In my second last year of high school I met with a careers adviser. She wasn’t a lot of help—saying I could do anything I wanted. I knew I couldn't. My doctor had put me on an invalid pension the year before and told me, as a result of an accident when I was eleven—when my foot went in a moving wheel of a train—I’d never have the physical capacity to work.
I’m lucky. I can have my own personal Writer’s Retreat any time I like. Let me show you a place that’s very special to me.
I joined a room full of participants early on a Saturday morning in Sydney. Winter sun slanted through a bank of windows facing east. “Put up your hand if you’ve ever felt like killing someone.” A forest of hands filled the room. “Now put up your hand if you have.” All our arms stayed low. I looked around the room. Judging by the response to the first instruction, I was surrounded by people with homicidal and suicidal ideations. We’re here to share our deepest emotions over the next seven hours.
There are many ways to become a patient, trauma was mine. Spending months as a child in an adult surgical ward in the 1960s wasn’t life changing—like the train accident which landed me there—but it taught me many things; like how bureaucracy works, how it objectifies the powerless, and the importance of little acts of resistance.
Back then, things were different; registered nurses, or sisters, wore starched head gear like the Flying Nun, nurses lived onsite and trained in the wards, and patients knew their place. I was eleven and never sat still until my foot went in a moving train wheel. I was admitted to an adult ward with one hour visiting a day; no exceptions. Trauma can be compounded so easily, or so negligently.
For years I was one of the lucky ones. No phantom limb pain. Till, one day, like Humpty Dumpty, I had a great fall. Not off a wall; into a gutter. Carrying a bottle of champagne. At 3.30 pm.
In November 2011 I met with a physician specialising in amputee rehabilitation. I had two legs - I was contemplating a fifty percent reduction. My left foot was crushed and degloved in a moving wheel of a train in 1968. Escalating chronic infections and pain now governed my life. If my foot couldn’t carry on, I had to go on without it.
In a fast-paced society of downsizing and throw away objects I’m a trend bucker. I’m sentimental. And I started young.
Other people with limb loss have told me they sometimes wonder why people ask what happened to them. Is it curiosity or finding common ground? It’s OK to ask me what happened to my leg, but not in the supermarket please! Sometimes I’m rushing.
My mother always told me: ‘You have to learn to love yourself before you can love others’. She spoke from hard-won knowledge. Orphaned as a child, abandoned by her siblings, and given over to state and Catholic Church care by the age of nine. I couldn’t imagine her childhood when I was young. I understand more now.