IT HAPPENED TO ME: Breaking My Back Inspired Me To Change My Life

I always thought I ‘seized the day,’ doing what I wanted to do, not what I thought I should do. I was wrong. Breaking my back taught me the power social and personal expectations had over my choices, and that life is too short to be unhappy.
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Publish date:
June 22, 2015
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IHTM, fashion inspiration, life changes, back injury

Nestled behind a fence in a beautiful beachside town in New Zealand is a cliff jump the locals call "Suicide Rock."

About 32 feet tall, or three stories high, the jump is a fun adrenaline rush I’d launched off a few times, and a favourite summer activity of the locals. On Boxing Day, we pulled up at the jump site, my heart hammering in my chest, but I knew I wanted to do it and push myself to get out of my comfort zone.

I threw off my summer dress and ran toward the edge. The next thing I remember was feeling a pain in the middle of my back, and the heavy, constriction of my chest that comes from being winded. I breached the water’s surface, let out a winded shout, and grabbed on to the rocks on the side of the cliff.

The pain in my back was the dull yet localised pain of a broken bone I’d felt before. I thought about the pain’s origin: It was smack bang in the centre of my back. As a Physical Therapist I knew anatomically there was nothing there except my spine: vertebrae and spinal cord. Immediately I wiggled my toes, bent my knees, and touched my feet. I felt a wave of relief I could move and feel everything.

My boyfriend dove in after me. I held onto the rocks next to him, regained my breath and said “I think I’ve broken my back.”

Once on the little beach, I knelt on my hands and knees and gently arched and sway my back. I told my friends I thought I’d broken my back as I’d had patients who had done the same injury in the exact same way. I didn’t know it then, but the back of my thighs were bleeding and bruised from the impact, as I’d landed in a sitting position, not getting my legs straight in time.

After carefully and painfully climbing back up the cliff as there was no other way out, emergency CT scans and x-rays deemed I had a burst fracture of my L1 vertebrae, with a fragment that encroached by 10% into my spinal canal.

The week that followed was slow, painful and boring. I was in a plastic back brace that kept my spine still, and I spent most of the day lying on my back sleeping, playing video games, and resting. All I could think was how lucky I was. I was tipped to make a full recovery in eight weeks, with no long term damage, and my fracture was merely a broken bone like any other. But it could have been worse.

Leading up the my injury, I’d had been working as a Physical Therapist, Pilates instructor and part-time journalist, but I wasn’t happy at work. But how could I quit? I’d spent four years at University studying in a program regarded as the nation’s best. My boyfriend of three years had been working elsewhere, and we only saw each other every fortnight for a few days. But, as many people do, I had just kept going; working and living the life I felt I should. After my injury though, I knew it was time for a change and I wanted to become a full-time writer.

After two weeks, from the couch at my partner’s parent’s house, I started learning how to build a website for my writing business, calling potential clients and seizing any writing work I could find.

After eight weeks and a clear X-ray, I took off my brace full-time and started going to the gym. I’d been trying to slowly rebuild my core by doing basic Pilates core exercises while in the brace, and could now ride the stationary bike, and attend real Pilates classes.

Every time I’d feel reluctant to lace up my sneakers and contort myself into my constricting sports bra, I’d remember how lucky I was that my body could do amazing things; be incredibly strong, heal itself and carry me around all day.

This thought motivated me to get strong, fit and healthy again so my spine was supported by large and small stabilising muscles. Six months later, I was back snowboarding. This may sound foolish, but thanks to my medical knowledge and colleagues, I knew the bony healing required for a fracture was four months, and I’d be perfectly healed in six.

A year later, only a few month ago, I’d been rubbing my back when I felt a bony prominence where my fracture had been. Instead of harnessing my medical knowledge and remembering the fracture naturally had scar tissue that felt different than it had pre-injury, I freaked out.

I started gently pushing it and worrying my fracture had reopened. How could this have happened? I stopped, and thought: It couldn’t have happened, the bone was healed, the X-rays and specialists had told me. From fussing and worrying about the site that had caused me so much emotional and physical worry a year ago, my brain remembered the pain pattern I had felt a year ago.

It wasn’t real pain, but my brain confused real pain with the memory of my pain, so it felt the same. I’ve studied the importance of pain patterns, mindset and anxiety on recovery, particularly for patients with low back pain, and the results are astonishing. Anxiety about an injury can be the difference between recovery and developing chronic pain. I was lucky to have this knowledge, but it made me realise how scary my injury would have been for someone who didn’t have the anatomical knowledge I had, which inspired me to write this story.

My injury gave me perspective. I decided to pursue writing full-time, move in with my boyfriend where he worked, and quit my Physical Therapy job. It sounds ridiculously corny, but it made me realise we really only get one shot at life, and it can change so quickly, so I shouldn’t waste time living a life I’m not proud to say is mine.