I left Piedmont Hospital last Friday after a two-week stay following surgery to repair both my knees. As I recounted last week, I tore the patella tendons in both legs, an experience so painful that, wailing on my back outside the Apple store at Lenox Square, I decided then and there that Intelligent Design is bullshit. No intelligent designer would create a kneecap vulnerable to so much pain. Darwin was right: We have the knees of slugs.
It will be several months before I can fully bend my knees, each of which sported a vertical row of about 30 staples until the day I left. Now I am left with fresh scars that would make any comic-book representation of Frankenstein's monster proud. To add to the effect, I get to wear steel-reinforced braces on each leg, so I walk stiff-legged, just like the monster as he ran from the pitchfork-wielding townspeople after stealing their chickens.
Besides going home with a device that makes it possible for me to put on my socks all by myself, I left with a "grabber," a device I'm told is advertised on late-night television with other implements for the geriatric and bedridden. It extends past the length of the arm so that I can steal chickens without bending over.
My favorite new tool is my walker. Yes, that's right. My walker. What is there to say? I can hardly wait to go to the Colonnade and show off its sleek, burnished aluminum form. And I'm especially looking forward to making my grand entrance at the gym with it. I will be able to do upper-body exercise right away, and I can't let a little embarrassment about a walker keep me out of the gym until my knees are completely healed. Besides, I know people will treat me with compassion. And if they don't, I will scratch their eyes out and snip off their penis with my grabber.
I discovered something very interesting when I was presented with my walker. Instead of standing erect and letting my hands rest lightly on its bars, I bent over and gripped it like I was hanging from the ledge of a skyscraper. That is a weird example of the way the body's posture and gesture can be shaped by conventional representation. I wasn't even aware I was assuming this pose -- typical of my peeps at the Colonnade -- until one of the rehab therapists suggested I try a more upright and relaxed posture.
That, in turn, reminded me of something I heard James Hillman say at last year's Mythic Journeys Conference here. At a discussion on aging, he said it's important people not let themselves become "medicalized" as they age. By that, I think he meant we should resist seeing aging as a disease and should resist accommodating that view with the way we present and treat our bodies.
Unconsciously, that is what I was doing when I took hold of the walker, I think. In reality, my injury doesn't have much to do with age per se -- it has more to do with overdoing it in the gym, if anything -- but the walker automatically turned it into an age issue for me and so I unconsciously assumed the appearance of handicapped old man.
That impression was reinforced when I whined to a rehab nurse that I'd rather use crutches. "People are going to make my life miserable when they see me with this walker," I said. "I'll hear a thousand age jokes. So I'd rather use crutches. ..."
"Because," she interrupted, "crutches will make you look more like an injured athlete?"
My vanity was further stung by a few other patients on the floor. Most everyone in the rehab unit is a stroke patient confined to a wheelchair. Several of them told me how lucky I was to be able to walk. In their usually radiant faces I saw the hope denied my mother, who never recovered mobility or speech after her own stroke more than a decade ago. It's hard to hold onto your vanity in the presence of people who have suffered so much.
What took me most by surprise during my two weeks at Piedmont was the sense of humor of nearly everyone on staff. I asked Dr. Richard Fullerton, the medical director, if he went out of his way to hire comedians, and he said that he did regard a sense of humor and a strong personality as essential.
I've often complained in this space that two of the problems with conventional psychotherapy are the usual tragic lens with which it sees life, and the way it tends to impose limited notions of "normal" on people. Another approach is to find the humor inside our tragedies and to authorize a life unconventional by usual standards -- something mandated by the poor fortune of a debilitating stroke or accident.
So my experience in rehab, which doesn't end with my leaving the hospital, has been another reminder to lighten up and accept who I am. Please honk if you see me on my walker.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.
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