Fact: I talk a lot. If you know me well, you know that already (you don’t even have to know me that well). I also am incredibly opinionated, and I’ve never really had a problem sharing my opinion when I see fit. Given that information and the title of this blog post, you’d think that “speaking up” has never been my issue. Today though I want to talk about a specific kind of “speaking up” - one that relates directly to having a limb deficiency.
Growing up with a prosthesis has given me the advantage of having many years of practice handling my leg and people’s reactions to it. Not much phases me anymore - I’ve been presented with a lot of different situations to process, so it takes a LOT to unnerve or offend me. I could go into lots of stories about all that (even more than in my previous posts), but all in all I’ve discovered one over-arching theme in my 26 years of life experience thus far:
I am the one to set the tone of conversation and the way people react to my prosthesis.
Before I had my current prosthesis made, I wore a cosmetic cover over my fake leg. I had this so I could better blend in with my peers, but sometimes it caused people to stare even more. They could tell “something” was up when I walked, but most people didn’t realize I was missing an entire leg. Back in those days, I got a LOT more questions like, “Oh my gosh, are you ok? Are you hurt?!” Most of the time I’d smile (and maybe wince a little because I knew the awkward conversation that was about to ensue) and say “oh yes I’m fine, I’m just missing a leg!”
When I was younger those conversations bothered me and I would get offended when people would ask or stare. Eventually I started to make it a game in my head to try to read the person; I’d guess their reaction and how the conversation would go. With time and maturity, I realized that 99% of people were asking out of concern or just plain curiosity - there was ZERO judgement or malicious intent. Why bother getting offended at something that was never meant to be offensive in the first place?
With this realization came a complete shift in attitude - almost too far. I still wore the cosmetic cover and was somewhat insecure about my appearance, but I hid it all with humor. I made myself an open target for jokes on purpose, and invited all who knew me to crack leg jokes. More importantly, I was rarely (if ever) serious about it; I never wanted to make people feel uncomfortable, so most of the time I didn’t tell anyone if I genuinely felt insecure. If I felt too self-conscious to participate in an activity with friends, I wouldn’t verbalize why I felt uncomfortable. Instead I chose not to participate and cracked another joke. That’s all fun and great, but it set me up to have little to no boundaries at all. While I loved 95% of the laughing and jokes, I didn’t bother to tell anyone the 5% of comments that actually bothered me.
For instance, I’ve always been extremely self-conscious about my limp. I used to get sick to my stomach to walk in front of a group of strangers, ESPECIALLY if they were men, because I felt so awkward. While I found most jokes hilarious, if anyone tried to mimic or joke about my limp, it always triggered a deep insecurity of mine and I’d retreat into a shell of self-deprecation. The thing is, It was never anyone’s fault if that happened. I was still learning how to communicate about what I felt insecure about, and they were only responding to my constant invitation to say something funny about my leg.
Now, if you’ve known me for years and are reading this, don’t start to panic, thinking, “Oh my gosh I cracked a joke once and she probably HATES me.” Nope - that ain’t true, not even close. Like I said, I love to laugh and I invite jokes on purpose. The reason I say any of that is because it took me a really long time to find the balance between opening up a conversation with people about my leg and letting them know it’s okay to ask and joke, but also setting up healthy boundaries for myself when necessary.
Speaking up for myself doesn’t just apply to my personal insecurities. It can be applied to really any situation, even in a medical setting. I’ve learned that I need to be my own advocate. If I don’t like the way my prosthesis fits or what equipment I use, I gotta’ SAY something. Prosthetists and clinicians aren’t mind-readers - they need honest feedback so they can better know how to help. After all, no one knows my body better than I do. This does NOT mean I have the right to treat other people poorly or have unrealistic expectations. Wearing a prosthesis (probably) won’t ever feel like I’m strapping on a fluffy pillow. Physical therapy is hard and often painful, and that doesn’t mean my doctors are doing something wrong. It also doesn’t mean I’m weak if I’m struggling or need something adjusted. What I’m saying is, I’ve learned through lots of trial and error that it’s incredibly important to communicate honestly. Sometimes, taking the route to “shut up and suck it up” doesn’t help a darn thing.
One of the main reasons I felt prompted to write any of this is because I often have new amputees, especially young girls, reach out to me with messages like, “How have you gotten so confident?” or “What motivated you to start working out?” or even “I’m a recent amputee and your page has helped me a lot!”
I am so incredibly honored and humbled when I get messages like that. But with any message I get, I want to convey one main thing: Confidence takes time, and you are okay starting exactly where you are. I’m at a place now where it doesn’t bother me so much if people stare at my leg, or if kids point and ask (I actually love that), or if someone asks me what happened. But that wasn’t always the case. I’m 26 years old. I’ve had a prosthesis since it was time to learn how to walk. Believe you me, I’ve expressed ALLLL the colors of emotions within those 26 years, and I’m sure many, many more emotions will be expressed in the years to come.
I like to think time has led me to a healthier balance of talking about my leg but also knowing my leg doesn’t define who I am. There’s much more to me than the prosthesis I strap on my body every day. So, to everyone reading this who wear a prosthesis, or to someone who struggles with some form of deep insecurity: be patient with yourself. Ask for help when you need it. And perhaps most importantly, speak up for yourself.
To anyone who doesn’t wear a prosthesis (probably a lot of you…): don’t be afraid to ask questions. Not everyone wearing a prosthetic will be open to conversation, and that’s okay. But take it from someone who’s gotten a lot of side-eyes and flat-out stare downs - a conversation is much preferred, if not welcomed. I’m proud of what I can do and of the people who have helped me get there. It’s an honor to be able to share that with you all.