I have someone else’s ligament in my knee. Someone who passed away. And because they checked a box on their application for a driver’s license when they were 16, they are a part of me. They are the reason I started walking again yesterday. And I’m very aware of the weight of that; I can feel it. I mean, I can put my finger on it, literally. The suture sticks out beyond my bone and the ligament, so I can put my finger directly on it.
I’ve wanted to write about this topic for a while, without fully knowing how to approach this conversation because it’s lofty and it’s sensitive, and in a lot of ways, I’m probably not the best person for the job.
I want to start a conversation surrounding the differences and similarities of physical and mental disability, because in my brief, brief, brief period of time in a wheelchair and on crutches, I’ve realized how problematic it is that we react one way to physical disability (that still is not nearly the reaction we should have) and approach mental illness with such a different demeanor.
The most annoying thing about being in a wheelchair or on crutches is the number of complete and utter strangers who ask “what happened,” before even saying hello, as if there was any option for me to hide my injury—as if I’m more of a curious spectacle than a person.
The answer they want: “I was surfing with Blake Lively, and we were attacked by a knee-cap eating shark”
The answer I’m not going to give: “I was born with some bone defects because I have scoliosis, so a lot of my bones aren’t well-aligned. One of my legs is actually noticeably longer than the other. Anyways, they had to cut off my tibia tubercle and align it to sit under my knee cap, then they screwed it in, twice, essentially fracturing my whole tibia, which takes six weeks to heal. They also replaced my MPFL ligament because my tendons and ligaments are stretched from the twelve years of dislocations I’ve endured. They’ll do it again in a year and a half, too. Wanna race me on crutches??”
The answer I give, usually through a clenched jaw: “knee surgery” because it’s none of your business.
But, the fact remains—whether out of some amazing, universally-shared concern or sheer curiosity—people ask. They see me and the way I am struggling to live normally, and they ask how I’m doing or rush to get the door or bring me meals. There is something remarkably beautiful about picking out a meal for someone and putting it together with your hands, hoping it will warm and nourish and comfort them in a time of need.
People see your struggle when it’s physical, even if you don’t want them to. They’re confronted with it, even if they don’t want to be. You are inconvenienced and you’re inconvenient, too. People are either kind to you because of that, or maybe in spite of it, or they’re an asshole.
But I’ve been disabled for a long time, long before my bones and ligaments caused me any real problems. I’ve been mentally ill since I was eight years old, at least. That’s the first time I remember having a panic attack, and that’s the first time I remember feeling crushed under the weight of not being good enough in any conceivable way.
I have had days where I felt that if I got out of bed, I’d be doing myself and everyone else a disservice. I’ve had nights where I cannot turn off my brain—I can’t even turn it down—in order to let myself sleep. And I take medication for those problems every day, not just for seven days in a row until the infection goes away and the wound heals back up.
There’s no x-ray or MRI machine they can wrap you up in to see what’s going on inside your head, not really. It typically takes years in a psychiatrist’s office to be told a correct answer—to be given the vocabulary to share what you experience with other people.
In high school, I referred to it in my journal as “the cold.” Because the same numbing, cold pain that you feel on your skin when you walk outside in a t-shirt when it’s 35 degrees out, is what I felt internally, always. And I was capable of hiding that from people, so no one was able to confront it with me or offer me help. Instead, I received poor grades and was treated for ADHD.
Let me make myself very clear, were this a long term physical disability, I would in no way be making comparisons or pitting one hurt against the other. What I am saying is wholly based on my ability to recover, to point to exactly what’s wrong with me, explain precisely how it is being fixed, and to ask people for specifically what I need in my day-to-day journey of getting back to a better physical state. So I can’t understand or fathom the emotional, mental, or relational hardship that comes with being physically impaired long-term.
But I simply I cannot express how nice it feels, to point to my pain and share my timeline to normalcy with a loved one, and then ask them to pass me something I need to feel better or move forward. I have exercises that I do every day that put me in control of my growth, and I see noticeable, tangible healing weekly. I have a therapist who knows exactly what I require at any given moment, who has seen the same injury and surgery dozens of times, and who is equipped with tools guaranteed to create results. My insurance covers my visits to her, which occur twice a week.
The differences are many, we could do better societally with both, but the similarity is crucial. These disabilities are robbing people of the life that one could have without them, and the disabled person is likely thinking of that every hour, on the hour, every day.
For me, currently, yes, sidewalks could make more sense, people in an ideal world would be less weird and rude, and boy, would it be nice if walking felt natural at all. But the two months of bed rest, and one month of ass-kicking, tendon-stretching pain have nothing on the way I have talked down to myself my whole life, the way that I cannot trust my own perception, the millions of apologies I have said or held close to my chest over things that I don’t believe I could have controlled. I can’t replace the part of my brain that doesn’t work. I can’t cut out the heartache and throw it away. The plain-old, boring, ugly, miserable and to-some-incomprehensible heartache I have felt for little to no reason since I was eight.
Thank you for your care baskets. Thank you for your prayer. Thank you for encouraging me. But please, start talking about mental illness like it’s everyday, common, or like it affects one in four people. Because it does. And those one in four people need your prayer and your understanding too, even when they’re inconvenient for you—probably especially when they’re inconvenient for you. And they are much more alone in that disability than I am in this one.