The five year anniversary of my big climbing accident (I know I refer to this as “my accident” but in truth, there were a lot of other close calls and less injurious accidents before that from various sports e.g. broken collar bones, tail bone, ribs etc.) fell on 16th October. In past years I have usually made some kind of email or Facebook announcement for a few reasons. My primary reason was because I wanted to let all the people who supported and continue to support me know how much I value them and how their support got me/gets me through dark times. As the first anniversary of my accident approached, I decided being by myself was probably not the best idea. So I decided to throw a “Celebration of Life” party, where I had a big BBQ in a grove at Stanford for all my friends and family who could make it. The point of the event was not to celebrate me, but to thank those who played a role in my journey. Even though I limped along in a clunky leg brace, it was still a really wonderful day where I was surrounded by so many people I cared for and who were genuinely psyched/ecstatic that I was a) alive, b) not a vegetable, and c) somewhat ambulatory. I think in subsequent years there was also a secondary, much more egotistical reason though. I think there was a degree of “Look at me! I’m alive! And I’m doing X, Y, Z” sentiment.
This five-year mark felt different though. As always, I did not know what emotions and feelings would surface. Five years seems like simultaneously an eternity and like my accident happened yesterday. I live with the effects of my accident every moment of every day; so in some ways one would think that I have become conditioned to my physical reality. But I also remember vividly how things felt before my accident; the absence of certain pain, insomnia, anxieties, everyday inconveniences; the ability to skin up mountains carrying heavy loads, cycle and run long distances. I think the hallmark of an optimist is the sense that there is not enough time to do all the wonderful things this world and its people hold. I think the hallmark of a pessimist (or at least someone who is quite depressed) is that the time between the present and our death is far too long. I really do vacillate between the two.
But back to why I did not make any kind of announcement on 16th October of this year. I think in some ways I wanted to see what it would be like to be quiet this year. I told a few close friends, but that was it. Otherwise, I quietly reflected (and ruminated – not a good thing) on what had happened over these years and more recent milestones, such as my time in Yosemite and Tuolumne, getting back on big walls, climbing with Chris, and the relatively high level I was climbing at post-accident. In some ways, these all felt “enough” and that I did not need to advertise my accomplishments (I resisted the urge to type “”accomplishments””, as I know these quotation marks diminish what I have achieved – a tendency I continue to struggle to break free of).
My 34th birthday is also today, and my birthday has always been a time of reflection over the past year(s), taking stock of my present situation and, again, vacillating between gratitude for what I have in my life and frustration/depression/sadness, that I might not be where I want to be – physically, professionally, personally etc. Believe me, the self-flagellation is better than it used to be, but that psychology of diminishing achievements, quickly re-calibrating expectations but channelling this desire for continued improvement in a self-destructive way, is still there.
I know the best birthday present I can give myself and the people close to me is to be kinder and gentler to myself. Having my psychological makeup certainly makes life harder than it needs to be; but the hardest part by far is seeing the toll this exacts on the people I love.
This year’s birthday was a very low-key one. I am going to have a nice birthday dinner (a nine-course tasting menu, wine-pairing etc) and remind myself that maybe these small pleasures are things that do not need to be “earned” or one must feel like they need to be deserving of.