I've been trying for the better part of a week to find these words. And I still don't really have them - not yet, anyway - but I'm going to try.
I always thought the end of my treatment would come with some fanfare. There would be a gradual ease of physical therapy, some high fives from my orthopedic surgeon, maybe a celebration where I drank too many glasses of white wine and ceremonially burned my crutches. Realistically, you can't burn metal - but a girl can dream.
Instead, it was so quick I almost got whiplash.
Monday, my scan showed normal bone. Whereas before, a dent was visible in the side of my hip, a physical missing piece evident to even the untrained eye, it was now solid white.
That's it, my surgeon told me. You're cleared for everything.
Two days later, I left physical therapy with DISCHARGED stamped across my file. Now that I'm running, albeit slowly, without pain, they explained, there's not much use in weekly visits. The PT office is in a basement and in a disgustingly convienent metaphor, I emerged, blinking and unable to see in the sharp sunlight.
It was all over? The months of sheer agony - which may seem a self-indulgent way of putting it, but I know no other way to convey the magnitude of the pain - the appointments after appointments. The scans. The bone tests. The reflex tests. The exercises. The supplements. The lost abilities. It was over? This quickly?
I was lost. What's next?
"You're cleared for everything," he'd said. "You're cleared for life!"
But how does one re-enter a life that has been disrupted? I can't get the last six months back. I wouldn't want to take them back, anyway. But that doesn't mean I have a handle on what should come next.
I went for a run the next day before work, on a trail near my office. It was quiet and peaceful - and dark. My body, unused to running, felt awkward - my sides cramped, the pounding of my feet sounded uncoordinated to me, and I was aware of lost strength, lost time. And then, uncoordinated and unsure, I tripped over a branch and sprawled to the ground. It was a quick fall, the kind where you don't have time to make a sound, the kind where your hands shoot out at the last second to catch you, skinning your palms in the process.
I was so afraid to move and discover that I'd re-injured myself that I lay facedown on the path, willing the pain away. All I could think about was the last fall, the fall, the fall I didn't remember, but the fall where someone told me I didn't catch myself - the leg just gave out, just crumbled underneath you and you collapsed at once - and how badly I wanted this fall to be different.
When I caught my breath, I pushed myself up. No pain came, but I walked for a minute, shaken.
"So I'm just healed?" I'd asked my doctor, and he'd told me yes, you're physically healed. But mentally, he said, there would still be challenges.
"You have to learn to trust yourself again," he told me. "You may feel phantom pain, or even real twinges. You have to trust your own strength, your own ability."
It's hard not to feel like I've been given a second chance. Physically, yes - I don't even take walking to the Metro in the morning for granted anymore. But emotionally. How I choose to live my life. What challenges I decide are next. Everything feels like a second chance lately.
Who am I after this injury? How do I live with the constant anxiety that it will happen again, that somehow, with one misstep, I will lose my steps?
Many nights, I dream that I'm falling and when I go to stand, I can't. Sometimes, my leg is missing. Other times, I dream the pain's returned. Each time, I wake up sweating, heart pounding. Sometimes, I wake up crying. Always, I have to stand up and test my leg. It's happened at 2am. 3am. 4am. After, I try to get back to sleep by replaying the moments I've felt strong recently over and over in my head, on a loop.
So I have to learn to trust myself again. I have to learn to put my strength in both legs. To realize that what I learned while injured, that I have more to do, that I want more challenges, that I am worth fighting for - I have to learn to trust in those instincts.
Cleared for life. I'm not sure what it means, but I'm really ready to find out.