Events went stepwise, in vignettes. I felt my left foot hit and turn but that became immaterial as my leg hit my chest and I folded down on myself. If you’ve ever broken a bone or been otherwise injured, there is a moment where you realise something has gone wrong, and your body feels different. It has been, for me in the past, a pain-free moment but one where a strange feeling happens, when you realise that something in your body is damaged and it takes a moment to recognise that you’re not working properly. It is almost as if part of yourself has gone and you’re left wondering why this has happened, and then the pain starts.
There was this slow moment when I could feel my leg hitting my chest, crumpling upward and every moment something was going wrong. I felt a sharp slicing sensation behind my chest but distant, almost muted and I had a vague wondering thought, ‘I think I’ve cut my liver’.
A silly thought, a sideshow, irrelevant. The same thing happened when I was with Sea Shepherd in Antarctica. On New Year’s Day some of the crew jumped into the sea. I did a pin-drop from about two metres wearing only shorts, the shock of the cold was physical and as I sank deeper and it got darker my mouth opened and water rushed in. I remember thinking a wonderously stupid thought, ‘Oh, the water is salty’.
I landed and crouched there, winded and wondering. I put my hand to my left chest, not slapping it in some dramatic way but touching as you touch a lover. Curving out of my chest was a rib.
I have never felt this before but I knew it was a rib in a kind of slow way. For some reason I gently, softly pressed against it and it flicked, popped, back into my chest wall.
Then I disappeared.
I think that, just as most (but not all) people have an outside self as well an inside self, we have an inner and outer body. Our inner body is there but mostly we aren’t aware of it. If we cut or bruise our outer body, we feel pain and discomfort but we function and whinge. If something more damaging happens, when inside we are injured, the sensation bypasses and takes over the mind at a level deeper than consciousness but demanding conscious attention. The outside world goes and the inside body becomes the world. The sensation of the wrongness inside, the nerves you’ve never felt fire, the inner trickling feelings, the funny inside twitches and movements where there have never been any before flows past your conscious and takes over. In other words, your perceptual universe collapses into the wound.
I did not black out, as I remained crouching, while the pain took over. It did not come from a place; it was everything, expanding out to swamp my senses. I saw nothing around me, heard nothing, and thought nothing. It was not quite no-space. There were shooting little sensations seeming from a long way away and travelling through the main pain from random directions. Visually it seemed as if all around was white fuzz, almost exactly like the interference on a tv screen.
Who knows how long nothing happens? I saw the rock step with a scattering of gravel around the tip of my shoe. I saw my foot turned under myself. My perceptions were returning, but in fragments. The ground a foot ahead, the edge of a fence, the corner of a building. I not see very far; there were no stars in the sky, it was all black, there was no Hobart skyline. I stood up, quite slowly probably, but quick enough for me.
The old phrase, ‘slow is quick and quick is slow’, is very true. And here is a thing: The world was rocking and turning, I would describe it as the motion of a coin as it pirouettes at the last moment before falling flat to the table. I was in the middle of a rolling bowl.
I suppose I was swaying.
There was nothing to breathe, no air at all, and all I wanted to do was to leave, to go home.
My first step was disaster as another pain swept up my leg from my badly sprained ankle and I fell forward in an effort to regain my balance. This caused such pain from my chest that I immediately stood and the ankle was ignored.
Conscious thoughts of no immediate practicality appeared. ‘This is the direction to the car, walk’. I walked, through a revolving world, the 100 metres or so uphill to the car. Nothing much was there; I was more aware of inside myself than anything much else beyond. Outside appeared in flashes, my foot, a car park marking, the edge of a wall, a streetlight. I had the vague thought, more a feeling, of ‘car’, I felt a need to get into the car, it would be good to get into the car, and of course I felt every little click and movement inside and thought about them. More inane thoughts, ‘Is my spleen bleeding out?’ ‘What have I broken?’ I think about and feel my lung sensation, ‘Has my lung collapsed?’ My body tells me, ‘no’, in short painful gasps.
It was late, it was dark, and I was alone in the middle of a deserted carpark. The car was a haven; the memory is seeing the key in the lock, putting the key in the ignition, the yellow streetlight making everything black and white which was very odd, because I could see the light was yellow in the air. Sitting in the seat pushing back from the steering wheel, the back of my head against the seat and the pain, pain, pain. The car was good, I could smell it and it smelt good, like home. I was safe.
I have no memory of the drive home other than feeling my hand turn the ignition key and two hands on the steering wheel. I do recall turning the corner and seeing my house and feeling good about that. There were visitors and I felt the need to maintain. The pain was indescribable and I couldn’t even touch my chest, even the movement of clothing, the jarring of footsteps, just goddamn breathing was too much. Yet for some reason I did not want to reveal myself,
I ‘maintained’, had a short conversation and went into the kitchen to make a drink.
It is only later that one of them mentions that I seem a bit unwell. ‘I think I’ve broken a rib’,
I reply, ‘There’s not much to do about it except let it heal.’ Normality had returned.
In fact, I had not broken a single bone. What had happened was that I’d dislocated three ribs. Two were dislocated at the rear of the chest, possibly driving inward. The third, the one that protruded, was ripped out from the front edge of my chest. Ligaments were split, nerves severed, and flesh torn. The x-ray revealed that my diaphragm was depressed, flattened on my left, not really working.
Such a mundane thing really, falling over and injuring your ribs. It did give me a moment of ‘inside’, when you get an injury that pulls you out of the world and to somewhere else.
The outside body is more controllable. I know a man who fell bushwalking near Maleleuca and got a stick through his knee, it took two days for him to walk out to Cockle Creek and the doc told him that he’d split the ligament below his kneecap. An ex-partner copped a billy of boiling water in the lap up near Cradle Mountain and walked out with second degree burns down both thighs. These are ‘outside’ injuries, ones we can control and work over. Inside injuries, internal injuries that disturb you at a deeper level, not one that you are not normally aware of, are the ones that make you aware of life, no matter how mundane that life is.
How do you put your pants on when you’ve had three dislocated ribs? Very slowly. The first step is waking. It takes a long time to find a position where you don’t feel as if your body is being torn apart and you can sleep. I have only one position that takes a while to get into and if it isn’t right one of my ribs clicks back and forth with each breath. Waking up is a process of slowly raising up until you’re on all fours waiting for the pain to go. Then move slowly, crablike, to the edge of the bed and rotate upright. With one hand on the dresser, lower vertically to get the pants.
Alternatively, if you’re feeling perky you can lower en pointe with the left leg extended behind and straight. Standing tall work the right leg into the pants, when they are on that leg, drop the pants and work the left foot into the pants. Once more, with grace, lower vertically and retrieve the pants, pulling them up and buckling. I have not mentioned the socks because after the first experience of trying to put your socks on you will leave them on your feet forever. The total time to put the pants on is about a quarter-hour.
Now the shoes… as I whinged by email to a friend, now is the time that you wish you have a partner so they can tie your shoelaces. While standing work your feet into both shoes. Lower to sit on the bed. You only want to do this once. Lean forward slowly, absorbing the pain. It is best to breathe in and sort of brace your chest on your leg to provide maximum stability, least movement and pain. This is extremely painful, but it is pain you can anticipate and absorb and control; otherwise the pain immobilises you. Quickly tie the laces and repeat with the other shoe. Slowly rise and feel the fire subside. The best solution is the one I mention in a comment to some friends on FaceBook: Jon has discovered the Joy of Slippers … no shoelaces!
Jon Sumby Hobart 2008
This is a story about how to put your pants on. There is a certain triviality to this story, mundaneness, as all that happened was that I felt gravity, took a fall. The night, as they say, was dark. I was tired and leaving work, walking up an embankment towards the street where my car was parked. I did not see, or forgot, that a flight of stairs cut through the embankment so I simply stepped into nothing. This took no time at all, no time at all. By the time I felt myself going I had landed, heavily, and it is at this point things began to go awry.