Falling Down…and Getting Up
Montana’s snow, and cold, and forest, and early morning conspired to create a perfectly silent place to die. As dying places go, this was not a bad one, but dying had not been part of the plan when leaving the rural vacation cabin for a peaceful early morning hike on snowshoes. When she got sober two years ago, at 21 years old, she never thought she’d die so soon, sober and alone, in an ancient Montana forest.
Twenty-five minutes into her hike, an ice-related fall and tumble down a steep hill resulted in severe injuries. A snowshoe wedged in the rocks prevented crawling out of the predicament.
As a cold-generated sleep – one which would end in death – started to envelop Tracy, she thought more appreciatively than ever before of the AA saying she had heard, and said, so many times: “I can’t; we can. I can’t; we can.” And so, while pointless, she continued to yell for help.
Tracy awoke in a hospital bed, and spent the next several months there as doctors healed her injuries and tried to save her legs from the effects of severe frostbite and gangrene. Finally, Tracy had to decide whether to undergo multiple and ongoing small amputations, or go ahead and let the doctors remove both of her legs just above the knee.
Grief, pain, doubt, fear, and indecision were Tracy’s most constant companions in the period leading up to her bilateral above-the-knee amputations. Indecision fell away while being fitted for and learning to use her new artificial legs.
By the time her ordeal – including rehab – was complete, her constant companions were down to grief and hopelessness, with an occasional visit from pain, whenever she fell using her new prosthetic limbs.
Finally, the last of her uninvited companions – certainty – arrived. She grew certain that she was ugly and unlovable…would never again date, dance, make love, work, support herself, wear a bathing suit (or shorts), swim, hike, or even go to AA meetings.
Today, Tracy is 32 years old, 11 years sober, has been married and divorced, lives independently, supports herself, is active in AA, and has a life that is rich and full – with complete sober, professional, romantic, and recreational domains.
So, of course, the questions that jump off the page are “how did Tracy get from there to here?” and “are there lessons from Tracy’s story that might help those dealing with their own unexpected [similar or different] traumas?” And, could this story be a metaphor for struggle, survival, revisioning, reframing, and victory?
- Turn #1
The first turning point for Tracy was after the fall. She was alone, injured, trapped and unable to do anything on her own to change her situation. Death seemed certain and inevitable. She could have let death slip over her or yelled, pointlessly, for help. Remembering “I can’t; we can,” she repeatedly yelled for help, and miraculously, it resulted in her rescue.
In the midst of their disease, addicts and alcoholics stand at the same turning point. They are alone, injured, trapped, and facing death, and can either give up and die or yell for help. The yell for help may involve walking in the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous, calling a treatment center, or simply asking a friend or their God for help.
- Turn #2
The second turning point for Tracy was after her rescue. It was made clear to her that she could choose incremental amputations over a long period of time or commit to dramatic bilateral amputations that would allow her to be fitted with prosthetic limbs and move forward.
Addicts and alcoholics, once asking for help, stand at the same turning point. They can go to meetings – or even treatment – and be minimalists, i.e., do nothing that will lead to meaningful and lasting change. Or, they can embrace every tool available to create a meaningful change that will allow them to move forward in their lives.
- Turn #3
The third turning point for Tracy was the awkward period of learning to walk – and dance – with her new legs, a period that included many falls, significant pain, lots of embarrassment, and much learning about falling down and getting up. Each time she fell, she had a decision to make – whether to get back up and keep trying, or to resign herself to living life from a wheelchair. She had an AA sponsor who was compassionate, but who also held her to the same standards as always – six meetings per week, five commitments per week, doing Step work, and helping others. That sponsor pushed her to not play small, and to replace self-pity with gratitude.
Addicts and alcoholics encounter this same turning point in two situations. The first is when life continues to be in session (dogs die, parents get sick, the promotion goes to someone else, the car is stolen, etc.), even though we’re sober. The second is when working the Steps reveals the degree of damage visited on self and others. In both of these situations, the recovering person must decide whether to keep doing the work and move forward, or to play small and allow self-pity to drive them out of the rooms.
- Turn #4
The fourth turning point for Tracy was about how to live her life. Professionally, she could have become a coach and worked with other survivors of trauma, injury, and amputation. However, she chose to stay in computer programming, a field she loved and had excelled in. She also got to decide whether to engage life and live fully, or to allow what she did to be driven by what others thought of her, or by what she thought they thought of her. She decided to live fully, learned to [slow] dance with her artificial legs, and discovered there were good men out there who would love her and make love to her without regard for the length of her legs. Her wonderful sponsor was able to remind her of how terrified she was of dancing and making love sober for the first time, and how this was no different.
Addicts and alcoholics also struggle with this same turning point. “How will I, how could I, ever dance sober or make love sober. I’ve never ever done either of those sober; I’ve never even been to a party sober.” But somehow, with the encouragement and shared experience of others, the hearing of those two remarkable words, “me too,” and the laughter of identification, a risk is taken and we discover we can do such things.
Learning and Growing
Tracy benefitted from a couple other things that assisted with her decision-making and growth. One was using a mistake analysis of her situation. She looked at her choices and asked, if each of these was a mistake, which has the least harmful consequences…and that’s the one she chose. For example, she looked at playing small and asked, if that choice was a mistake, what negative consequences would there be? Then she looked at playing big, or at least trying to, and asked, if that was a mistake, what negative consequences would there be? It quickly became clear that the negative consequences of playing small far outweighed those of playing big, and so she played big.
She also benefitted from these three teachings on falling:
- “Failure isn’t falling down; it’s staying down.” – James Patterson
- “The process of growth is, it seems, the art of falling down. Growth is measured by the gentleness and awareness with which we once again pick ourselves up, the lightness with which we dust ourselves off, the openness with which we continue and take the next unknown step, beyond our edge, beyond our holding …” – Stephen Levine
- “While you’re down there, look around – it’s a great perspective from which to cultivate compassion; then get up a changed person.” – Jay Westbrook
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