To Fall and Rise Again

We can plan all we want, but ultimately, it is in taking steps, shaky as they may be, that we find our intended life paths. When we misstep, we can choose either to sit down and wallow, or to pick ourselves up and continue more steadily and with greater ease than before.

When I left for Cusco, Peru, a few years ago, I had no idea that my five-week stay would impact me so profoundly. I have often wondered if I would have ever stepped into the airport security line, waving good-bye to my family for what should have been the last time, had I known what was in store for me.

On the fourth week of my trip, I toured Machu Picchu with five friends from my volunteer project. We arrived at sunrise, and after lunch it was finally time to hike Huayna Picchu, the 1,180-foot mountain overlooking the ruins.

The last thing I remember is entering Huayna Picchu’s trail, but I have been told that it was just ten minutes into the trek that I plummeted 100 feet down the mountainside, a sheer drop for the first 20 feet, sliding on my back the next 20 feet, and then rolling horizontally for 60 feet. I was unconscious or semiconscious for the next six hours as rescuers worked to get me out of the thick brush, onto the path, and through the six-hour journey back to Cusco.

Miraculously, I did not sustain any broken bones or brain hemorrhages. My head trauma was later categorized as a moderate traumatic brain injury. For months after the accident I suffered from headaches, fatigue, nausea, light sensitivity, disrupted sleep, and memory and attention problems. Recovery from a traumatic brain injury can take years, and for the first three months (which many neurologists claim to be the most critical for recovery) I did not receive adequate treatment, which is, unfortunately, common among brain-injured individuals.

During this time, I had to drop the few classes I had attempted to take. I could not find answers anywhere; my friends struggled to relate to me, just as I struggled to relate to them. They were contemplating colleges, dances, and jobs, while I contemplated suicide. I could not cope with this sudden, seemingly unjust change. I had fallen so deeply into myself that the world around me was no longer accessible. Inside, I was drifting in an overwhelming, tumultuous sea of bitterness and rage that eventually went still with unfeeling. It grew stronger in its stillness, however, and there were many times I did not try to fight.

It is human nature to despair, but it is also human nature to lift our heads up and keep treading, even if we do so wearily. For me, it was my faith in God that kept me trudging along through my depression. And over time, the motionless sea of my soul developed a current once more, propelling me to the surface. I finally received proper treatment, learned how to explain my condition to my friends, and grasped a plan for my future. I was given an extra year of high school in order to meet my graduation requirements at my own pace.

Certainly, that plan was vastly different from my peers’, and I mourned passionately for the life I believed I was meant to have. Eventually, my grief changed into grudging acceptance, and finally, jubilant gratitude. I no longer wonder if I would have boarded that plane had I known its ultimate destination; in a heartbeat, I would board it, and with even more enthusiasm than the first time.

When people hear my story, I often see pity in their eyes, but I am now far from self-pity. I tell them that I am grateful it happened, that I like myself better now than I did before. I am infinitely more empathetic, I can withdraw from events and see them from a larger perspective, I have lost anything about me that was shallow or superficial, and I have met people and gone places that I never would have had I not fallen.

They say that the higher you climb, the farther you fall, but I also believe that those who sink the lowest have laid out paths by which they may rise to the highest.

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