There’s a taboo about talking honestly about things in our society but I am one of those irritatingly honest people that laughs at those “social norms” because those things limit understanding and personal empowerment. So as an amputee, I’m not going to hide behind the proverbial green door in favor of the taboo that says it’s not okay to be straight with people. I heard someone else who is an amputee say recently that his greatest aspiration when he gets legs is to be able to become a Grey Man again. If you don’t know what that means, he was saying he wanted nothing more but to be able to blend into the crowd and disappear again, to not be seen. I’ve gone back and forth about this thing for the entire time I’ve been an amputee and in the “planning on someday getting the surgery” lead up to amputation. I’ve met literally hundreds, of not thousands, of amputees in the last 7 years and I’ve seen two extremes that seem to always emerge:
The Celebrator of and showing off of the amputation and post amputation life, sometimes to the degree of purposeful fetishization of the self.
The Grey Man who wants nothing more than to have no one even know the amputation exists.
It’s a curious thing that there isn’t a middle ground that I’ve seen and I’ve at times felt little amputee victories over the first time I did something or other as an amputee but by and large I’m not the person who feels either defined by the difference and so I never have fallen into either side of the equation. While I don’t define myself by it, neither do I hide from it.
Maybe I just see the power a story can have and I have a really great story to tell about my life, all of it.
While I have wanted nothing more than to get back to life, I’ve never wanted to forget my journey because of what it has taught me or hide my difference because, quite frankly, I look pretty damn good for a woman who is pushing 40 who two years ago was laying in a hospital dead clinging to life. Neither have I wanted to define myself by my difference because I see and despise the loss of personal identity that takes place when people define themselves and others by external factors rather than the internal ones.
As a teacher, I have found it increasingly difficult over the course of my career to teach children to look at and understand that character traits have NOTHING to do with the external and everything to do with the internal. Our society is all about the external and chasing a perfection that is impossible and that when nearness is achieved it is short lived and fleeting. We all praise Martin Luther King Jr for his words about seeing his children judged for the content of their character rather than the color of their skin but we have replaced one external factor for another:
Perfect makeup and hair
Perfect booty or perfect abs or perfect arms or perfect everything
Perfect car or truck or bike or whatever
Perfect income and perfect job
Perfect house and perfect possessions
Perfect family and family photos
And we take these ideals of perfection and hold up filters over our lives as we try to convince everyone that we have it all. We do it so much with one another that the children growing around us find it difficult to define themselves and others by their character traits rather than their external existence. The most powerful challenge any person can ever experience is the alteration of their external self in some way that is not with the increasing of the “desirability” of the body (boob job, weight loss, achievement of body building goals) but something that is permanent (or semipermanent) and “disfiguring” in some form or fashion. Take everything you think you know about your feelings and self esteem and throw it into a blender with a heaping scoop of identity crisis and self doubt and latent self esteem issues the SECOND you step on that IED, get hit by that other driver, have that car or motorcycle accident, have that fire or explosion happen, crash that plane, have that disfiguring thing happen to the body you’ve grown accustomed to living in and made peace with because everything you think you know now means fuckle.
It’s impossible to have something huge happen to your personal meatsuit and to not experience some sort of an existential crisis.
I was a ballerina with a perfect body and someone this week said that to him I seemed then to be nearly immortal. Quite the statement, no? What I took from that image was that I had the perfection that others sought. And now I’m an amputee, a flamingo, seemingly imperfect. Except… Am I?
Is my imperfection perfectly suited to me?!
So I kept coming back in my existential crisis to the two faces of Janus with regard to the experiences of all the amputees I’ve come across in my life:
The Grey Man
I don’t celebrate the loss of my limb. It’s not the definition of me. My foot was dying and it was taking me with it. I don’t need an audience to clap at me and tell me I’m an inspiration for dancing or walking or existing. I may stab the next person who tells me I’m an inspiration for living with limb difference. Fuck anyone who thinks they should argue with me. I’m not telling you’re a fucking inspiration for being ballsy enough to get up with wrinkles where you once had none or spare tire where you once had perfect abs or manboobs where once perfect pecs were. I’m glad that you’re doing you, but what makes a person an inspiration is taking life by storm and wrestling with the demons inside you and in your life to overcome the darkness and become the you you were meant to be.
I don’t need a fucking gold star for having the audacity to live despite everything that was meant to kill me and stop me didn’t.
If you find my story inspirational and my (hopefully still refreshing) forwardness I’m openly sharing my vulnerability and journey, I will gladly thank you for your kudos. But living as an amputee is not in and of itself inspirational and I am not interested in celebrating my amputation or defining myself by it because it’s nothing.
My amputation is a big old nothing but just another life experience to write about in this exceptionally interesting life of mine.
It makes for some great stories, but so does my very smart mouth and lack of filter when I’ve got a punchline. It’s not the definition of me and is therefore not worth celebration. But that doesn’t mean I’m hiding it either and hoping to become the Grey Man that disappears into the crowd. That’s not how I roll. I’ve never been one to blend in and just roll with the crowd. I do things my way regardless of what is popular or expected. I used to walk into classes on the first day of the semester in college wearing something very memorable and pause dramatically in the doorway to take account of the room and choose the place that would be where “that girl” always sits before taking a seat. I taught first grade in designer dresses, 4 inch heels, red lipstick, and black and red hair but I was never above walking like a dinosaur out the door and doing my best Calvin and Hobbes impression of the tyrannosaurus rex.
I was not made to blend in.
I couldn’t if I wanted to.
I don’t wear pants that cover my leg. I think that if other people do that is fine. But I refuse to. First of all, all it takes is one wearing to destroy a real pant leg by wearing it over a socket. I’m too poor to buy new clothes all the time to hide it. Secondly, I like yoga pants for a million reasons not the least of which is that I can cut the one leg and it tucks neatly into the top of my socket without having anything blousing over the top. I like the way it looks. If I’m not in yoga pants, I’m usually in a shorter dress or skirt. It’s what I like and it’s where I’m comfortable. And there’s no hiding it. Besides, I find as often as not people are mesmerized by my face to even notice I’m an amputee right away anyway and I find it amusing.
The other thing about being the Grey Man is that it assumes one doesn’t ever want to be the center of attention. Anyone who knows me knows that I am almost always somehow the center of attention. It doesn’t matter how hard I try not to be, it happens anyway. You can’t be the charming one with red lipstick and a flattering getup popping off with the hilarious punchline to the completely inappropriate joke and be a wallflower.
So if I’m not the wallflower, I’m not the Grey Man either, what am I?
I’m authentic, that’s what.
I’m just me. I won’t say I’m the same Gwen I was before all this because it’s not true. I have been changed by my experiences and I have grown. I have learned about my true strengths and I have found my weaknesses. I have come face to face with my demons and fought them. I have learned about what makes me tick and I have learned why I made decisions I made that didn’t work out well for me. I have also discovered what I learned from those and how to be the best version of me. I know what I will and will not expect of myself and of others. I am not an inspiration because I exist with one foot of flesh as a flamingo but if you find inspiration in the stories I tell and my audacity to live, than I can dig that.
If you want to blend into the surroundings and hide, do you.
But I’m going to be my authentic self and I refuse to hide behind the green door of societal expectations to accept the status quo and empty praises of people who see only my prosthetic and not my soul.
Remember that friend I mentioned earlier who said to me that I had seemed to him to be a near immortal? The other part of his statement was not that I was no longer She but rather I was on my way to being Her once more and he looked forward to seeing me continue to rise.
I’m no Grey Man, I’m a Phoenix…
And I will burn you, don’t try me.
I guess my imperfection is perfectly suited to me and I to it.
For some reason, I have largely avoided writing about amputation things directly because I don’t want to define myself as a writer or person or blogger or woman as “an amputee” even though I don’t hide it. At all. If you see me, you see it regardless of what I wear.
I am not into devotees. Don’t bother asking or sending inappropriate things to my inbox.
But I’m an amputee and I’m kind of over people being weird and awkward because they’re curious about amputee life. So as I was getting ready for my day today I decided that I’m just going to stick a fork in the awkward and tell about the amputeeisms on here because there isn’t anyone else yelling these things from the rooftops without it being weird and sexual (the “amputee seeks devotee” amputee) or whiny and weird (the “I’m disabled and it’s obvious but don’t treat me like I’m different or disabled but don’t forget to acknowledge that I’m disabled and different” amputee).
I may regret this, we shall see, but if you have questions, I may answer them here at some point if you just ask them. So, without further eloquence, let me tell you this is the first in a new series called Flamingo Life.