Why My Fall Made Me Feel So Ashamed
The morning after I fell, I lay in bed assessing the damage. My knees were banged up. The right one was painful and swollen. I felt for the bandage my husband had secured around my chin the night before. It was still in place, sticky with blood. My jaw ached. I ran my tongue along my teeth; none seemed to be broken. A near miss, I thought. Disparate verses from one of my favorite poems, by Wislawa Szymborska, looped through my mind: It could have happened. It had to happen. It happened, but not to you.
We had been walking back to our car after dinner with friends. The night was clear. The sidewalk smooth. Because it was raining. Because of the shade. Because the day was sunny. What had I been thinking about the moment before? Plans, probably: my meetings the following day or whether we were running low on coffee. I wasn’t paying attention to my feet on the pavement or my body moving through space, until both knees and my chin hit the ground. I shot up instantly. “I’m OK,” I said to my horrified husband and friends. “I’m-OK-I’m-OK-I’m-OK.” I practically chanted it, like a prayer, as if saying it might somehow make it true.
The thing is, I wasn’t OK. I swung my legs out of bed and tested my weight. I made my way to the top of the stairs, grabbed the banister and took them one by one. Each step felt treacherous, as if the world had tilted on its axis and I alone were about to slide off. It was a familiar feeling, by which I don’t mean that I experienced injuries like these before but rather that a shadow had revealed itself, a powerful reminder that life is uncontrollable and unpredictable and we are fragile. She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway knew the score.
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Here’s what they don’t tell you about falls: You keep falling again and again. You fall off curbs. You fall down the stairs. You fall in the shower. You are an astronaut, floating and flailing through space, while everyone surrounding you seems to be on terra firma. Life reveals itself as that childhood game, Chutes and Ladders, in which you spin the arrow and land on an unfortunate square and down you go.
Your mind does this to you, and it does something else, too.
When we fall, we are consumed with embarrassment and its more toxic cousin, shame. Mortified by our fragility and its accompanying whisper of aging and death.
Most days, we can pretend that we’re in control. We supply narratives when something happens that doesn’t make immediate sense or threatens our illusion of safety. We like nothing better than a reason. In the case of a fall, we might first look outward: a crack in the sidewalk, a hole in the pavement, those stupid shoes. (My mother once tripped and fell on West 86th Street and considered suing the City of New York.) But soon, a more insistent voice seeps in: It was my fault. Now they’ll see me for who I really am: weak, frail, alone.
A fall is different from an accident or an act of violence. It is not something done to you but something you have done. I had been an agent of my own near catastrophe. My trust in myself had been broken, along with (as I soon learned) my jaw.
This is what shame does: It isolates us by telling us we’re weird and wrong. That’s the only way it can do its work on us.
As word of my fall circulated, I wanted to hide. I’m-OK-I’m-OK-I’m-OK. When I did speak with people, I emphasized how lucky I was, how much worse it could have been. I reframed myself as fortunate, even though my toes were curled around the edge of the abyss.
But then I posted about my fall on social media, and the comments flooded in. There were lovely well wishes and plenty of prayers and light and offers of soup being sent my way, but what surprised me were the stories. For a while, the comments section of my Instagram account became a community of people, mostly women, not only commiserating but also relating, identifying and offering the details of their own falls: fell off a horse, at a wedding, after tripping over our dog, carrying my toddler daughter, flat on the sidewalk, breaking my sacrum, from my racing bike, into a ditch, in my own home doing nothing but the very ordinary, while getting into a rocky boat, hitting my brow bone, hard in the shower, displacing a tailbone, passing out, down the stairs, breaking my neck and face, shaken to the core.
Shaken to the core. When we’re injured, we’re suddenly separated from the herd of the healthy. But now I saw that I wasn’t alone. Difficulties befall (that word!) every one of us, so what is the use of self-blame and shame? The chutes are just a spin of the dial away. We could choose to see that as petrifying and unacceptable, or we could understand it as tender and beautiful. Acknowledgment of this fundamental human truth might just save us.
A season has passed since that evening I lay facedown on the pavement. I have stopped reliving the moment during every waking hour, though it still haunts my dreams. My body is recovering, but I suspect the healing I need to do goes deeper than fractured bones. In the waterfall of comments made by strangers who reached out their hands to grasp mine and pull me back to my feet — in their willingness to say me, too — there is a lesson to be learned. If we all could acknowledge our shared fragility, shame would disappear.