Another rush after school to make it to physical therapy and I was so at odds with what my life had become. I felt so proud of the seven years of therapy I had done before, through and after waist-down reconstruction surgery. I was so sure I had become such a master at handling pain that I began belittling those who winced at a silly little papercut. I was angry at the world for putting me in the position of a wheelchair and then crutches for two years of my young life. I felt like my youth was wasting away in this gym for old people recovering from surgery and I was furious with the little exercises I had to do daily, weekly, fading into years. But underneath it all, I was hurting. I was crying out because of how misunderstood I was. How I saw myself as the blonde little girl in the wheelchair. The “little crippled girl” who was born wrong so she was destined for surgeries and pain after body-tormenting pain.
I was broken — more broken than the bones altered by extreme surgery. And no one saw the real me that sobbed myself to bed each night and had panic attacks of never being able to walk right again, let alone run like I loved to do. My family was at a loss when they found me sobbing and sobbing for an hour with no way to explain to them what was wrong or how terrifying my future had become to me. I was a hurting soul shattered by a life I hadn’t chosen and willing to take it out on innocents, though only in my thoughts.
Another elderly lady walked by saying she refused to do the rest of the exercises and wanted to go home. Inside I scoffed with distaste. Some people just couldn’t handle it like I could. And then this fragile grandmother figure walked into the workout area. You could tell it was her first time and she was a bit unsure about her place in the room. I surmised she had just finished a surgery on her hip or knee – as was the common situation of those in the room. I was the stark difference with my youthful age, 15, and looking 12 with a skinny athletic build. My body had previously relished running four miles in my fitness class and I had been at the top of my game before it all came crashing down.
The physical therapist started the elderly woman off with the basic slow walk around the room like they always did to assess what you could or couldn’t do. The pain hooding her eyes was distinct as she pushed herself one lap around the room and started for another. Suddenly she stopped and burst out crying. “I can’t do it,” she sobbed, “it hurts too bad.” Despite my previous mood and high-and-mighty thoughts, tears started to form in my eyes and a few runaways slipped down my face. I brushed them away quickly, but was immediately hit with a realization so hard I had to stop my work on the elliptical.
I had become so gilded with pain and my own personal suffering that I had forgotten other people. I used to be the one who would bring the forgotten, bullied kid into my friend group and cheer everyone up until we were belly-ache laughing. I used to be the girl who never forgot people’s names and always remembered to consider others. I used to be the epitome of empathy. I used to feel human.
But a failed epidural where I felt the breaking and twisting of all my leg bones had not changed me for the better. I had hardened my soul so I could not only exist but not complain out loud. I believed no one would understand. My friends and the kids my age were worried about boyfriends/girlfriends and getting their homework in on time while fitting in sports and not forgetting to go to the homecoming dance. Meanwhile, I was worried about not missing my medicine time because of the even more excruciating pain I would feel. I was worried about trying to do my homework well and coherently while on major pain meds. I was worried about learning to walk again and just being able to sleep without ice covering my legs so the swelling didn’t get so bad I looked like Violet from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
I found myself hiding in the nurse’s office because I was embarrassed to try to find a spot in the cafeteria that would work with my wheelchair. I was ashamed of how far I felt I had fallen physically. I could tell my pain was changing me, but I had no clue how to stop that tailspin.
As I watched that dear lady cry with body-wracking sobs because her pain was so new, fresh and sharp, I felt the ice around my heart cracking and breaking. My soul was pierced with guilt and regret at how cruel I had been in my mind towards all these people who really were doing their best to survive in this vicious world.
They might not understand my pain or my history, but I realized I didn’t want them to. “No mortal should have to deal with this,” I thought. “But here I am and I will do it with grace and kindness,” I vowed.
Because of my pain level and tolerance I could understand their feelings and struggles. I could help! Me, the girl in a wheelchair who couldn’t walk “normally” and needed my own assistance getting through a closed door could help people!
The strong older lady finished her appointment for the day and gingerly got into a wheelchair before her husband wheeled her out. She didn’t know it, but she changed my life drastically in those 10 minutes. She was embarrassed at her inability to walk, but she had taught me how to soar. My potential had been set to flight and there was no going back. The only way forward was up. Because of her, my icy exterior evaporated. And in its place emerged a soft-hearted human who would do everything in her power and experience to make the world — and chronic pain — a much better bargain in this mortal existence.