How I lost my legs and gained... you want me to say something inspiring here

I’m still not sure how to relate to my new cyborg body, but my fake legs rule.

How I lost my legs and gained... you want me to say something inspiring here

I’m still not sure how to relate to my new cyborg body, but my fake legs rule.

My legs are fake. One-third of each one, anyways; the lower parts and the feet. If people press me on how I lost my real ones — and they do, especially when I’m waiting in lines for things, for some reason — I’ll usually tell them that “they fell off one night,” or “I ate them,” or “I don’t actually know.” And, truthfully, I don’t — I woke up one morning in a hospital and a doctor told me that they were gone.

I lost my legs a little over a year ago. Back then I was a fresh transplant to Brooklyn, commuting every day to a coding bootcamp in the Financial District where I excelled in getting my ass handed to me. Each morning I sucked down as many free coffees as I could stomach before getting to work on whatever project we’d been assigned that day, trying desperately to juggle SQL tables, asynchronous functions, data flow charts that looked to me like little more than a bunch of squiggly lines. It didn’t help that half the time I was hungover from the free beers we had on tap in the kitchen, or that I’d discovered the Brooklyn bars that all my friends had been telling me about, either.

The days chugged along, and I figured that soon enough I’d finish the bootcamp, get some work as a software developer, and settle down in a sexy studio apartment. But the morning I woke up in the ICU with a doctor bending over me and yelling questions — “What’s your name? What year is it? Do you know who the president is?” — I knew that that was not going to happen for a long time.

I was in the hospital for a month, having surgery almost daily and fading in and out of a weird morphine sleep. Friends came to visit, bringing me books and Tech-Deck skateboards and so many face masks that my skin soon became as soft as a baby’s butt. The whole thing was comically shitty and I was relieved when I was, at last, unceremoniously discharged out onto the streets of Manhattan. “Don’t ever do that again,” my dad said to me, half-jokingly as he helped load my wheelchair into the back of the van taking us to the airport. I do not plan to.

The legs are pretty ugly: I want to make that clear. They’re not the slick, sexy robotic ones you see Instagram-famous amputees wearing, nor are they the type with the hook-like feet that athletes use. These ones each consist of a flesh-colored socket that the end of my leg slides into, a metal bar, and a grotesquely over-realistic plastic foot with a serial number on the sole. My prosthetist recently gave me covers for the metal bars, which are just bits of fleshy plastic that wrap around them to make things look a little more leg-like, but they give them a sort of “uncanney valley” look instead — like Sophia the Robot, were she more ambulatory.

I like the legs. It’s nice to click them on every morning and waddle into the kitchen for some food; I don’t have to grasp desperately from my wheelchair for the cereal jars anymore, no longer have to yell “DAAAAD” up the stairs if I want a bowl from the kitchen cupboard. I can do a little dance while I wait for the first of four or five espressos to hum its way out of the coffee maker; nothing sexy, just the “sad-dad dancing” my friends and I used to do in high school, but I’ll take it.

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Lmao just chillin

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My gait’s still a little funny. I walk on my toes, and my legs can’t go completely straight, they are always bent a little bit at the knees. I sort of flounce. The legs are beginner prosthetics, called dead legs because the ankles don’t bend — this is supremely annoying, but as long as I’m not walking up or down a steep hill I can get where I’m going okay, and if I am on a hill, it’s a good excuse to desperately drape my arm around someone for balance.

My first steps after eight months of being wheelchair-bound were a little underwhelming and extremely painful, but they were still my first steps, and I still cried. My prosthetist helped me click on the legs and pulled me up onto a set of parallel bars, telling me to take a step, careful, careful — and then — I put a foot down and pushed forward and it worked. I was walking. I made my prosthetist take a bunch of pictures and videos of me before I needed to sit down, the legs were hurting. “Don’t worry,” he said, “we’ll make sure that by the time you leave they feel okay.”

It takes a lot of tweaking to get the legs right. As much as I would’ve liked to, I didn’t just put them on and waddle into the distance that day, never to see my prosthetist again. There were still a lot of things that needed to be worked out: the sockets had to be padded or thinned out depending on if the end of my legs hurt, the metal bars had to balance just right so that I didn’t tip forwards or backwards, and the feet need to be turned out just enough. Every time I leave the prosthetists my legs work better.

It really is something magical —in the span of four months I’ve gone from walking hunched over like a little ogre to being able to power-walk on a treadmill at a decent clip. It certainly helps that I’ve been forcing myself to toddle around almost every day; I need to get my endurance up if I want to be able to get places without getting covered in sweat. The very last time I saw my prosthetist before I moved across the country, I gave him a huge hug and told him thank you. “I’d be just a little worm without your help,” I told him. He laughed and said, “what?”

The definition of disability that I use when talking to other people is “something that limits your daily functions — you need something to help you live a ‘regular life,’ so to speak.” I need my fake legs and sometimes a cane if I want to get around, walk like everyone else, take the bus and the subway and the occasional Lyft. Things are still occasionally hard, though; going up stairs takes an enormous amount of energy; getting out of a car without getting a leg stuck in a weird position is a pain in the ass. It’s something, I guess, I thought as I tripped over myself getting onto BART one day. At least I can walk.

There’s a lot of “it’s something” moments. I can’t run, can only waddle desperately for the bus I’m supposed to meet my friend on, but at least I can noodle towards it pretty quickly. I can’t jump face-down dramatically onto my bed on a long day; only sort of fall forward onto it, which is dramatic in its own way. Everything’s a little floppier, a little looser; arms flail and legs get twisted into strange positions.

I’m a little overambitious about my mobility sometimes. I tend to go a little too fast on the treadmill or insist I can climb stairs without holding onto a railing, only to immediately fall. Better to overestimate than underestimate, though, I think. ”If you don’t keep trying, then you never know what you’ll be able to do,” my therapist tells me. I lie on her couch, sipping some green tea. “Yeah,” I say. “So true.”

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Ha ha ha

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There’s never a good time in a conversation to bring up the fact that you don’t have feet, and yet somehow the subject always seems to make itself relevant. I’ll mention it if I feel comfortable bringing it up, but that’s rare, so I usually just say “I have prosthetic legs” and leave it at that. Some people are nosy, though, and want to know more — what kind of prosthetics are they? Do you use a cane? Can I see? What happened to you?

I never want to answer, not because I worry that it’s too shocking, but because I can never be bothered to slog my way through the entire story — the hospital stay, coming home and waiting to heal, more surgeries, getting legs, learning to walk. People get incredibly thirsty for a redemption arc of sorts: the poor, shriveled girl in the hospital slowly growing stronger and getting back on her new feet, a success story with the caption “What have YOU done?” reshared on Facebook by your mom’s friend. I never really mind it if people have encouraging things to say, but it often feels like they’re saying it to someone else, somebody more dignified and more “together,” not a person like me who spends all day lying in bed singing to her cat and desperately applying for jobs.

I’d rather talk about the legs themselves: how I put them on each morning, how my doctors make them fit, how the foot looks real but also totally not real. People like that, tend to be intrigued; if the conversation gets lively, I might even take a leg off and show it around. What a life, I found myself thinking one evening as a friend of a friend examined the screw that pops my leg off. I’m just letting this happen, huh?

I’m not the only amputee I know. There are prosthetic-centric events and classes you can go to — Crossfit, running clinics, workout days — in which almost everyone is missing a leg or an arm and has been through the process of arguing with insurance to get their prosthetics paid for. They’re not cheap; mine cost nearly $7,000. It’s something to bond over, especially when you and someone else are missing the same parts.

There’s never a good time in a conversation to bring up the fact that you don’t have feet.

The events are usually pretty fun, but are not without weirdness. I initially assumed that other people with disabilities would understand the gentleness of discussing what happened to someone, but people like to bond over traumatic events, too, and often will stroll over to me casually and ask, “so what’s your story?” One man in particular I remember well — having finally pried my story out of me, he got so close to my face that I could have bitten him, insisting I give him details I’d never even thought about for months. “I don’t get it. How does that even happen? How did you manage that? Are you completely traumatized from being the hospital?” I wanted to tell him to shut the hell up, but I knew better, and instead waddled over to a rowing machine and gave the handle a few angry pulls.

Enough people are nice, though, that I don’t mind schlepping across the city to Crossfit every weekend, or giving running (or rather, high-speed waddling) a try at an amputees-only event. We compare prosthetics, hydraulic ankles, pneumatic knees, and metal covers with intricate designs lasered out of them; there’s a whole world of fake legs that I had no idea existed. Huddling in a group of amputees comparing feet is something I’d never thought I’d do, but even fake feet tend to be different from each other, and it’s fun to see who has a “Margiela tabi”-style big toe split on their feet and who doesn’t (I do, thank god).

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Here She Is

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My Tinder bio says “I have fake legs but that just makes me a cyborg ..... good catch.” I haven’t been Tinder-ing much, though. I still feel weird about the whole leg thing, am not sure how someone else might deal with it. But I figured that in the meantime I might as well be straight-up about the fact that I’m part cyborg.

The word cyborg means “a fictional or hypothetical person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body.” Maybe bionic — “having artificial body parts, especially electromechanical one — is a better way to describe myself. But I don’t have electromechanical legs, mine are just unsexy carbon fiber and metal and plastic, no wires or electric pulses. So what am I, then? An awkward Erwin Wurm sculpture, maybe, or part mannequin. The weird rubbery man from that viral video “Going to the Store.” I’m not sure yet.

If I didn’t know how to relate to my body before I lost my legs — then, I used to half-jokingly refer to myself as a “flesh sack” — I certainly don’t know how to relate to my body now. I take parts of myself off every evening before I go to sleep, line them up next to my bed so that I can reach them easily in the morning. Do cyborgs detach parts of themselves? Am I still bionic if my legs aren’t on? Attaching, detaching — a daily thing for me now. Who the hell else has to physically take themselves apart every day?

I have spent plenty of nights lying in bed thinking what the fuck? I miss my old legs — not just being able to walk in the sand or get pedicures, but my troll feet and my ugly drunk-19-year-old ankle tattoo as well. The day I got my new legs, my prosthetist reminded me, “well, these aren’t a total replacement for your old ones...”

They’re not, but standing on them for the first time, taking tentative steps forward between the parallel bars, I understood that I’d probably be able to do whatever I wanted with them, eventually. I can’t feel them, can’t wiggle my toes, but they’re still there, perfectly functional, and that is a comfort.

And at the end of every day when I unclick the legs, slide them off, prop them against my bed frame and slip into bed and try to sleep, I sometimes reach out and touch them, feel the coolness of their carbon fiber against my fingers. Oh, thank God, I think. Here they are. Thank God.

Sophie Helf is a computer programmer and writer in New York City.