seeing myself through an insult


On a crisp spring day in 1997, I walked onto the track in a warmup suit. With the change in weather, people had come out in force to work off the extra weight a winter indoors had lathered onto their midsections. Every 20 to 30 meters, men and women walked and jogged on the orange rubber lanes that separated the football field from the rest of the world. Kids played in the long jump pit and leapt on and off the padding in the pole vault landing area.

I pulled off my running pants to warm up, exposing the black metal and carbon graphite below my prosthetic socket. This was not a decision I came to lightly. In fact, my thoughts about a cosmetic covering for my prosthesis were only slightly less complicated and intricate than splitting the atom.

Phase 1: Silo Creation

First, I split my life into three silos. Silo #1 (Professional Silo) housed my Monday to Friday existence: putting on a suit, going to work, coming home, going out to dinner, etc. Silo #2 (Jock Silo) was the repository for my athletic life: working out, running, and lifting weights. To further complicate things, I had a third silo that came into play when wearing shorts but not engaging in athletics (the troublesome “Summer Silo”).

Since my self-perception at that time in my life rested on an isolated moment or two of athletic glory in high school, I defined myself primarily as a “Silo 2 Guy.” The fact that I came to this conclusion five years after graduating from college only proved that the staggering amounts of money my parents spent to send me to an institution of higher learning had, sadly, been wasted.

With my personality now split into three distinct categories, I then entered into a detailed analysis of how a cosmetic cover would work (or not) in each scenario.

Phase 2: Professional Silo Analysis

In this silo, I wore pants, usually sitting behind a desk. My primary activity consisted of walking to and from my car four times a day: parking lot to office in the morning; office to parking lot for lunch; parking lot back to office after lunch; and office to parking lot for the return commute home. That meant that out of the roughly 16 hours a day I wore my prosthesis, I usually spent a total of no more than 18 minutes walking any distance. Faced with this clear record of relative inactivity, I did what any intelligent man would do: ignore the evidence.

I organized my life only around those 18 minutes. What would people think when they saw me walking? (After all, when a guy in a suit walks out of an office building, doesn’t everyone watch every step he takes? Especially when the suit comes from that now-defunct retailer, Today’s Man?) Masking any sign of my prosthesis, my weakness, became my primary goal in the Professional Silo. So a foam cover was essential.

Just to be clear: I had decided that wearing a cosmetic cover under my pants (?!?) was critical in the professional silo. Because the Entire World cared about what I looked like, but only from the left knee down. Good God, in retrospect, it’s amazing I could tolerate myself for more than 10 minutes without sticking my head in the oven.

Phase 3: Jock Silo Analysis

The Jock Silo presented an interesting quandary, as it coupled the mating falcons of ego and vanity in that plummeting death spiral from the heavens towards the earth below. On the one hand, going out in shorts without a cover would undoubtedly draw some level of public attention to me. This violated every principle on which my Professional Silo policy rested.

But on the other hand, if I ran in my prosthesis with a cover on, the lurching, compromised gait would invite scrutiny, as there would be no apparent explanation for an otherwise normal looking 26 year-old spastically and slowly convulsing around a track. Faced with this anomaly, people would, I assumed, try and figure out what was wrong with me, and having no quick and easy visual explanation, conclude that I was simply part of that class of humanity that lacks coordination.

And that was simply too much for me to bear. Better to arrive at the track with a full entourage, fireworks, and Michael Buffer announcing my entry – “Over here in the disabled corner, with a career record of 0-1 – his only loss coming at the hands of the still-undisputed champion of human-auto warfare, the Honda Civic – from Long Island, New York, David “the Limbless Lawyer” McGiiiiiiiiiiiiiillllllllllllllll!” – than be thought an unathletic oaf. That settled it – in the Jock Silo I would expose my prosthesis for the world’s consideration and wonderment.

The inconsistency between Phase 2 and Phase 3 did not trouble me in the least, proving that Delusion and I are fast friends.

Phase 4: Seasonal Silo Analysis

So what the hell was I now supposed to do during the summer?

Wearing pants in 95 degree heat was out. For some reason that psychologists have yet to uncover, I spent most of my youth trying that out, wearing blue jeans and turtlenecks in 90+ degree heat through July and August. I have a dim recollection that I thought that shorts and tee shirts were, for some reason, uncool looking. Guided by my unerring fashion sense, I therefore wore long sleeve shirts and Levis through the summer, content that I had safely avoided appearing odd to the world at large. (In retrospect, perhaps this was a kind of Owen Meany-like example of a person’s oddities as a child preparing them for a life-defining moment in their adulthood.) Whatever the cause of my childhood mental problems, I wasn’t going to sweat through the hottest months of the year just to avoid showing my left leg.

But wearing a cosmetic cover with shorts was a lousy option also. While the shape of the cover was ok, the stocking that covered the foam was noticeable and somewhat less than masculine. And the off-the-shelf “skin” I had gotten with my first prosthesis looked like something a snake exposed to toxic sludge had sloughed off a year earlier.

Trapped between these equally undesirable options, I defaulted back to my comfort zone, the Jock Silo, deciding to forgo the cover when wearing shorts. I rationalized the decision on the ground that I would rather have people stare at a metal leg then at a flesh-colored/shaped one that still clearly wasn’t “right.”

With the Four-Phase Silo Self-Identification and Categorization test now complete, let’s go back to the track.

After an hour or so of training I walked onto the football field that rested on the inside perimeter of the rubberized moat, cooling down and getting ready to leave. A young boy, probably 4 years old, walked up to me, pulled towards the prosthesis as if it were a tractor beam. He stopped about 10 feet away. I looked at him and smiled. I was getting used to these encounters. Usually they involved lots of staring, some pointing and whispers, and in the case of kids, questions that were easily answered and that seemingly satisfied their quest for understanding.

Then there was this lad. He pointed at my prosthesis and shouted, “that’s asgusting!” and ran away.

I was stunned. And angry. I considered chasing the little neanderthal down and stuffing his face into the grass to teach him that you couldn’t race around insulting strangers . . . while using poor grammar to boot. Unfortunately, however, that was out of the realm of possibility, as he moved with the relative speed of a cheetah to my sloth.

Confronting his parents, wherever they were, struck me as a poor backup plan, as I quickly concluded that if they had begotten such an intolerant little twit, perhaps they might share an equal but more eloquent distaste for me. (“Jimmy, you shouldn’t say ‘asgusting.’ It’s proper English to call The Freak a ‘hideously deformed, twisted shadow of humanity.’ We’re raising you to insult people with flair and panache. Your stilted efforts are an embarrassment to our family’s good name!”)

The two words that leapt out of the kid’s mouth ate away at me not only for the rest of that day, but through the coming weeks and months. “What kind of creature would say that?” I repeatedly asked myself. I thought of all the clever ripostes I’d shoot back with the next time that I ran into my three foot tall tormentor, determined to browbeat him into understanding the wrath of the one legged man.

A few weeks later, at a fast-food chain, another child walked up to me, transfixed by the prosthesis. (I was in Phase 4 mode.) His father, horrified, but transfixed in his seat, watched. The kid looked at me and said, “I feel bad.” while pointing at my leg. I said, “Don’t feel bad – it looks different than yours but it works pretty well.” He considered this for a moment, nodded, and walked back to his father who mouthed the words, “Thank you!” to me from his seat. He no doubt had visions of the crazy amputee snapping in McDonalds, screaming at his son, thereby requiring years of therapy to undo the child’s pervasive terror of all people using crutches, wheelchairs, canes, prosthetics, or any other type of assistive device.

But unlike that exclamation of Grammatically Impaired Twit, this child’s fixation and statement didn’t bother me in the least. And I’ve wondered since then, why was that the case?

I now think the answer has much more to do with me than the children. G.I. Twit’s statement resonated because at some subconscious level I feared he was right. It was, in one way of thinking, “asgusting” to have a body part replaced with a poor facsimile of the original. When I saw myself reflected in his mind, I saw something monstrous, and I reacted by wanting to exact revenge on him, rather than acknowledging this reality.

Alternatively, the silent “Thank you!” from Fast Food Boy’s father was the confirmation that I was still a normal person, even with a prosthesis attached to my left leg. Seeing myself through his eyes, I was a part of – not apart from – “regular” people.

I’m indebted to G.I. Twit and F.F. Boy/F.F. Dad for teaching me something about myself. I’m a slow learner, but I think I now get it.

8 thoughts on “seeing myself through an insult

  1. Dave, this is what I struggle with as well. Is it possible to accept one’s maimed body and not live in denial? I sometimes feel that I’m “passing” as an able-bodied person–and other times that I’m impersonating someone with a disability. I don’t know if I will ever be able to reconcile the two me’s–the one before and the one after the accident.

  2. Very interesting comment, Avra. I definitely spent my early years as an amputee with a primary motivation of “passing” as an able-bodied person. Today, I still get nuts if someone id’s me as disabled or injured just by watching me walk. But now that’s purely an ego thing: “I SHOULD be able to fake them out and I didn’t. I failed.”

    Stated another way, I get a rush (ego, anyone?) from residing in a “disabled” body and faking people out. Because, in my mind, that moment of, “I didn’t know you wore a prosthesis!” is an explicit acknowledgement of the breaking down of the able-bodied/disabled dichotomy that most people live with as a defining construct.

    It’s also why my wife finds me insufferable sometimes.

  3. Whow, Silo’s never thought of it that away. I am an LBK worked and had to dress up. First legs had no cover except the fiberglass or what ever that they were made of. When I got my first REAL leg in 1985, it was covered. That was a bummer because I was out on the road (for work) and a bolt came loose. Had to cut the cover to fix it. Went back to the leg guy and he said he would recover it because it was his fault for not using enough lock-tite. In the early 90’s the whole physical impairment thing hit the fan. LSS, I started going around bare legged because it was so darn hot. Was living centeral Louisina the moved to Pensacloa FL,
    Parents are the worst, but I just love those kids. Things like, Mister what happened to your leg? I would tell the truth, I shot it off with an unloaded guy. answer WOW. I ould some time say I was trying to be a robot, or the 6 million dollar men. One of my freinds had adopted a 6 yer old, He was BAD. One day at church (I wore Long Pants to church) the little tirand kicked me in the shin or at least where my shin should of been and broke his big toe. He was always nice to me from then on, I do not know if his stepdad punished hin or he realized he could not get his way. Eaither is ok for me.
    I am in Texas near the LA boarder ahd Lake Sabine. Still in shorts and loving it.

  4. Missing right hand and wrist, I find that people stare more if the hand / arm looks ‘close to life’. Wearing a silicone based attempt at any given time may attract more stares than wearing a Becker hand in all its metal finger glory, with the hand’s body spray painted with a bright acrylic red, and maybe a dark brown carbon fiber socket, or a red epoxy socket. When I go shopping I now mostly wear a pimped V2P Prehensor, an absolute Uber hook device that I can use to hang a fully loaded shopping basket on to. The V2P is black, and I put bright colored rubbers on it for tension, so it does not *really* look like a hand or so. Strangely though, people don’t even give a damn. When I wear one of these nicely made hand lookalikes, they seem to not be able to get enough of it. Super market clerks offered help, they started to pack my groceries even without asking – but since I started to wear aggressively colored sockets, aggressively colored terminal devices or such, no one dared to just start and pack my stuff for me. They seemed to view me as enough competent and self sufficient to pack my stuff myself. Weirdly, this is not related to the actual function that my prosthetic actually performs – I tried any combination of bright colors / skin color, passive arm / body powered arm. It’s the look others go by when judging my ability. If you can, spray paint your leg red, or sew a red cover, and try it out. On the other hand (pun intended), I do like my silicone covered passive / cosmetic arm, I really do. I know it makes others nervous or so – but I *like* it just as I like cream cheese, a particular pair of boots or whatever else – it’s a sheer matter of personal perference. It reduces strain on my arm and shoulders, it is very light, despite “not having a function” (i.e. does not open / close) it still replaces the absent length of the arm so it is great for extending, touching buttons, typing etc. – and I like its improvised / 70’s B-movies type looks. How to go about stares is another chapter. Once I just had emptied a soft drink after training and when one guy stared at me in the locker room, I could not help but unload a full burp into his face. That settled that issue right there. Good luck with finding the right type of looks 🙂

    • Upper extremity cosmesis v. lower extremity cosmesis is a thought-provoking topic. Legs can be/often are hidden under clothes. Hands aren’t. They’re almost always visible.

      Wolf – thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. So glad to see the responses. Dave–yes, most people have a very fixed idea of disability (usually involving a wheelchair or red-tipped cane), and do not realize that those of us with other disabilities “walk among them.” Dave and Michael–I think a lot of women struggle with the “to cover or not to cover” decision differently, although certainly for both males and females there are issues of attractiveness. Wolf–I find what you say fascinating. I would be interested in what you mean by the fact that your cosemetic hand makes others “nervous.” Maybe something that is close to the real thing, but not quite, somehow emphasizes the loss/difference, whereas your “aggressively” colored prosthesis is not trying to pretend it’s anything but a mechanical device–so the attention goes to its dramatic appearance and functionality. Again, call me sexist, but I think many women (except perhaps for athletes) would have more trouble with the bold approach.

  6. Yes, Avra, you are absolutely right in that it is also my experience: on one hand, others are a lot more relaxed if they can adjust their eyes faster (‘technical part, not anatomical’) rather than having to struggle with it (silicone gloves do force others to struggle). But then, the female-male attraction combined with male disability may be a different subject altogether. I have made a number of acquaintances now that I would never have made without disability (and I am pretty sure about that, I am 43 years old and have a rather good understanding of the types of people I usually and not so often normally get to know). And I must say that these women that feel attracted by a disabled man like me – they seem to expect somewhat conflicting things which does create lots of tension: I am supposed to be both proactive and subdued/accepting/passive when it comes to solving frequent tense situations or misunderstandings; my appearance has to blend in perfectly AND be bold/daring/courageous at the same time; I should be all myself, natural and appear not bothered by my disability (which means they want to see me without prosthesis, the bare stump out) AND be self sufficient, able to work though situations (which is what I would prefer to wear my arm for). The average female does have problems with the bold approach only here, reading and musing about it – at the same time and in daily real life, I never received so many compliments as I got for my brown glossy carbon fiber textured arm, or my dark glossy red painted hand – many from women. But I am aware that these are just compliments and that deep down, my current experience tells me they are TORN between conflicting expectations that I (nor anyone else) can never ever meet. With a missing leg, the issue is not that huge – that is a concealable problem. It can be hidden rather effectively. I cannot hide my disability very effectively, at least not for a long time. With a right hand missing, the next handshake will reveal there being an issue, and it’s a clear and tangible disfigurement much like missing a jaw, lip, eye, nose or ear – people visibly react the same: shock, disgust, stares. Given that I will not be able to solve any of these contradictions, I have given up on trying that. I now will wear what I see fit, and that’s it. I have to live my own life, I do admit that I am unable to comply to the unrefined, raw confusions that others are torn between. Maybe there is a really cool solution tomorrow or next year, and then things will change. But I doubt that. At the end of the day, others will take time getting used to it. At the end of the day, they are definitely most relaxed when I wear a hip, cool technical functional arm that has bright happy colors, and that is a commonly shared experience, and a very real one. At the end of the day, someone may have to ACCEPT that there is a very important part missing and no matter what, all prostheses are different from a real arm. What I really find throughout is that an able bodied man is quite accepted to speak up for himself, to take the lead, to be bold and look bold and I not the slightest problem with that and with women accepting that for decades. Now with a visible disfiguring disability, that is not acceptable any more, interestingly both with most women and some men. Thing is that I miss a hand – not a part of my soul, self, brain. A friend told me he was most shocked to learn that I was *exactly* the same guy as before the amputation and he found that hard to bear. Another colleague told me that “someone like me” swimming very fast (I played water polo as kid and always swam fast) would depress her – seeing an arm amputee that fast would make her depressed, and when I asked her if she realized that I was even faster with two hands no answer. When I go shopping, people REALLY stopped treating me like a pity baby once I went full aggressive technical – and not one inch away from that. When I go to a party, I can wear WHATEVER prosthesis I want – there will be tension, people will be uneasy, distressed, sweat, try to ask pesky questions – and whatever is written in Goffman or Cloerkes’ diatribes, it’s all true. Also I find that any prosthesis as weird as it may look will be OK once I can wash my coffee cups with it, handle cutlery, do not drop too many items et cetera – and so function wins ever so often. – So when it comes to what women expect of crippled men … you know, I believe women will have trouble no matter what, unless they respect others for their self sufficiency, for their ability to make their own choices for appearance and function. If not, I can wear my cosmetic arm all day and let others wash the dishes, but as I have experience that’s also not exactly what many women want. Maybe they make up their mind one day ;)))

  7. Pingback: the twinge that teaches « less is more

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