The Most Awesome Adventure
The following is an edited transcript of the story that Theresa Ward presented as part of Trigger Warning: A Night of Stories on June 24, 2017 at 7 Stages. To view the performance, go to YouTube.com/watch?v=sr59cFzFoEUThere was a season of my life when I associated risking death with being awesome. The more dangerous the activity, the more I wanted to do it. I was really into motorcycles, scuba diving, wakeboarding, snowboarding and four wheeling on mountaintops.
So when my boyfriend Richard* and I broke up in the summer of 2012, I don’t think it came as a surprise to my friends that I wanted to “throw myself out of a plane.” I wasn’t devastated. I was just an adventure junkie who needed a distraction from contemplating yet another failed relationship.
Skydiving was addicting. By early October I had completed the training and was ready for my first solo jump. I was really nervous, but really excited, too. Because I wanted to play the part of “real badass skydiver,” I wore cool reflective wraparound shades instead of the dorky, oversized training goggles. That was a poor choice; the wind flew under the shades and blew my contacts out of my eyes. My parachute had opened, but I was literally flying blind two miles above the earth.
Miraculously, I made it to the landing zone in one piece. My fellow skydivers strolled over to congratulate me. They were surprised to see me so shaken up; I was hyperventilating and had tear stains on my face. Immediately, they began to reassure me and rebuild my confidence. There’s a very strong camaraderie in high-risk sports — a deep bond of trust and encouragement. This sense of belonging and community was as wonderful as the adrenaline. They recommended that I pop in a fresh pair of contacts, trade in my shades for the safety goggles, and go up for one more jump.
The last jump was gorgeous — it was just before sunset and the sky was eight different shades of pink and orange. I jumped with Lance and Emily, a couple that double-dated with Richard and I over the last summer. Even though Richard and I had broken up, I stayed close with Lance and Emily. They were great people and I loved spending time with them.
This time, all was well until the last 20 feet. You see, there’s a lot of math and physics involved in skydiving. You have to calculate how close you are to the ground, and when the right time is to pull your brakes, which pushes hot air up into your parachute to slow you down. Landing is supposed to be as soft as stepping out of a chair.
But I miscalculated. I didn’t pull my brakes at the right time and I hit the ground going way faster than I should. Even with the chute fully open and functional, I hit the ground going about 20 mph, which is the equivalent of falling off a two-story building. I crumbled, rolled, bounced … and screamed. There was a blinding, searing pain, and the next thing I know there’s an ambulance. An hour later in the hospital they told me that I had a compression fracture in my spine. I would heal, but it would take weeks of bed rest.
Lance and Emily stayed with me that whole night. They drove me home and were wonderful caretakers. Over the next few days they helped with my prescriptions, getting food, and keeping my apartment clean. During that time, my mind was reeling “Wow, that could have been so much worse” and “Life is so short.” My community of friends and skydivers helped me adjust to this new physical state, but there was also a strange mental state; I had gone from a wildly independent adventurer to a woman who couldn’t even hobble to the bathroom by herself.
I was really caught up in these self-absorbed thoughts one morning a week later when Lance brought me breakfast and told me some shocking news — he had broken up with Emily the night before. They were a serious couple who had been together for years. So this was a big deal, and I knew Emily’s heart must be broken. I knew the right thing to do would be to reach out, offer my support, and return some of the generosity she had shown me. I did that a little bit. But I was also feeling pretty entitled. I told myself that I was still a victim here, and in plenty of pain, and I was really soaking up all of the attention from Lance. So I let him continue to come over and bring me breakfast. And I didn’t tell Emily.
Fast forward a couple weeks to my birthday. Lance brought me a gift, and broke more news. He told me that one of the reasons he broke up with Emily was because he had feelings for me. I kind of suspected that, but I didn’t suspect that he would want to share that with Emily and tell her all the details of the time he and I had been spending together. She was, understandably, horrified, and felt betrayed. As word got around about the choices I was making with Lance, and the secrets I was keeping from Emily, my community turned away. No more camaraderie. No more sense of belonging.
Who could blame them? It was as if when I broke my back, I broke my moral compass as well. To make matters worse, instead of repenting and cutting Lance out of my life, I felt entitled to surround myself with those who didn’t judge me, and would keep giving me love and attention. Lance was the only one, so I kept seeing him, rubbing salt in Emily’s wounds.
There is no version of this story where I’m a hero, or even a victim. I’m definitely the villain. My body recovered quickly. What took much longer was recovering my integrity and reputation. After losing trust with Emily and others, I had to start from scratch, relearning what it looked like to have solid values, mature priorities, and a sense of loyalty. I still struggle to forgive myself for my decisions. I don’t know if Emily has forgiven me, but I know for sure that I never want to hurt anybody like that again.
Since then, I’ve directed my energy towards different “adventures,” the kind that don’t get a lot of likes on Facebook, the kind that wouldn’t make anyone call me an adrenaline junkie. But they’re the kind that deal with all of my discomfort and imperfections. Instead of trying to escape from failures, I lean into them. I try to expose my imperfections and mistakes early and often, knowing that there’s a part of me that’s always going to be broken. I am learning to embrace that inner brokenness, while maintaining hope that I can make the world a better place. So far, that’s been the most awesome adventure of all.
*Names have been changed
Image: Theresa Ward