I’m 26 and I walk with a limp. So of course, when I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed last night, this Jezebel post caught my eye:
Apparently, in Victorian-era Europe, it was once considered trendy to walk with a limp:
“Alexandra of Denmark was the bride of the Prince of Wales, and a 19th Century fashion icon. The clothes she wore were copied as well. The chokers she wore to conceal a scar on her neck were copied. And when a bout of rheumatic fever left her with a pronounced limp… Well, that was copied too. In the well-do-do hotspots of Britain, toadying women began clumping about in a style that suggested they’d recently stood barefoot on discarded Lego.”
Ridiculous, right? But I have to admit it got me thinking about my own situation; how I feel about my gait and how the limp is viewed by others today.
Multiple epiphyseal dysplasia is a genetic disorder that affects cartilage and bone development, and it runs in my mom’s side of the family. When I was a toddler, my mom had hip replacement surgery. Before her, my grandmother had her hips done. And when my older brother turned 18, he had his first hip replacement followed by the second a year later. Luckily for me, I didn’t start experiencing any pain in my hips until I was in my late teens. But by the time I hit my fourth year of university at age 21, both hips had deteriorated to the point that I knew I would need surgery soon. I decided to finish school first, which meant the pain eventually became so bad that I was walking to class with the help of two canes.
My family lovingly refers to our signature limp as a “waddle” (which is kind of funny, considering our surgeon’s name is Dr. Waddell). My mom and I sometimes bump into each other accidentally when we’re walking side by side like two clumsy ducklings; I call us Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Between family members, the limp isn’t a big deal. It simply comes with the territory. Our mother always made us feel fine about the condition. We know we could have it much worse and we also know it’s made us better people, because it’s taught us empathy and patience. Outside of my family, though, I’ve gathered that seeing a teen or 20-something limping down the street or using a cane is not a normal sight. Back in high school, I remember people coming up to me in the schoolyard asking, “Why does your brother walk funny? Does he think he’s gangster?” No, actually, the cartilage in both of his hips is slowly wearing away, but thanks for asking!
By the time I was limping noticeably, the response was less schoolyard but just as awkward at times. The general response was a head cocked slightly to one side and a concerned “What did you do to yourself?” When I’d mention that I was about to have/had recently had both hips replaced, the frown would become a dropped jaw and eyebrows would rise to the roof. “But you’re so young!” Yes, I am. Isn’t life crazy? Anyways, see ya later! (Hobbles away). Most people are downright lovely when I discuss my condition. But I’ve also had a few experiences where people questioned my disability or looked at me funny when I parked in the handicapped spot, Nine Inch Nails blasting through the car stereo. Yes, I wanted to say to the elderly woman who glared at me in the parking lot, that is my permit. I’ve also had to stand up for myself in crowded elevators when I was able to go without the cane, making my disability virtually invisible. One time a woman loudly announced that “the elevator should only be for people who really need it” while she stared directly in my direction. “I agree. I’ve had both hips replaced and I can’t do stairs,” I smiled at her. She scowled and stepped off the elevator without another word.
After I recovered from my surgery four years ago, I happily packed my two canes in a closet, stopped taking pain killers and started wearing non-orthopedic-style shoes. I had fresh hips and I wasn’t afraid to use them. Back in university, I’d have to decline invitations to go out dancing all the time. Now, I’d hit the floor as much as I could. My limping days were behind me. That was until recently, when I was diagnosed with bursitis in my right hip. It came on slowly and probably has something to do with the fact that I sit in an office chair for eight hours a day. But when it hit, it hit hard. Suddenly it became nearly impossible to get out of bed, let alone walk. I had no choice but to dust off the old cane and rely on it once again.
Here’s the thing: I think my fake hips are awesome. The scars I have on both legs are badass. I wear them (and often flaunt them) like badges of honour. I feel like I’ve scrawled “I survived” across two parts of my body. The waddle and especially the cane, on the other hand, feel like signs of weakness. I try to play it cool, but when I walk down the street sometimes I feel incredibly self-conscious. I assume that everyone who looks in my direction is somehow picking me apart in their head, like “Who does that 26-year-old think she is using a cane?” (I know, they’re probably actually thinking about what to make for dinner, but I can’t help my inner dialogue from running off in a negative direction). Sometimes, I even get a sense of imposter syndrome. I’m able to walk at a pretty decent speed, even with ol’ clicky at my side, and I’ve had to switch sides in the middle of the day before (using the cane on one side all the time can start to cause pain in the other hip) which makes me feel like a conniving George Costanza. I try to forget about it. But the thing clicks when it hits the ground, so it’s impossible to go unnoticed. So after a week or two, I got sick of having to use it. I put the cane aside and convinced myself I didn’t need it. Turns out, I still do from time to time and I’m trying to remember that it is OK to use it whenever I need to.
As women, we put extra pressure on ourselves to heal faster than humanly possible and get on with our lives while looking fabulous and totally able-bodied. We have to learn to be more patient and caring with ourselves for the healing to happen. Denying ourselves the physical support we need isn’t going to do any good for us today or in the future.
I don’t think I’ll ever fully be used to limping or needing a cane sometimes. I still often think everyone is staring at me when I walk down the street. But now and then, I spot another woman walking down the street with a cane and I feel an overwhelming sense of unity. And as we pass each other, I smile and nod, as if to say: “Hobble on, sister. Hobble on.”