prosthesis as professor


I sometimes imagine scenarios and play them out to their logical endpoint because they’re more interesting than the task directly in front of me. This week’s post, conjured up from the depths of my post-holiday mind, places me in front of a well-dressed, interested, but professionally-distant psychiatrist. She stares at me from behind the dark-stained desk, nary a paper out of place across its vast expanse. Between you and me, I’m reasonably certain that she will classify me as delusional.

She asks me, “How do you feel about wearing a prosthesis?” Like a finely-tuned Gatling-gun, I fire back a rapid list of responses.

“It’s great. I can stand in deep puddles with my left leg and not care about getting soaked.”

“It’s awesome. When winter comes, I don’t have to worry about frostbite in both my feet.”

“It’s so convenient. When two dogs get in a fight, I can step right in between them with my prosthetic leg and try to pull them off each other.”

“It’s a huge advantage in a hostage situation. If the masked gunman shoots me to convince negotiators that he’s serious, and the bullet hits me in the left knee or lower leg, then I’ll be fine. My lack of reaction might even surprise the hostage-taker so much that I can disarm him in the ensuing confusion.”

(Pathetically, every one of these thoughts has actually occurred to me at one time or another since becoming an individual with limb loss.)

I beam across the desk at her, looking for some signal of validation. I winked and shrugged through the explanation to reassure her that these are the well-thought-out, somewhat-tongue-in-cheek musings of a sane person.

After smiling benignly at me, jotting down some notes, and having me placed in a minimum-security psychiatric facility, the clinician, if she’s as talented as the fancy diploma on her office wall suggests she should be, notices one thing that all of these answers have in common: they describe a supposed benefit that results from the absence of sensation, the inability to feel. An arched eyebrow and tap-tap-tap of her slender silver Cross pen against her pursed lips would be the only tells of rising professional excitement as she then extrapolates from that narrow finding to a broader conclusion: previously smiling, now-beltless and shoelaceless Room-5D-patient Dave suppresses feelings and emotions in all his interactions – not just those involving his prosthesis. With this revelation in hand, perhaps she can now fix the delusional cripple with a cocktail of pharmaceuticals and intensive interviews.

While she has this epiphany, I now theoretically sit in a circa-1969 psych ward room with two cheap “beds” that are actually cots, topped with lumpy, thin mattresses lying flaccid over creaking, ancient springs. I am, no doubt, questioning how I got deposited into this paradise for the crime of seeing the obvious benefits of limb loss. (Because this is a hypothetical scenario, we will ignore the fact that I clearly don’t pose a danger to myself or anyone else, and the psychiatrist therefore lacks the authority to involuntarily commit me. If this ever gets turned into a movie script, we will have to deal with that anomaly more directly, or risk the entire picture, starring Matthew Broderick (head shaved) as me, running aground on the shoals of an unbelievable premise. Which, in the world of Hollywood, is pretty difficult to do.)

So I begin to think about the events that have led to my institutionalization. And, surrounded by gray walls, the perpetually decayed look of ancient linoleum that makes you feel dirty just walking on it, and sealed-shut windows with a breathtaking view of a building taller than the one I’m in that’s so close I could touch it, my mood turns a bit darker than normal.

I think back to the day I sat in my car at a busy intersection, and watched the middle-aged guy in jeans walk out of the Starbucks and into the cross walk in front of me. And saw him break into a light jog as the pedestrian signal started blinking in concern as the traffic light went through its ritualistic shift from green to red. And I felt, for one of the few times in my post-amputation life, profoundly sad.

The corners of my mouth pulled downward, tense, and my eyes fluttered uncomfortably in response to an unfamiliar feeling back behind the sockets. The stranger’s transition from a casual walk to a jog was seamless, reflexive. Natural. And it was something that I would never experience again.

The fluidity of motion, the intuitive and unthinking progression from walk to run was something I couldn’t replicate. Because, for me, this basic human activity had become . . . mechanical. The sadness lasted for about 15 seconds until I said to myself, “Enough. We get along ok.” And I tucked it away into a mental compartment reserved for uncomfortable emotions that will inevitably ooze back into my consciousness in quiet moments.

As I rifle through this memory, lying on my imaginary squeaking bed-cot, the thought occurs to me that I shouldn’t be happy at all. The benefits I rest my general optimism on depend on my glorifying the absence of a key trait that informs us we’re alive – sensation. In addition, by any objective standard, the act of moving has metamorphosed from second nature to something that requires a set of instructions. Jerking upright, the springs underneath me protesting loudly, I additionally see my own hypocrisy: at the same time that I elevate the mechanical aesthetic, the cyborg chic I decline to hide under a cosmetic cover, I abhor its functional outcomes when compared to life with two legs.

So why exactly am I so comfortable, and dare I say it, happy with what I’ve become as a result of my accident? Why do I not curse my fate as I go through the multi-step process of donning my left leg every morning and removing it from my body every night? Shouldn’t I wake up from dreams in which I move with blinding speed and fluidity while wearing a prosthesis that doesn’t exist in this world (and perhaps won’t before I’m gone from this rock) screaming at the injustice of what befell me? The thought occurs to me that these are the questions that the psychiatrist is also writing down in her patient notes.

I lie back down. My prosthesis hasn’t added anything to my life from a functional perspective versus what I possessed when I still had all my limbs. Even with the most state-of-the-art technology, even as the optimistically-addled, glass-is-half-full mutant that I’ve become, I won’t and can’t report that I’m more able to perform the activities I choose to perform as an amputee than I could as an able-bodied person. (Though I hope and believe that this may change dramatically in the not-so-distant future.)

I start turning the question over in my mind, considering it from multiple angles. The answer will go a long way towards determining my imaginary future. I really want my belt and shoelaces back.

How am I going to convince the all-knowing shrink that I deserve my freedom? (This is not an Action/Thriller hypothetical. So the following resolutions are out: (1) stealing a pen from a careless nurse who dispenses me my medication and using it to great effect to disable the psychiatrist while simultaneously shattering the glass window in my room by throwing the surprisingly robust bed-cot frame through it so that I can jump through the gaping, glass-shard-ringed hole (without getting cut, of course), where I fortuitously land in the plush bed of the only open-backed laundry truck in the greater-Manhattan region, (2) calling upon my secret (even to me) training as a CIA operative to viciously clear a path to the anonymity of New York City’s streets just outside, leaving a trail of maimed and lifeless bodies behind me (lots of quick-cut, hand-held camera shots for that one), or (3) using my skills as a previously-undiagnosed psychopath to engage in a terrifying dialogue with the psychiatrist, who, it turns out, is on the verge of a breakdown herself due to unresolved childhood issues flowing from the unexplained disappearance of her pet goldfish, and under the barrage of targeted questions from me that inevitably reopen her psychic wound, rendering her catatonic and allowing me to take her ID, keys, and drivers license – need to have her home address for the terrifying denouement – and walk out of the facility without anyone turning a suspicious eye in my direction.)

The psychiatrist and I now sit on facing chairs in a psych ward space that lacks the polish and richness of her private office on Fifth Avenue. I calmly, but forcefully begin.

“I cannot provide you a rational explanation for why I choose to trumpet the benefits that result from having no nerves in my prosthetic leg over my past able-bodied existence. But that is because my life as a person with a prosthetic leg is decidedly less rational than what preceded it.

I now know that I have little control over what happens to me in this world. I can, and do, make hundreds or even thousands of decisions a week that give me the illusion of control. But in fact, I’m just a tiny, plastic, red and white bobber in the ocean. I’m at the mercy of forces greater and more powerful than I understand, despite the fact that my ego reassures me that I do. A rogue wave, the wake of a passing ship, or a sudden squall can all end me without warning or compunction.

Before my accident I knew intellectually that I wasn’t invulnerable, but I didn’t get it. Today, my identity is defined and circumscribed by that knowledge – my understanding that everything, including my existence, is ephemeral. Every step I take in my prosthesis – a step that I concentrate on and think about while observing every undulation and irregularity in the ground underneath my shoes – reminds me of that fact.

I remember reading a book that said you have to become intimate with death, to feel its presence behind every door and at the end of every breath, in order to truly live. I understand that now, and it’s liberating – not depressing like you’d think.

The word ‘prosthesis’ comes from the Latin ‘prostithenai,’ which means, ‘to add to.’ The real benefit provided by my prosthesis isn’t that it restored a limb to my body. That was secondary. It added to how I saw and understood the world around me – like a pair of glasses that allows you to clearly see a previously dim and flickering reality that suggested itself to you as only as a tantalizing mirage. So while there are things that I miss, activities I can no longer perform the way I used to, my prosthesis has given me something much more valuable than what I’ve lost. It’s the most influential teacher I’ve ever had.”

As I provide the explanation, the psychiatrist’s veneer of certitude and superiority cracks, temporarily reassembles, but ultimately gives way. In the mass-market release of the resulting movie, she fights back tears, gets up slowly, and walks silently out the door, wanting to race out of the room but forcing herself to exhibit professional control over her emotions and movements. Cut to me walking out of the psych ward into a Manhattan that’s bathed in the golden light of a summer sunset while a crappy ballad sung by a famous diva swells. My getting swallowed up in the rush-hour crowd is intercut with clips of the psychiatrist calling her estranged daughter that involves first stony silence, then sobs, and finally, laughter.

Critics hate the ending and pan the movie as “new-age jetsam.” They also blast the directors for the obvious error of permitting the psychiatrist to institutionalize me without adequate grounds for doing so, a decision that “defies belief.” (The movie went over budget and the studio heads rejected the 11th-hour plea to shoot a series of new scenes that would resolve this error.) But it achieves great commercial success because of decent casting.

When the DVD is released, it includes a special Director’s Cut that jettisons the formulaic ending. Threatened and frightened by my exposition on how a prosthesis led me to the discovery of modern spirituality at the potential expense of her cold clinical training, the psychiatrist leaves the room as before. But the final scene shows me receiving medication and shuffling back to my room in 5D where it’s clear that I will spend the foreseeable future at the hands of the soulless and uncomprehending psychiatrist. The public, happy with the sunshine and rainbow conclusion of the original, almost universally declines to watch the alternative ending.

As I noted at the beginning (and as this exercise demonstrates), I’m reasonably certain that a psychiatrist would classify me as delusional. But as we enter 2011, I’ll take my delusions over the available alternatives.

2 thoughts on “prosthesis as professor

  1. Dave –

    That was amazing. Great post. Sort of a summation/continuation of the intense, thought provoking conversation we had in the car when we were for once granted the opportunity to talk while the DVD player silenced our children.

    As a psychologist-in-training, I can say with some certainty that at the surface, you present as delusional. Although upon learning about the depth of self-reflection and awareness, I can conclude that you are a model of mental wellness.

    Actually, it further confirms my need for inpatient psychiatric care. I am so glad to be a part of your journey.

  2. Oh my gosh. I LOVED it! Especially since it has the imagined but realistic views on a prosthetic and it’s effects. Thank you so much for sharing and getting others, at least for myself, to remember how grateful I am and to appreciate each day even more. I can’t wait to read more from you.

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