When you think one of your legs is possessed.
I have cerebral palsy. It mainly affects my left leg. Lefty tries to disrupt my life whenever possible, especially in public or in sensitive situations. Eventually, enough is enough and my doctors come up with an unusual plan to pacify Lefty but he’s not going to like it.
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My body convulsed on the floor of the tiny bathroom, this was the most intense pain I’d ever felt in my twelve years on the earth. My screams subsided soon after I dropped on the tile but the pain only intensified. I landed, face up with my left leg bent back under me. My back arched while my arms and right leg spread out, jamming themselves up against the wall to my right and the side of the bathtub on my left.
It was the first time I had bent my left leg in over 8 weeks. Up until a few days previous my left leg was incased in a full-length cast. Disuse atrophy had caused the muscles in the leg to shrivel and harden. Bending it now, meant muscles that hadn’t contracted in all that time creaked like a taught length of old rope. My knee joint locked in bent position like the leg of one of my toy action figures. There was no way it would spring back into a straight position under its own strength. I’d have to force it open like the jaws of a bear trap but the pain was all-encompassing.
Why did I bend my leg if I knew it was way too soon to do so? Well, I, didn’t bend it. Nor did anyone else. The left leg did it himself.
I’ve got Cerebral Palsy. It’s a neurological disorder caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain during child birth. In my case it’s a little like a stroke. And like a stroke, it can affect one side of the body. But there are different levels of severity, depending on how badly the brain gets damaged. Sometimes it can affect the whole body, facial movement or oral ability. I actually don’t know much more about it other than that. That’s pretty much how it was explained to me as a kid and I never felt the urge to dive deeper into it. There’s no real cure as such but physiotherapy and certain surgeries can help.
How does it affect one side of the body exactly? Well, there’s a breakdown in communication between your brain and your limbs. Physically this manifests as deduced dexterity, muscle spasm and involuntary movement.
So, it’s all related to your brain and your central nervous system but it feels like your leg has a mind of his own. My left leg’s mind has a lot in common with a self-destructive, stubborn teenager. He’s hell-bent on rebelling against anyone who tries to tell him what to do and he’s happy to drag anything he’s attached to down with him in the process.
Lefty and I didn’t get off to the best of starts. Back when I was learning my lefts from my rights, an easy way to remember one from the other was to think of my right leg. That was right, and my wrong leg; that was left. To this day, when giving someone directions that’s still how I remember left from right.
As a toddler, I pretty much ignored lefty. His insistence on spazzing out or cramping up all the time prompted me to exclude him from the whole process of walking. I’d just hop around on righty instead. That was quicker and Righty was happy to do it.
Lefty did not like that.
I could always rely on Righty though. He was the strong silent type. He did what he was told and never kicked up a fuss.
I learned to lean on Righty because his erratic brother couldn’t be trusted to share the load.
That infuriated Lefty even more.
I knew I couldn’t hop around forever. I’d end up stomping the life out of Righty. So, I was forced to start letting Lefty contribute with some stuff. Walking for starters.
Sure, he had a weird way of doing it but it got us places and Righty was always there, very patient and at the ready to step in and take control if Lefty had one of his tantrums.
Lefty’s outbursts would erupt at the most awkward moments. Keeping still during a visit to the Barber’s chair was an impossibility. When the buzz of the electric razor echoed in my ear, Lefty shot up under the gown, kicking clumps of freshly cut hair into the air and causing even the steadiest handed hair dresser to veer off course.
“Whoops”. The barber would say.
“You wanted the locks short, right?”
Lefty was also a genius at lulling me into a false sense of security. I’d be walking down some stairs for example. Lefty may have appeared relaxed and compliant so I might not even hold the handrail. Big mistake. If someone appeared at the foot of the stairs. Lefty would think;
“time for an impromptu goose step demonstration.”
He’d launch himself forward and lock his knee in an homage to the ministry of funny walks. Inevitably this sent me tumbling down the stairs.
“Are you okay?” The innocent bystander would say.
“Oh yeah, watch out for that dodgy step.” I’d reply as I brushed myself off.
Lefty loved an audience. Public places were where he could exert maximum damage. School classrooms were a favorite of his, this would change to work meeting rooms when I got older. If I was called upon to speak and I wasn’t expecting it –
“FORGET THAT GUY. Look at mE!”
Leftly would announce, by leaping into the air and slamming his knee into the underside of the desk.
“Wellowwwwucha! I think we should…” I’d do my best to ignore the throbbing pain emanating from my knee and carry on with watery eyes.
And girls. More specifically, intimate moments with girls. I’m not sure if Lefty didn’t like these situations or if he just got over excited by them. Either way they made for high risk engagements. Once, in secondary school, I was sitting on a park bench alone with a girl and I had just worked up the courage to kiss her. My relative inexperience in these situations meant that I had neglected to engineer our seating position so she would be on my right side. Her hand slowly reached forward and rested on lefty’s knee. She had no idea what the consequences of her tender interaction would be and unfortunately, I was helpless to warn her.
The fright of Lefty’s sudden explosion sent her flying backwards and off the park bench. She landed on the grass a good meter away. I can still see the utter shock and confusion on her face.
Something had to be done to improve Lefty’s behavior. My doctors agreed. Lefty had gone through three physiotherapists by the time I was twelve years old, none of them could reason with him. It got to the point where putting on my left shoe became a daily physical struggle.
“I’m not going in that thing.”
Lefty would scrunch up his toes into a ball, making it almost impossible to slip on a shoe. His most suborn sit-down protests could only be broken by force. I’d shove his foot into my Dunne’s imitation Nikes and aggressively lace them up as tight as I could. That should hold him for a while, I though.
“These knock off runners are lame. The tick marks are going in the wrong direction. You’re fooling no one.”
The doctor’s solution was incarceration. Lefty was sentenced to be incased in a plaster cast for no shorter than 8 weeks. It was for his own good. This would calm him down, give him a chance to rehabilitate, the doctors said. But Lefty wasn’t going quietly.
They had to knock me out with general anesthetic while they locked lefty into position and cocooned him in plaster and gauze. When I came to I was flat on my back. I flicked the sheet covering me over to survey the extent of lefty’s prison. My eyes started at the tips of Lefty’s toes, the only part of him that remained exposed. I followed the white, mottled surface as it extended past lefty’s knee, up his thigh and past my waist. It came to an abrupt terminus above my belly button. Then I followed the cast as it spread out to the right, it wrapped around my waist and descended about halfway down my right thigh.
Sitting upright wasn’t going to be possible for a while.
Thankfully the doctors had remembered to leave an access hole to the front and rear of the cast, similar to the strategically placed flaps in a cowboy’s favorite pair of long Johns.
Initially, there wasn’t a peep out of Lefty, which surprised everyone. Most of all me. Unfortunately, this didn’t last long. As soon as the Diazepam wore off, Lefty’s rage was unleashed.
“WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS? GET ME OUT OF HERE. YOU SICK FUCKS. LET ME OUT…PLEASE LET ME OUT… ILL BE GOOD… YOU ABSOLUTE FUCKS. LET ME OUT…”
(Narration continues over Lefty’s screaming)
Lefty spasmed, cramped and banged against the walls of his cell but He didn’t have the space to build up enough momentum to really hurt himself. This was similar to how I remember the late Steve Irwin would transport aggressive crocodiles. He’d lead the croc into a long thin wooden box where she didn’t have enough room to trash her large head around, thus saving her from self-harm. But Lefty still had one incredible effective way of showing his anger. He’d curl up his toes with such force that they turned white. The only way to calm Lefty was more Diazepam. (Lefty’s screams stop abruptly)
As the weeks rolled on. Lefty’s outbursts gradually diminished until they almost stopped completely. Had Lefty finally given in? Had this wild bucking bronco been broken?
When the cast came off it revealed a visible different Lefty. Muscle atrophy had taken its course. Lefty was a lot thinner and weaker. His foot was fixed in a better position but he was still partial to spasm. Nothing was ever going to change that.
Building him back up again was a glacially slow and tedious process. Every day he’d attempt to bend his knee a degree or two farther than the last. On several occasions, in his eagerness to jump ahead he’d break into a rapid spasm and bend his knee too far, which caused the hardened muscle tissue to break up. Some days it was one step forward, two steps back but eventually his full range of motion was restored.
After that ordeal, I wasn’t that sure how much good it actually did or whether it was worth it but the main thing was that it was all over. However, my doctors knew better. They continued to periodically monitor my journey into adolescence.
When I was about 13 an elderly doctor with an unabashed comb-over broke the news to me. Lefty’s generally uptight nature and his staccato movement, meant that his muscles were shorter and less developed than righty’s, a lot shorter in fact. Doctor Comb-over was worried that when my growth spurts kicked in, Righty would race ahead in his development, leaving Lefty his slower brother, far behind. This would result in quite a length disparity between them, effectively leaving me lob sided. If I didn’t want to walk around in circles for the rest of my life, then something drastic had to be done and quickly.
The doctors had two possible approaches. The first option was to force Lefty to grow at a faster rate. How do you do that? Steroids? Growth hormone injections or Stick him on a medieval torture rack and stretch him?
Well, that last suggestion wasn’t actually that far off. They could bore some holes into lefty’s bones, affix a surrounding cage structure and gradually attach tenser and tenser springs to stretch Lefty out. I guess it’s a little like how teeth braces work. I knew exactly how Lefty would react to that suggestion.
“Fuck that. I will make your life a living hell if you do that to me.”
The doctors seemed to agree with Lefty. Option two it was then, but it seemed incredibly unfair in my opinion. Instead of stretching Lefty, they would just slow down Righty. This could be achieved by purposely breaking Righty’s bones in several key places to stall for time. The extra attention required by Righty to heal would give Lefty enough time to catch up… so they hoped anyway.
“Yeah, that sounds A LOT better alright.”
Doctor comb-over made a point of telling me one weird fact he thought amusing. He said that as a result of the procedure I would grow up to be a few inches shorter than an alternative version of myself, who didn’t have his right leg broken in several places. The thought of this still occupies my mind from time to time. How much better off is the alternate me with his extra few inches? Was reaching cupboards easier for him? Did he ride more roller-coasters? Did he join the Air Force? He’s probably has to hop everywhere though so it’s swings and roundabouts.
I was not happy about giving up the support of Righty for a while but I was confident that the recovery process would be a lot more straight forward than what I’d experienced with Lefty. So Righty took one for the team and did it in his usual stoic style. He saw out his time wrapped in a cast with minimal fuss and without any drugs.
“What a goodie two shoes”
The ordeal left Righty scarred, a permanent reminder of the sacrifice he made for his difficult brother but that wouldn’t be the last time Righty would jump to Lefty’s aid…
I had just turned fourteen and once again I found myself being presented for inspection by Professor Comb-over and his growing group of minions.
I paraded up and down the room for them. “One more time please”, Comb-over said for the fourth time. He mumbled words into his Dictaphone every few seconds. His short sentences, punctuated by clunk of the stop button.
“Well fella, you’re a great chap. I think we’re nearly there. We just need to set the left leg again, one more time.”
Lefty was cocooned again. Locked back his familiar prison, like a serial offender. He had no intension of trying to get out early on good behavior. We endured his full sentence. Six weeks later he was up for release.
I hopped into the doctor’s office, jumped up on the bed and lay flat on my back. This was all very easy because Lefty’s six-week internment had totally pacified him. I had become quite accustomed to dragging the large cast around with the help of a pair of crutches.
A fresh faced male doctor, I’d never met before would be the one removing the cast.
“Now, I’m going to be using this saw today. It makes a loud noise but it doesn’t hurt a bit, look.”
He demonstrated by running the blade of the miniature circular saw along the palm of his hand.
“See, it only cuts casts.”
He probably wondered why his little saw demonstration didn’t instantly put me at ease. This usually did the trick. He obviously didn’t realise that his ‘scary’ saw was the least of my worries so I tried to warn him about Lefty’s outbursts.
“Don’t worry about a thing.”
“You’re in good hands.”
The sound of the saw dulled as sunk deep into the cast, tipping against lefty’s skin underneath. The spinning blade moved slowly down the length of my outer leg. Once that was done, the saw opened up a seem down the length of the inner side.
“All done with the cutting now.” The Doctor emphasized.
Still not seeing any visible relief in his patient, he pulled at the freshly cut top section of the cast. It broke away after a couple of hearty tugs. The whole front of Lefty was now exposed to the fresh air. I could feel him beginning to twitch. The doctor pulled the remaining back section away.
The doctor prodded random areas of Lefty with his fingers.
“Can you feel that?”. He questioned.
Lefty started to shudder. I could feel him building up under me like a bull getting ready to buck his unwanted rider. The Doctor’s palm was flat against Lefty’s knee.
“Nearly done.” He said.
“Just try to..” and then he said it. The one word that was sure to set Lefty off.
Suddenly, Righty sprang up and swiveled to the left like a tower crane in high winds. He threw himself on Lefty and pushed down hard with all the force he could muster. Lefty convulsed frantically but he was no match for Righty’s strength. The Doctor let out a loud help.
His hand was sandwiched between Lefty and Righty.
“Ahh. Can I just get my hand out? Please relax.” He pleaded but that only caused Righty to tighten his grip.
Crack, (sound effect) went the muffled sound of the doctor’s little finger as it broke.
Righty eased off just enough for the Doctor to free his hand.
“I’m so sorry.” I shouted.
“It’s fine. It’s a.. It’s fine.” He said. Trying to disguise his obvious discomfort.
“I’m gonna let the nurse finish up here. I have to go.” He rushed out of the room cradling his hand.
Righty. The reliable, rule abiding Righty, had caused grievous bodily harm. Lefty never came close to anything like that. I respected Righty’s eagerness to prevent another bathroom floor incident so I was willing to let him off on this extenuating circumstance. And maybe he taught the Doctor a valuable lesson that day.
As the years past Lefty mellowed… somewhat. He’s still prove to the odd outburst but for the most part Righty and I can see them coming. His turns are more like sulks than tantrums now. Sometimes he’ll refuse to move, the same way a dog who doesn’t want to be walked will stop dead in the street. We have to just pull him along until he begrudgingly complies. That’s how he is and he’s not going anywhere so we all just have to take it, one step at a time.
This has been a story for yarnpodcast.com
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