When I was 17 years-old I was diagnosed with synovial cell sarcoma, a rare form of untreatable cancer. The only way to stop the cells from spreading was to undergo a Lisfranc amputation. This type of amputation preserves the heel of the foot and little else. It is highly functional, but not aesthetically pleasing, as it gives prosthetists very little room to work with. I was in high school then, and an amputation meant more than the loss of mobility: it was a shattered idea of womanhood. Being a Lisfranc amputee meant no high heels, no skirts or dresses, ugly prosthetics and long pants to cover them up.
I was lucky in the sense that I had a loving family that supported me before, during, and after the amputation. And as so many do when faced with these types of circumstances, I developed a thick skin and found strength within me. As soon as I had the diagnosis, I began to visualize myself without a foot, wearing prosthetics and pants; however, no amount of visualization could have prepared me to what I woke up to when the surgical anesthesia wore off. Past the hurt and beneath the bandages lay a changed body, and when I closed my eyes for a moment, I knew that I was a stranger to myself. Not only had my body changed, I had changed as well, and I didn’t know myself.
The years that followed were marked by my refusal to accept this change. I pushed myself as hard as I could through physical therapy, even managing to open the surgical incision doing so, but had little regard for what may be going on in my head. I graduated high school, went off to college, and awkwardly rushed into my dating life always followed by a sad sense that I was somehow less because I was missing a part of me. I didn't feel as pretty as other young women my age, and because I didn't love myself, I tried to make others love me. I was insecure, and in that insecurity I turned to food.
Stress-eating is prominent in my family, and it was easy for me to comfort myself by eating. I was trying to avoid the impending conversation with myself that dealt with how I had changed and what I was going to do to love myself. I excelled academically, graduating college at the top of my class with two majors and two minors, and I rushed to my next intellectual challenge by going to law school immediately afterward. Everyone around me told me how proud they were of what I had accomplished and how quickly I had recovered, and I thought I was all right.
In law school things began to catch up with me due to the Socratic, work-saturated environment I was in. I was severely overweight, my cholesterol levels were high, and my primary doctor at the time told me I was prediabetic. My body was screaming for help, and I ignored it. It wasn’t until I saw that my grades weren't what I was accustomed to that I began to realize that there was something so wrong with me that I couldn’t focus anymore. It was more than the weight, or the cholesterol, or the sugar; I was unhappy, and I had long overdue work to do.
I realized that the problem lay on the inside. I was eating to fill this wound inside me that I did not know how to treat because I had no idea who I was. That’s when I began to go to a psychologist. She was the first person to speak to me about a holistic approach to eating and exercising. Most importantly she helped me get past the denial and bargaining stages of the cycle of grief.
I began a quest to get inspired and to do something outside of the rigorous academic life I had imposed upon myself. I began to read and write and explore my feelings. For an entire summer I let myself be angry, I let myself cry and be depressed, and I questioned everything that had happened to me. I let myself dwell on what I had lost, and allowed myself to reassess how I thought about my body. It was no longer just this thing that had failed me once and had to make up for its shortcomings by letting me perform at the insane pace I demanded of myself.
I began to try to like my body again, and I took the time to celebrate the small and great victories I had achieved after the amputation. This body that I thought was broken got up to use crutches the day after it underwent major surgery. This body let go of phantom pain quickly. This body learned to walk with and without a prosthetic leg. This body took me to school and to work. Those realizations added up, and I came to understand that my body was working at capacity, and, far from letting me down, it was allowing me to go on. I needed to take care of it.
My enthusiasm for health and fitness began then. I read up on holistic eating and got a gym membership. I hired a personal trainer, and although that helped shed a few pounds, I knew it wasn't for me. My sister, who's always been there for me, helped me find ways to modify exercises so that I could maximize my workouts. I began to change my diet and was surprised at how good eating right made me feel. I felt happy when I had water and lemon first thing in the morning, followed by either a green or berry smoothie.
Finding out that I enjoy eating right was the first great discovery, and yoga was the second one. I found out that I could do most poses, and even if I had to sit some out, I felt great when I challenged my body. There is a calm to it that I enjoy and it makes me happy.
Sometime along the way I also discovered the power of affirmations. Telling myself that things are going to be all right and that I love myself has been a powerful tool in the road to self-discovery and self-love. My last, and fairly recent, great discovery was meditation. My mind is a speed-racing machine, and through meditation I've come to gain better control over the constant state of anxiety I lived in. I use meditation now as a way to get myself ready to sleep and to find my center and ground myself when I’m stressed.
It's been eight years since the amputation. I know I've come a long way. I'm not the 17-year-old girl who lived care free, nor am I the girl who found out she needed an amputation and chose to rush through life and ignore it. The “me” I am now is a young woman, whose body is not the type of body you see in magazines or TV shows, and that’s OK. Most mornings I wake up and I feel “right.” I look in the mirror and I feel beautiful, powerful, and deserving of love.
On the mornings that I don’t, I remind myself to dig a little deeper and find the words I learned during this eight-year journey: “I am grateful that my body is strong and capable, and I cherish it by taking care of it.”
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com