It’s ten years ago and I’m renting a run-down apartment with a lovely young woman. It’s built inside an old mansion in a trendy part of the city and there’s a crack running all the way up the bedroom wall. This is undeniably related to the fact that the floor sags about five inches down in the middle of the structure.
It’s an unassuming evening. We’re just getting home at the end of the night and I’m excited to set up the new shoe rack she has purchased. It’s nothing fancy but so help me I’m going to have her shoes on display before she even knows what happened!
Okay, just a little packaging to get through before I can set it up. The plastic comes off easily. Bam! Halfway there. Now some zip ties, but they’re no match for me – just two or three quick snips with the scissors and I’ll have this thing assembled. Okay… scissors aren’t in the drawer where I left them… not on the counter in front of me… maybe they’re in th- aw, who cares! I’ll just use a knife.
Okay, left hand holding the shoe rack, right hand holding the knife. Now tuck the tip of the small serrated blade under the plastic tie, and…
MESSAGE INCOMING – IT’S THE BRAIN
“Hey man, you’re about to cut towards yourself. Don’t do that. Reconfigure your hands or find the scissors.”
The message comes in a flash. It’s not a voice in my head, just a quick and clear understanding that arrives all at once. What some might call common sense.
I dismiss it immediately. In fact, I have to keep dismissing it as I prioritize speed over anything else. The message is persistent, but my stubbornness knows no bounds. I mean, c’mon, this method has worked well enough for me in the past. And I’m not an idiot, I know that I have enough dexterity to make the small cut and avoid any danger.
The blade punches through the plastic tie quickly and easily. The process is so efficient that cutting motion has enough energy left over to send the knife straight into the lower joint of my thumb. Until this moment I have never actually seen blood spurting out of my body with each heartbeat, but there it is.
There’s been a casualty in my war on patience, and my heart is beating the downed soldier’s name.
I call out for help with enough urgency that my aide comes running to see what might be on fire. She rushes in to find that nothing is in flames, but instead finds me trying to clean blood off the counter while unsuccessfully trying to prevent more from shooting out.
“Oh my god WHAT HAPPENED?!?”
“Uh, the shoe rack….”
So we head to the emergency room where I was one of two people in the waiting area at 11:30 PM. Somehow it still takes two hours until they can see me. As the doctor comes in to see me I find myself startled by his appearance; I try discreetly to peek at his ID badge photo to see if he has always looked as life-dwindlingly exhausted as he does now.
I can get it stitched up, but he informs me there’s already a backlog of people needing stitches and it should be fine if he simply glues it. I didn’t even know that was a thing you could do. Well, doctor zombieland has endorsed the glue, and I’m obviously biased towards speed over quality, so he squeezes a little dermabond on the flap of skin and off we go.
It sprung a leak the next day while I was two hours outside of town. This led to a three hour wait in a much smaller medical facility. I’m pretty sure getting stitches in the first place would have avoided this inconvenience.
Cut to a week or so later and I’m growing more freaked out by the day because my thumb doesn’t have the same gripping power it once did. I figure it must be weak from the recent damage and I’ll just need to work it out. This is the gripping equivalent of “walking it off.”
At about the week and a half mark, I’m exercising my grip strength while out shopping by carrying several heavy mirrors through a department store squeezed between nothing more than my thumb and forefingers. Suddenly there’s a snap so prominent and distressing that I could feel the shockwave shoot through my bones. This was the unique sensation of my thumb’s partially cut flexor tendon finally breaking apart under the strain.
So, time to get that looked at. Right? That does seem to be the most logical conclusion.
I do not. I go into panic mode and avoid the situation for at least a few weeks. Once I go in to see a surgeon he informs me that the tendon has been sitting coiled up in my wrist and by now has shrunk so it can no longer be attached without extensive surgery.
This is the beginning of a journey that took me through six surgeries by two different surgeons over the following two years. Tendons are taken from different parts of each of my hands and grafted on which then heal into a mass of useless scar tissue, the newly grafted tendons are removed, more are taken, one snaps, emergency surgery… and all of this by a surgeon that is very young and always nursing a wicked head cold.
When the day leads up to surgery five, where he plans to take a tendon from my leg and open up a new part of my hand, I bail a few days before the surgery. I am finished putting my faith into this mess of a medical practitioner that answers all of my questions about my condition with “…I’m not really sure.”
This is followed by more panic and every effort to ignore the problem. As time goes on the damaged tissue tightens up. Before I know it the tissues have shrunk and my thumb is stuck curled up in the palm of my hand, unable to extend far enough to do things like play guitar or even grasp doorknobs.
Early on a Sunday morning about fifteen months later I’m lying in bed, no longer able to ignore the voice screaming out inside of me to do something, anything to address the now heavily neglected part of my poor hand. I spend a few minutes talking to myself about it in a panicked nature, pace around sweating from the fear that is now consuming my whole body, and start dialing numbers found in the yellow pages.
My choice to finally jump into action landed me appointments and a couple of surgeries with an experienced and very skilled plastic surgeon that fixed it up as best he could. But I am now left with a thumb that won’t quite flex properly and definitely won’t extend. I have basic clamping action which is good enough to go about my day. I can even play guitar now! Though it is a little different than it was…
It’s difficult to face irreversible consequences in your life, especially when they come from things that you so easily could have avoided. I had to shut out a lot of common sense in order to land my thumb in as bad a shape as it is now.
I’m already a person that has difficulty making peace with the past. And since we are all our own worst critic you can imagine the judgment that can so easily explode inside of me surrounding this situation. I can’t escape it – I use that hand every single day. And I can always feel the tightness of the scar tissue, the tingling of the damaged nerves, the weakness of the now compromised joints.
So how could I possibly forgive myself for such negligence? Interesting question.
Well, for starters, neglecting something that so obviously required medical attention was not a great example of self love. If this had happened to another person that was under my care I would have had them in for all the proper treatment without any hesitation. Since self neglect has gotten me into this boat I think it’s safe to assume that it’s not going to get me out.
No, in fact, if I were to fight fire with fire by throwing more hate at myself, that would be more like trying to fix the problem by sinking the boat. I never wanted to be in a boat in the first place, I sure don’t want to go down in one.
Okay, so self hate is off the list. But how? When I pay any attention to it all I can think of is what I’ve lost. Playing guitar, practicing yoga, working with my hands, it’s all changed. The crooked thumb is just… in the way. As soon as I allow these thoughts any room they expand at mach two and I start to feel both anxious and sad at the same time.
So I need another solution. The first one I start to look at is what it has given me. Honestly, it’s not a quick process. The patterns of regret and sadness are strong and it’s difficult to get my mind to shift gears. But it starts coming around here and there.
I’ve learned not to cut towards myself. Yes. Once again I realize that’s obvious. But sometimes we only learn the hard way. And if this is how I had to learn, then I will take that lesson and learn it well.
I’ve learned how to take out my own stitches and clean wounds. That might come in handy sometime.
I’ve learned how to look past the horrifying anxiety of this just enough to come up with a list of what I learned. Well hey now! That’s a little recursive but I’m starting to see some real value here. I’ve lived most, if not all of my life with anxiety and I’m grateful for this tool I can use when the anxiety seems out of control.
There it is… for the first time in this process: gratitude. I’m grateful for something that came from this whole thing. Holy crap, I can tell you that I did not see that coming. I’m grateful for the fact that they were able to fix it to some degree. The repair methods they did were fairly new, and the old way was to simply lock down the joint and let that be it.
I’m grateful that I didn’t do more damage like destroy the nerves and have no feeling left at all in my thumb. I’m grateful that the glue on the initial cut let go in the daytime and not while I was asleep. I’m grateful I’ve learned to play guitar with the injury when some would count it as a lost cause.
The bright side here is that gratitude cuts through hate and anxiety, but you must understand it’s not something that comes instantly. Well not at first; you have to keep applying pressure. Over and over, day after day, when you have something you don’t know how to live with just keep looking for something that will work. I promise you it builds up strength just the same as a muscle and before you know it, it becomes a reflex. So if this mangled thumb can become a source of gratitude then whatever else might come at me isn’t much of a threat.
Is there some consequence of your own choices that you can’t live with? How is it affecting you? Let’s discuss making peace with the impossible.