I had noticed, even aesthetically admired the hefty anchor chain on the exposed seafloor of the harbor. Its rusty orange contrasted with the shades of grey that describe everything on Scotland’s Easdale Island: rocks, walls, the walkways among the former quarry workers’ cottages. And I saw it again as we made use of the low tide and took a shortcut to go for a swim in one of the flooded slate quarries, where the water is a little warmer and sweeter than the open sea. It is a mystery to me why I still fell over it. I must have hooked my foot in one of the chain links. I felt the torque in my bone a fraction of a second before my body hit the ground. The onset of pain was immediate, as was the swelling, like a balloon being inflated, bulbously irregular at first, squeezing through the spaces between the ankle bones, muscles, and ligaments, about to form itself into a thick, throbbing cushion of protection.
Luckily I wasn’t on my own and it wasn’t far to shuffle back to the Old School House, where we were staying for a writing holiday. I was leaning heavily on my husband Larry’s shoulder and letting out moans and groans with every step to help with the pain. Then it was phone calls, a ferry to the mainland, an examination by the kind doctor in the local surgery, a drive to Oban hospital for further diagnostics. The X-rays showed a diagonal fracture of my right fibula, just above the ankle. A “spiral fracture,” a poetic term for something potentially “complicated” as the doctor said. We had to wait for news from the next biggest hospital in Paisley about how to stabilize the leg. Two German families occupied the small waiting area. A boy who had injured his ankle jumping from a sand dune on the Isle of Mull seemed to be rather enjoying the swing of his crutches; his two brothers a little envious perhaps? They didn’t talk much, the five of them, and there was a patient hum in the waiting room; the containment and security of being part of a family unit. A woman had her bent arm in a sling—broken in two places it turned out; and they wouldn’t be able to get the last ferry back to the Isle of Jura. Her husband managed to secure the last room in Oban for the night. We all took an interest in each others’ calamities and appreciated the comfort of our home language. The staff were calm and professional, but their freezer was broken and we weren’t able to re-freeze our bag of peas to help keep the swelling down. A taste of the National Health Service’s money-saving policies; it “drives me nuts” the nurse said. The radiologist readily complied with my request to obtain a copy of the X-ray: she took a photo with my phone.
Having bemoaned the inexorable rise of the smartphone many times, I now appreciated being able to send the ghostly picture of my ankle, with those ominous long crack lines, and then an image of the pristine plaster cast to friends and family straight away from the hospital. And to enjoy the sweetness of receiving their condolences, almost instantaneously in some cases. I reminded myself to let this positive experience linger, taking it inside myself like another form of medicine; the healing balm of belonging and friendship. This is using brain plasticity to its advantage; my bones may be getting thinner with age, but brain cells in areas of the brain connected with wellness can spread and thicken in response to my conscious choices as to where I put my attention. I am “letting in the good,” to use psychologist Rick Hanson’s term, and counting my blessings. My back is not giving me any trouble, how wonderful. My shoulders are in good shape and getting stronger by the hour from using the crutches.
People send me emails and text messages telling their own stories of calamities, trapped nerves, chronic pain, which opens my heart to the universality of human suffering a bit more readily than usual. The most common and avoidable form of suffering is focusing on pain in a way that leads to more of it, by getting stuck in resistance to it. We are all prone to this, trying to push away our unpleasant experiences in ways that get us more entangled in it. And we are also all prone to skimming over the many, many often inconspicuous pleasant experiences that each day offers.
So what are the other learnings from this experience that perhaps may also be helpful for you too, dear reader? After all, the average person experiences two bone breakages in their lifetime, but even if that is not you, it is likely there will be other accidents that have the potential to disrupt your life and equanimity. Or could they be opportunities to enhance your quality of life in surprising ways? Three days after the incident, I would honestly say that I have had a good holiday and much of it is due to my mindfulness practice, imperfect as it may be.
As I am meditating propped up in my bed, leg raised upon the cushions I would usually use to sit cross-legged on the floor, I am feeling pain in my ankle. I am thinking of my mother who is in “constant pain” since a similar ankle injury a few years ago from falling off her bicycle. It is not easy to keep empathizing with “constant,” it leads to compassion fatigue. But “constant” is just a concept that doesn’t withstand careful investigation. When my friend Vidyamala was in agony after an accident that led to a lifetime of chronic back pain, she had a breakthrough experience:
I knew, not intellectually but in the marrow of my bones, that life can only unfold one moment at a time; I saw that the present moment is always bearable and I tasted the confidence that knowledge brings. Fear drained out of me and I relaxed.*
So I decide to explore this for myself, for a while anyway. After relaxing into the support of the cushions and letting my heart soften, I focus in on the sensations emanating from under that big white cast that still looks a little alien. There is pulsing, tearing, rippling, a layering of sensations, subtly different from moment to moment. For a while it seems that focusing on it makes it more edgy, intense, but I try to relax into it, to trust the process just for this moment. Letting the sensations float in a larger space of relaxed, loving attentiveness. Being open to what happens, not expecting anything. Yes, this seems possible and it gives some peace.
Sometimes I work with pain in this way, sometimes I shift position, take painkillers or distract myself by immersing in something compelling like painting or watching a movie, letting the pain become a smaller part of the overall picture. Both approaches are valid and important; there is no need to be a spiritual superhero of endurance. Sometimes I feel impatient with the lack of mobility and weary with pain, but overall, having a broken ankle seems to have become a quietly normal experience. It is simple, even if I will probably have to cancel some work and it takes four times as long to go down the stairs.
“Throw the crutches down the stairs, then slide down on your bottom,” the nurse had advised. “And here she comes,” Larry welcomes the clanking and clutter of aluminum on wood. I mentally rehearse ascending to our second floor flat in Glasgow. Meeting the neighbors on the way, the kids having fun seeing a grownup in this ignoble position.
So this is it, really, it’s simple. Mainly, remembering what kindness feels like, again and again, which is not difficult when being on the receiving end of so much generosity. The young ferryman giving me a ride to the pier in the only electric vehicle on the island and standing ready to catch me in case I should fall while levering myself onto the boat. It turned out that he had broken his hand the previous year, which perhaps explained his patience and kindly encouragement. The careful, gently exploratory touch and kindly eyes of the woman doctor in the local surgery. The building-savvy neighbor who came over to see whether the chairlift that had been fitted for our dear friend Kay who owned the house could be made to work (sadly not).
Before Larry goes out for a swim he asks if I need anything. It’s tricky carrying a cup of tea when you need both hands for crutches. When he returns his eyes are full of sun, wind, and shimmering waves. I have a choice here: to envy him or to join in with his pleasure in my imagination, dive with him from a three-meter-high slate ridge into the deep, cool, indigo-blue, soft sea.
* Living Well with Pain and Illness, Vidyamala Burch (Piatkus Books 2008)