A Triumph, A Twist, And A Turn Of The Page

So, so much has gone down in my life (surprisingly) since the last time I put something on here that I realized the only logical thing to do was…to put something on here.

Just less than a week ago, just shy of 1AM on June 29th), I submitted my final assignment and, today, received my official notification. I have graduated from Western Michigan University. Officially.

This is such a huge thing for me. It almost doesn’t feel like it even happened, quite honestly. The actual graduation ceremony happened on the 23rd. Due to various circumstances (part of which I’ll dive into in a bit), I decided to opt out. It was a decision I wrestled with for a bit. I didn’t put much thought into the ceremony until recent months, and even then, something about being part of a ceremony where I was a virtual unknown didn’t quite move me to participate (that, and spending $50 on a cap and gown I’d wear only once, which was also money I didn’t have). This is a notably nontraditional approach, all things considered, but then again, my college life, namely my whole life, has been very nontraditional. I have mostly grown up without a car and the inability to drive. I have remained single my entire life. It was a miracle I went to prom both years that I was eligible to go, much less the fact that I went with a group both times. Going to college for almost six years only seemed like the next natural thing on the list. But what’s important is that I have graduated! It was a challenging road. I  made some awesome friends and lost them, and then had them come back again (in some cases). I endured some of the most unsavory roommates I’ve ever experienced in my four years at my apartment complex. I even underwent numerous battles with myself and my anxiety, which capitalized itself in four separate bouts of suicidal thoughts, and various moments of internal weakness, going so far as to manifest itself in a fear of returning back home strong enough that pushed me to camp out on campus.

There are several moments of weakness, to be sure. But the transformation I’ve undergone is remarkable. I entered college in 2012 a closeted, mostly timid person. Over the course of the following years, I would become lucky enough to gain the friendship of a number of wonderful people, have some truly incredible experiences, gain plenty of newfound independence, and take the enormous step forward and come out of the closet. Of course, my journey of personal growth is not over. It never will be. And there’s still plenty of work to be done. But the progress I’ve made is wonderful, and I now have a document and a $60k debt to prove it. The loans I will be paying back for a few more years to come. The memories, however, will be ingrained in me forever, and that’s something I can sit here and be proud of.

Life is not without its fair share of twists and turns, however. Last May, I embarked on my next globe-trotting adventure to Paris and Spain. This was my fourth international excursion, something I have been ridiculously fortunate to do (and I cannot underscore that enough, honestly), my second foray to Paris, and my first entrance into Spain. It was, in short, wonderful. Soaking up so much culture is an amazing experience, and it’s an incredible feeling to see a world so different yet so same from the one you know and to realize there’s an entire universe beyond the four walls you may easily become accustomed to. It’s why I love traveling so much: I love the adventure of something new. I love exploring a world beyond what I know and enter into a culture where I’m the one that’s a stranger.

During our time in Madrid, I unexpectedly took a second trip, this time down a flight of stairs at our hostel. Upon landing, I looked down and realized my left foot had rotated itself almost completely horizontal. Pain is an understatement. After being whisked away by ambulance to the local hospital, they did some x-rays and told me I had fractured my ankle and would likely require surgery, which they presented to be as option 1 (option 2 simply leaving the hospital and return to the group). Not wanting to put myself in an even worse situation, I opted in for surgery without a second thought, and after straightening out my foot and encasing it in a protective clay-like substance, I was set up in the patient waiting room with another, older gentlemen in one of the beds not too far away.

For anyone’s burning curiosity, getting surgery in a foreign country is an interesting experience. Some of the nurses spoke English, and I knew what was going to happen before going under: They were making two incisions in my foot and sticking some screws and plates in my ankle to hold the bones together and let them heal. Nothing too complicated or extravagant. For the actual procedure, they provided me with a local anesthesia to my back, which numbed me from the waist down, set up a blue tarp blocking my view to the lower half of my body, and went to work for roughly 30 minutes or so. An overnight stint at the hospital, followed by plenty of discharge instructions, and I was all set to leave.

This led to another “first-time” experience for me: My first time using crutches. These ones were not free, unfortunately, and came with a 90 euro price tag in addition to the medication I had to purchase. These crutches were not your run-of-the-mill crutches that rest in the comfort (or discomfort) of your armpit. They have holding cups to fit your arms into, and have a handle to grip with your hand, and then you maneuver yourself from there. My first few days using them was…rough, to say the least. There were a couple times I nearly put my entire weight on my left foot (which I was instructed not to do), which could’ve been disastrous. Nevertheless, I persisted.

EF Ultimate Break, the travel company I had utilized for my third trip, gave me the option to fly back to Michigan a few days early. This all went down on Wednesday, and we were slated to fly back to the Americas the following Tuesday. My immediate thought was that I was in Spain, and there was no way I was gonna fly back early just from a simple ankle fracture. I did, however, opt to give myself an extra two days to recover before catching up with the group. EF arranged a separate room for me in Madrid at the same hostel, followed by a solo room at another Madrid hostel for Friday. By far, the biggest part I struggled with, apart from the pain, was the medication. Going out of surgery, I knew the first few days would be challenging. What I was not fully prepared for was the Clexane, a type of blood thinner they prescribed for me to prevent blood clots, since my left leg was mostly out of normal commission. To my dismay, the Clexane came in the form of an injection I had to give myself once every 24 hours to my stomach area. Needles have historically never been my thing, and the first injection I gave myself Friday morning was a struggle, to say the least, but it was a necessary hurdle to overcome.

Most of my group members were largely concerned about me, going so far as to leave me a box of get-well-soon chocolates at the hostel where all this went down. Reuniting with them felt wonderful. A good number of them quickly became my family away from home, and I drew in so much comfort having them not only with me but willing to go the extra mile and help me, whether it was bringing me food or volunteering to push me around in my wheelchair. Not once did I have to ask anyone for help as far as movement was concerned. My hardest obstacle was achieving simple, everyday tasks. I could no longer take a shower normally; I had to rinse my hair underneath the sink. I had to be careful putting on my shorts. My left foot up to just below my knee was tightly (and nicely) wrapped in standard gauze wrapping. The surgeons had placed what felt like a cement leg holder beneath my gauze-enclosed leg, along with a sort of ankle brace, and what felt like a brick underneath my foot. Moving my leg was doable, albeit moving a leg that felt like it had an extra few pounds tacked on.

While I did not get a chance to live up the experience of the remainder of the trip as best as possible, I was still able to do what I could to have a good time. At times, it was definitely a pain to not being able to normally walk, a thought I have had on multiple occasions. But my biggest motivator is the understanding that things could be worse. There are countless other people in far more drastic situations. I recently read a story about a woman who was inflicted by a type of flesh-eating bacteria and had to have all four of her limbs surgically removed (for the full story courtesy of People.com, click here). My case is certainly a mere fraction of what people like her have gone through. I know without a doubt I’m lucky it’s only a bone fracture. But in my present climate, then and now, it’s presented me with its own share of challenges.

The long flight back home was nothing extravagant. I had the good fortune of upgrading my seats well in advance, and had a nice, cozy seat with plenty of leg room mere feet away from first class, and put in an advance request for wheelchair assistance. The journey home was not without its share of close calls; due to (surprise) a flight delay from Malaga to Paris, I almost missed my pond-crossing flight, and arrived scant minutes after the posted takeoff time, largely thanks to the swift handicap shortcuts from one terminal at the Charles de Galle airport to the other, and while on the long flight, I slipped and almost fell, placing my weight on my left foot in the process. Nothing traumatic occurred, but I was thankful they had Tylenol on board. Another guy in my group (shoutout to you, Moe!) was on the same flight and willingly stuck by me up until we parted ways in Detroit, and I certainly wouldn’t have made it home as easily without him.

Upon arriving home, my mom brought me over to the nearest Urgent Care center by our house. After a few minutes of wait, the doctor informed me that I’d have to get my foot checked out by an orthopedic specialist (which made sense), but did examine my foot. I still had full functionality of my toes, which were partially exposed, and my blood vessels appeared normal. I just needed to have a foot specialist check it out. Made sense.

My other big obstacle through this process was figuring out how I would be able to function at work. As a sales associate, a large portion of my time at work is typically spent on my feet, helping customers find merchandise, taking merchandise back to appropriate locations on the sales floor, checking fitting rooms, the list goes on. With me being down a leg, my concern turned to how I would be able to work. Part of me hoped there would be a paid time off option, where I could spend the needed time at home recovering. However, in hindsight now, I am glad things turned out the way they did. Being home almost 24 hours, a throwback to my two and a half year gap between high school and my entry into Western, it would have driven me (and likely my mother) insane. My manager told me that it would be no sweat. They would pull out a chair, keep me behind the register, and essentially make my role largely that of just a cashier. Many times, the boredom has been real. Being trapped in one spot for many hours a day gets exhausting. But making money is much better than not making money, and for that, I can be thankful.

After some brief waiting after returning home, I saw an orthopedic specialist on the morning of June 1st. Some x-rays were taken, and my cast was finally removed. Part of the inside by my ankle was, unsurprisingly, covered in a bit of blood, but the other surprise was seeing staples in my skin. Three were put on the right side where the smaller incision was made, and roughly 20 were on the left side, where the larger incision was made. I was told point blank that it was time for them to be removed, and my first internal thought was that I was in for some pain. Was the pain as severe as twisting my foot? No, but suffice it to say it was uncomfortable. Pro tip: Don’t get your skin stapled. Just, don’t do it.

The orthopedic specialist, a guy with hair in a short ponytail who gave off a strong rock guitarist vibe, came in and gave me the run down. I was still under firm orders to avoid putting any weight on my foot at all. He recommended I start taking vitamins for bone health, prescribed me a session of physical therapy, a handicap parking pass, a compression stocking (to avoid DVT and blood clots), and recommendations on where to buy different crutches or a knee scooter. He was super friendly, helpful, and informative. The major downside to the trip, however, was the fact that my Medicaid was not reactivated at the time, a consequence that cost me $250 up-front before I made it past the reception desk. While it was an extremely necessary appointment to keep, I was informed later on that cheaper options were available, had the reception staff knew I was paying out of pocket and had no insurance at the time (a fact that, now, has been remedied). At the end of the day, it is what it is, but I do need to be more cautious about informing medical staff of forms of payment, should I find myself required to pay out of pocket again in the future.

The biggest change, now, was a brand-new aircast. This is a typical device most people have probably seen on those with ankle and leg problems. I have to place my foot inside the cast, velcro myself in, place a plastic-like protective shield over my leg, and then use three straps to velcro it into place. The comfort level can be adjusted by pumping air into the cast, which can be locked in place or released at any time. It’s also ridiculously more comfortable than the other cast was in, and gave me greater freedom to move my leg once I was out of it, due to the fact I was rid of the other cast and its cement-like counterparts.

At this point, I’m on the tail end of my time on one working leg. I have been taking aspirin for the past few weeks as a blood-thinner, and have been vitamin-ing it up every morning. I am no longer in pain! I knew my first few days after surgery would be brutal, and they were. Best of all, as I’m taking aspirin, I have long since said goodbye to the Clexane and the injections. My full respects to people who do that on a regular basis, but as someone who is definitely not pro-needle, it’s not something I enjoy in the slightest. The best I can say is that my next appointment next week Friday will give me a good prognosis on where I’m at and when I can be on two feet again.

This brings me…to this.This picture from the Ireland part of my trip last year is a perfect representation of where I’m at: The land I sit on represents the miles I’ve traveled. I entered college a shy, timid 20 year-old with crippling social anxiety, and six years later, I leave as a completely different person. I came out. I traveled to seven different countries. I made friends, lost some, and made a few more. I grew in confidence, holding onto positions that required me to interact with complete strangers. The path of self-improvement is never-ending, but I remain proud of where I’ve gone so far.

Ahead of me, like that photograph, is a sea of unknown. The last eventful task on my to-do list is moving my things from Kalamazoo in a few weeks, a tall order as I don’t have easy access to transport my bed. Apart from that, it’s a slow game of getting caught up on bills. At the end of the semester, I made the move back to Grand Rapids to temporarily share a roof with my mom and her girlfriend. I’ve missed my mom more than I can describe, and while our relationship has never been purely perfect, she has been the biggest rock of my life, and for someone without a long, strong Rolodex of friends to call upon, it has been instrumental having her in my life. I also fully acknowledge how I now belong in a post-college stereotype: Graduate college, move in with parents. There are a various number of people who actively live in that stereotype, and make it work. My future plans definitely have no place to remain rooted in Grand Rapids, and I am eagerly awaiting the chance to move at the earliest opportunity. Part of this process has been the gradual catch-up process on the various bills I owe. Without access to transportation as easily as I’d normally have on two working legs, I have largely had to rely on my own finances through the use of Uber to transport me to and from work, a tall order I put into careful consideration in contrast to the free public transportation I received in Kalamazoo, having been a college student. This has come with a price tag of $25 per day, and $125 a week. It has not only been killing my wallet, but my stress level, as I can say that having minimal finances is not a fun feeling. Thankfully the light is getting a bit brighter. I am almost caught up on everything and can begin putting money away to move. In addition, once I have easier access to the bus, I’ll be saving off money! On top of that, I began the search for a new, higher-paying job. I have enjoyed my coworkers, and the work itself is not terribly challenging, but being paid the minimum wage, even with full-time hours, is not a reality I wish to continue being a part of.

Beyond that lies my big move: Chicago. I determined months ago that the Windy City would afford me many opportunities for growth, both professionally and personally. The two big challenges first are finding employment and finding a place to live. I’ve mostly utilized sites like Indeed, Zillow, and the like to accomplish these goals. By no means is anything in place just yet, though I have found a few (relatively affordable) locations. Another task at hand is aligning the three elements: Finding a job and pegging down a start date, finding a place to live and landing a move-in date, and finding and gathering my things to actually make the move that coincides with the two.

All I can do in the meantime now is taking each day as it comes. Graduating college is a massive accomplishment, and while I am another statistic that did not follow the traditional four-year plan, much less the pathway of staying on the road of higher education immediately following high school, I still made it. That is huge. But my life is just beginning. I refuse to become a permanent living-with-parent statistic. I know this situation is temporary. If I had my choice, I’d be in Chicago right now.

My final class was LGBT Studies, a broad overview of historical events, figures, articles, and discussions that have shaped the progress of LGBT history. I found it enormously fitting to take as a final class, as it symbolized my own personal journey being gay, and the various facets of being gay that I have grown to accept. The fact that my graduation fell on pride month, designed to celebrate the achievements of the LGBT community, was equally fitting. It’s been a long road, but I’m still alive. And the road isn’t stopping yet.

My life, now, is like the sea: Full of possibility. A blank canvas. But most of all, it’s not endless. Sooner or later, you hit land. You hit the end. I’m determined to do what I can to make the most of what I have, before I hit that ending. This is the beginning of the rest of my life.

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