I can remember the feeling so vividly. Being held under that wave, unable to breath. The will of nature pushing me down as pain explodes into my spine.
What seems like a lifetime ago, I decided to go surfing, head-butt the ocean floor, land on my neck and put myself in hospital. Yes, it did hurt but that wasn’t the worst part. There were the weeks of lying in bed staring at the same ceiling. Sipping drinks out of a straw because I couldn’t tilt my head back. The physio visits seeing only marginal improvements week on week. The wondering whether my neck would ever be the same again. To be honest, it isn’t the same and it never will be.
Looking at me, there’s no discernible difference between me and the next guy. There is the faintest scar on my head, that when I shave my head, you can see where the hair doesn’t grow fully. It doesn’t tan the same as the rest of me. I’ve asked people whether they can see the scar. They look at me confused as if I am imagining it. It’s there and I know it’s there, looking back at me whenever I glance in a mirror.
It’s something that those closest to me know about. Spend enough time with me and you’ll hear me utter “my neck hurts” at some point or another. What people don’t know is that it always hurts. There’s a constant ache that I gave up taking pain killers for long ago.
I’ve always been drawn to the ocean. I like being able to see it from wherever I am and try to stick to the coast whenever I travel. But since the incident, large waves angrily crashing on a beach reminds of that day. Three years on I am in El Salvador. I’m in a sleepy surf town where there isn’t much to do accept eat, sleep and surf. I decided that this was the time to battle that fear. That inner demon that’s plagued me.
This beach was certainly not a beginner break. The waves crashing on the rocks look murderous, as they should; they have already claimed two lives in the last few weeks. I battle through the waves to paddle out. Again and again I try and fail. The waves are beating me, quite literally. I try again and again, pain is surging through my neck and my willpower is fading. I physically can’t take much more of this.
I finally get out there and my moment comes. ‘Paddle, Paddle, Paddle!’ my mind screams but my neck protests louder. Instinctively, I pop up like I’d done so many times before. By conventional standards it was barely surfing and by my own it was abysmal. For a fleeting moment I was up… before I came crashing down. The wave held me down for what seemed like an eternity. I surface just shy of the beach. I start coughing up sea water as I stand with my hands on my knees trying to suck in air. I look across the ocean with disappointment. A rage comes steals over me. Something I loved has forever been stolen from me. I grab my board and storm the beach like it was Normandy. I race back to my room where I stand under the shower, rinsing off the ocean and my feelings of frustration.
As I am drying myself I glance in the mirror. My eyes stray upwards and I spot that reminder on my forehead. In that moment I smile. I’m proud of that scar.
The scar is more than just a story to tell, a surfing accident anecdote. It represents a difficult part of my life that I carry with me. It represents a struggle over fear and doubt. It represents a lesson we all learn in some way or another where something or someone tells you can’t, but you can. I’ll never be a good surfer but I took that board out there and I paddled my heart out. I stood when my body said I couldn’t. Just try and take that away from me.
We all have scars, physical and emotional ones. Cherish them. Own them. They make us who we are. They are a badge of honour that show us that we have fought, hurt and healed. They show us that we have lived. Truly lived. Be proud of your scars.