There are a few different kinds of sickness.
There’s the kind where you skip a day or two of work, feel like ass, and then start to pull through. Then there’s the kind of sick that takes you to the doctor, who gives you a prescription, and in a few weeks or a month, you start to get better.
Then there’s the kind of sick where the doctor comes in and just gives you options, and the honest truth is how you’re feeling right now is probably the best you’re going to feel for a while. Which isn’t very promising because you wouldn’t even be in there if you felt like fresh peaches on a Sunday morning.
Since I’ve started lecturing around the world, and even more so since the SmugMug film came out, my inbox has been on the receiving end of countless emails from people that life has fucked with the short stick. The emails are heartbreaking, educational, and inspiring. I met one woman in Toronto who had been run over in an almost identical situation as mine and she was in her first year of the healing process. Photography was also her escape. We chatted about how shit the surgery was, and the whole “learning to walk again” bit was lame as fuck. I told her the same thing a random dude in an elevator told me when I was still on crutches: do all the exercises the physio people tell you to do and more. The harder you work, the better the pay off. It does get easier, but it’s probably always going to hurt a little. I wonder how she’s doing now…
It’s funny how extreme situations can make a family member out of a total stranger. It’s because there’s something so deeply personal about sickness and trauma, that this person whom you’ve just met really understands what you went through, and you understand them. It’s the kind of club that no one wants to belong to, but once you’re in, you’re a member for life. Enrolment requires the kind of suffering you didn’t know existed, the kind you’d never wish on your worst enemy. While you were in that hospital, full of tubes, and your entire world was just trying to get enough energy to take another breath, you were unaware that anyone else even existed. But the Family of Pain is out there, and one day you realize you’re not alone. How refreshing that this random person “gets it” in ways those closest to you are unable to grasp.
This honestly goes for any kind of pain, of course. Not all pain requires hospitals. I’ve learned that pain is such an individual experience. What might be enough for you to handle can break someone else, or vice versa. There’s an entire internet out there dedicated to the way the human experience causes suffering that no one wanted or asked for.
When something comes along and rocks our world so fucking hard, for some people there can be such amazing clarity. Suddenly, all that shit that we thought was so important just melts away and becomes what it really was: nothing. All the chains that held us back from doing what we did suddenly just fall off. When there’s a clear finite amount of time left on our clock, our spark gets a little brighter. Why are there so many stories of people who were told the worst news and they just turned their entire lives around and suddenly became happy, free, and adventurous? Why does it take some of us (most of us) getting to a place that’s so fucking bad that we burn like an inferno into ashes and become the smoking remains of what used to be a human? We had a certain personality set and a collection of rules for our lives, and suddenly our world changed. We suffered, we broke, and we turned into something else. For better and worse.
Whatever gasps its first breath beneath that pile of ashes is the ‘something else’.
I’ve learned to be grateful for my suffering. It has allowed me to change my life in ways that I was unable and incapable of before. I was so caught up in trying to control my life and everything in it and being miserable that I couldn’t that I entirely missed the big picture. Being a full time photographer was a fucking joke that I shared amongst my friends. I was too afraid of being broke, of suffering, of making a decision that was the wrong one. I was missing the point entirely. Because I was already doing all of that.
Then the universe fucking backhanded me, and suddenly the only option I had was to take photos and try to make it work. It wasn’t pretty, but after a few limping years (pun not really intended, but it actually works), I’m still here, still breathing. I sometimes wonder if I’d decided ‘fuck it’ and just done it, would I have been able to save myself the lifetime of pain that I now carry with me, that will likely never heal until the medical world makes some huge advancement?
If I’d decided to take photos full time before I rode to work that morning on my bike, what would be different now? Would I have avoided the accident that day only to be hit with it again later? I’ll never know. And I honestly don’t spend that much time thinking about it anymore. What I do wonder is why I let myself suffer so much just to try and catch glimpses of clarity of what my life was actually like. I also know I’m not alone.
I remember laying on the side of the road, trying to control my breathing while the blood was leaking from my body on to the pavement beneath me. I remember feeling the sag between my knee and ankle and wanting to throw up in my helmet. I remember trying to move my fingers and toes. I also remember my only thought, as I watched my life shift completely in front of my eyes, was “Well this changes things.” That was it.
My moment of clarity, and I wonder why it took losing almost everything to see it.
Could it have been done in a better or different way? I wonder as I go forward with my life, are there any huge changes that I’ve wanted to make but I’ve let fear prevent me from doing it? Of course there are. So the question becomes, do I wait for the universe to come along and slap the fuck out of me and break down all my laws for myself before I make those changes? Do I need to let myself suffer so much and put more stamps in my ‘Family of Pain’ membership card like a fucking coffee club? The girl behind the counter smiles and says “At 10 you get a free lesson!” At this rate I’ll need a new card. ‘Cause there’s too many holes punched in it already and there’s not much paper left.
The rules for huge change in life seem pretty consistent to me, the subtleties change from person to person of course. Getting sick sometimes is just the fast lane, with cheat codes, because you are only given two choices now. Rise or fall. The catch is both are equally hard.
The patterns we woke up with the day before, are no longer an option, no matter how bad we may want them to be. It just isn’t going to happen.
The lies that we told ourselves about our rules of life fall away, and the authentic rules, the ones that really matter, suddenly become obvious.
Every day, small, consistent action towards that new life and new personality.
If you’re reading this, and you want to make changes in your life, fucking do it before it’s too late. Maybe you don’t need to be curb stomped by life to figure your shit out. Maybe you do.
Maybe you’re reading this from your own pile of ashes, taking a deep breath for the first time. Try and see the sunlight and see you’ve been given a chance to see things differently and to do them another way. The benefit of getting sick is that sometimes we don’t have a choice and all of the sudden things seem slightly different. The little things. Our ego has no choice but to sit the fuck down and our consciousness suddenly stirs.
A giant awakens.