‘Fake it till you make it’: Surviving the terrifying loneliness of being a young person with an amputation
by Parvathy Gopakumar
As a 12-year-old, I once went on a fun outing. Nobody expects one of those to turn out the way it did for me. Without me even realising what was happening, my world changed. I woke up, days later, to the grim news that a bus had run over my right hand, which had to be amputated below the elbow. I was rather quick to cope with the change; worries that an older person would have had, like what opportunities I might miss, or how I’d ‘manage’ my life, or whether someone would want to marry me didn’t cross my mind at all. I felt the discomfort that accompanies starting a new life, but I wasn’t sad.
Everyone around me told me that it was going to be okay and I believed them with all my heart. My loved ones kept me occupied in some activity or another from the hospital itself, and I liked receiving their undivided attention.
After a month or so, I went back to school just to see everyone, and I was warmly welcomed. Everyone stuffed chocolate in my mouth, kissed me, and patted my remaining arm. It was wonderful to be back. I was so overwhelmed by the love I was receiving that I could barely wait to attend regular classes again. But I could only do when my residual limb healed.
On my first day back, during break, my friends sat me down and were updating me about the stuff that I had missed — who had a crush on whom, which classmates were fighting with each other. The conversation somehow reached the topic of what their families thought about my amputation. ‘So, my father was telling my mother how it would’ve been better if Paru just died rather than go through all of this,’ my friend said. ‘You know what? My parents were saying the same. My mother was saying that death would’ve been better than living as a woman with one hand,’ said another friend.
My body grew numb as I sat there petrified, knowing that everyone had somehow come to a consensus that death was the better option to living with one hand. I didn’t listen to a single word that was taught in class that day. Suddenly, my life felt grim and I felt cheated by everyone who had told me I would be fine.
I wondered what else they hadn’t told me and was scared of finding out. If adults were of the opinion that my life was going to be worse than death, then it must be true, I thought. I wondered whether my family felt the same way. I couldn’t tell anyone what was going through my mind. I was afraid of others realising how broken I felt inside. Asking for help didn’t seem like an option, as it meant giving people access to my thoughts, which I didn’t want to share with anyone. So, I came up with the idea that I would fake it till I make it.
Since I was the brand new disabled person in town, I was suddenly getting a lot of attention. Wherever I went, people used to point at my hand and talk in hushed tones. Some had the courage to come up and talk to me about my ‘condition’, some couldn’t contain their amusement at the sight of a child amputee and, on top of that, some would speculate about the body part I had just lost. Everyone had some advice or the other for making my life easy, none of which helped me at all. In fact, all of them left me feeling more confused than ever.
I remember being bombarded with motivational videos from all sides. ‘That video I sent to you last week? Did you see that woman doing all the household chores with one hand? Told you, all is well,’ or ‘X person’s relative Y doesn’t have a hand but she still manages to drape a saree beautifully, you have nothing to worry about.’ As if I wanted to to drain my energy and mental peace worrying whether I’d be able to be the ideal bharatiya naari with only one hand.
I started to make others feel bad about themselves, and I spent a considerable amount of time discussing other people’s lives. It gave me some sort of sadistic pleasure to know that other people were also going through hard times. I yearned for attention so that I could show them how cool I was. I even used to make sexist, racist and homophobic comments, thinking that a mean girl image would be better than a sad disabled one. There have been times when I wanted to hug someone and cry out loud, but I chose to fake-laugh and discuss boys instead.
I couldn’t let the people around me know of the emotional trauma I was going through, as I was afraid that I would attract more pity than I was already getting. Whenever I did try to make people understand that everything was not as alright with me as I pretended it to be, they either didn’t know what to do with me or they dismissed it saying that I was just another attention seeker. The pressure that I took upon myself was having a very bad effect on my mental health and happiness. I thought I would make my parents upset if I shared it with them, so I refrained from doing so. I was all alone in this.
One incident that I specifically remember is when I was in the ninth standard. I was in queue to give some biometric information. When my turn came, there was a lot of confusion regarding the procedure to be followed when a person can’t give the biometric impression of one hand at all. I was asked to remove my prosthesis and pose for a photo keeping both my hands in a weird way, so that my left hand and my stump could be seen in the picture. My tears were literally choking me as I had to do this in front of a packed room. My eyes were wet but I kept laughing at the silly jokes I cracked myself. I remember crying in a bathroom with the tap open that day.
It was only much later that I realised that it was completely alright to feel sad at times and to seek help from others. Gradually, I tried to detach myself from the toxic things I was doing in my life. After years of constantly denying who I was and trying to fit in with the rest of the world, embracing my true self wasn’t easy at all. It was harder than figuring out how to cut the fingernails on my remaining hand by myself and much harder than learning to tie my shoelaces. In the initial years of being a disabled person, all I wanted was to prove was that I wasn’t one.
Seeing my reflection in the mirror without my prosthetic hand used to make me very uncomfortable and I used to avoid full-size mirrors because it would show the reality that I was struggling to accept. The sight of my bare stump used to send chills down my spine and I ended up wearing full-sleeve clothes all the time. I had a hard time accepting my new body, but expected others to do so, and got disappointed if they couldn’t.
I wish I had been able to let others know what I was going through. I wish I had been confident enough to tell my mathematics teacher that I couldn’t do geometrical constructions using a ruler and a pencil together, rather than sitting there silently, watching others do it. I wish I had been strong enough to ask for help rather than struggling all by myself. But things have been different ever since I realised that my mental health is important. I could proudly take off my prosthetic arm and show my stump to the judge in a jam-packed Motor Accidents Claims Tribunal court this year, without feeling bad about myself or cursing my destiny. I no longer compromise on my peace of mind so that others can have a certain perception of me.
I have given up on making conscious efforts to prove how chill I am about living with an amputation. Instead, I have taught myself to love that part of myself as well. The hollow part of my prosthetic arm is where I hoard chocolate at times and I love applying nail polish on the silicon fingernails these days, because, why not?
It took me almost six years to accept my disability as a part of who I am and it no longer overpowers my personality. If there is one thing this experience has taught me, it is that it is vital to recognise that people with disabilities often have to deal with immense mental health difficulties as well, and we must make this a priority.
Parvathy Gopakumar is a BA LLB Hons. Student at National Law School Bangalore. She is an amputee who loves forests and music, and her interests vary from kathakali to the history of Travancore. She is passionate about reaching out to other people with disabilities.
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