Everyone loves a comeback story, and when you’ve had a traumatic injury yourself you’ll suddenly take even more of an interest. Australian surfer Bede Durbidge’s heroic recovery from a shattered pelvis popped up on my feed the other day, alongside an article about Owen Wright and what little information there is on his recovery after a wipeout of his own at Pipe last December. I also found myself looking back at articles about Shawn Dollar, the big wave surfer who broke his neck as well as suffering a traumatic brain injury at Maverick’s last year.
I broke and dislocated my own neck surfing a head high day at Boomerang Beach on the east coast of Australia. The wave had closed out and I went to dive under it in the same cavalier way I’d done thousands of times before. It was much shallower than I realized before diving headfirst into a sandbank. My head flexed forward and I blacked out for a second before it snapped back. I walked out of the water holding my head up with my hands.
Tonight, I find myself watching The Crash Reel, a documentary about former pro snowboarder Kevin Pearce’s traumatic brain injury, his determination to continue snowboarding and the realization that he’d likely never return to form. The article that got me watching it talked about how sad it can be watching him today, barely able to ollie. Only after watching the movie did I realize the severe risk he was taking by even attempting to ollie. Much of the film documents his family desperately trying to talk him out of taking such risks. In one scene he’s seen placing his sponsor’s stickers on a board and helmet, ready to film his return to snowboarding.
And in popular culture today, the movie Bleed for This was released this month in the US. I saw a post about the movie in a Facebook group for broken neck survivors, shared by somebody who talked about seeing the trailer in theaters and bursting into tears. In the movie, Miles Teller plays a boxer who breaks his neck and refuses fusion, choosing instead the greater risk of paralysis by opting for traction in what is called a halo. Against all medical advice, he continues to train and makes an epic comeback as a boxing legend. The person who posted about this movie burst into tears because that is what happens when you have PTSD.
As a kid, I was the first to jump off of a cliff and into the ocean. And as a surfer, I had a habit of pushing myself to take more risks, rather than less. Leading up to my accident, I was boxing four times a week and surfing as often as I could. I wasn’t a professional, but I did love it. I liked to draw a high smooth line and shape some of my own boards. I was just about to put the last coat of epoxy on a 6’0” shortboard I had shaped and chambered from planks of wood. Flashing back to the article about Kevin Pearce – had I read it before my accident – I probably would have thought that would never happen to me. I’d know it was shallow, I wouldn’t dive head first, or I would be able to take the ensuing tumble without consequence. Coincidentally, had I not been so fit I probably would have died. And if I was any less strong leading up to the accident I would be a quadriplegic today.
People love stories of overcoming tragedy. We love to be reminded that through grit and determination a person is capable of coming back even stronger. Yes, it’s inspirational but it’s also delusional. It ignores all the other people who have survived tragedy and have fallen by the wayside. Christopher Reeves never got back on that horse but he did a lot of good things. When you have your own injury that involves critical care, narratives like Bleed for This that mythologize bad medical decisions really don’t help. For every Bleed for This story, there are countless Million Dollar Babies in the real world. And when you are wearing a neck brace everyone who has experienced something similar will tell you all about it.
When I broke my neck I thought a lot about when I would surf again. Then surgeons told me it was highly likely that I would never walk again. If I escaped paralysis, I would probably lose control of my bowels. My own mother got on a plane from the UK not knowing whether my surgery had been successful or not. And as I get stronger today (yes, I am walking again) I have to reevaluate my approach to risk and who I am as a person. My vertebrae won’t be fully fused for another 3-6 months and when I make a return to that waterfall I’ve visited with friends every year, I won’t be jumping off the top. Even when it is fused, I know I can’t survive this twice.
Owen Wright and Bede Durbidge have both talked about not comparing yourself to how you used to be before a life-altering injury. Instead, you need to learn to enjoy your progress as it comes. Kevin Pearce has talked about accepting his new reality. That is the bigger story. Returning to whatever it was that broke you isn’t a win, it’s a decision. If I’m lucky enough to surf again, my return to riding waves won’t be what makes my story valuable. What makes my story valuable will be every single step that came before that return.
As someone who cares about me said, “I want to hear the story of the action hero who survives the tragic accident, coming back just happy to be mediocre at tai chi.” That’s the real story for most of us overcoming our own life-altering injuries.