I spent a beautiful Saturday morning in the foothills of the Sierras, walking with a dear friend, enjoying the budding flowers, the music of the American River, the creek-creek of nearby frogs. We hiked a good six or seven miles and returned home by early afternoon, my soul satisfied with the outcome of the day so far.
Sweaty and sticky from our recent sojourn, I doffed my clothes in anticipation of a warm shower. As I turned towards the shower from my bathroom sink, I brought my right foot around quickly and BLAM, smashed my fourth toe right into the edge of the concrete wall.
“Ouch!” A few more choice words may have been said. I thought I felt a snap, but when I put my foot gingerly on the ground, I felt no pain. Relieved, I continued on to the shower.
Later, however, my toe began to turn red. Then it turned purple. Then it swelled up. Then the purple and red began to spread down into my foot.
I swore, I cursed – all the anger directed at myself. How could I be so stupid? I asked myself. It still didn’t hurt when I walked. It hurt to put on a sock or put it in a shoe, but otherwise, it was fine. I’m fine. Wait a minute…
“It’s fine, I’m fine.” I’m in my mid-50s, yet still the same refrain emerges from my brain. It’s my first line of defense at any given moment. I am the meme of the dog sitting at a table in a cafe that is burning down around him while he holds a coffee cup and says “This is fine.” That dog is me.
So I take a deep breath and ask myself, “why is it so important that your toe is fine? And what happens if it is not fine?”
And the answer comes quickly: Through the stress of the last year, movement has kept me going, be it through yoga, dance or walking. And my toe is injured and I can’t move the way I want to, I will have lost my best coping mechanism.
Okay, fine. But how has that ignoring strategy worked for me in the past?
Answer: Not so well. There was that time when I backpacked 16 miles on a fractured femur that merited a total hip replacement (in my defense, I didn’t know it was broken when I went on the hike). And I have a few other examples, although I think that one is enough.
So late Sunday night, I wrote to my doctor and sent a photo of my swollen, bruised appendage. Monday morning her office called and asked me to come in. The radiology technician, a nice man named James, tells me where to put my “ring” toe on the X-ray plates. I wish him good day and return home to work and await the news.
It’s good news: My toe is not broken! The bad news: The doctor still wants me to stay off of it.
“So that means no walking?”
“What about dancing?” She looks at me.
“Are you on your toes?”
“Then no dancing.”
“Okay. What about yoga?”
“You are on your toes a lot in yoga, so, no.”
I feel a surge of anger at myself. Stupid, stupid, stupid. With one klutzy move, I have cut myself off from my go-to, default coping mechanism. HOW AM I GOING TO COPE NOW?!?!?
I take a deep breath and let it out with a sigh: What is my ring toe trying to tell me? Well, clearly I need to diversify my stress relief mechanisms. I need to take it easy. And I need to cut my klutzy self, and my ring toe, a little slack.
I’m telling the story to a girlfriend that same afternoon and she asks me: “Have you elevated it and put ice on it?” There is silence.
“Did the doctor tell you that you should?” she asked gently. More silence.
That surge of anger again. Then sadness. Because my ring toe is trying to tell me I’ve had enough. Enough with the walking, dance and yoga as coping mechanisms. My ring toe is telling me there’s not enough of any of those to help cope with life right now. It requires a different kind of self-care.
So I thank my friend for her gentle and sage prodding. I “buddy tape” my toes together. I get an ice pack. I begin to think of all the ways I can take care of myself that don’t involve movement.
I begin to try a new way to heal. I try to find patience with my body, with myself.
I need to listen to what my ring toe has to say.
The river and the flowers are still there. I will bring my toe to see them again sometime soon.