The year was 2010. It was a dark, stormy evening – for real. The trees shook violently in the wind and I listened to music on my headphones. And then – cue dramatic music – I woke up in a hospital room a while later to find out that a branch from a tree had fallen on me and completely crushed one of my legs. I’ll dial down the drama and give you a cold, clinical summary of what came next – my right leg had to be amputated below my knee and my life was turned upside down.
Over the next couple of months, I had to stay home for weeks. I learnt how to use a wheelchair and crutches. I realised (or rather, was made to realise) that I now fell under a new category – disabled – something that I vehemently fought against until I was too exhausted to do so anymore. I hated that suddenly I represented a group of people I had had nothing to do with my entire life until that point. I hated how new people I met instantly classified me that way without knowing anything else about me. I took every opportunity to prevent them from doing this by wearing long pants and closed shoes.
I learnt how to wear a prosthetic leg and how to walk again, very slowly. I limped back, literally, to my old life. I went back to college. I dealt with the questions and the stares. I worked on my gait till it was nearly impossible for others to tell I had a prosthetic leg. As the years passed, I buried myself in writing, travel and work. I felt that I needed to prove that I was capable of just as much as anyone else, so I went out of my way to hide the fact that I was disabled, to prove that I was fine. I was absolutely so very fine.
So when I got added to a group called Wonder Women in 2014 by a woman I’d met briefly at my prosthetic clinic, my first reaction was a faint sense of irritation. It was a group of women leg amputees from different parts of India, who’d met each other at different points of time and rallied together to form a WhatsApp support group. It annoyed me that everyone introduced themselves in the format of “name, type of amputation, location”. “There is so much more to me than this,” I thought. I was judgmental. “These are people who haven’t moved on from their disability,” I told myself. “They’re stuck in the past. I don’t need to be in this group.” And so, after introducing myself, I promptly muted notifications for the group.
Despite myself, though, I’d read through the messages on the group during long commutes or slow evenings. The women shared a variety of things. Sometimes, there were photographs of travel. Sometimes, anecdotes of funny or angering incidents. There were stories of pain and discomfort, and appeals for advice on multiple fronts – boils and rashes, clothes, shoes, romance, pesky relatives. And a lot of the time, people spoke about milestones. Carrying a pregnancy to term despite other people being mistrustful of their ability to do so. Winning a sports championship. Going from using crutches to walking without them. As time went on, I found myself getting more and more involved in these chats. I found myself sending advice whenever I had a relevant experience to share. I even found myself sending heart emojis.
Gradually, I started asking questions and sharing my own stories. Everything I said was met with honesty, humour and camaraderie. When any of my well-meaning family or friends said things like “I understand what you’re going through,” I had to always bite my tongue to tell them that no, they did not have the foggiest idea. That incorporating their suggestions to “not care” or “smile it off” was much easier said than done. Even worse were the people at my prosthetic clinic – none of whom wore an artificial limb – who only advised me in cold, clinical terms, ignoring that there was a living, breathing human being wearing the prosthetic leg. But when women going through the exact same situations could tell me how they came to make their peace with things, or to genuinely not care about them, it was far more helpful to me.
I came to realise that in my desire to see disability as something that had to be recovered from, I had made a huge misjudgement about these women’s – and my own – place in the world. As women with disabilities, our experiences are hugely different from men with the same disabilities, as our appearances, child-bearing ability and caregiving skills (which are all obviously the only reason we exist) are continuously questioned and criticised. Rather than shunning this part of my life as something I’d moved on from, I began to see the great possibilities a community like this gave rise to. I also gradually started being less ashamed of the disabled identity, and now I actually embrace it.
Most of these women hadn’t (and still haven’t) met each other, but they’d take hours out to help each other out with some situation or another. We found that we could comfort each other in a way that nobody else could. When I reported this to my family, they didn’t really understand. “We said the same thing and you got annoyed,” they exclaimed. But the differences in tone, in language, and most of all, in the fact that they were speaking from lived experience made me sure that it was most certainly not the same thing. Turns out I did need to be in the group after all.
One of the biggest personal wins that I got from that group was three years ago. I’d always loved swimming before my accident. I’d asked several different people at my prosthetic clinic how I could start swimming again. Their answers were always the same – that I needed a special prosthetic leg with a flipper. It was extremely expensive, and I’d more or less given up being able to swim again.
One day, an above-knee amputee in the group wrote something about how she preferred going swimming to working out at the gym. Curious, I asked her if she had a special leg, to which she replied that she did not, she just swam without her prosthetic. She called me up and talked me through how learning to swim again had been much easier than she’d thought. Since I was a below-knee amputee, she said it should be even easier for me.
The next day, I went to a swimming pool, took off my leg, and lowered myself gingerly into the water after over five years, as the lifeguard watched me nervously. I moved forward, and was immediately and easily able to swim forward. My mind was blown. I called up my prosthetic clinic and told them about it excitedly, telling them that if anyone else asked about swimming, it was possible without getting another leg worth lakhs of rupees. Their reply? “Okay.” They didn’t really care, and they weren’t going to pass on the message. But everyone on Wonder Women was rejoicing for me.
Over time, I turned off the mute setting on the group and started adding women to it myself. I had undervalued the contribution that a community of people going through similar things as you can make to your life. I had misjudged my own relationship with my disability. Most of all, I hadn’t realised how much it helped to just be able to talk to a bunch of people who get, and I mean really really get, what you’re going through. Groups like this help us navigate the everyday world, which is rife with ableism and sexism, with unwavering support and a pinch of humour. Wonder Women zindabad.
This article first appeared on Skin Stories.