“I didn’t eat for three days so I could be lovely”
— Cassie from Skins saying something I don’t understand at all
I do not see myself as tender, soft, or lovely. I get called “cute,” but don’t see why; I see my body as a sack of flesh and little more — it has been explored, probed, yes, but not by me; by surgeons and doctors instead. I haven’t had much time to understand it, especially since my accident.
I often feel alienated, it should be said, from the concept of bodily tenderness, from the ritualistic practices of self-care; I cannot take a bath, cannot go for a brisk walk most days, or fold my legs to meditate. I claw at my scalp, picking off scabs and flicking them away. I’ve been told my skin is soft and good, but most of the time I see it as a simple casing. Like a sausage, full of churned-up meat. And I have been churned: My legs both end just a few inches below the knee now, soft pink scar tissue seaming the ends together. I particularly relish the world gnarled to describe them. For a while I was afraid to refer to them as stumps, but in the end that’s what they are.
A moment that stands out to me, definitive of how I see my physical form, is when a nurse staple-gunned some fabric to the end of my amputated leg while I was in the hospital. For whatever reason, they couldn’t give me painkillers, so I had to clench my asshole and scream every time a staple clacked in. That’s what comes to mind, mostly, when I think about my body. Torn and bleeding, full of marrow and pus. Gross.
For 25 years, the spirit of anorexia, the need to be fragile and lovely, lived in me. I’ve got no control over my life beyond how I look, I thought. I did start eating again, eventually, instead turning to taking care of the skin on my face and spending hundreds of dollars on a single pair of pants so that I might at least feel somewhat like I could luxuriate in what I looked like. I wanted to be soft, sweet; I wanted my days to be hazy and dreamlike. When I hated how I looked — often, despite my efforts — I told myself, at least you can walk. You love to go on walks.
How brutal, then, to lose that ability. How brutal to have my life cleaved so cleanly in half into a “before” and “after” via the cleaving of my body. When I was told what had happened — prostrate in a hospital bed, unable to move, IVs pumping opiates into me — there was no gentleness to it. The doctor was abrupt. But I understand the doctor’s directness now, because what happened was ugly and sudden. Why tiptoe around it when the rest of my life was going to be shot through with this very brutality?
My friends brought me Glossier products while I was in the ICU and I burst out laughing. What a contrast to the dried blood still caked onto my face! But symbolic: Sparkly birthday-cake Balm Dotcom layered over my chapped, Dilaudid-parched lips does feel representative of what I’ve become fond of referring to as “the rest of my life.”
The first time I heard my body referred to by someone else as “broken” was at an exercise class for disabled people I attended in San Francisco, where I came home to once I was discharged from the hospital. I chafed instinctively. Who are you, I thought angrily at the coach who stood in front of us and implored us to push ourselves as hard as we could, to call me broken? The rest of me is whole. I am whole, mentally. Don’t remind me that I’ve been snapped like kindling. Don’t rub it in my face.
I understand now why I’d chafed: It had only been a few months, after all, since my accident, and I was not at home in my new body. I still found it disgusting, viscerally, not the gleeful way you might blow your nose into a tissue and steal a satisfying look. I was weak back then. I trembled, I shook, I got sick easily. There was no beauty: I want to drive that in like a nail. I was healing, but the healing involved scabs, blisters, peeling skin; my fingers traced the still raw scars crisscrossing the new ends of my legs, and I was reprimanded for touching. But I wanted to touch! I wanted to feel what was going to be there for the rest of my life.
There are websites for how to cope with amputation, support groups for newly disabled people to attend, but at no point was I given a handbook for how to deal with becoming a human butcher-shop cut chart. To have body parts removed, to have chunks of me put onto other chunks, to be left with big pink seaming scars all over my body — maybe I am lucky in that I have come face to face with the fact that my consciousness is contained within the flesh I inhabit, and that that flesh will one day rot. Here is what I remember from before I woke up in the ICU: nothing. I know I did not die, but neither did I live out some strange, hyperrealistic coma-dream; I did not meet any sort of deity, or look over my past. Near-death is a cessation, but it lingers with you long after the fact. Knowing this brings a sort of internal peace — now, anyways.
But in that exercise class, I only knew how other people saw me on the surface. Broken. The disgust for my body flowed through me like blood, and I rued the days when all I cared about was whether you could see my belly in my new jeans. I am deeply ashamed of this now, but that’s how it was.
What happened eventually, over weeks and months, was a callousing of the soul: My refrain became “What am I going to do about it, anyways?” as I pulled my prosthetic legs on in the mornings, first right, then left. God, how ugly my first pair was! Skin-colored carbon fiber with a metal bar sticking out — conspicuous, confusing to bystanders. People pointed and stared, often enough that I stopped bringing up my legs in conversation, afraid to show them off or explain why they were there.
The brutality of my life became the everyday: I massaged the ends of my stumps so that they wouldn’t swell in my prosthetics; I rubbed lotion into the enormous scar on my thigh; I took vitamins each morning to stave off infection. Walks I went on were functional, no longer to keep myself slender but to practice balancing and working on momentum. What mattered now was survival and the mitigation of both physical and emotional pain.
Perhaps I was a little too brutal, telling myself to suck it up, get over it, but the thickening of the emotional calluses slowly warmed me towards my new body, helped me understand what it could and could not do. I fell, which meant learning that I couldn’t move in a certain way. Things hurt; I learned to fix them. I began to understand that my body was, in fact, broken, and though prosthetics did make it work again, I was never going to get part of me back. I began to learn to care for my new self.
How do I impress onto you that this banal brutality is what it will always be for me? Days and weeks pass by, events occur, relationships fade in and out — I am living a life, after all — but there are repetitive actions I must take every day so that I can continue to move through the world at a pace that I’m comfortable with. My daily gabapentin capsule smells bad, but I have no choice but to take it until I cease to exist. That is just how it is.
There are some things that I will never be able to do. I can no longer run or jump; often I have trouble dancing. I don’t quite remember what it feels like to put my feet in the ocean, though I’ve done it hundreds of times before. This, too, is part of the brutality: Things have been taken away from me and I will not get them back.
What I did get back, though, was my life — barely, yes — but there is still a great joy in breathing, in the awareness that I am still alive. And, strangely, in the knowledge that I will die eventually. As I take care of myself each day, I become aware that my body is alive far beyond the reach of my consciousness, cells multiplying, heart valves expanding and contracting, and also that one day it will dissolve into loam, as it should. I have lost other things, but I have gained this knowledge.
I have accepted now that my body is broken, that it is seen by others as such, that it has been through a specific hell and survived it. The reality of it stares me in the face each morning as I put my prosthetic legs on. Yet I find myself perfectly content with not pursuing beauty in this, with seeing things as the banalities that they are. To me, there is nothing particularly meaningful about counting my pills out or coming home in pain. But I don’t want there to be: I don’t require softness the way I once did. To be alive, to breathe, to walk and talk and hurt, is enough in all its brusqueness and ugliness.
A confession: I’ve started smoking again. Just a little, just enough that a pack of cigarettes lasts me well over a week, but still, the habit is back. I don’t feel sexy or slick when I do it, though I once did — that’s why I started; I wanted to look cool. But now the reek of tobacco, the dizzying hit of nicotine: That’s what I want. I want the brutality of it. No time for tenderness anymore. After two years of fragility and healing, I simply want to feel alive.