1. You no longer take the capability to walk for granted.
Most of us go through much of our lives barely aware of the privilege inherent in something as simple as getting up and walking a block to the coffee shop. This privilege comes into high contrast when you have an accident that destroys your knee. When you can’t walk, you realize you have to be able to walk normally without thinking about it to do basically everything.
The experience sounds cliche—appreciating something only when it’s taken away, only realizing what you had after it’s lost. But it’s accurate in the case of serious knee injuries. When every step is painful and difficult, one of the things you want most is the ability to walk normally again—just the capacity to get up and walk out the door without thinking about it.
So when you’re in the car, sitting there with your giant leg brace on, and see someone carrying two bags of groceries home, it feels like this:
You don’t want the groceries. You just want to be able to f&#%ing walk normally again.
2. One of your legs gets really small and it’s weird.
When you can’t put any weight on your leg, it begins to shrink. If you can’t put any weight on it for months, it shrinks a lot. It’s strange to see. It changes the way you view your body—it can alienate you from your physical self in a way that you haven’t before experienced. You aren’t used to part of yourself being something you don’t recognize as yourself. Before your accident, you always identified yourself as healthy and capable. When your leg gets mangled and reduces to half-size and is maybe criss-crossed with stitches, has open, leaky wounds, or has an external fixator screwed into it (or all three), you might begin to mentally detach from the leg—to begin to think of it as “other,” as not part of who you really are. Because who you are is healthy—not mangled, weird, and emaciated. But here you have this thing that is also you, and it is completely useless and gross.
3. Painkillers: WANT.
During months-long recoveries, a lot of people start to worry that they’re getting addicted to the pain pills the doctors have been prescribing them. This is because you’re in pain, and the pills are awesome for that. But it’s insidious. Are you using the pain killers to get to sleep, or are the pain killers taking the pain away, which is allowing you to get to sleep? Are you using the pills to feel happy, or are you using them to relieve the pain, which frees your mind up to experience happiness? The answer is complicated—maybe a combination of both. But it’s scary. You don’t want to get addicted to opiates.
4. Showering is almost always an epic fail.
People with knee injuries who have bathtub showers—where they have to bend their knee and lift their leg to get in—are screwed. Not being able to bend your knee, or terrible pain when the knee does bend, makes getting into the shower a painful event. It’s often that you have to get someone to help you, and if there’s no one around, getting into the shower can look sort of like this:
When I was recovering from my knee injury, I couldn’t get in the shower for about two months. Instead, I had to buy a chair that was meant specifically for people who couldn’t really take care of themselves. I had the chair placed in the shower, and I’d have to lower myself onto it. The upper half of my body would then be in the shower, but since I couldn’t lift my leg, and since my leg was full of open wounds, both my legs had to remain out of the shower. I usually didn’t want anyone helping me at this point, so I’d have to start my showers off on my own—reaching from the chair at the back of the tub to the front of the tub, to turn the shower on. I’d have to figure out the whole hot/cold situation (which takes like five minutes in my shower) while scalding/ freezing water rained down on my naked torso. And then I’d have to shower that way.
5. Everyone sees you naked.
For most of us, the last time our family saw us naked was probably some time in our childhoods. But when you get seriously injured, everyone gets to see you naked again.
Your family and friends show up to take care of you. This means: they have to help you get in the shower. They have to help you take off your clothes. They have to help you go to the bathroom. Maybe they even have to bathe you. If your pride is in any way connected to the ability to decide how you present yourself to others (it most likely is), you’re going to have to re-work that.
It doesn’t really stop with your family. In the hospital, people have no choice but to abandon their idea that self-reliance and the ability to decide how to present yourself to others is connected to self-worth and integrity. Because there, doctors, nurses, and machines violate you all day, every day.
6. You can’t just get up and pee during the middle of the night without it being a huge deal.
People who rely on crutches are pretty much confined to their bed and their favorite chair. But they can’t ignore their basic needs, which can become difficult when you can’t walk. So when they have to wake up and go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, it feels something like:
Here’s what someone with a bad knee injury has to do when they have to get up in the middle of the night:
- Move your dead leg meat off the bed
- Grasp blindly in the dark to find your crutches
- Lift yourself up with your crutches
- Crutch to the bathroom
- Somehow sit down on the toilet without killing yourself*
*Step #5—”Somehow sit down on the toilet without killing yourself”—is the worst part. When you can’t bend your knee, you don’t have the coordination required to sit down like a normal person. Instead, people recovering from knee injuries must position themselves to fall back onto whatever they’re trying to sit on and hope they land in the right spot. This is why the handicap stall in the bathroom has rails on the adjacent walls: so non-ambulatory people don’t have to crash land into the toilet seat. So if you have a smallish bathroom, with no rails, using crutches in the middle of the night to get yourself in the right position so that you can fall back onto the toilet without destroying yourself can become a major source of drama.
7. People who have knee injuries lose the use of their hands.
Aside from all the pain, one of the worst aspects of being non-ambulatory and having crutches is that you’re essentially useless: your hands are busy controlling your crutches, which are the only means by which you can move around. This seemingly small problem becomes disastrous when you try to do basically anything: cooking, cleaning, getting dressed, taking a shower, getting into cars.
You can’t even open doors without almost falling over—it’s a struggle, every time, to keep yourself up while shifting your weight forward to reach for the door, balancing on one foot and using the crutches for balance in your armpits, then shifting back to pull the door open, then actually positioning yourself to get into the doorway of the door you just opened. Opening a door with a bag of groceries is next to impossible. You know how when you were young, and used a bike to get around, and would sometimes have to hang a bag on your handlebar? It’d be difficult to steer because the weight of the bag would mess with your steering. When you have a bag of stuff in your hand and you’re on crutches, it’s exactly like that.
8. You can’t really focus on being social anymore.
When just getting out of a chair is a painful experience, your set of priorities quickly narrows to:
- Things you have to do to stay alive (eat, go to the bathroom, sleep)
- Things to help you defeat boredom that don’t cause you physical pain (reading, the internet, Netflix, other people)
For people with knee injuries, things that cause physical pain—such as walking two blocks to a friends house—become commitments. You have to scrutinize them. It’s not that your friends and your social life become less important. You’re just forced to focus on them less, which means you focus on yourself, your body, your mind more. How bad do I really need to go to this party? How much do I really want to go out tonight? For people recovering from a bad injury, that’s hardly even a consideration anymore. Everything becomes about the leg.
9. Your wardrobe changes completely.
Pants are no longer an option for people fresh off a bad knee injury. Chances are, if you have a knee injury that requires active recovery, you’ll really only be able to wear hip-hop size basketball shorts and very loose sweatpants. Honestly, the best option for people with knee injuries is one of these things:
Anything else is impossible to manage.
This wardrobe change has a ripple effect through your entire day-to-day routine. Have your coworkers ever seen you in a pair of sweatpants? How comfortable would you be wearing basketball shorts the next time you go out? Most of us want to look nice—most people, I think, feel better, safer, when they’re in control of their appearance in public. That’s often not an option for people with knee injuries.
10. People see you suffering. (You aren’t used to people seeing you suffer.)
In the first world, suffering is either reserved for entertainment (TV, movies, literature) or kept out of sight, out of mind. A lot of us are lucky—most of our problems are psychological, and when we’re sad or depressed or lonely, it’s not like everyone, everywhere, knows about it. We internalize it, keep it in, maybe confide our pain in someone close to us. But when you have a debilitating leg injury—when you can’t hide the fact that your leg is mangled and you can do hardly anything without someone else’s help—almost everyone, from the security guy at the store to your next-door neighbor, can see your suffering. It’s all out there.
A lot of us connect our sense of integrity to our strength, to our ability to be self-reliant. Debilitating knee injuries cut self-reliance out of the equation in a very public way. Taxi drivers slow down for bumps because they know that each time you’re jostled a tremendous bolt of pain shoots up your leg. Strangers move out of your way on the sidewalk because they know you need all the room you can get. Everyone rushes to open doors for you, to help you carry stuff. People look at you different; some look you in the eye when normally they would not; they will communicate to you that they know about your situation instead of only peripherally identifying you as “stranger” (or not register you at all). I’m not complaining about this, I only mean to say that the experience is a mix of weird, uncomfortable, and at times very emotionally tender and heartwarming.