Somebody once told me never to underestimate the power of the brain.
Those billions of nerve cells sparking and coordinating thoughts, emotions, behaviour and sensation. Controlling everything from your heart rate to your mood. So while I believed and marvelled at the power of that 3lb blob inside my head, it was never demonstrated to me more until I became an amputee.
After my amputation 9 years ago, my confidence crashed and my body image became very scrambled as I struggled to find my place as a new amputee in a world of people trying to achieve perfection. I was only 43, and the thought of losing my leg had terrified me but became a reality. I was never going to be the same. I often made the mistake of assuming I knew what people were thinking about me. Sure enough, a few ‘friends’ came to see me/look at me, and I never saw them again. People think I look too ridiculous to be seen with again.
HELLO INNER CRITIC. HELLO WEAKNESS.
When I was out on crutches or in my wheelchair I knew people were staring, some more obvious than others. I got those head tilt pitying looks that said ‘you poor sod’. I assumed they were thinking ‘thank God I’m not you’ or ‘she has no life’. My brain and inner critic let me believe I was a mindreader. A big step up from being a hairdresser in my two legged life! People think I’m useless and incapable.
CONFIDENCE CRASHES TO ZERO.
By now I was also very familiar with phantom limb pain. The invisible foot that twists and burns, and the invisible leg that hits you with electric shocks big enough to make you shout. My brain was literally running the show, but not according to my script! Didn’t it get the memo that the leg had departed on a one way ticket? The pain would feel real, the itch was itchy, the toes felt cold, but when you looked there was nothing there. When the brain stops receiving signals from a missing limb, it senses something is wrong and somehow rewires to send pain signals instead. Yet another missed brain memo! You’re making things worse! As with most things time heals and amputation is no exception. The clock ticks and the journey begins with healing, then the strength returns and you begin to walk again. As life returns to normality and progress is visible, you begin to listen to your other inner voice, your nurturer, your team mate, the part of your brain that is protective and encouraging. It helped me to see my inner critic as the bad pantomime villain, with an evil over waxed moustache and no credibility. You can create yourself a committee to shoot down all the nonsense your villain tells you. An inspiration committee, mine includes my mum, my surgeon, my Paralympic trapeze teacher, Alexis Carrington and Mrs Doubtfire. (they can be fictional too!) Together they help me kick into touch the villain’s criticisms that float around my consciousness, and by channeling each of them I can say something positive and caring to myself. Although when Alexis Carrington appears I can get a bit sassy!
For phantom pains I am able to take medication even now that dulls the sensations to a manageable level. I still get cold invisible toes and itchy missing feet but my brain doesn’t get it all its own way. It’s definitely my show now. Those people who were staring at me, the head tilters and sympathetic rubberneckers? Well they still do, but they are just noticing that I am different to them, and they take a while to absorb it. Generally they are impressed by my courage and admire my determination. I know I represent their greatest fear of losing a limb and being disabled. That’s the reality of what they are thinking. I hold my head up high and say yes I am bloody brilliant.
So although your brain is the power of life and existence, challenge the way it lets you feel. Beat the critic. Stop avoiding your body and face up to what you have or don’t have. Look in the mirror, see the bits you like, don’t focus on those you don’t. (note to mum…I hate my ankles but you gave great skin!) Acceptance comes with time, it is always a work in progress, disability or not. Also keep your assumptions in check – you are not a mind reader. The woman at the next table in the cafe is more bothered about her FaceBook profile picture than your walking stick or Oscar worthy limp. Their interest is nothing more than a brief awareness that passes. Learn to approach your life with humour and learn to laugh at yourself. You’ll find the strength to endure stressful situations. You’ll burn calories, lower your blood pressure and you rarely die from having a good laugh. Learn to be proud of yourself and your fight to win.
Remember it’s just a bad day, not a bad life.