24 August 2010

On Fear

I envy my buddies who have never had a serious surfing injury and can charge waves fearlessly. For me, fear is an unwanted and constant companion that holds me back.

On a Sunday in July four years ago, I went over the falls at Linda Mar on a wave that was around shoulder high, sucked forward and down with the breaking lip as it closed out hard. I pushed my funshape board out of the way so as not to land on it, and hit the water head first. The lip still had my feet, and continued to push them forward while my head was stalled in the water at the bottom of the wave.This forced me into a deep back-bend, a hyper-extension beyond my physical limits, which compressed a disc in my lumbar spine between two vertebrae. The pain was intense, and I could barely drag myself back onto my surfboard and paddle in to the beach. Once there, I found I was unable to stand upright while I tried to get the attention of my surf buddy, who had unfortunately left her keys in my car. Sitting for the drive home was also difficult, and I suffered through the night until a chiropractor's office opened Monday morning.

The excellent Dr. Alex Callister got me standing up straight again, but for weeks I could not sit in a chair and spent considerable time with ice on my lower back, sprawled face down across an ottoman in the only position that offered some relief from the pain. I used up my limited new-employee sick time and started burning vacation until, with frequent chiropractic appointments, I progressed to sitting atop an exercise ball for short periods.

Then followed physical therapy, visits to physiatrists, an MRI, more chiropractors, more doctors, more tests, more physical therapy, until it seems I exhausted the limits of what medicine can do and resigned myself to living with disability. For three years, I have been unable to sit comfortably in a chair without good back support, and even then must frequently squirm to relieve the discomfort. Lost forever are the days when I could flop down on a sofa or sprawl in a beanbag chair. As I cannot bend low for more than a few minutes, my husband is permanently delegated tasks such as weeding and scrubbing stubborn stains off the kitchen floor. I need to swim at least a couple times a week to relieve the ache. I can't sit in a kayak so I bought a SUP to keep paddling, and switched to a comfort bike since I can't lean over the low handlebars on a regular one. On the bright side, Dr. Callister accomplished the goal I set for him when I first shuffled through his door: he got me surfing again in about six weeks, and the after-effects of the injury now rarely affect a session.

I've learned that I need to protect my back by supporting it with my core muscles, and now have abs of steel, or at least aluminum. I also have fear. Every time my mind directs me to move off of the shoulder and closer to the peak, or to go for a larger wave or one that could break on me as I catch it, or even to paddle out on a bigger day, there's the wordless scream of fear telling me not to go. Would I have paddled into that overhead wave two months ago if I'd known it would rise up into a 7-foot face as I took the drop? I doubt it; I likely would have quickly paddled in the opposite direction to get out of its way. Whether I think about it consciously or not, the fear of being hurt again is always with me, holding me back. If it was completely irrational, it would be easy to dismiss it, but that's not the case. My dysfunctional and uncomfortable lower back reminds me constantly every day of the power of the ocean and the consequence of a mistake.

And so I watch my unscathed, charging friends with envy. I hope to one day conquer this fear, but it is a hard road.
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
- Litany Against Fear from Dune


  1. fear is poisonous, but thanks for sharing it. i think all too often we're encouraged to hide our fears instead of facing them. props to you for being out in the water!!

  2. Someone once said something like : Only a fool doesn't experience fear, a brave person feels fear and does it anyway.

    Except that there is a fear limit in every person somewhere and fear can also make sure you don't end your life prematurely. So maybe it's a friend as well......'fearing fear' has to be even more stupid doesn't it?

  3. Thanks, Maya. And yes, so true, Michelle.