I know that it’s not permanent. I know that there are way worse injuries than broken ankles, and that even broken ankles are often way worse than mine. I know this. People break bones all the time. Children break bones all the time. But maybe it’s easier for children. They get neon casts for the other kids to sign. They have to worry about missing out on basketball games, but they don’t have to wonder whether their coworkers secretly consider them lazy for being less productive this month; whether everyone else on the sidewalk resents them for their sluggish pace; whether the forced inactivity will cause them to get fat, and why it even matters if they get fat, why they care, why they’re so shallow, why, why am I making this such a big deal?
Why: because we are a culture that praises efficiency at every turn. We place virtue on productivity. One is supposed to be able to do all the things, all the time, without breaking a sweat (except when dressed in sleek athleisure apparel — an entire subset of the fashion industry we’ve created explicitly to equate fitness with luxury), in order to be a valued member of adult society.
I am an adult. Leave me alone. I can do this myself. I can get my own coffee and open my own door and tie my own shoe. No, wait, I can’t. I can’t, actually. Help. I am an adult? Help!
When you’re adjusting to a new physical handicap, the whole world splits into two sorts of people: kind, generous saints and self-involved jerks. There is no more in-between. One passerby will run ahead to grab a door for you, and then another, sitting on the bench next to it, will just stare at you struggling to get back out, pushing into the handle with your shoulder and trying to prop it with the edge of your crutch. Some will say, “It’s totally fine, take your time,” while others will rush right past you, silent as you politely spew out sorries, avoiding looking you in the face.
A lot of people can’t bear witnessing other people’s fallibility, I’m realizing. Like it might be contagious.
But have I ever paused to seriously consider how it feels to live every day in a disabled body? How many times in the past have I been one of the self-involved jerks?
It’s not actually that simple, obviously — the split between saints and jerks. We all have our own inner turmoil that we project onto other people in problematic but human ways. (“Problematic” and “human” are synonyms.) While I was hopping up the stairs to the entrance of the local gym last week, a guy on his way out stopped to watch me from the top of the platform, asking, “Can you do that? You sure you can do that?” It was at least my fifth visit there since the injury to use the one or two machines that don’t require legwork when I need a break from lifting weights at home. So, yes, I could do this, I was sure. But I wondered what made him think I couldn’t, why he didn’t phrase it differently, whether he realized that his attempt at caring came off more like doubt and distrust. (“Ugh, typical Dad,” his kids might have said if they’d seen the interaction transpire.)
In the grocery store recently, I kept crossing paths with a woman and her young daughter who skittered perilously around my crutches in pursuit of graham crackers and Cheez-Its. (“Mom? Can we get the white cheddar ones? Mom? Mom?”) The woman must have apologized to me three times for the girl’s utter lack of awareness of my vulnerable state, for the fact that she could have knocked me sideways without thinking twice, her skirt flouncing around the little pink spools of her giddy legs. (Small children never know where their bodies end and the world begins. Mothers always know.)
Later, I was sitting outside a coffeeshop when a different kid actually stopped in her tracks on the sidewalk to frown at me, her eyes shifting back and forth from my face to my leg in its boot. Like my impairment made her angry. Like my mere existence was rude. I smiled and mouthed “hi,” as if I owed it to her to charm her with saccharine geniality to accommodate for my malady. I cringed afterwards, realizing how some people must spend their whole lives this way, apologizing for the apparent inconvenience they cause just by showing up in their own skin and the alleged audacity of daring to exhibit their imperfections in public.
Keah Brown explains this beautifully — how we perpetuate a belief that “disabled people are too much work, are burdens, and that we don’t like ourselves or our bodies.” She writes that disability is not the “worst possible thing,” though we tend to treat it that way. “I spent most of my adolescent and teenage years hating my body and myself,” Keah explains, in large part because of popular culture’s treatment of disability — not because of her disability itself.
There are so many ways we conflate difference with disaster.
There is a man who always sits in the same spot at the pedestrian entrance of the parking lot in town — an amputee in a wheelchair. He asks for spare change, but he also makes it his mission to say hello and wish a good day to everyone walking by. So many people must ignore and avoid him, but he lets each person know that they’re seen and therefore, that they matter. When I left the coffeeshop and hobbled past on my crutches, he called after me, “Feel better!”
And I will feel better. I will get my leg back. He will never get his leg back. I am one of the self-involved jerks, it turns out.
In a distant, detached way, I’ve always feared the loss of a limb. When I was diagnosed with type one diabetes at age 12 and taught to take on the complex roster of responsibilities that an average person’s pancreas handles automatically on its own, the main warning I was given, or at least the one that stuck, was the one that sounded most tangibly apocalyptic: If you don’t maintain good blood sugar control, you’re at high risk for amputation.
You don’t want to be left with just one leg, do you? Steer clear of the birthday cake and bagels. (Those were not any doctor’s exact words, but nearly. Those were the words I accumulated over the years.)
This is not easy advice for any 12-year-old to swallow, and so, she rebels against it. I rebelled against it. I decided it was stupid, because that was easier than calling it scary. I ate all the carbs I wanted, and I pretended I was invincible. My illness is invisible, so I could pretend not to see it; my body does not look “different,” so I could pretend it was the same as everyone else’s.
I got clumsy in college. Twice, I tripped badly and sprained my left ankle — the same one that’s now broken. During my junior year, I started having panic attacks, the first of which began while I was ambling nonchalantly down the make-up aisle at Rite-Aid. My vision starting swirling, and I struggled to breathe, and I dragged myself into the bathroom and shut the door and coiled on the floor by the toilet and called my mother and said, “Help, I think I’m dying!!!” This happened several times in several different scenarios as every cell of muscle and tendon and blood and bone inside me shrieked for my attention, knowing I’d ignored its subtler signals for years.
I finally adopted the doctors’ guidance — with a little too much gusto, though. I shunned the birthday cake and the bagels, but also everything else soft and sweet and joyful. Even the healthiest foods had to be measured with perfect accuracy to prevent overindulgence. I ate inside the lines, and I let the lines shrink smaller and smaller, just trying to get my body to quiet down. But that tactic, too, got old. My body shushed and shrunk to a whisper of itself, but my brain was so loud. My limbs carried a dull but perpetual soreness.
Our bodies are not built to sustain extremes, but they can handle harsh conditions for a long time. Somehow, our bodies always handle it, all the affliction that they don’t deserve. The aches and pains are just how they talk back to make their work known. The hurt is how they ask us for mercy.
I still don’t have all of the answers. There are still ways I fool myself to get what I want, instead of what I need. (I jog a little too far, or I eat four times as much dark chocolate in one sitting as actually feels good, or I get up and out into the fresh air a little later than I intend to.)
But if there is such a thing as balance, I’ve been living somewhere near it, fumbling my way towards it, trying to heed my body’s hints. I have studied its cravings and learned to exercise and eat in proper proportions, to be good, but not too good, precisely so that this doesn’t happen, so that I can avoid incapacitation. That’s the point, right? That’s why wellness has become such a popular trend with an almost religious ideology wrapped around it — it extends a veiled promise of eternal life.
As if running and broccoli could be elixirs to prevent slips and trips and accidents, which are all small symbols of mortality. As if proper proportions are stable markers, and balance isn’t an ever-wobbling illusion.
In the wiser corners of my brain, I know that no perfect dose of running and broccoli could prevent this sort of sudden casualty or even thwart slow-developing ailments, like the nerve damage that precedes an amputation, with any guarantee. But. I still feel angry some days lately, like my body’s misbehaviors are injustices I don’t deserve. Hopping on one leg for weeks doesn’t feel like balance at all; it feels like teetering. Weren’t we supposed to be past all of this by now? the less-wise corners of my brain want to know. As if.
I just finished reading Roxane Gay’s new book, Hunger. It’s a memoir that describes the harrowing sexual assault she endured at age 12 and her experience as a fat person — a fat black woman — in this world, with the two truths inextricably linked to each other. In a chapter towards the end, she tells a story of breaking her ankle and how it helped her learn to heal from her deeper wounds. “I was broken,” she writes, “and then I broke my ankle and was forced to face a lot of things I had long ignored. I was forced to face my body and its frailty.”
Gay explains, “I have always worried that I am not strong. Strong people don’t find themselves in the vulnerable situations I find myself in. Strong people don’t make the mistakes I make. This is some nonsense I have cooked up over the years, notions I would disabuse anyone else of but somehow still carry myself. When I worry I’m not strong, I become very invested in appearing invulnerable, unbreakable, stone-cold, a fortress, self-sustaining. I worry that I need to keep up this appearance even when I cannot.”
That I need to keep up this appearance even when I cannot. Even when I cannot. I cannot. What a strange game of dress-up we adults are all playing, trying to act the part of a superhuman — glimmering and shatterproof, and eternally good.
“I was broken and then I broke some more, and I am not yet healed but have started believing I will be,” she writes. Maybe that’s the best resolution we can get — believing we will be. And not recoiling from our broken bits so much in the meantime. Using the shards as small blocks to build character.
I know that it’s not permanent. I know that there are way worse injuries than broken ankles, and that even broken ankles are often way worse than mine. I know this. But. No human ego likes to have its plans crushed and discarded, to have crucial pieces of its assumed identity plucked away, to sit inside and squirm while everybody else, out there, seems to be going somewhere; to be reminded of its frangibility and impermanence, and to be forced to face all of its other open wounds.
Some days, this whole situation feels defeating in a way that’s not so much rational as it is corporeal, like there’s a kind of sadness rising up from the split of the fibula, the brokenness of the bone spilling into the rest of my limbs. I sit on my plastic stool in the shower with my left leg out on the tile to keep the boot dry, and I watch the hot water rolling down the soft, thick folds of stomach sandwiched with thigh, and I sob. Or, in line at CVS, I lean onto my right crutch while using my left hand to insert an insulin syringe in my stomach — something I can usually manage discretely, but now, these crutches attract attention, like a shiny frame around my body with a sign that reads, “Exhibit A: Mortal” — and I think, this is too much sickness, too much brokenness at once. I want to be digging dirt or harvesting strawberries or running, so badly that it stings, and I wonder if I’m going to forget myself, unlearn the shape of my normal daily life, lose the joy I’d finally finagled as my own, and plummet straight back down the mountain of optimum health, just as I thought I’d been nearing the unattainable top. (As the Greek mythology goes, Sisyphus cheats death with his sly trickery, and he is then punished by being forced to push a boulder up a hill for all time, never to reach the summit without the boulder rolling right back down.)
But most of the time, I am okay, actually. This could be so much worse. My body can handle it. I can handle it. I was never not broken anyway. I can still be who I am — adamantly optimistic, curious, persistent, can-do to a fault. When you break, you discover the parts of you that are unbreakable.
I lift weights on a yoga mat on the floor, and I hop up the stairs to the gym. I take slow but sweaty “walks” on my crutches. I start doing some of the things I always say I want to do but don’t have time for, like learning to make vegan cheese and devouring a daunting pile of books. Like this, writing here. Friends deliver sunflowers and rainbow-striped candles and soaps and cards, and family members carry hot mugs of tea to my seat on the couch (among other kind favors), and I am grateful. This could be so much worse that it’s silly. This is so far from the worst thing.
I think some of us get a little closer to our fragility than others. Some people spend years thinking they’re stone until they learn, with a shock, that they’re actually glass. Other people know they’re glass all along. Maybe it’s better that way. Maybe they carry their lives more gently, more kindly, more delicately, seeing the societal obsession with sleek, self-absorbed productivity and perfection for the sham that it is. Maybe they know better than to act like they don’t have cracks. Brokenness can be a breakthrough.