A version of this post was originally published at livinglifeoncrutches.com.
Hi, my name is Darryl Partridge, and I am disabled. There, I said it, but what does it mean? Disabled is a generalization. Does it mean I am incapable of doing anything? I don’t think so. I feel that am very capable, I just have a part of my body that doesn’t work correctly. My lower left leg from the knee down no longer moves and works the way that it should. I no longer have ankle joints (Yes, we actually have two joints that make up our ankles.), and the rest of my foot is frozen in place and somewhat twisted. I have a hockey stick for a leg starting at the knee. My lower leg is the shaft of the hockey stick, and my foot is the blade. The angle is very close to the hockey stick, as my foot doesn’t make a right angle to my leg. I cannot place my heel flat to the floor, and I basically no longer have foot or toe function. While all this certainly makes walking and doing many activities difficult, my real disability is the debilitating pain that walking and standing cause. I don’t remember what it is like not to have my ankle and foot as a constant preoccupation. It is the last thing I am aware of before falling asleep and the first thing that I am aware of when I wake up. I am always aware of it due to the debilitating pain. Walking is an excruciating chore and makes my evenings and nights unbearable.
In the past five years, I have lived from surgery to surgery hoping that with each surgery my pain would end, that I could rid myself of crutches, pick the pieces of my life up, and move on. After six surgeries, the hope of ending the pain has diminished. The only solution that I can even consider at this point is amputation. I will discuss amputation in later blogs. For now, I will quickly make my point and move on. The process to get a doctor on board with amputation alone could take a year or more. Then, you must add the recovery and rehabilitation time. I could easily be looking at two additional years before getting my life back on track. I already lost five years and lost a career that I worked hard for and loved. At 47 years old, I needed to get on with my life and figure out what I would do for work, how I could provide for my family, and feel good about myself. I knew it was going to be a long and difficult road to travel, but it was time to accept my fate and find a way to live with this instead of trying to fix it. Just for the record, amputation is not off the table. Once I have my life back on track, established in a job where crutches don’t interfere, I will take the necessary steps and have this painful appendage removed from my body.
However, I didn’t know where to begin. My anger had taken control of me, I was fighting depression daily, and my only hope of living with this was to use crutches all the time. I also spent many days trying to figure out what horrible things I must have done that required this punishment. The world outside my house continued to spin, but I felt lost and alone. The following are the things I did to reclaim my life.
1. Accept that you are disabled and find a good listener.
Facing the reality that you have a lifelong disability is daunting. Like an alcoholic, until you accept that you have a problem, you will never take control of the problem. Only when you accept that you have a disability can you look to the future. If you hold on to the past, you will never move forward. To do this, you will need to seek out a good listener. Everyone will have all kinds of suggestions for you. They start emailing you stories of people who have much worse conditions then you. I had people diagnosing me, giving me treatment plans, and prescribing medications. I had seen excellent surgeons and completed so much research that I could have done a dissertation on ankles. By the time I concluded that I had to accept my fate and learn to live with this as a permanent disability, I could have stood in the O.R. and talked surgeons through their ankle surgeries. I didn’t need diagnosing, I didn’t need medication, and I didn’t need to be constantly reminded that there were people worst off then I was. The problem was that these were the only conversations I could get anyone to have. What I needed was someone to listen to me on my terms. I needed to talk everything through: how I would manage the pain, how I would be a good father, how I would be a useful husband, how I would hold down a job, how I would remain active, and how I would find ways to feel good about myself. These were the questions in my head that needed to be answered. I was done diagnosing and discussing what went wrong to cause me to get into this place. The conversations I needed were ones that were not going to be pleasant and would force the listener to accept the harsh reality that I had to face. Mostly, I needed to hear, “This really sucks, I can’t imagine going through this”.
I found a psychologist. On my first visit, he asked me what I thought I need in therapy. I responded, “I need someone to listen to me, I need a place I can talk this out, I need to bitch about life, and I need a place where it will be ok to be sad”. Having this place and this person to listen to me, I got clarity of my situation and life. I not only accepted my disability, but I realize I could still accomplish amazing things.
I suggest getting a therapist. They are professionals, and it is their job to listen and help. It is a non-biased person, and nothing you say will be taken personally.
Accepting you are disabled doesn’t mean you are not capable. It is an understanding and acceptance that you have to make changes in the way that you do things. Without the acceptance of the reality of your situation, you won’t achieve the attitude necessary to move forward. Find someone to talk to that will listen to you on your terms.
2. Mourn the losses of what you no longer can do.
This is a tough, but also a necessary step. The reality was that there were things I just could not do any more at all and things that I could no longer do the way I once did them. Instead of dwelling on what I could no longer do, I had to mourn the losses and focus on what I could do. I also needed to focus on different ways of doing things. For example, skiing was a huge part of my life. Skiing, as I once knew it, was not possible. So, I researched ways that would make skiing possible and found someone at the Adaptive Sports Foundation who was skiing without full use of his legs. He took me out to ski, and it was a rejuvenating experience. I ended up skiing with my arms. My arms carried my weight through crutches with small skies at the end called outriggers. My arms did all the work, and my legs went for the ride. This was not skiing the way I knew it, but it got me out on the mountain with my kids and improved my disposition tremendously.
Not that I was ever a runner, but running through a parking lot on a rainy day is something we all take for granted. Running to dodge the rain was one of the first things I mourned, and I accepted I was going to get wet. I do have a goal; I would like to get to the point where I could walk a 5K using crutches. I won’t be running, but I will have the satisfaction of doing it. Then, I would like to participate in walks for charities.
Don’t dwell on what you can no longer do; it will prevent you from moving forward. Focus on what you can do and find ways to do new things.
3. Find the proper tools and accept them. Don’t let them define who you are.
If your disability requires a device to enable you to live a fuller life, then use it. For me, the device was crutches. This was not an easy thing to accept. No matter what anyone says or thinks, being in public and using walking devices carries a stigma. This can cause setbacks in how you feel about yourself. It is important to forget about what others think and have confidence to use your devices proudly. Finding the right device can help with this.
Six ankle surgeries in five years kept me on crutches more than off. For five years, someone had a comment about the crutches every place that I went. They were always the white elephant in the room. I got to the point where I didn’t want to use them because I couldn’t feel normal or good about myself with the never-ending comments. People I knew were always in shock that I was still using them. People I didn’t know had to ask why I was using them. My crutches were defining who I was. I was suffering in pain not using my crutches to avoid dealing with all the comments. All I wanted to do was go to my daughter’s soccer game and not have to explain my crutches.
I was also causing myself unnecessary stress. Each time I left the house, I would pounder over what walking tool I needed. Could I get away with a cane, one crutch, forearm crutches that didn’t really work for me, or my comfortable underarm crutches that made my life the easiest. In reality, I needed crutches for any amount of walking. The problem with the underarm crutches was that they created the most unwanted comments. This was because they were very noticeable and screamed leg injury. The result was that I avoided many things because I couldn’t walk and didn’t want the stigma the crutches gave.
When I finally had the epiphany that I needed to use crutches all the time to live a fuller and more active life, I did my due diligence and found superior forearm crutches. For months, I pondered over making the purchase. They were costly, around $1,000. So, I kept asking myself if I really needed them. My answer and the words that completely changed my attitude came from an article about Dave Bexfield, who has MS. He purchased the crutches, and they had improved his life. When asked what advice he had for users of crutches, he said:
“Please, please, check your ego at the door. I’ve discovered that many people with MS are worried about ‘looking disabled’. So, they go through life stubbornly surfing furniture and slowly hobbling with a walking stick. Forearm crutches are a brilliant aid and provide a level of freedom to those with mobility challenges that you simply can’t get with a cane, staff, or trekking poles”.
Between his words and my wife’s persistent pushing, I ordered the crutches, and they truly improved my life. I now, for the most part, leave my ego at the door and use my crutches. The crutches are called Sidestix. I use them exclusively. They are very comfortable, and I absolutely love them. They look like sleek sophisticated walking tools and don’t scream leg injury. For some reason, they remind me of a steering wheel found in a high-end luxury car. A week or so after having them, I was in a large mall waiting for my kids, who were in the restrooms. For the first time while standing with crutches, a man came up to me and started a conversation. At no point did he ask about the crutches or my leg. I felt like a normal human. Before the Sidestix, I would not have been at the mall with my family. On the occasion that someone does ask, I simply say, “It’s a permanent condition.” They say no more.
Find the right tool and use it. In Dave’s words, “Leave your ego at the door.”
4. Look for people who can inspire you.
You don’t need to look far to find people to inspire you. I found these people in my own town, the Internet, the news, books, and stores. In short, I found them almost anywhere I looked. These are the people living their lives with disabilities of all kinds. They push forward and accomplish things. They do it with such a positive attitude. I searched out memoirs that some of these people wrote, and I looked for videos that they had made. These people became the force that kept me moving forward.
Some of the people I found most inspiring didn’t necessarily have disabilities like mine. An alcoholic desperately trying to become sober, a father fighting cancer, a child trying to survive unthinkable abuse, and a man born with no limbs all inspired me to push forward, feel good about myself, and live a full life.
I have compiled my collection of inspiring books, videos, and websites to which I owe my desire to fight with a positive attitude. You can find my collection by clicking on the inspiration page.
Look for people who inspire you, and let them teach you that anything is possible.
5. Allow yourself to be sad.
Suppressing you feelings will never allow you to heal emotionally. Learning to live with a disability is not easy. It is not possible to be happy all the time. Everyone who has been through adjusting to life with a disability will tell you about dark days. The key is to be able to pull yourself out. By giving yourself permission to be sad once in awhile, you will have the fuel needed for a positive attitude. If you suppress your sad feelings, they will be released in the wrong places and at the wrong times.
Give yourself permission to be sad. One sad day here and there will go a long way to having the right attitude.
6. Exercise regularly.
Exercise is not only beneficial to your physical health, it helps your mental health immensely. The hardest part might be finding exercise that you can do. The best way to do this is through your doctor or a physical therapist.
For me, it is my left leg that doesn’t work. During one of my physical therapy sessions after the fifth surgery, the therapist said, “There is nothing I can do to help you. You need to find ways to manage the pain and find things that you can do.” What he didn’t know was that saying that helped me more they he could have ever imagined. He was the first person that had the guts to say, “Your leg is fucked up. Deal with it.” That’s what I needed to hear. He suggested that I ride a bike. He felt it would be a great form of exercise for me and cause limited pain to my ankle. He was right. I can’t tell you what getting out on my bike each morning did for me. I felt better both physically and mentally. It truly helped me to accept my situation.
I now strap my crutches on my back and ride my bike to the gym. I workout everything but my left leg, and then, I ride my bike back home. I find myself constantly wanting to accomplish more and more physically. The more I accomplish, the better I feel physically and mentally. When expressing to someone that I wanted to start hiking on my crutches, they responded “Why? You didn’t hike before.” I had to shrug it off, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to make them understand.
Find a way to exercise that works with your disability and push yourself. It will completely change how you feel about yourself.
P.S. Working out has made using the crutches a whole lot easier.
7. Find things to do that make you feel good about yourself.
One of the lowest points for me was the fall that of the second anniversary of having my ankle fused. At that point, I had just had the fourth surgery, lost my job, and was facing the two-year anniversary of forever altering the anatomy of my leg while still being in pain. I honestly didn’t know where to turn and found myself falling into complete despair.
My daughter’s elementary school was in need of someone to take on being president of a troubled PTA. Being PTA president was certainly something I never dreamed of doing, but I jumped at the opportunity. I was feeling so low that I desperately needed something productive to occupy some time. Being PTA president can be a thankless position, but for me, it helped me through the next two years. I was helping a broken PTA, and the PTA was helping a broken man. Three years later, I still serve as vice president, now on the PTA council board. While I might complain about it, it has filled a huge void and makes me feel good about myself.
I also volunteer teaching Junior Achievement lessons in an economically deprived city school. This helps fill the void that no longer teaching created.
This website is my first step to give back in the way of support to those suffering mobility issues. My hope is to add an online forum and to form a local support group
Find ways to volunteer. There are so many needs out there, and many can be done from your home. Volunteering is a fantastic way to make you feel productive and good about yourself.
8. Retrain for a new career.
If your disability no longer allows you to continue working in your career, you need to retrain for a new career. This was a very difficult thing for me. Teaching is not a job, but a passion. As an elementary school teacher, I continued teaching for the first two years using the crutches. It was difficult to do, as teaching elementary students is a very busy job. You are constantly on the go. Due to continuing to need multiple surgeries, major teacher layoffs, and an unsympathetic school board, I lost my job. Then, I spent the next two years trying to fix my leg through two more surgeries and find a new teaching position.
The reality was that there were more than 500 applicants for each teaching position out there. School districts were hiring young and very qualified teachers. They had no interest in a 47-year-old man on crutches. Honestly, working with the population of students I excelled at would just be too difficult to do on crutches. I would just be putting myself through stress and pain.
So, I finally “mourned” teaching and enrolled in a program at a local community college. As a 47-year-old man with a master’s degree, I had to suck up a huge amount of pride sitting in those classes. However, it kept me moving forward to achieving a new career.
If you no longer can work in your career, find a new career you can do. Suck up your pride and do what you need to retrain. In the end, you will feel good about yourself.