Friday, March 30, 2012

My Problem With Prayer: Part 1

Prayer in Christian Science is defined as the desire to align your consciousness with God rather than to ask for something. I was raised to believe the universe was spiritual. Any discord or physical problem was due to my misunderstanding or ignorance of God's perfect creation--something like mathematics, where an error in my understanding can't change the reality of the correct equation. Two plus two is not five, but believing it is five causes problems until I realize the truth.

My ability to pray was put to the test  when I was not quite fourteen. Overnight I developed a bone disease in my left knee that incapacitated me. I spent a hellish year praying--studying the bible and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, and all her many other writings, speaking to my Christian Science practitioner (whom my parents paid to pray for me) on the phone and in person as my infected leg drained pus. I'd never taken a pill in my life, not even aspirin, and I didn't then. I never saw  doctor. I did what I was told: I prayed. My parents and church staked my life on prayer.

I expected to be healed. Instead I experienced a year of bedridden anguish, terror, isolation, shame, and pain. Lots of pain.

Brain scans (magnetoencephalography) on people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder have shown abnormal physical changes. I was diagnosed with severe PTSD at age 33 after leaving Christian Science and my first marriage. It was a relief when I read that the mind-bending, brain-warping trip of my childhood had caused damage that could be measured as physically as the deformation of the fused leg I limped on. (This was after I learned to accept that the physical universe is, in fact, real. That was a hard one. When my sanity came, I thought I was losing my mind.)

I'd been in the habit of reading and studying Christian Science literature like a mad thing. In that metaphysical mindset, how you think about everything is critical. It not only determines your happiness but your health. You spend most of your time as your own thought-police. Ever since I could read, I was encouraged, taught and urged to pore over the bible lesson (inlcuding Science and Health) every morning. I read articles in the  church's weekly and monthly magazines. After I got sick, my practitioner told me to read Science and Health straight through, five or ten pages a day, cross-referencing significant words in Eddy's other writings. Words like run, knees, life. Material life was only symbolic, after all, like warped  numbers written on paper. Over the course of thirty years as a diligent, prayerful Christian Scientist, I probably read every single word Eddy every wrote. I read Science and Health from cover to cover probably--what? Half a dozen times? Ten times? Prayer was a lifeline. Durint the state of receptive, fervent quiet, I ached for just one glimpse of my true spiritual being. It would lift my consciousness into health and peace. It was a mental headlock I welcomed. It was the only way of life I knew or could imagine. Prayer was my only hope.

When I left Christian Science, I stopped praying. Guess what? I didn't miss it. The lack didn't make any difference in my life. When I broke down, fell apart, thought I was dying and prepared to step off the edge of my fearful, sacred world, there was no edge. I braced myself to fall but the world kept going. I didn't have to pray. I could thumb my nose at prayer and at the concept of a "God", mock it, blaspheme it, ridicule it. It made no difference.

The biggest difference was that I stopped being afraid. I still worry about the parent stuff, something happening to my kids. But almost nothing else really bothers me. This is a paradox because I suffered from panic attacks and flashbacks, emotional triggers and five-alarm meltdowns for many years. I'm not immune now, though I'm a lot more stable. But the level of fear in  my life has been negligible compared to the anxious paralysis I lived in all those years, and the trance-state of euphoria I used to "pray" myself into.

So I didn't (and don't) miss praying. (It also opened up a lot of time in my schedule.) But I noticed a side effect. It was difficult for me to hold still. I couldn't just sit and think, relax and chill. I just didn't like to. The time I tried a mild meditation exercise with some friends almost sent me into a full blown crisis. It was too much like prayer. It sent me reeling toward panic and terror. I had to get up and move.

Or better yet...get on a horse and ride. Clear my mind and let the rhythm of hoof beats bring my breathing back to normal. Trail riding was always critical to me; it became my form of meditation, motion without too much thought, activity that let the wheels in my head spin in neutral while I relaxed. It saved me.

More about this tomorrow.  I'm heading into territory that is important to me and, I hope, to you. I welcome your comments & thoughts.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Pony (Almost) in My Lap

I trimmed my little pony today. I did most of my horses' trimming for twenty years, except for tricky cases or corrections. That went out the window when I joined the ranks of the unipeds. Forever, I assumed. 

But in a moment of weakness a while back I bought a mini colt. My logic was pretty good, in a horse-aholic's twisted way: I'd teach him to drive, get a cart, and use the mini-size harness my daughter bought half a dozen years ago. (Never mind that the harness is still in the box because she never got around to driving her mini either...) I thought a miniature horse was a good compromise, half way between a full-sized horse and the model horses I started with as a kid which I feel destined to return to in my eventual fossil-hood. And I can drive a pony cart with my prosthesis on, which would solve one problem I have riding without it.

The colt's a sorrel, unregistered, not well-bred, with a blond tail that drags on the ground.  A friend of a friend sold her collection of minis because of her illness. I just took a look of course, to be polite, but this little guy sauntered up to me with brassy curiosity and immediately I remembered the new harness in the box at home. 

It's been two years and I admit I haven't had the harness on him...but he's mannerly and sweet and a blast to watch gallop around the pond or play tag with my older daughter's St. Bernard. And I trim him myself.  Usually I work the nippers with one hand and hold up his foot with the other because I can't put his hoof between my knees. The rasp is easier, one-handed. Today my organic knee began to make these ominous crunching sounds as I leaned over the little hoof. It's been doing this a lot lately. It doesn't hurt but it sounds as though the brittle pieces of joint and knee cap are all grinding together under the skin like a tin can of rocks.

Well, hey. The ground was dry (too damn dry for March in New York state. Mud season is a time honored tradition you can count on no matter how much or little snow we get) so I sat down. I felt a little ridiculous: I spent twenty-odd years as a fervent, conscientious instructor with posted rules and regulations in my barn and a pristine safety record. I was a stickler for correct positions and thinking ahead to what a horse might do. But I've punched out on that clock. It's time for practicality. I tried kneeling as I trimmed, and that worked pretty well...but I gave in and sat down. Gave my little pony a manicure. Why not, you know?

He's no toy and I know it. People get in trouble thinking minis aren't wired exactly like their twelve-hundred pound counterparts, usually with a Napoleon complex to boot. But I've taught him to behave, and I actually put a halter and line on him and did a little ground work refresher course, you know, before I sat him in my lap.

I'm still teetering a little on my increased-height prosthesis. That thigh's a little wobbly this week between the extra work it's doing and the latest pummeling (ahem: lengthening) work by my massage therapist. I think it'll steady out pretty soon. 

Then it'll be time to get that harness out of the box and put the little guy to work.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

My Ph...(TS) panic

The term 'panic fear' comes from stories of the Greek god Pan. According to myth, he howled in the darkness to scare the sheep and goats, and their human shepards. Panic is the mindless, instinctive, all-encompassing need to bolt. It's hard-wired in prey animals, including horses, as a survival mechanism. It's also found in humans who've been pushed too far by fear and stress and powerlessness.

Horses have taught me there's no finite definition of abuse, no measurable amount of stress that causes this permanent damage and reactivity. Individuals react differently, whether they're horse or human. One trauma isn't worse than another; mine wasn't greater or lesser than anyone else's. Trauma happens when you're pushed past the limit of what you can bear. It's that point of no return. It's too much.

I spent twenty years pretty sure I was crazy. Not the high-as-a-kite mood swings and craving for risk from riding a fractious horse away from my crutches (bareback, no less) at fifteen when I couldn't yet walk, to climbing fifty-foot-high trees when I was twenty, to galloping racehorses, fused knee and all, including when I was pregnant with my first child.

The behavior that worried me was much worse. It was my months of uncontrollable bingeing and fasting in high school as I tried to force my body into a shape I recognized. It was my compulsive treks walking laps through my house as I tried to force my knee to bend or straighten even as the joint fused itself solid. It was the rages, the black despair that knocked me off my feet into a fetal position in bed for hours or days at a time. I loathed myself and my inability to be HEALED by Christian Science. Which I knew was my own inability to understand some element I lacked, some instant of spiritual harmony and enlightenment that I'd been waiting for since I lay in bed for ten months with osteomyelitis at fourteen. The key to  the moment when I would feel my motionless joint and tendons stretch and flex, maybe just a little at first. Or maybe all at once. And my knee would let me walk and run again. It had to happen. Or everything I'd already been through was for nothing. That was not a concept I could look at.

I couldn't always get myself to school, and then I couldn't always stay there. I sleep-walked through high school for weeks at a time. Idle remarks from friends or strangers triggered avalanches of shame that buried me alive. I felt isolated from my handful of close friends. I thought about killing myself. 

But I had to do my chores. My horses were waiting for me at the pasture gate. So I hung on and kept putting one foot in front of the other even on unbearable days.

Married at twenty-two to my first boyfriend, I'd be triggered during an argument. I'd jump into my battered old Dodge Dart and slam the pedal to the floor around a miles-long country block, straddling yellow lines, squealing bare tires on curves as the fear acted as a tranquilizer and soothed my raw nerves. Maybe that was part of the appeal of exercising racehorses. It was a form of anesthetic. Like the way I sometimes punched myself in the head, above the hairline. At times pain felt better than despair and panic.

Teachers said I had a bad attitude. School acquaintances wondered aloud if I was manic depressive. My first husband told me I was nuts. I was afraid he was right.

I first saw a psychotherapist when I was thirty-three. I was divorced with a five-year-old. I'd finally rejected the religion I'd bet my life on and my mind was coming off the rails. I shook and cried when I told the therapist my story. She told me I had severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

She saw me two (and sometimes three) times a week that year. I stayed in therapy more or less fifteen years including group and individual sessions. And gradually I learned how to manage that wild-eyed, dangerous animal hysterically kicking in the darkened stall in my head, the creature who was also a girl in bed praying to be healed while she wished she could die.

I've found a truce with the resonance of that panicked girl. It's taken all these years of talk therapy and meds and paying attention to what I feel. I'm here to tell you: self-awareness is a bitch. It's taken a long time for me to learn to recognize when my anxiety is starting to hum, and regard it as the herald of a rough patch I can treat, and not accept that the walls are truly crowding in. Now I can (usually) separate myself and view it as a symptom of my chronic condition, something to be managed like a migraine. Not lose myself in it so that I believe everything is wrong and it's up to me. Flashbacks don't have wavy dissolves and echoey narrators saying, "Let's go back in time," like a B-movie. My flashbacks open a trap door under me or drench me in icy emotional water if someone says certain words that set me off like a plastic bag blowing under a horse's feet. I get plunged into that old crazy emotion. I'm not my panic. But it still sits close to me. 

Novembers are hard. My childhood ended one Saturday in November when my leg swelled and the bone disease began. And a lot of sundowns are tough, especially when the days are short and night comes too soon. I like to be outside at dusk when I feel that hand clamp onto my heart. I like to walk in the woods in the dry leaves listening to sticks breaking under my feet. I like to stay out as the darkness falls. I'm OK with the night; it's just the sunset transition when I need to know I'm free to move.

The last few nights I've heard coyotes howling in the woods around midnight, yipping and screaming like girls at a pool party. I like hearing them. They're the voice of the night in my pocket of New York state wilderness. They're not old Pan. He sounds (and feels) completely different when he starts calling.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

My crush on the colt next door

He's in the big pasture down the road where it turns and slopes downhill, there by the barn that has a fading painted smile. He appeared last winter: a bony brown critter with ribs and hips jutting. He kept his head in the hay feeder or eagerly devoured the sparse tufts of dead grass. Rescue case, someone said at the feed store. Over the winter he gained back all his missing weight and rolled his chestnut coat clean in the grass. He's filled out. He feels good. I've seen him bucking and chasing the old pinto draft horse he's pastured with. He pesters like the two- or three-yearold stud colt he probably is. Lately I've seen him in the corral, maybe in time-out. Give the old horse a chance to catch his breath.

I slow down my truck as I drive by. He's a tough little colt with that short-backed rugged look that appeals to me like sideburns on men and a cerain kind of mustache. Maybe he's a mustang from the adoption program. Maybe he's quarter horse crossed with a pony, with a little Arab thrown in. I've thought about stopping my truck to say hi.

It's the spring that does this to me. It's that colt's look. It takes me back to horses that got under my skin, a few out of hundreds I've met, fiesty fillies and capricious colts that lured me into their lives whether it was good for me or not. Tough little horses to trot down dirt roads, stroll between hardwoods and pines on the hills, lope along logging trails and over the downed trees. Hard-headed overgrown ponies to gallop across a hayfield and then hose clean, step right into the trailer and head for a parade or show. 

Yeah, some were heartbreakers; I was lucky they weren't bone-breakers. But none of that matters. The leaves are budding, grass greening up, and I gaze at the colt as I drive by.

I'm not twenty anymore. I'm certainly not fearless. I don't even have two legs. I'm in a committed relationship with a fabulous mare at home, my sane and sensible mount, the only horse I've ridden since my amputation. I should know better.

But I feel this ache. I know the woman who owns that farm. She's got llamas and peacocks and a camel, too. (She gave me a ride on the camel). She swims the lake every summer with me. I could ask her about the colt.

I'm not going to. I don't want to know. The colt looks like frosty October trails with an exuberant buck saved for when a deer dashes across the path ahead. He's the dust and blistering sun at the summer 4H shows, and the bareback jump course of plastic barrels in the pasture after supper. I'm going to keep watching him wistfully with this sweet arrow through my heart for what I've had, for what I wish I could have one more time. He's one of the colts of spring. I'm glad to recognize him. And let myself imagine what we might have had.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Taller than yesterday

This week I had an appointment with my prosthetist to make a couple of subtle adjustments on my left leg. Tom made me this socket in October but my winter was physically difficult. Too many missteps, falls and strains. My remaining original-equipment knee was perennially achy. The insurance overlords denied me a new brace. 

But this summer of a spring must be helping, because I feel that old eager-to-move energy. And my leg just isn't keeping up. I took a look at the way the angle the knee is attached (hydraulic one, that is) and remembered that Tom set it so as to give me the most stability. I walked on my dirt driveway and thought about my stride: definitely choppy in a subtle way. I could feel my leg wanting to reach. And the height of the leg felt...short.

Tom is my third prosthetist, which is what happens when you are an above-knee amputee and former horse trainer too focused on proper way-of-going and hoof health. Now that I'm the horse, I do my best to spell it out until I say, That's great.

All my leg-makers have said, But you're hips aren't even. You're low on the left.

True. I spent thirty years walking with my left leg fused solid at an angle slightly more open than ninety degrees. (Try the play-at-home game. Bend your knee. Now walk. Think about thirty years of this. My kids and their friends attempt to mimic it. It's entertaining, even more so when adults try.) So although my chiropractor got my back straight within eighteen months of my amputation, psychologically I've always felt off balance when my hips are level.

But lately I've felt short on that side. Part of it is the stretching and massage work; part is my ailing right leg screaming at my mechanical leg to cowboy up and pull its own weight already. And maybe it's time to be taller and straighter.

So after Tom adjusted the knee-to-socket connection we experimented. He has this convenient Birkenstock sandal thing, and I buckled on the quarter-inch sole and walked around the room. It was fabulous. He put a quarter-inch lift in my left shoe and sent me on my way.  I'll go back in a couple weeks and he'll make a more permanent fix by lengthening the metal pylon that is my left shin. 

Now I feel the difference with every step, a combination of stride and balanced height that no longer threatens to tip me over. My left hip and stump of thigh are working harder, and that feels wonderful. My right knee is grateful and says it didn't mean to whine so much. And it's cool to be this little bit higher all of a sudden. I just wish a few of my horses could have put their own gait-issues into words. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

a.k.a. AKA (but not Iko Iko!) Get it?

Answer: also known as Above Knee Amputee. And I'm not here to set anyone's flag on fire but to mention that it's A-Week.

"A" is for the last demographic (I almost wrote demongraphic: Freud much, Liz?) that it's OK to shy away from, ridicule, fear, or vote against for president.  (And most political offices.)  I called myself an agnostic for a while, and also a humanist (which I still am) but last year I stopped beating around the bush. 

The idea of an intelligent higher power that cares about, controls, or has any effect on my life whatsoever is repugnant to me. If there was ever a child test case who lived to tell the story, it's me. My family and church bet my life and limb (left leg) on their belief in the power of "God."

It didn't work.

Beyond the wrenching image of a child suffering bedridden with a bone disease with no painkillers, antibiotics or medical attention of any kind for a year, beyond the questions of parental criminal neglect and lack of intervention by local agencies, beyond the state law which permitted this treatment in the first place, no god came to my rescue.

Got it? 

Christians of all stripes still argue with me. They tell me my parents should have known enough not to rely on prayer alone. They tell me we studied the wrong religion, implying we prayed in the wrong way to the wrong god. They tell me (grudgingly, but they say it) that I didn't have enough faith or understanding. I was thirteen at the time. Then they say, "But you survived! That was the miracle!"

It was not a miracle. That time was horrible. It was horrible for a very long time after. It's still horrible some days, and it's been 37 years. I was not healed. I prayed and suffered, endured obediently and survived. I tried to find the combination of thoughts, knowledge and understanding that would stop the pain, maybe even instantly. Does this sound like a form of...torture?

I was left with a wrecked leg, a fractured way of thinking and the deadened eyes of  a child soldier. Mine was a perfect storm of unfortunate events. But it goes on every day. (So-called "spiritual treatment" of children that allows parents to reject medical attention is legal today in 38 states.)

I have reasons for believing in the incredible power of human beings to survive and overcome horrific odds. I have reasons for refusing to attribute cause and effect, free-will or destiny, to a god. I have reasons that many people can respect, no matter what they believe. Please do me a favor. Before you judge the next atheist you meet, walk a mile in her shoes. Walk a mile on her legs. If she has two legs. 

Jockomo feena nay. AKA!  Happy A-Week.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How My Amputation Turned Me Into A Horse

I know. The math doesn't work. Two legs minus one is not four. But stay with me for a minute.

I pretended I was a horse when I was a kid: I cantered and trotted everywhere, crunched apples and carrots, whinnied and nickered, and jumped over anything that didn't move. Sometimes I allowed me to ride myself. Sometimes I was too wild  and bucked myself off. (Figure that one out.)

Beginning at age six I rode real horses. Pony rides led to riding lessons, then trail rides double with luckier friends. I had an unsuitable pony, then another that was meaner, smaller and ultimately very beneficial for me as a rider (read: typical Shetland). Then Flicka, my first true horse-love. She was eventually a casualty of my bone disease ordeal, but selling her to buy a more reasonable mount was my first adult decision at sixteen. It led me to England where I was certified by the British Horse Society, then here to upstate NY where I taught lessons, exercised racehorses, and eventually ran my own small stable. Along the way, I fit saddles to equine backs, trimmed hoofs and did a little shoeing, and taught young horses to balance with a rider. Little did I know my eventual amputation at age forty-five would reincarnate my equinized self.

Let me impress upon you the importance of comfortable equipment. As an above-amputee I wear a prosthetic leg attached to a socket made of a rigid carbon fiber that covers my stump  to my hip and crotch. Liners and stump socks are fine, but they can't make up for a bad fit, a socket that's too big or too small, or an edge that rubs me raw. Am I clear about this? A hard material in a suitable shape is perfect, while all the padding in the world won't stop chafing when the form is wrong. I've used wads of sheepskin to try to make-do until I got to my prosthetist for an adjustment. Here I'd like to formally apologize to any horses in my past with marginally-fitting saddles that I made-do by layering an extra saddle pad (or gel pad, or wedge pad, or lollypop pad). There is NO substitute for tack that fits the anatomy. No, a socket is not a saddle. But a sore is a sore. Believe me.

Now feet. Or rather, foot. I've always prized a good farrier (horse trimmer & shoer) and I want my horses sound and square, with corrective work if they need it. When I got my  artificial foot, I stumbled across the hard truth under the theory of equine conformation. A foot that turns out is bad. And a foot that turns in is much worse. If mine isn't tightened enough, it turns. If it turns out, I waddle and lurch. If it turns in, I fall down and shout bad words. I don't tinker much with my fancy fake leg, but that foot direction is critical. I made my prosthetist teach me how to adjust it. I keep that little allen wrench handy. And I'm telling you, find your horse a decent farrier. I cringe for the horses that toe in. 

And the last part of my life as an ampu-horse-tee is this balancing act of walking. My prosthetic leg is basically a big hydraulic hinge. It's got no computer-gizmo so once it bends, I follow, or fall down. Gravity giveth and gravity taketh away. That's walking: controlled falling, minus the control at first. Straight-legged, the limb holds me. So in the early days I spent hours between PT sessions walking on my deck with a hand on the railing. I walked forward. Then I walked backward. In classical European riding and training (dressage) you never teach a young horse to back until advanced levels. The fear is that the colt won't move forward freely. I've seen critters taught (or allowed) to back too soon that learned to rear to avoid anything.  It's an effective disobedience; after a while, no one rides them. But when I learned methods based on the vaquero style of horsemanship ("natural" horsemanship) I learned to ask horses to "unlock" by moving in any direction. It's the freedom and balance of movement that's important, the quality and willingness rather than direction. And then I found myself needing to unlock my motion. 

Backing helped me find my center in my new gait. I walked forward and backward, back and forth, along the deck as my horses watched interestedly behind the fence. My foot was adjusted forward; my socket fit comfortably without padding. And I pricked my ears, swished my tail, and backed on into my new way-of-going, hoping for carrots. So far, there've been plenty.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Dragon Leg

Time for a gold dragon to liven up a March day: This is a picture from two years ago of me in my backyard pond and the leg I had then.  I found that wonderful fabric for the socket and had the socket-makers put it on as the finishing layer. My prosthetist said it made quite an impression in the office: they referred to me as The Dragon Lady.  (And if the shoe fits...)

The knee is an Otto Bock 3R60 EBS ("ergonomically balanced stride": this won't be on the final), a hydraulic knee that costs around $5,000, the dollar-store model compared to the C-leg (computerized) that starts upwards of $25,000, and the Genium which costs four times the C-leg... My humble hydraulic joint is for "active amputees" and is supposed to be excellent for camping and golfing. (Cutting firewood and chasing loose horses weren't mentioned but it works pretty well for those, too.) The knee stays locked when my leg is straight with my weight on it, and flexes as my weight shifts onto my toes. But once it bends it's like a hinge and there's no support. I can stand and shift my weight from foot to foot, but if I bend the knee too much, down I go. I used to drop without warning at cookouts during my first summer as an amp. One second I'd be holding my paper plate of grilled chicken and chatting with my friends. The next instant, WHOMP. On the grass.

These days if I fall it's usually because my prosthetic foot drags and catches on something. Then I leap instinctively to catch my balance. Or I fall and try to roll with it as forty years riding horses taught me.  I really like this knee. It's not computerized, so it can't sense when I fall and seize up to hold me, but it's pretty reasonable. Most of my limitations are the result of problems with my other (organic) leg which suffered the brunt of my extremely active life. My gait with my artificial leg is only as good as my osteo-arthritic knee. Ten years ago a doctor told me I had the foot of a seventy-year old. (That one's gone now. I have a tracing of it that my daughter did at the hospital right before the amputation.) And now my "good" knee is like a seventy-year old's.I wore out the prosthetic knee in the photo, and the socket never fit very well.  Now I've got a blue tie-dyed print  socket finished with my favorite T-shirt, and another knee the same model. The old one started clanking; now it's in the closet as a spare.

I'm not sure what model the foot is but it's heavy-duty. I've had it five years now and I really like it. It's got a plastic foot cover so it looks normal under the sock. I change the sock maybe once in six months after it gets holes in it, I guess from rubbing on the metal. I don't pair up my socks anymore. What's the point? I don't mind when the dryer eats them. I only need one. It's liberating.

And swimming: I love it.But that's another story.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

"Sorry I'm late--my mom couldn't get her leg on."

Yes, our middle school's secretary hears this sometimes. And a few years ago I was an hour late for my job thanks to the temperamental pin-lock system securing my prosthesis.  And last summer during a week-long writing retreat at the Highlights Foundations' Pennsylvania farm, a critical kevlar string frayed and snapped. (My high-tech, hydraulic artificial limb depends on the equivalent of an O-ring.) I spent the rest of that week on crutches. One friend calls this version of me "the tripod."  

My boss wasn't sure what to say when I arrived after calling in late/legless. He looked at my feet. "Are you OK? Are you in pain?"

I explained it's more like when your car won't start. He glanced at me and hurried away. I felt bad for him. 

My leg is attached to a carbon fiber socket (with a custom finish pattern: this one is blue tiedye like tiger stripes) that covers my whole stump up to my hip and pelvic bones. Its's a Comfort-flex socket, and my weight rests on my ischial tuberosity (Note: vocabulary word & will be on the final) up the inside of my thigh rather than the thigh bone which can't  take pressure. I wear a gel-lined cover on my stump. A fitting on the end holds the screw attached to the Mighty Yet Breakable kevlar string, which threads through a hole in the base of the socket. As I stand up, my weight settles into the socket and I pull  the string until the mechanism cinches it  tight. (Pushing a button on the inside of the socket releases it.)

I've learned that having an excellent prosthetist is even more valuable than a good car mechanic. I've learned to keep lists of questions, get second opinions if I need to, and not settle for Close Enough. I usually leave my leg dressed in jeans and shoe when I take it off at night. It's easier to change shoes when the leg is off. The plastic foot covers the metal leaf-spring of the foot which is fairly rigid, hard to dress with the leather high-top riding shoes I usually wear. I can't travel without my shoehorn. I set off bells and whistles at scanning booths at airports and public buildings. I tell them I have a prosthesis before I trudge through the doorway. The alarms go off. I step aside, stand with my arms out and submit to wanding. It's annoying but I'm used to it.

Right after I got my first leg, my daughter  took me to Show & Tell at school. I wore shorts. The kids crowded around  and fired questions at me. Does it hurt?  Do you take it off? Can you get it wet? And, Can you do this?

I said, "I don't know." I found myself on hands and knees on the rug being ordered to attempt the practical movements of first graders, things the physical therapist never even mentioned. Sitting  different ways, crawling and kneeling, crouching and bending. The kids were curious and didn't care I was slow and awkward. Some things I could do, some I couldn't because the leg doesn't hold me when it's bent; it's like a hinge. But this gang of seven-year-olds studied and encouraged me in a way that was both tough and sympathetic. They liberated me to experiment.

After that, when I limped into the school I was often mobbed by kids. My daughter would triumphantly yank up my pants leg to shock the skeptics who hadn't yet seen Robo-Mom.

And the teachers have never complained about those occasional odd excuses for my daughter being late. I guess it's a fringe benefit.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Frosty Flicka

When I was twelve years old I bought an appaloosa mare named Flicka for $400. I'd sold my my outgrown little pony Dragon and I had sky-high hopes: trail riding, jumping and showing at the 4H fair. After looking at more reasonable mounts, I tried this rangy, half-broke six-year-old I could barely ride. I fell in love. I'd been devouring horse books since I could read--now I was the heroine in  my own story. We bought Flicka. 

She was red roan--a mottled chestnut and white appaloosa pattern--and had a star and stripe on her face, and a silver-dollar white spot on the left side of her barrel. She was fifteen hands one inches of  power, strength and freedom. I was willing to take on training her because she was the horse I planned to own for the rest of her life. My horse.

Flicka was impossible. She charged at me and my friends in the pasture. She bucked and plunged, bolted and once sat down on a trail ride. She was defensive at feed time, spinning around to bare her teeth at anyone looking over her stall door. Other times she was playful; she'd lean over the door, tip her head sideways and dangle her tonge out her mouth. To gallop her bareback was to catch a ride on the wind. If I fell, I brushed off my jeans, wiped my tears and went to catch her again. 

I kept her at the barn down the road from my house on Wood Street in Lexington, Massachusetts. After six months I found a woman to help me. Her advice, a stronger bit, and the ride-the-legs-off'em approach gave me an intense summer of progress. I rode Flicka all over Lexington and Bedford, jumped her, and started a small collection of show ribbons on my curtain rod. We were on our way.

Everything changed that November when I was thirteen. One Saturday I rode Flicka and later biked to a friend's house. We ran in the woods, revelling in the mild day. That night my left knee swelled and grew hot and painful. Two weeks later I was in too much pain to go to school. Within another month my leg was draining pus. I couldn't get out of bed. I didn't put my hands on Flicka for eighteen months. 

When I did, I was almost fifteen and a half. It was spring 1977. I'd missed most of eighth and ninth grades. I'd lost track of my friends. I'd glimpsed Flicka on the occasions when my mother led her down the road to our house so I could see her out the window when I couldn't get out of bed. Now I swayed on crutches, shaken from the half-mile car ride, my first in a year and a half. I wobbled, balancing carefully to keep all weight off my wrecked left leg. I  hooked my hands onto the woven wire pasture fence and called. Flicka stared at me. She saw me.  She knew me. She walked to the fence and nuzzled my fingers.

It was never the same. A few months later I rode her although I didn't walk without crutches for another year. But Flicka was sour and spoiled.  She'd been fed and watered, had her stall cleaned and her feet trimmed, but without the dialogue of riding and discipline with me, her human, she'd grown  irritable and skeptical. She'd become as alien and frightening as my own body. I tried to find the way back to the relationship I'd had with my horse but after a year I gave up. I could get on Flicka as a passenger, or I could sell her and buy a quieter horse that could help me find my confidence. I could be Flicka's owner or I could be a rider. But not both. I sold her in the fall of 1978 when I was sixteen.  

I did find my riding seat and confidence on other horses, so much that at eighteen I went to England to be certified as a riding instructor. Back in the USA, I trained freelance and exercised racehorses. But I was conscious that when I coached someone trying to ride a snotty mare down a trail it was a form of time travel for me. I was still training Flicka so our story would have a happy ending.

To this day I have a weakness for red roan appaloosa mares. I've owned a few. As I write this, two are standing fifty feet from me. It all started with Flicka.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

My Many Legs

I say I have one leg because the left one is gone, but it's more complicated. For thirty years I walked  with a crazy, bobbing limp; my left knee  fused solid during the bone disease in my teens. (Vocabulary word: ankylosed. Will be on the final.) By the time I was eighteen I was used to it. I didn't think about how I moved when I was alone, but I was always reminded by the reactions of people who weren't familiar with my weird walk. (And this triggered my shame that I had failed to be HEALED through Christian Science. More on that later.) But for thirty years I limped on a bent leg. I could climb ladders, cross-country ski, drive standard-shift trucks and tractors, walk for miles, and ride any horse I saw, but  my leg was rigid at an angle slightly more open than ninety degrees.

I still have the sensation of a whole left leg. At first it felt bent all the time; when my thigh lay on the bed, my knee felt bent and my calf and foot passed right through the mattress...very strange. This is phantom sensation, different from the crazy shooting jolts that are phantom pains.  (I take meds to keep them at bay.)  Once I started walking on the prosthetic leg, my brain understood that my leg could straighten again. When I wear the prosthesis, the socket covers my stump right up to my hip and pelvic bones (where my weight rests). It feels as though my whole leg--including knee, calf and foot that aren't there--are inside a suit of armor. When I flex the thigh muscles on my stump it feels as though my knee bends or straightens. (This is really cool. For all those years, I couldn't move my knee but I can now that it's gone.)

I usually wear the prosthetic leg from the time I get up until I go to bed. I use crutches without it. I don't hop well anymore. My "good" knee is very arthritic. (Hence the knee brace in the picture.) When my leg is off, I call it leg-less lounging. My brain has gotten used to this mechanical leg that bends and straightens, comes and goes. Often I'll cut my right foot's toenails and immediately turn to my left foot that isn't there. I have a leg now that I don't.
I've always had an over-active and vivid dream life. I wasn't usually conscious of it in the dreams, although sometimes I dreamed I 'd been HEALED and running with two perfect legs. Now, since the amputation,  I have different versions of my leg in dreams. Sometimes I run on my old fused, bent leg (which I never could run on), and sometimes I have the prosthesis (which acts like a hinge and doesn't hold me when it bends: it's hydraulic, not computerized.) 

And sometimes in the dreams my legs are whole and perfect. Not HEALED. Just normal. My brain switches effortlessly from  being legless on crutches  to a mechanical leg to a fused leg to a normal leg in the dreams.

It doesn't matter which leg I have in the running dreams. I just run.