Out on Parole

Seven weeks ago, as you know, I broke my leg. When it happened, after it happened I found it hard to imagine that I might ever use my leg again. Once on crutches, I imagined myself forever on crutches.

I became accustomed to planting only one leg on the ground. My right leg grew stronger, my left leg more useless. Every night as I took off the brace and washed down my leg, I examined it for signs of atrophy.

They were there all right. My left leg has shrunk, and is wasted. Although my calf has thinned down to almost half its size, my knee has stayed swollen much bigger than its companion on my right leg. My left leg has taken on the shape of a toffee apple on a stick – the stick my leg, the apple my knee.

All this is changing. Last Tuesday when I saw the surgeon he decided I might begin to bear weight on my broken leg.
‘Normally it’s eight weeks before you can be weight bearing,’ he said. ‘But you can begin early. For good behaviour’, he added. As if my confinement in a brace, on crutches has been a prison term and now I have been let out on parole. Parole, in so far as I am allowed to bear weight on my bung leg, but only half my weight. I am still under supervision. I am not yet free.
‘Get on the scales at home,’ the surgeon said. ‘Stand on them with your bad leg and bear down until you reach half your weight. That’s as much as I want you to use.’

I do not imagine that he intended that every step I take should be or could be measured so precisely and yet it worries me. I try hard to weigh down lightly on my left side. I trust my body to know how much my leg can bear. I trust my leg to tell me when it carries enough.

I cannot go around with scales measuring exactly, besides I do not think I could put full weight on my broken leg. My broken leg is still not its old self. It feels odd, no longer painful as it was when I first broke it. It has regained some of its firmness. I can walk with it, but I know that it cannot support me on its own.

My left leg holds a fragility I have not known before, as if the muscles attached to the bone and the nerve endings nearby have gathered together in support of my convalescent leg and they tell me loud and clear, go easy on this leg, take her slowly through her paces. She is out of practice, but more than that she has suffered trauma. She is not herself, not yet. She will need care and attention.

A few years ago at a conference in Germany I heard a woman present a paper on letter writing as therapy. She gave the example of a man who suffered from a chronic and painful shoulder condition that refused to ease up. His therapist suggested he write a letter to his shoulder.

‘Dear right shoulder
How could you do this to me? For thirty-five years I have relied on you to keep my clothes up, to help carry my load, to support my head, and now you have let me down….

At the following session after he had shared his letter, the therapist suggested the man write another letter, this time from his shoulder to himself.

Dear Body
You have taken me for granted for years. All of your life you have treated me as though I were made of granite, as though I could not be hurt in any way, as though I had no feelings. Let me assure you I have feelings. I hurt. I have been weighed down for far too long without a break, without recognition…

Should I write a letter to my leg? My left leg?

Dear Left leg
Why do you ache so? Even now after I have carried you in a brace, after I have let you off all duties, like a loose appendage there on the end of my hip and still you ache. When will you return to me?

And my left leg might write back.

Dear Elisabeth’s Body
After all you have put me through, all that rushing here and there, it is no wonder I gave up the ghost. That final fall was the last straw. You cannot imagine what it was like to have so much expected of me, to carry you around for all those years with only the help of my sister right leg, and still you expect me to hold you through a fall when you twist me so uncompromisingly. I had to snap. I had to stop. Enough is enough…

I have been reading lately about left brain/right brain development but for some reason I find it hard to sort out my right from my left. My impulse is to imagine that the right brain functions in support of language and logic and the left brain in support of the emotional life, the intuitive the so-called creative, only because the word ‘right’ to me suggests rigidity, order and logic, but it is the other way around.

The left brain directs the logical language development side of things and it is the right side of the brain on which we draw for all things emotional, and dare I say creative.

This is a narrow and limited division, as I understand. There is overlap and there are also interconnections that deny such simplistic division, but I am ever the divider in my efforts to make sense of things, especially when it comes to bodily matters, to the right and the left of it, of life.

Just now I hobbled to the kitchen to fetch another cup of tea without the aid of my crutches. It is hard work. I cling to bench tops, sideboards and walls, just to lighten the load on my aching left leg. It is a strange ache like a gnawing pain at the back of my gums when a tooth is about to burst into pain, as it often did when I was a child or the dull ache of my ears when again as a child they were blocked before they too erupted into spasms of pain.

It seems strange that the ache in my leg should remind me of child hood pain, as if pain for me belongs in childhood. Truth be known, I think I have not experienced much pain as an adult.

I pull myself up short. I have had four babies, all of them so-called natural births, without much by way of pain killers beyond gas and analgesics.

I have known pain, the worst imaginable, but as it seems for most women, it is a pain that I can scarcely remember, not the feel of it so much, just a vague memory.

They say women forget this pain more readily, otherwise they are unlikely to go back for more, babies that is. Maybe because the pain comes on fast and is gone almost immediately after the event it is not like the chronic pain you hear of when people are in pain all the time, every day pain that refuses to leave. How must that be I wonder?

53 thoughts on “Out on Parole”

  1. Very cool musings — I especially liked the part about the left and right brain. My mother is seventy-one and has suffered chronic pain for years and years. She had spinal surgery that didn't work and lives with the pain which I imagine is excruciating. Her personality has changed, and when I am especially frustrated by her, I try to remember what pain must and does do to a person. I am glad that you are recovering and hope that aching goes away. Do you have any osteopaths nearby? I highly recommend osteopathic treatment, particularly after a fall.

  2. I continue to enjoy the progress as you slowly recover from your injury. I remember most of my injuries and pains being before adulthood too, which is interesting, as in reality this isn’t true. I wonder if the bad stuff between the end of childhood and where ever we are in adulthood moves at too fast a pace, or if memories of childhood are just stronger. Or maybe as we get older we become more accepting, or resolved to the inevitability of the limitations accidents and the other causes of pain, place on us.

  3. The theory goes that the more stress you put on bones, the more their density increases. This is a problem for astronauts as they lose bone density in the weightlessness of space. So hop to it!

    I think men must forget pain as well. I know I was in extreme pain when I had my heart valve infection. I remember a nurse cradling me as if I were a baby until the morphine kicked in. I remember that I was in pain, but I do not remember pain itself. And, you know, that is probably a good thing.

  4. Pain, of course, is the body telling us something's wrong. Something needs attention, something isn't working right, and needs to be looked after.

    It's not strange you're still experiencing pain. Your knee is likely to hurt from now on, on rainy days. Mine does, from when I severely injured it in my teens.

    Pain-free days are a minority for me. It's always one thing or another. You don't ever learn to ignore it, but you can learn to not let it stop you from doing what you want to do. Every time it storms, my knee hurts, and so does my shoulder that I injured in my 20s in martial arts practice.

    Life is full of scars and aches and returning pains.

    The thing is, though, at some point it becomes normal. You don't view it as exceptional anymore. It just is. Sure, it's there, the pain, but it's not worth mentioning, because you have other things you need to do.

    Be cautious about putting your weight back on the broken leg. Yes, bone density increases from use, and all that. But it's still brittle and only half-healed. It's going well, it sounds like. And you want to not push too hard, or over-exert yourself and make it worse again. Trust me on that one: been there, done that.

  5. I am happy to hear that your leg is slowly getting better.;)
    Your letter writing to your body reminds me of the fact that I often write down letters to people, as a kind of therapy, but I never send them. After I write my thoughts and feelings down into words, it is as if they get put into order in my own mind.;)
    I hope you are having a lovely weekend,

  6. Sheesh I love the way you write and muse about things and it's awful to say that this craptastic past seven weeks for you has given us, your readers, some real insights.

    I was aware of the right and left brain having been a convert since a year 10 art student when 'drawing on the right side of the brain' was used – I instantly 'got' it.

    What is lovely about this recuperative process – slow and painful though it is for and I'd do anything to send vibes and magic your way to get the pain to stop right now – is the letter to the leg and the letter *from* the leg. I often wonder about how much we take our bodies for granted and you've now sort of given me the excuse I need to let my busted achilles heal itself in the six weeks it's supposed to rather than take three days off, run my guts out and hurt it even more….

  7. All my best for your leg, I am sure it will repay you for your good behaviour. As in most things I think it's a matter of patience which, I am the first to know that!, is never too much.

    Many, many thanks for your comments on "Wind" and "Slash".

  8. When I got pregnant with my third child, all I could think of was, "I can't go through labor again." That whole theory about forgetting the pain of labor did not work for me. Each time I had to face it head on.
    But it ended when the babies were born.
    I have been in chronic pain for decades since then and can only think that that is one of the reasons I crave sleep so much.
    These bodies of ours- they are magnificent and they fail us.
    And yet- we go on.

  9. Hi Elisabeth I am happy you are again on the mending path. I remember from my brother how one leg was so much thinner than the other.
    He had his leg broken on two places after a fall. Soon you will be all good
    I love left right brain stuff. We are decendence of left hand people. You see a lot of dyslexic people among left handers. My son isn't He is ambidextrous That isn't even the right word. His brain controls the right and the left side at the same time. So when he waves with one his other hand waves as well
    Anyway most of us are right brain
    dominant and that means more emotional, creative, intuitive,
    fantasists, solitary and more.
    Most of our friends fall in this category as we have quite different traits than left brain dominant people.
    Enjoy spring I hope it is so beautiful overthere as here.

  10. Elisabeth,
    I've been talking to my body and parts of it since I was a kid. Mostly I address the cells that I can feel working in concert to keep things functioning, more or less. It's always given me great comfort to be able to thank them for being there for me, especially in times of great physical and health challenges.
    But then I talk to most everything, from trees to clouds. It all seems alive in one way or another, even if just as the energy everything is made of.

  11. I went to an osteopath once Elizabeth. She was ferocious but very effective. I had a compressed nerve in my neck that gave me pins and needles in one hand. The osteo put a sliver of foam into my shoe because one leg was a tiny bit shorter than the other. I didn't know. It seemed to Help.

    Now my husband jokes that since I have broken my leg, my left leg is now shorter than my right. Not true of course, but more of the left and right body debacles.

    Thanks, Elizabeth.

  12. There's a terrific book, Anthony, 'Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older' by Douwe Draaisma. Draaisma tackles these issues of memory and time. A fantastic book and very readable. He makes sense of things we know intuitively about emory.

    Thanks, Anthony. I'm glad you're enjoying my progress. You can't possibly enjoy it as much as I.

    It is such a joy to be able to put two feet on the ground again, however slowly.

  13. Weight bearing excercise, do you mean, Robert? I should do it I know, but I avoid it. One day, I say. One day.

    In the meantime, when all this is over I shall get myself a bone density assessment, that way at least I'll know more about the state of my bones. It might jog me into action.

    So, men forget extreme pain, too, Robert. It stands to reason. If it's too unbearable we have to dissociate somehow.


  14. Art, your cautious words ring through my head. Yesterday I think I may have overdone it a little.

    It was Sunday and I was out and about, even hung the washing unaided, but I must ease up now. Over night my leg ached more than on previous nights, though it seems fine again today. I shall take more care from here on.

    I'm sorry to hear about your long battle with pain. You sound reconciled. I can understand, if your body says it hurts again and again, the only thing you can do is distract yourself from it ,if it's chronic and there's nothing to be done for it.

    I tend to avoid painkillers for the reasons you mention. I want to hear my body when it tells me something's wrong.

    It would be too easy to anaesthetise myself against the pain of my leg for instance and then go off blindly and overdo it.

    Thanks, Art.

  15. I write unsent letters, too, Zuzana and like you I find it very therapeutic.

    The unsent letter also helps me as a record of how I once felt in extreme states. I only write such letters when my passions are aroused, usually in anger or out of unrequited love.

    Years later, when I read them again, I can be amazed at how strongly I once felt.

    For obvious reasons, such letters are most often best not sent, but they are worth writing.

    Thanks, Zuzana.

  16. I'm pretty sure I've been in pain since the day I was born, but I keep forgetting, and so I continue to do things that hurt. Maybe I should write a letter to my pain, and see what I get in response!

  17. Coming face to face with evidence of our fragility is enough to make any sane person nervous. Your attitude seems healthy enough. I'm praying for ever-increasing stremgth in your poor thin leg.
    My thoughts go with you.

  18. About twenty years ago I hurt my back and so, on the advice of a friend, I went to a private clinic in the west end of Glasgow to see an ancient little osteopath. She was a tiny woman, she really was, but she diagnosed my problem very quickly. I had always believed that I had one leg slightly shorter than the other, not enough to require special shoes or anything, but it turned out there was nothing wrong with my legs, it was my pelvis that was squint. After a few adjustments – which she got a big, burly assistant to make on her behalf – I walked out of there pain free. And I remember thinking at the time: Some people feel this way all the time. I had been in pain for so long – not agony, discomfort really – for so many years that not hurting felt so strange, unnatural. Needless to say it never lasted. On arriving back home I sneezed and put my back out worse than ever. Not having the money to go back – osteopathy is not covered by the NHS – I went through several months of physiotherapy before I was back to normal – my normal, not pain free. And I’ve never been without pain since. My back comes and goes – I had my last adjustment about three years ago – but, mainly because of my sedentary lifestyle, something always aches: it’s my neck and knees today and I have a headache which you just work around. In my last job, which lasted seven years, I probably only had two or three days off through sickness until my breakdown so I don’t lie down to it until my body says, “Enough is enough, son,” and kicks the feet from right under me.

  19. Oh yes, Kath, please give your poor Achilles heel a rest. I ache on her behalf.

    You're a runner, clearly. I'm not, though my husband would say I run everywhere, like 'a chook without a head'.

    Very derisive that line. It stopped hurting years ago when Mother Mary John told me I was as senseless as a wet hen.

    Poor hens and chooks, the same creature aren't they? They get a bad press.

    Anyhow, Kath, I now recognise more than ever before. We take our bodies for granted.

    Write a letter to your Achilles heel in your head. See what she has to say. I suspect it won't be too complimentary of her owner.

    Thanks, Kath

  20. Patience, Davide, I'm developing it in spades.

    Mind you,towards the end of this journey, I find myself getting short tempered – I'm so slow – still I try to remind myself every day, I must take it one day at a time.

    Thanks, Davide.

  21. Best foot forward, Nick.

    Have I said it here already? An OT friend has advised me, when approaching the ups and downs of stairs: 'good leg goes up to heaven, bad leg goes down to hell'.

    I get it right every time now.

    Thanks, Nick.

  22. I love the letters to and from the leg and shoulder.

    I remember something from long ago:- the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, so only left-handed people are in their right minds.
    Ha Ha

    I've had long-term back pain off and on now for 24 years. Most days I can get on with things normally, but when it flares up, I'm flat on my back with my legs up on pillows.

  23. Ms Moon I remember being fearful of the births prior to those that followed the first but they all seemed to get easier in my memory, if such is possible. My last labour lasted only a few hours. But I know the pain. Our bodies, as you say, Ms Moon are wonderful but they must let us down eventually if not before,and then we die. It's tough.


  24. I ave a brother who is ambidextrous too, Marja. He was considered our family genius.

    The way our brains work is fascinating, but mostly for me in so far a it links with the more nebulous stuff of our minds and creativity.

    At least now we are beginning to see a dialogue between the neurologically inclined and those interested in the mind – mind, body and brain are all interconnected.

    Thanks, Marja.

  25. It must be reassuring for the cells of your body to hear from you so regularly, Michael.

    I like to think of all the bits of us in concert with one another, intra-psychically as in internally and inter-psychically, as between ourselves and others. Our bodes and minds are central to this.

    Thanks, Michael.

  26. Write to your pain, Mike, see what it says.

    I wonder whether it accuses you or bits of you, or whether it begs forgiveness for causing you so much suffering, or what more in between.

    It would be fascinating to hear.

    Thanks, Mike.

  27. I checked out my poor thin leg in the shower tonight, Enchanted Oak, as I unbraced it while seated on my white plastic shower chair and thought I have exaggerated for my blog friends: it's really only two thirds its original size not half, but it's still thin.

    Nevertheless it will get stronger soon, once I walk some more.

    Thanks Enchanted Oak.

  28. Your osteopath sounds as tough and effective as mine, Jim, but your level of pain is greater.

    I like to think I have a high pain threshold. It takes a lot for me to grimace in the dentist chair for instance. I try to be stoical but when I'm in real pain, I don't keep quiet about it.

    I brought all this strong medication home from hospital in case I needed it, but I haven't. I thought it also might be useful in some other emergency. The trouble is such medication goes off before you can blink.

    The doctor in emergency said to me that the body does not like pain. He told me not to be stoical. He told me I would heal better if I were not in pain.

    I took his advice those first couple of days and was doped to my eyeballs but then I became constipated as you do on strong painkillers and once I could bear the ache I decided enough of the iatrogenic qualities of pain relief was enough, I went back to my normal state.

    I hope your normal state is not too bad, though it sounds dreadful.

    If I were you I'd be on Panadol daily.

    Thanks, Jim.

  29. I love how you considered your leg's point of view. How much of our body and our health do we take for granted? Maybe too much, no one can say for sure.

    I will still say, stubbornly and resolutely, that you are not being punished. Your leg isn't a jail sentence because you have committed no crime, and I can't imagine it healing any faster if there is a crime associated with the injury.

    Forgive… forgive yourself, your leg, forgive everyone and everything.

    So comes freedom.

  30. The body/mind connection is fascinating.
    When I was a very small child, I was in a strange bed, and rolled over to check whether or not it had cot sides on it -(ha! very intelligent!). It didn't. For some time after that I had a jagged scar down the length of my nose: and that was my worst childhood injury.

    After my husband died, that scar reappeared. I recognised it immediately. My cells had not forgotten pain, but had just let its memory lie dormant.

  31. Sometimes, I feel I must be a freak, since I remember, vividly, the pain of the birth of my three living children.
    I have suffered broken ribs, an ugly agony, but preferable to the pain of childbirth.
    I am to have a joint replacement, and confess, the idea of that pain is indeed, equally terrifying, as that of childbirth. I am a coward to the core.
    You write so well, about the pain factor. Thankyou.

  32. It’s funny how a body part that was taken for granted can suddenly become a full-time career. I really enjoyed those letters to body parts, Elizabeth. Boy have i got some writing to do.

    It’s somehow not fair that aging means an ever increasing correspondence with grumbling and failing outposts of the self just when i’m looking for some peace and quiet. Or maybe it means i should have been chatting with them routinely in the first place. Is that what Tai Chi is?

    Time to pay some appreciative attention to the boys in the back room who seldom miss a beat. Ta, heart. Good morning ankle, how are you today? Thanks lower back, you held up well yesterday stacking firewood. Hey, left vestibular canals, what’s the big idea? How are rest of us supposed to walk in a straight line with you throwing your frock over your head? Do you really want Leg to end up like poor Elizabeth’s?

    But see, here i am already chipping away, whinging at some poor bit of me that isn’t as the rest of me wants all of me to be. Makes me realise i am not an individual at all, but a colony, a walking Barrier Reef. Which puts me in mind of John Masefield’s sonnet:

    What am I, Life?
    A thing of watery salt
    Held in cohesion by unresting cells,
    Which work they know not why, which never halt,
    Myself unwitting where their Master dwells
    I do not bid them, yet they toil, they spin
    A world which uses me as I use them;
    Nor do I know which end or which begin
    Nor which to praise, which pamper, which condemn.
    So, like a marvel in a marvel set,
    I answer to the vast, as wave by wave
    The sea of air goes over, dry or wet,
    Or the full moon comes swimming from her cave,
    Or the great sun comes forth: this myriad I
    Tingles, not knowing how, yet wondering why.

    So it’s good to read that your unresting cells are gnawing away at bone-knitting, Elizabeth. Keep up the good work, Liz-cells.

  33. Elisabeth, I very much hope you see continued improvement. I have been in so much pain for so long with my shoulders that being in pain the new normal for me. In fact, I wrote to my surgeon today to inquire about the advisability of a third should surgery.

    I write because I feel compelled to do so, but as to the advisability of assigned writing for therapy, I have read that it helps, but I have also read the opposite–that it makes the pain harder to handle by virtue of dwelling on it. I don't know which is true for most people, but I will probably always write.

  34. I grew up under the yoke of Catholicism, Tracey. It's hard therefore for me to forgive myself even as I try. I'm better at forgiving others though even then sometimes I have a hard time of it.

    I had a shower and washed my leg this evening. I talked to my leg lovingly. More and more it does not look so bad. I promise never to take my leg for granted again, neither it nor its partner.

    Thanks, Tracy.

  35. The body/mind connection is fascinating as you say, Frances. Body mind and time. Do you ever wonder how it is that our bodies know when to stop growing things like our teeth, and that our hair grows at a particular rate as do our nails.

    As for the memory of trauma it registers first and foremost in our bodies. No wonder pain is such a complex phenomenon.

    Thanks, Frances

  36. Thanks for the good wishes, Kass. It's good to be back on the road to recovery, even though I now walk with a stoop. I'll have to stamp that out, in time. All in good time.

  37. Get letter writing, Harry. Your body deserves it and as for that wonderful poem, from Masefield. Thank you.

    I'd not heard it before. The only Masefiled with which I am familiar is the one that begins:

    I must go down to the sea again
    To the lonely sea and the sky…

    My husband likes to finish this verse with something he heard years ago. It follows:

    I left my shoes and socks there
    I wonder if they're dry.

    It seems we are all walking Barrier Reefs and let's hope we do not become extinct, not yet anyway.

    Thanks, Harry

  38. I doubt you are a coward, Meggie, that you remember the pain of childbirth and other pain suggests to me you have a good memory and perhaps are reluctant to get into denial, like some of the rest of us.

    Thanks, Meggie.

  39. That's an interesting thought, snow, that writing to your body parts can make things worse by fueling a preoccupation.

    It might be so for some but I suspect for most of us, we tend to ignore our body parts at our peril.

    There are probably more stoics around I'd guess than hypochondriacs.

    Thanks, Snow. Good luck with your shoulder surgery. I hope a third time is more successful.

  40. Hello, dear Elizabeth on the mend. Your doctor sounds like a good one–useful advice about gauging the amount of weight to put on your healing leg. I thought of the crane pose in Yoga. Your unbroken leg bones must have put on some heft.

    Warm regards from Boston

  41. I have an ireverent urge to hypothesise age(Y) based on comment length(C): age corresponds with likelihood of increased pain(P) due to more years/chance of incurring injury. C<Y< = P
    I'm really glad you're on the mend, if slowly, and that the pain is not preventing your brain from seeking out enlightenment of sorts…I liked the imagery of you walking around with scales taped to your foot…

  42. I now have a mental image of someone hobbling around with a scale strapped to the bottom of their foot… 🙂 I think I read that one of the hormones in childbirth makes women forget the pain, in a way that normal pain isn't forgotten.

  43. My late mother suffered chronic pain on and off due to a variety of ailments in her later years. It made her tired, and not want to do anything. She relied heavily on prescription morphine, which, while easing the pain, made her even more tired.

    Don't mean to depress anyone. It just came to mind reading this. Glad you're doing better, Elisabeth.

  44. Thanks for this wonderful algebraic equation, Rachel Fenton. Algebra was never one of my strengths but it's good to know the pain can be calculated according to age.

  45. You two Rachels, Rachel C, are both taken with the image of those scales taped to my foot. That's some image.

    You might be right about those child-birth-related-pain-forgetting hormones, though obviously not for all. Thanks.

  46. I'm sorry for your mother, Kirk.

    Fortunately I'm off all painkillers, though I know what you mean about either pain or their relievers getting people down.

    It seems to be so taxing when bodies get out of whack.

    Thanks, Kirk.

  47. These things take time…

    You need to reconnect with your leg. While exchanging correspondence with it might do your mind good, slowly and gradually training it back up to speed will help your body (and your leg).

    Have you considered taking up Tai-chi (if only temporarily) once your leg can carry your full weight again?
    It can help strengthen your muscles and has a number of other therapeutic advantages for your body.
    If you're interested, ask your physiotherapist; chances are she/he can advise you as to how to best go about it.

  48. I've yet to see a physio, Alesa. I'm fully weight bearing now on my bung leg, but I hobble horribly.

    I see the surgeon next week. Hopefully soon I shall be able to abandon the brace.

    Thereafter I imagine I'll get into physio, exercise and the like.

    Who knows? Maybe even Tai Chi.

    Thanks, Alesa.

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