As I reached my 50’s, one of my pleasures was taking my German Shepherd, Duchess, for long walks in the early morning hours. The day was new, she thoroughly enjoyed herself, and I always felt uplifted when we returned home.
Then one day while walking with Duchess, my walk was disturbed by a sharp pain in my right hip, sending a jolt down my leg. Oh my, I thought, I must have stepped down on a rock or uneven surface. I didn’t think much more of it, until of course it recurred. And then recurred again. And again.
As these things typically do, it gradually got worse over time. I consulted with doctors, an osteopath, an acupuncturist, a couple chiropractors, and several massage therapists. I even tried “energy healing” and reflexology. But nothing was going to halt the slow and steady deterioration of my right hip.
After trying to “will” it away, hoping it was something temporary and treatable (like everything else had been in my experience to this point), I got serious about diagnosis. However, when the first orthopedic surgeon told me that I had arthritis, I was very dismissive. Since she didn’t even have an x-ray to review, I kept looking for another answer.
When I finally did have it x-rayed, sure enough, I had “advanced degeneration” of my right hip. Osteoarthritis, the bane of many people over 50, was now an acknowledged part of my daily existence. Not only that, it was in such an advanced state that everyone I consulted advised me that I would need a hip replacement. Soon.
The first signs of degeneration were intermittent pain. It escalated to the point that I was on pain medication every day. I literally set my alarm early to take my pain medication, so that I could take my pills and get a little more sleep and then get up after they had taken effect.
Initially I didn’t let it slow me down. I maintained my job. I kept walking the dog. I even did tai chi. I took vacations, and walked through airports, through hotels, sight-seeing and shopping. I took pain medication, and just kept going. It’s only pain, after all. I can deal with it. I don’t have a terminal illness. Life goes on.
The people around me barely took notice. Occasionally I would limp, and someone would comment, “what’s wrong with your ankle?” or alternatively “what’s wrong with your foot?” Rarely did they guess hip. Next time you see someone limping, try to guess where the pain is. It’s not that easy, unless of course they are holding a body part.
I clearly remember one day in a store, when my pain meds were wearing thin. I was limping worse than usual, and my companion that day said something to the effect of “knock it off.” As if I was somehow overacting or being dramatic. You know – stop limping around like a gimp. YOUR limping is upsetting ME. Why is that even possible? How does someone else limping have any bearing on you? My understanding of what it means to be the person who is physically challenged was just beginning to take shape.
My limping went on and on. Once I started using a cane, understandably the comments intensified. What’s wrong? What happened? Are you okay? These were the typical questions. Of course I answered simply “it’s hip arthritis” or “I have a hitch in my get-along.” I was hoping to be left alone and no longer the subject of this intense and uncomfortable scrutiny. But some people persisted. “How bad is it? How long has this been going on?”
I had suspected for a long time that I don’t like being pitied, and now I was certain of it. And I definitely don’t like being the center of attention due to a physical defect. I don’t like being the victim or the person with the problem. I prefer being the helpful person with the answers and the resources who aids other people.
Here I am, all benevolent and kind, assisting the “less fortunate.” I had never thought about the subtle reality of that situation. By definition, if I help the less fortunate, that makes me MORE fortunate. I am above the rest. What an ego trip, hidden as benevolence. I never thought of it that way before, and now I feel somewhat ashamed.
When you see someone struggling, the most natural impulse is to render aid (at least for me). Now I realize that I must ask permission, unless the other person has already specifically asked for help. Yet another lesson.
Also, my vulnerability was a shock to my system. I was used to being able to fend for myself. Feed myself, clothe myself, bathe myself, get things for myself, and so forth. If I was walking alone somewhere, I had the sense of self-sufficiency that I could take care of myself. I could run, or scream, or even fight back if someone tried to attack me. Or if my car broke down, I could handle it and get help, or at least feel safe until help arrived. Or if I was out in the woods or away from civilization, I could survive.
No longer. Now I am fragile. I can’t even “stand on my own two feet” – quite literally – without teetering. I am at the mercy of others. And I really, really, really don’t like it. It goes against all of the self-sufficiency and self-reliance constructs that I have used all my life.
There have been many, many (too many to count really) kind people who have offered to help me. Complete strangers. At the grocery store, in the parking lot, you name it. They see me on my crutch, and instinctively offer to help. Most of the time I smile and say “thank you, but no – I’ve got it.” Or I say something like “this is how I get my exercise. Thanks anyway.” Usually I add, “and I really appreciate the offer. Most kind.” Because it is.
Of course there is the flip side. The people who don’t care about your lack of physical ability, and only care about themselves. It can be over the most trivial matter, not just important things. It can be merely self-centered, or outright malevolent.
I don’t appreciate being mocked. Why in Heaven’s name would anyone do that? Here I am limping along, and I see someone out of the corner of my eye doing a fake limp. Somehow I don’t think it’s in solidarity with my plight. Are people really that cruel and callous, or is it their way of coping with an uncomfortable situation for them? Take your pick.
I have had a front-row seat for how it feels to lose your ability to walk. And how important (dare I say critical) it is to regain that ability, if at all possible. It has been a life-altering experience.
It is an ongoing battle for which there is no good solution. Except surgery. So, after years of denial and pain management, I am finally ready. The pain exceeds my fear. I am now committed to this course of action – even if it kills me. Living like this for more than a few more months is likely to have me thinking about suicide. You need to trust me here - I don’t say that lightly.
Of course, hip arthritis is totally “fixable.” Hip replacement surgery is almost routine today. Modern medicine has progressed to that degree. In fact, in my research for the procedure, one doctor indicated that I could be up and on my feet the same day as the surgery, and back to driving within two weeks.
There was some satisfaction in knowing that I will be having surgery, and I will be back to “normal” again, eventually walking without a limp or a cane. But what of the people out there for whom this situation is not treatable? What if you are limping, and it’s never going to get “better?” What if it’s always going to get worse and worse, until you can’t walk at all and are confined to a wheelchair?
My personal philosophy of life is that we should strive to learn, develop, and grow (in the spiritual sense), all the days of our lives. Each experience is an opportunity to add to your knowledge, and increase your understanding of life and your place in the universe.
These lessons come in many “packages.” Some are easy to open, like when you forget your purse, and a guardian angel stops you before you leave the store and hands it to you. That would be a positive message, letting you know that you are being cared for and looked after.
Some packages, however, are much more difficult to open. They come in the form of disease and distress. My hip experience is a prime example. My experience was not a single lesson, but rather an entire course in humanity, compassion, relationships, and community.