Break your ankle, face an existential crisis

An injured leg forces Jared Axelrod to ask whether he's merely the sum of his parts.

By Jared Axelrod
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 15, 2014

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There is a scene, midway through David Cronenberg’s sci-fi horror classic The Fly, in which Jeff Goldblum’s body starts betraying him. His teeth fall out, strange growths appear up and down his arms and legs, and seemingly simple tasks like walking and talking become painful and difficult. This is all the result of Goldblum’s character having practiced mad science while intoxicated, which, common sense tells us, is something we should all avoid.

In 2009, I jumped off a wall and shattered my right angle upon landing.  While not nearly as dramatic as using a teleporter drunk, it was sufficient at the time to drastically change my relationship with my body.

There was a loud sickening SNAP that everyone around me heard, followed by a much quieter one when I crumpled to the grass. I had fractured my ankle in three places, but it felt much worse.  It was like a handful of gravel was underneath my skin, separating my foot from the rest of my body. Later, when one of the paramedics inspected the injury, he gave a gasp in surprise as my foot flopped around like the appendage of a rag doll.

That’s the very stuff of “body horror” films, it turns out.  Whether its The Fly and The Thing or more recent additions like Splinter and American Mary, there’s always that moment when you expect a hand or a leg to do one thing—a normal thing—and then it does the opposite. I didn’t see my ankle turn into a latex movie prop, but I felt it refuse to turn with the rest of my leg, grating against the shards of bone inside.

I was told that I handled the whole thing well. I joked. I laughed. Honestly, I didn’t know how to react. The whole business was just so alien, so unusual. I was accustomed to moving so effortlessly, jumping off of a wall meant nothing at all. Then, literally a few seconds later, I couldn’t walk.

What followed was an extended period of crutches and wheelchair rides, as my newly-bolted-together ankle bones fused themselves back in place. It was hard to look at this time as anything but a temporary inconvenience, considering that my friend Skott was dependent on a wheelchair at the time. (We did a wheelchair race around the block on Cinco de Mayo; my arm-powered model just barely beat out his electric-motored one.) So I refused to take my injury too seriously. At some point, the cast would come off and I would be walking. All I had to do was wait.

I’ve been looking through the pictures of me from this time: photos of me adamantly refusing to acknowledge my handicap in any way. I’m all smiles, laughing, juggling—of course I am juggling; why would not being able to stand keep me from juggling?—doing everything I can to convince everyone, including myself, that I am Capital-F fine. Because I would be, right? No reason to expect otherwise.

After all, I could still juggle.

I’m not sure if I had a mental image of myself just standing up and walking out once the cast was off, or what. I don’t think I had any image, really—just an expectation that everything would go back to normal. I had been in a body horror movie already; the hard part was over. I was all stitched up, ready to go. What else could happen?

What I did not expect was to discover that my right leg had become unconnected, mentally, from my body. I could no longer command it like I used to.  My left leg, glad to be walking again, would try to take large, impressive strides, while my right leg would resist moving at all, preferring instead to be dragged behind like a deadweight.

I had to learn to walk again.

It was incredibly frustrating. I had learned to walk the first time long before my infant mind had figured out how to store and cross-reference memories, so I had no conception of how exactly I’d done it. I had taken bipedal locomotion for granted, and now here I was with a leg that was connected but also not connected—a part of me that I no longer had dominion over.

Finally I stopped thinking of it as learning to walk; rather, I was training an alien limb to move with me. Together, we learned to ape the movement I had taken for granted before. Within weeks, I was lurching, Frankenstein’s monster style, around the house. Staggering stylishly down the streets, chrome-capped cane in hand: not the jaunty gallivanting steps of which I was known for, but an awkward, Brundle-fly gait. I didn’t have control over my body, but we had made an accord—a truce, however uneasy.

I didn’t hate my right leg for being too sluggish to resume the double-act of ambling about with my left one. Rather, I understood it. I wasn’t too keen on this whole physical therapy regime, either. But I was giving it my best, and the resistance my right leg was giving me was just further proof of how we were no longer connected. My enthusiasm to resume my normal life didn’t extend to my leg. It was content to laze about. The injury, in other words, had turned my leg into a couch potato.  Karmically speaking, I had no one to blame: I hadn’t exactly been a physically dynamic person before breaking my ankle, so it was as if my leg, having now gained its own mind, had decided to emulate me in the worst possible way.

“Who taught you how to behave this way?” I would ask my leg, exasperated.

“You,” it would petulantly respond. “I learned it by watching you!”

So even if our connection was severed, there was still a bit of me left in the old leg yet. Just nothing I liked seeing.

Before the accident, I’d given little to no thought about how my body worked. Afterward, it seemed abundantly clear that my mind and my body were separate, and any part of me could just take off and do its own thing at a moment’s notice. Or, in the case of my leg, actually be the lazy slob I spend so much time denying.

Trouble is, once you begin thinking about one part of your body betraying you, it doesn’t take much to wonder what it will take for rest to follow suit. Sure, my hands are typing all these words now, but what if they decide hitting little square buttons all day is no way to live? What if my stomach decides it’s going to find its own food from now on, thank you very much?

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