joint, but no one could agree on what. X-rays and biopsies gave inconclusive results.
Through every moment of it there was pain. In exorbitant quantities.
While an injection of cortisone shrank the dermal protrusion somewhat, none of the attempted treatments had any affect my pain, which remained constant and spreading. Use of the ice pack and ibuprofen provided some transient relief, but the hurt would always return, sometimes with greater force; more than once I woke in the night choking back sobs, the nerves of my left leg afire. It was like some horrid kudzu vine, stopping intermittently to constrict as it crawled ever upwards.
My initial response to this was to grit my teeth and bear it, hoping that the next doctor was right, that whatever treatment came next would rid me of this unwanted ailment. Having been assured by a podiatrist that dropping some weight would relieve the pressure on the afflicted joint I went to the gym daily, my workouts self-inflicted torture sessions as I struggled to keep up with the mechanized pace of the elliptical. This was not due to any particular stoicism on my part, but from a perhaps unwise tendency to compare of my pain to that of others. A good friend had recently lost an extended battle with brain cancer, his final year an interminable agony of chemical treatments and radiation therapy that robbed him of every last vestige of human dignity. After all, what was a single injury in one my feet compared to all those months of suffering?
This was of course foolish, and my late friend would have been the first to tell me so. No matter how steadfast my endurance there was no ignoring the sensation I felt with every single step and the subsequent limp that accompanied it. A casual stroll, once so pleasant an activity, became unendurable.
And it was more than merely a physical matter. Despite the rough and tumble nature of the activities in which I’d thrown myself as a child, my life had been free of any real long-term physical trauma or health issues – and even under those circumstances an external cause would be present. The nature of my injury left no chain of causality to follow link by link to a solution. Some mysterious piece inside my body had deeply and fundamentally broken, the impenetrable nature of its origin making the physical hurt all the worse.
Pain is an excellent agent of change, and under its constant assault all the neurochemical signals of my brain began to rewire themselves. I became withdrawn and sullen, which only grew worse as the matter stretched on through winter and into the new year. Depression is often described in terms like morass or quagmire, as a swamp into which the sufferer slowly sinks. In my case, though, it was more a rolling tide periodically washing over me, at times so gradually I didn’t even notice it. I found myself disassociating my foot from the rest of my body, as though it were some hostile alien thing forcibly grafted onto the rest of me. On the worst nights, when I couldn’t sleep at all, I would lie in the darkness of my bedroom fantasizing about the doctors simply amputating my treacherous limb entirely, desperate as I was to finally be rid of it. It is a strange thing, to fear the mysteries of your own physiology.
Finally, in April, I was referred to a specialist in orthopedic surgery who arrived at a definitive diagnosis: over the years an undiagnosed set of high arches had generated a bone spur that was now pushing on the nerve cluster nestled within in the joint, inflaming all of the surrounding tissues. Months of pain caused by a tiny sliver of bone that appeared no larger than the tip of a pencil lead on an MRI screen. It was a breakdown every single step in my life had been slowly building towards.
Treatment came quickly after that. In the chilled operating room my surgeon reshaped the offending bone and restructured the damaged nerve tissue while I dozed under the bliss of anesthesia. I spent the next two months with my foot encased in a surgical boot, unable to walk save for short trips around my apartment. Confident at last in trusting my pain management to narcotics my surgeon prescribed me Vicodin, and under its influence I felt the first genuine physical relief since the entire affair began.
While the procedure eliminated roughly ninety-five percent of my pain it also altered the shape of my foot, leaving me with a three-inch scar that aches terribly in cold weather. But the experience had injured my spirit more so than my flesh, deeply affecting the way I felt about my body. I have not always been its best custodian, or at times even particularly happy with it, but it had always been dependently resistant to injury and illness. I emerged from that operating theater into a new paradigm where my comfort had been replaced by mistrust, where every new twinge and ache in my feet just might be a warning sign.
Last June I woke one morning to a text message from a friend: Bunch of us are going cliff diving. Want to come?
It had only been a few weeks since I’d been declared recovered and able to return, at my discretion, to regular physical activities, and I still felt unease with my body, too timid to explore what my new limits might be. My scar tissue was an angry red weal. Yes, I replied immediately, not giving myself an opportunity to second-guess the decision.
Our destination was a sunken swimming hole in the Cedar Creek Falls called the Devil’s Punchbowl. Getting there involved an hour-long hike through hot, hilly countryside. It was not an easy trek for me, though I refused to stop for a break.
To my surprise the Punchbowl was crowded, largely with teenagers and college students celebrating the end of the scholastic year. They clung to the boulders and granite cliff walls like chuckwallas, hooting and cheering as one or another dropped into the water-filled basin below. I’d expected us to be alone out there, free to jump at our leisure. The last thing I wanted was an audience of partying strangers.
Still, I wasn’t about to turn around and leave. After observing my more experienced companions’ techniques for landing safely I selected an eighty-foot drop for my first dive. I was geared up in my swim trunks and ready to jump. And yet when I stepped out onto the precipice, I felt fear – a fear that would have been as alien to my reckless boyhood self as it would to a hawk diving after prey.
I’m sure it appeared to any onlookers as though my courage had evaporated in the face of the heights involved and the murkiness of the water; certainly there were examples of that occurring all around us, as one person or another climbed to a jumping height only to lose their nerve at the decisive moment. Though fearsome, the distance wasn’t the issue. I was objectively aware that the water was deep enough to be safe, a bed of soft silt layering the bottom.
What I feared, irrationally and inexplicably, was a return of the pain, of the helplessness and misery and depression that had come with it. To lose control as my body broke down once again, and to have witnesses present to observe it. The taste of vulnerability my injury had provided sat bitter on my tongue and discordant in my heart.
But entropy is the sole constant in the universe, and at best we can only hope to forestall it. The fear of it, of pain and hurt and suffering, is pervasive, a chain we forge ourselves to keep us tethered to our familiar comforts. I did not want to be bonded to that rocky outcropping I stood on by fear of what might happen. I had already lost more than half a year of my life to a hurt that existed all too firmly in the realm of the physical, trapped in an increasingly sedentary existence because of it. I had broken; I did not want to be broken-down.
Taking a deep breath, I kicked hard off the rock into midair, plunging gloriously downward into the cool waters below.
This essay was previously published in slightly different form in Southern California Review, Volume V.