Obligatory Meandering Philosophical Recovery Post
Nine months ago I walked into a single-stall bathroom where I was working at the Alside window plant in Bothell, jimmied the door handle until it latched, and then sunk to the floor, screaming into my fist. I sat there crying for about five minutes and then replaced my safety glasses, hoped no one would look closely at my eyes, and calmly told my supervisor that my foot was hurting too badly to continue work that day. It wasn’t entirely a lie – I did have a badly ingrown toenail and it was painful enough that I was limping noticeably.
Working a hot air bender is a lot of hurry up and wait. Each bar stays in the oven for five minutes and there’s other stuff to be done before the timer goes off but you still end up with a fair amount of time to just stare into space. It’s a great job on cold winter mornings, it’s also not bad when you have something interesting to think about, but when what you need most is to not think, when the words of some song keep playing in your head and something about them makes you feel like a cold clammy hand is constricting your larynx, it’s enough to get you in the fetal position.
My callouses have pealed off. When I finally got the apparatus to shower without getting my cast wet or having to stand, I could see about four layers of skin shedding off on each finger tip. The little scabs all over my knuckles were going too, and the one on my arm from the rope burn rapping off El Cap, it was just a pink slash by then. Underneath it I knew my muscles were slowly atrophying. When you are first in the hospital you’re such a strange mixture of fitness and injury; tan and thin so that the EMTs can’t find a vein in your arm and the nurses comment about not having enough stomach fat to grab to give you the stupid little anti-blood-clotting shots. Afterward it all runs together. You weaken as you heal.
I can’t imagine what this must have been like before laptop computers and Wikipedia and Netflix. The distractions are endless but true absorption is difficult to find. You want something that will make you forget where you are and what state you are in, and watching Charlie Hunnam’s hair grow out doesn’t always cut it. There’s trashy fantasy novels and Nutella and learning to pee in a bottle without scooting to the edge of the bed, but behind all of it you have this fear, this tremendous, anxious uncertainty that everything, or anything, will ever be the way it was before. While recovering from a previous injury I made the observation that I was honestly not sure if remembering what is was like to move with skill and grace was the best or the worst aspect of re-learning how to climb.
I’ve never been quite sure how to handle the waves of nostalgia that sometimes seem to overcome me; I keep catching myself looking back fondly on times when I know for a fact I was miserable. And not cold-wet-tired-type-two-fun miserable, but angsty-about-the-course-of-your-life, resentful-of-all-your-friends miserable. In a state like this you are worried about reclaiming something you never had in the first place. You want to be well, but you’ve forgotten that when you were, it never seemed to be enough.
Most of the time I pass the hours trying to think of other things, plans for when I am healed or small hopes for the next few days. I can occasionally turn this broken mess in which I find myself into a problem I can sort through piece by piece. But from time to time the full weight of it strikes me and I collapse inward. I see my swollen right ankle or I think of Turin Turambar or I put on Sufjan Stevens and then I begin to feel that a world that I had forgotten is descending upon me. There’s anger and fear and all the rest but mostly it’s just an impotent frustration: I can’t see forward, I can’t plan or hope. I hate where I am and I can’t seem to find my way to anywhere different.
Before this year I had never broken a bone. Now I’ve fractured seven ribs, two metatarsals, and two vertebrae. I’ve also gotten a bad pneumothorax and dislocated an ankle. Over the course of 2014 I spent eleven nights hospitalized with three different climbing injuries. In my circle of friends two others were badly injured or nearly killed as well, one of them twice. None of us are especially reckless – of these six ER-worthy accidents only one, my first, was due to unambiguous stupidity – although I do suppose some of us have more ambition than talent. After my second injury I began to notice a weird linkage between the events: each injury seemed to lead, in some indirect way, to the next, so that if my friend had not cracked a rib tumbling down a hillside in Leavenworth none of what followed would have happened. There is also a circularity in the injuries themselves: a cracked rib at a crag cancels an alpine climb, when that climb is rescheduled I shatter the right side of my rib cage on the descent; when I am recovered I visit the crag where my friend cracked his rib and I dislocate my ankle. I am not superstitious, I don’t believe there are gods that could want us to stay out of the mountains, but it has occurred to me that my persistence in the belief that all of this is merely bad luck is requiring an increasingly determined act of faith.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that “The secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! Build your cities under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourself!” There is an entire critique of this philosophy to be built on the distinction between the appearance of danger and the reality of injury, that only if one escapes the danger does one get the greater fruitfulness and enjoyment. This is the same phenomenon we see in climbing circles, where those who risk everything are idolized but only when they win the gamble, and when they don’t condemnation follows swiftly. But I think there is a deeper understanding to be had if one considers the circumstances of the quote’s composition.
Nietzsche was not a healthy man. He could barely see, barely eat, barely sleep, and this was years before the mental breakdown that put him in an asylum until he died. No one is entirely sure of the nature of his illness, syphilis contracted while volunteering as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War seems the most probable theory. If this was the case then he knew exactly what it meant to pay the costs of “living dangerously.” He lived in decrepit isolation for most of his life and yet insisted throughout his writings on the joyfulness of existence: his prescription was for lightheartedness, yes-saying, a triumphant attitude even in the face of utter defeat. To sit and write was, by all accounts, a physically torturous experience for him, yet while composing Thus Spoke Zarathustra he did it ten hours a day for weeks, and translators say that in German the enigmatic parables and speeches are filled with light-hearted word-play.
I don’t know how he did it, how he could love life so much when all it ever offered him was pain and suffering and disappointment and misunderstanding. The man died paralyzed as his sister and her proto-fascist husband contorted his image and his unpublished writings so that his philosophy could be used as justification for the racial politics of men like Adolf Hitler. Prior to this, most of his work was self-published and completely unknown outside his small circle of friends. Despite making several proposals, Nietzsche never married, and if he ever had an actually fulfilling romantic relationship, there is no record of it. When he writes of health I am not sure whether to laugh or cry.
Although my beliefs do not allow for any such mechanism, I have been toying with the notion of fate. In Tolkien’s Silmarillion one of the greatest warriors is a man called Turin Turambar. The story takes its inspiration from the tale of Kullervo in Finnish mythology. In both a young man of some talent finds everything he puts his hand to come to ruin. In The Silmarillion this is because Turin’s father has been captured by Morgoth, the dark enemy of the world, and has refused to tell him the location of the hidden city of Gondolin, so as punishment he is forced to watch as Morgoth’s will perverts every aspect of Turin’s life. This is what I mean by fate: the fatal will that works against you your whole life, driving you ever toward isolation, despair, and destruction.
I am aware of how melodramatic this can sound. I am aware of how schizophrenic this can sound. Maybe it is becoming easier to indulge in a persecution complex than to accept the arbitrary nature of life, or maybe my true father sits high on Thangorodrim, watching my doom unfold.
In his last published work Nietzsche reiterated something he had said many years earlier: amor fati, the love of fate. To his pain and destruction he owed, as he saw it, his entire philosophy. Pain was “the teacher of great suspicion…Only great pain, that long slow pain in which we are burned with green wood…only this forces us philosophers to descend into our ultimate depths and put aside trust, all good-naturedness, all that would veil…things in which formerly we may have found our humanity.” He clarified, “I doubt that such pain makes us better, but I know that it makes us more profound.” To be happy, to be well, then is to be shallow, suggesting that maybe if I could become who I wish I was, the little that I do actually admire in myself would be lost.
Because of my persistent back pain, it was about a month after the accident before I slept for more than four hours at a time. When I finally did, I woke up and it was evening and I was confused by why it was getting dark; I could not recall when I had last been awake but I had a dim idea that it had just become light when I was drifting off. It took me a good five minutes to remember with any certainty what day it was and to separate the dreams I had been having from what had actually happened.
I am not ignorant of where this all could be going. I know what it looks like to live in chronic pain, heavily medicated, drugs narrowing your lucid mind to a few hours a day, a burden to all those around you. There is a loss here from which I may never recover. It is the fear I have had since I was a child, that I might make some misstep from which I cannot retreat, each minute that passes like a species going extinct, never to be seen again.
Most nights I don’t sleep, or if I do I wake up by midnight, and occasionally during those early mornings I forget about my injures. My whole existence becomes so strange and so singular that all comparison drops away and I pass the time in relative peace, but when the morning comes and I remember what it was like to rise with the day and walk into the oblique light, I feel sick again. The shadows on my closet door the sunrise casts from the grid in my window are indistinguishable from those of prison bars. Most days I keep the blinds pulled and hope it rains.