My friend Susan deserves the credit for this week’s topic. She reminded me of the episode of ER, called “Out on a Limb,” in which Dr. Kerry Weaver finally has her hip surgery.
For those of you who don’t readily beam back to 2006, when you either saw or didn’t see the show, here’s the rundown. Dr. Kerry Weaver, played by Laura Innes, is a doctor with a difficult personality. For the first few episodes, she’s just a flaming bitch on wheels and you wonder how she got to her position in life. Gradually, we are shown her human side and how her brilliance as a doctor allows her to get away with her abrasive personality.
Dr. Weaver also has a visible disability. She suffers from a degenerative hip problem and walks with a cane. We learn that she is in constant pain and this contributes to her prickly demeanor. As the seasons go on, Dr. Weaver’s hip gets worse. Her doctor suggests that a total hip replacement might offer her a normal life. Dr. Weaver schedules the surgery twice and cancels in pre-op both times, much to her surgeon’s consternation.
Dr. Weaver has one close friend, Dr. Abby Lockhart (played by Laura Innes’ real-life bestie, Maura Tierney). After Dr. Weaver runs out on her second surgery, she confides in Dr. Lockhart that it’s not just about the hip for her, it’s about her identity. All her life she has been a disabled person. She accepted it; she’s never felt broken or that she needed to be fixed. She asks Dr. Lockhart, “Without this, who will I be?”
This is a fascinating look into what disability means to one person, and begs the question: Without your disability, who would you be?
This is a fairly easy question for me, as I came by my disability late in life and I know exactly who I was without it. Now, I would take my pre-crash body back in a New York minute, but if it meant I had to give up everything that has happened since, would I? That’s a hard one. Because this happened to me, I’ve become poor—not paycheck to paycheck poor, but scary-choices-between-necessities poor. But I’ve also become a published author (my book, On Silver Wings: A Life Reconstructed) and have welcomed many people into my life who I wouldn’t know if this hadn’t happened. People I love, who know that. And the bike adventures! If this hadn’t happened, would I have made that a priority in my life? I know that I’ve become much more assertive since I’ve been forced to advocate for myself.
Dr. Who admonishes us, “In the end, we are all just stories. Make sure yours is a good one.” My story is a ripping good read, and it might have been just another bland manuscript on life’s slush pile if this hadn’t happened. That being said, I’d still punch the guy who hit me if you gave me a free shot. >: )
The kicker to Out on a Limb (the ER episode) comes in a later episode. After she’s had her surgery and taken a leave for the required therapy, she comes back to work feeling like someone new and different, fearful of the responses to her new unaided stride, but not one person notices that she’s walking without her cane. They all come to her with the same needs and demands. This dramatic shift in her own identity means nothing to the people around her. She’s Dr. Weaver, and her cane was only incidental to that role for her coworkers. They learned over time to not see it. They learned so well that they didn’t notice when they were no longer looking past it. That is a big lesson for us; that what is so ingrained in our self-perception is not even in the picture for some of the people in our lives. It may not factor into our relationship with that person, or some people are just oblivious.
That can be a cause of frustration and distance too, like the year 4 different people gave me bracelets for Christmas. I wear a Medic Alert on my left wrist and nothing, ever, on my right, because I had hand reattachment surgery. I can’t feel anything on the outer and upper sides, and the underside is so unbearably hypersensitive that I even roll my sleeve up so it won’t touch the skin. I just thanked the bracelet givers, and regifted some and removed the charms from others to make necklaces. The ER episode helped me put that weird Christmas into perspective. Even my scarred wrist that I notice so much isn’t a big deal to others. When I tried working the fine jewelry counter at Macy’s (another failed job attempt), I was anxious about that. Who wants to look at fine jewelry held out by a wrist that looks like an unusually earnest suicide attempt? In the short week I was there, not one customer seemed to notice.
How about you? How much does disability figure into your identity? How much do you think it figures into the perception people have of you? Are you ever frustrated by constantly having to explain yourself when you feel like people should remember?