Preparing to exit disability

Me, my boys and my brace
Me, my boys and my brace

Four weeks ago tomorrow, I had ACL replacement surgery, as well as two meniscus tear trimmings. Since then, nearly every step I have taken has been taken with a ginormous brace on my knee. I spent the first week after the surgery on the couch with a near constant ice pack on my knee. I didn’t work at all that week. The second week I was on two crutches, plus big brace. I still spent hours with my knee iced. I worked from home for 6 – 7 hours a day, and was totally exhausted. The third week I returned to work, on crutches. I started putting a bit more weight on it, and feeling and looking better. This last week, I ditched my crutches. I’ve started taking the stairs with alternating feet, like a normal person (even if normal people don’t usually have a death-grip on the hand rail). I’ve sped up, and the pain is more or less gone.

I’ve been in physical therapy twice a week since the second week. I am pretty far ahead of “plan” for returning to normal knee function. My brace has created near permanent welts in my withered left leg – stripes of rashy skin at regular intervals. I’m sincerely hoping to get permission to ditch the darn thing at my physical therapy tomorrow. When that happens, I will more or less be as ok as I was before surgery (you know, when I just had three torn tendons). The brace actually makes me limp (I can’t quite have normal motion with it), so once it’s gone, people will be unlikely to be able to see that my ability is different than normal. And in another week or two, it will probably BE pretty normal, although I have a long road to full strength and agility.

This is a transition I am very lucky to make. There’s nothing like wearing an ankle to thigh metal brace to let people know you’re disabled. By my disability, such as it is, is a fleeting one. It’s not an identity, it’s a condition. But my time on crutches and limping has given me a greater sympathy and understanding for those who can’t leave their disabilities behind with a month of PT and icing.

This summer, I went on a hike with my family, including my Dad. I have always known that my father was considered medically disabled, but with the self-centeredness of youth, I never considered what it felt like for him. I never thought about what was scary, or hard, or tiring. My knee with the three torn tendons was probably about on par (or maybe a bit better) than the knee function my father has had since the 70s. I found that many of the mannerisms I think of as “Dad” (going down stairs one foot at a time, for example) are things that you have to do when your knees don’t work. But I never remember him complaining about it, or shying away from uneven ground, or popping Ibuprofen after a long walk.

I’ve also gotten the “what’s wrong with you attention”. Other than my fervent desire to have a better story than I do, I haven’t minded. Everyone notices I’m limping. Everyone says, “What’s wrong”. Depending on the time and my mood I joke about it “You should see the other guy!”, explain in a positive way, “I had surgery a few weeks ago, and now I’m thrilled that I’m down to just a brace and no crutches!” or go into the dire details, “So about 13 years ago I went skiing for the first time….” But it’s not my identity. It’s a phase, not my life. And it’s visible and well marked, so when I’m going slowly everyone waits. People hold the door for me, and don’t start inching forward when I’m crossing the street. No one treats my Dad with that courtesy – not even his thoughtless middle child.

I will be supremely grateful for a fully functional knee. You don’t know how much you miss kneeling until you have to give a two year old a bath without kneeling. I miss being active and bouncing my way up the stairs. I miss it being inconsequential to go up to the third floor. I’m tired of thinking about my leg, the footing. I’m tired of thinking when I need to get out of bed to check on a crying child, “I should really put on my brace first. The bedroom in the dark is exactly the kind of situation where I could take a horribly wrong step.” I’m tired of planning my wardrobe around what is loose enough or tight enough to work with my metal accessory. I’m so delighted that my recovery has been as fast as it has, and my movement and strength are returning. But most of all, I’m grateful I will be able to leave my disability behind. And I spend a moment thinking of all those who live with disability – visible and invisible – at all times.

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